Back to the Roots

Surely it's about time for a truce between genre fiction and the mainstream. We've had enough bickering by critics who were frightened at an early age by Grimm's Fairy Tales and are still nervously resentful of magic and monsters. Or the ones who got their idea of Tolkien from the movies and are convinced it's all about zapping vast armies of orcs, with no idea of the melancholy and loss in the actual book. Let's welcome them all back into the mainstream of literature, which is of course fantasy.

Stories of gods and magic have a long, long history. The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, featuring battles with gods and a quest for immortality, dates from around 2100BC. Fantasy had a major flowering in ancient Greece, with many durable themes appearing in Homer's Odyssey: monsters like sea-dwelling Scylla and the giant Cyclops, weather control through mastery of the winds, transformation of men to beasts by the enchantress Circe rather than by reality TV, and much more.

Aesop's beast-fables were the ancestors of a million later fantasies involving talking animals. Apuleius's The Golden Ass described the adventures, some of them very naughty indeed, of a chap unwittingly turned into a donkey. Ovid's Metamorphoses, as hinted in the title, is full of weird and wonderful transformations.

Perhaps the funniest of all these ancient texts is Lucian's 2nd-century True History, a wonderfully over-the-top spoof of contemporary travellers' tales. It's full of casual journeys to the Moon and beyond the Sun, not to mention vast battles in space a couple of millennia before Star Wars: "Flea-shooters are archers mounted on fleas – hence their name – the fleas in question being approximately twelve times the size of elephants."

All this is old news to SF/fantasy buffs, but sometimes comes as a surprise elsewhere. A recent Liverpool University press release announced breathlessly that: "New research into the Ancient Greeks shows their knowledge of travel inspired early forms of fantasy and science fiction writing." Homer's name is dropped, and so is Lucian's. By a fascinating coincidence, the same university houses the Science Fiction Foundation library, containing many decades of SF/fantasy criticism that traces just this kind of connection. So what's new? "Fantasy writing in the ancient world is still relatively unexplored from a literary perspective." Ah, it may have been explored, but not by the right people ...

The fantasy tradition marches on through the centuries. Beowulf gave us the ASBO family tradition in which, as Terry Pratchett put it, when the hero kills the monster its Mum comes around to complain. Nordic tale-tellers produced the Eddas and the Sagas, with stories of the Norse gods which eventually became the German Nibelungleid, inspiring not only Wagner but a certain 20th-century fantasist whose major work also revolves around the One Ring. Myths of King Arthur from various sources (including the Welsh Mabinogion) were assembled in Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, from which the vast Arthurian story-cycles continued unstoppably until their ultimate peak in Monty Python And The Holy Grail. I believe there are also some other movies.

Chaucer, who knew what people liked, plugged magic into various episodes of The Canterbury Tales. Similarly, Shakespeare knew what King James liked and stuck a few witches into Macbeth, besides creating archetypal fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream and a classic wizard-figure in Forbidden Planet. I'm sorry, I'll read that again: The Tempest. Dante's Inferno gave us the best-ever map of Hell, still much plagiarised. Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels is better remembered for tiny Lilliputians and giant Brobdingnagians than for the political satire these people were meant to convey.

By now there was an interesting subdivision of mainstream fantasy which came to be known as the realistic novel. Stories and characters were still made up, but the action mysteriously confined itself to the mundane world and its laws. No harm in that – except that followers of the new fashion were fatally tempted to sneer at older tradition. So fantasies of the nineteenth century were branded as vulgar, potboiling bestsellers, like Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Or eccentric throwbacks, like William Morris's recreation of medieval legend in The Well At The World's End.

Most of all, as pointed out in Tolkien's essay On Fairy-Stories, fantasy became "just for kids" – like that forerunner of the Harry Potter cult, Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland and its spinoffs. Even Gulliver's Travels was repackaged for children, with all the dirty bits taken out. Though there were exceptions, it's broadly true that fantasy was sidelined with nursery-stories until the success of The Lord of the Rings relaunched it as a publishing genre. To the horror of many.

C.S. Lewis put his finger on this revulsion when he said in an interview: "Matthew Arnold made the horrible prophecy that literature would increasingly replace religion. It has, and it's taken on all the features of bitter persecution, great intolerance, and traffic in relics. All literature becomes a sacred text." It follows that unsanctified forms of writing are blasphemous because they steal worshippers and royalties from the altar of real, approved literature. There's a powerful whiff of the Spanish Inquisition in the way certain Establishment pundits go on (and on) about poor old Tolkien, and persist in judging fantasy by its worst examples.

Of course these pundits don't reject all fantasy. The tradition is too old and powerful. But approved fantasy, written by Salman Rushdie or other acceptable authors, isn't called fantasy. It's counterfactual; it's postmodernist; it's fabulation; it's metafiction; it's magic realism! Ah, that's all right then.

Terry Pratchett, often described as a cult author in the sense of "incredibly popular and we can't figure out why", has sardonically noted that certain devotees of Jane Austen behave exactly like the dottiest of SF/fantasy cultists. For some reason, though, clambering into Regency costume and indulging in a load of balls is considered less geekish than wearing pointy hats or pointy ears.

Never mind! We're not proud or prejudiced. We're happy to welcome Jane Austen and all those other outcasts back into the fantasy mainstream.