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The Fall and Rise of Fantasy Fiction in the Last Hundred Years

Dwarves, elves, wizards, trolls, and orcs…when we think of fantasy fiction, a plethora of things come to mind. Whether it’s Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or even the pre-modern fiction of writers such as Jonathan Swift, writing about fictional islands in Gulliver’s Travels. But the real works that came to define the epic fantasy genre as we know it seem to have arisen out of the events of the last hundred years. What then, brought back the revival of the fantasy genre?

Despite what we may think, the origins of fantasy fiction lay much farther back in time. Writers like J. R. R.Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, though they are said to have pioneered modern fantasy, are greatly indebted to those who came before them. If dwarves, elves, and trolls are associated with 20th century writers, it is those very writers that have built upon countless traditions in folklore, fairytales and customs of storytelling.

Indeed, when I think of the fairytales that I’ve grown up with, I am reminded of a distinct memory of being some young and impressionable age, and sitting with my mother and an open book of Grimm’s fairy tales (naturally, a version appropriate for children to read). I remember, more than the actual fairy tales, how my mother told me about the long, long winters and short, dark days that people have had to live through in the past, without the means of entertainment that we possess today.

She told me, specifically, how it was that very darkness and cold that produced the writings we now know to be timeless works of mythology and culture which have come to be ingrained within our common consciousness of art and a sense of cultural heritage. It wasn’t just fairy tales, but fantasy itself that was being created during these dark times — fairy tales like those of ‘Cinderella’, ‘The Little Mermaid’, stories like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, and more. Mediaeval fantasy formed the basis for fiction that would be written in generations to come.

Hundreds of years later, similar times of darkness and despondency would give rise to works of fantasy that have changed the face of literature in the last one hundred years. Out of the First World War came the writings of Tolkien and Lewis, redefining the fantasy genre through the idea of ‘subcreation’ — Tolkien’s definition of a writer creating a world inhabited by fictional histories, traditions, and peoples. Having come out of the First World War, Tolkien’s Europe was a ‘Waste Land’ of sorts, from which a green, verdant, and fictional Middle Earth was created. But epic fantasy is not pure escapism — much of it is rooted in the real, in problems of morality that seem to exist on an existential scale, concepts of good versus evil representing themes larger than nymphs, beasts and fantastical figures.

In fantasy fiction there lies truth that lies beyond the desire for escapism, beyond mere dissatisfaction with our lived reality. Stories, fables and fantasies rise out of the dark times in our histories. As fairy tales were told and passed down by the oral tradition hundreds of years ago in the depths of winter and cold, narratives of immeasurable proportions and entire worlds, so well constructed they form a reality of their own, rose out of the crises of the 20th century. The rise of fantasy fiction, regardless of how detailed and intricate these illusionary worlds were made to be by their writers, signifies a return to the very roots of literature, highlighting above all, the human desire to create.

When we are confronted with conflicts too large for us to handle, we are once again in the cold and dark, that which produced the folk tales from hundreds of years ago. The solace of fantasy fiction is that, even in the dark times, there will be laughs to be had, scares to be suffered, and stories to be told.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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