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The Origins of Fantasy

February 29, 2008

I just finished watching The Worlds of Fantasy, a three part TV series on BBC4 exploring the history of fantasy lierature, you can view it here on the BBC iPlayer for the next 5 days, although I’m not sure if people oustide the UK can access it (somebody put it on Youtube, please). The first episode deals with children’s literature and children heroes, Harry Potter is naturally included although not as much as the beginning of the programme smight imply, and also Alice (in Wonderland), Peter Pan and lesser known heroes From Alan Garner’s books (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Owl Service) and Lyra Belacqua from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels.

I don’t think I’m alone in looking forward to the episodes that deal with adult oriented fantasy (expecting to see lots of Tolkien, Lovecraft, Moorcock, Peake and Howard, would also be nice to see Weiss and Hickman, but I’m not holding my breath [see my last post]) as anyone who’s read my blog will know that I think fantasy is a genre is still far too strongly assocaited with kids.

The argument underlying this epsiode was that fantasy emerged in the 19th century alongside a romanticised notion of children as pure and naive beings and as the twentieth century progressed the heroes of these books became more like the children or teens of their respective times. Okay the argument was a little more subtle than that, in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels written in postwar Britain the four heros used slang that was apparently decades out of date, but what their jaunt through the wardrobe did do was make the trauma of wartime displacement into a form of comforting nostalgia where the battle between good and evil was fought between magical beings and the inevitability of triumph was not in question. Clearly it was much easier to write this after the war than during it when the outcome was less certain. In this light Harry Potter with its nostalgically old school setting is a great comfort to kids and parents alike who are scared to send their kids outdoors for fear of stabbings and paedophiles!

It’s hard to be objective about this episode as I was happy enough that this genre was getting any coverage at all, what bothered me was that the childhood themes they discussed could be applied to non-fantasy childrens’ literature, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven share the naive and romaticised spirit of adventure as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories and show some infighting between the children in the group, yet they are set in an idealised but very recognisable Britain. When it did get to grips with fantasy as a style, it focused on the writer’s motives so we got a lot of sniffy complaints about C.S. Lewis’ use of Christian allegory and a bit about Lewis Carroll’s desire to present childhood innocence, but not why he chose fantasy as a vehicle for this message. We get even less on J.K. Rowling’s or Philip Pullman’s reasons for using the fantasy genre, which would be very interesting to hear about. Alan Garner mentions out of body experiences and using his imagination, but doesn’t describe his clear fondness for the British and Welsh mythology that permeates his work, nor the landscapes in which his books are set.

The whole thing felt a little safe for BBC4 (i.e. middle class, highbrow) – let’s focus on general historical themes that normalise fantasy literature, rather than focusing on what makes it so different to other fictional genres. What makes the series feel even more BBC4 is the fact that they’re focusing only on fantasy litertature and not other mediums such as film or games that if anything have helped bring the genre popularity with much broader audiences than books alone.

These issues aside, I wonder what they’ll make of adult fantasy literature? Howard’s stories reflected their time only in as much that they were part of the pulp fiction trend of over the top and violent stories with tough macho characters. Maybe the rich settings of characters like Conan and Bran Mak Morn gave them a sense of authenticity and heritage that was lacking in the typical macho lead which cried out to young men in Depression era America. Was it any coincidence that Tolkien was keen to construct a mythology for Britain just as the Empire was sliding away? Moorcock was inspired by the 60s counter-culture, his heroes had more in common with Howard’s than Tolkien’s often brooding and of dubious morality, but his wrtiting was generally more cerebral and often lampooned the stables of the genre itself. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what they come up with.

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