The Middle Years of Modern Fantasy
This is part 2 of my series of articles on the History of modern fantasy. In part 1 I looked at the origins of modern fantasy and covered a lot of ground roughly from 1872 in Victorian England to to 1920's and just before the Hobbit was published. And this is where this article takes over -with The Hobbit which was first published in 1937. And it is here that we truly enter a new world of fantasy. This article covers the ground from the Hobbit until 1977 with Terry Brook's publication of The Sword of Shannara. The period of time after that will be covered in my third article in this series.
Precursors to the middle years - As a bridge between the earlier, almost victorian years of fantasy and the more modern period of what I call the Middle years there was an important development in the genre of fantasy. It was the Golden Era of the pulps. These were the prolific pulp magazines that spawned a lot of famous writers and characters; and further developed the genre in many different directions.
The Golden Age of the Pulps
The Golden Age of the pulps is a bit of a transition period between the early years of fantasy and the heralding in of a modern period of fantasy. There is also much overlap in the years of this period. Some of it reaches back toward the Victorian era and writing and some of it reaches forward beyond the publication of The Hobbit. But it is a very important period. It is a time where diversity and imagination ruled and the genre of fantasy began to really separate into different branches. As a good example this is the period of time where the Sword & Sorcery sub genre was created.
Much of the groundbreaking work has to be credited with the success and prodigious output of what is commonly referred to as the pulp magazines. It is the nimbleness of the pulp industry, the quick ability to publish and its constant hunger for newer, fresher and more exciting work that made it the perfect incubator for lots of new styles of fantasy and for many works that now stand as classics.
When it comes to fantasy and the pulps Weird Tales is the magazine of magazines. It had a thirty year run from 1923 to 1954. And it published an eclectic mix of stories ranging from horror to fantasy and Science Fiction. It was also the incubator for many now famous authors in the fantasy genre including Robert E. Howard (Conan) Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft and others.
Some of the seminal works from Weird Tales: A whole series of early Conan stories including Black Colossus, The Devil in Iron, and The Hour of the Dragon.
There were many other pulp magazines that expanded the genre including Unknown (1939-1943), abnd Fantastic Adventures (1939-1953)
How the Hobbit changed Everthing
By the 1920's the genre of fantasy was starting to bloom. The creative blossoming of Victorian England had an impact on much of what was to come and the great writers of this period left a legacy that is veritably unmatched. For all of the things that are commonly thought about the Victorian era one thing that is not so much talked about it the unleashing of creativity.
But all of this was based on loose fantasy, fairy tales and other imaginings. Until one work came out that set the bar very high and changed the rules. It was "The Hobbit" which was originally published in 1937 to phenomenal success and critical acclaim. It was even nominated for the prestigious Carnegie Medal in Literature.
An awful lot of analysis has been done on The Hobbit but I am going to add three distinct points that I think make it special and make it the work that transforms us from the early stage of fantasy into the middle years.
First off it is based in a lot of old tradition. It has many of the characteristics of older works and takes a lot in terms of story and language from older, even ancient works. Secondly it is a full fledged quest novel. This too is inherited from earlier epic works but the quest comes into it's own distinction with this work. And finally the world (Middle Earth) is a fully realized place. This things become the backbone and workhorse for many novels and series to come.
Of course it has all of the other accoutrements of a modern fantasy novel such as a medieval feel, magic, wizards, dwarves, an epic quest, dragons and more.
The War Years
World War 2 had a tremendous impact on everthing and every pursuit in the world including books, fiction and publishing. Paper shortages and paper rationing were common. So there were some lean years but within about a decade after the war the fantasy genre again started to blossom. It could not be denied and again Tolkien lead the chargeby publishing The Lord of the Rings in 1954-55.
The Lord of the Rings: 50th Anniversary, One Vol. Edition The Lord of the Rings expand on The Hobbit and again change the rules by further expanding on the key components of a modern fantasy novel. The quest was bigger, the characters more diverse, the story much larger and the world more fully realized. It is with this series that the template for a trilogy of books was laid. This is a formula that many modern writers have followed.
The Chronicles of Narnia
This is another series of books that bears a lot of similarities to Tolkien's work although much of it was published between the years of the Hobbit and the release of the Lord of the Rings. It is a seven book series that began with the publication of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in 1950. This is a series that has been strongly revived in recent years because of the movies.
Narnia The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe(1950), The last Battle (56)
This is a much less known series of novels and it is also a bit more difficult to categorize. It differs from what we think of as traditional fantasy because it has no magic and it has no elves, dwarves or other races. It has also been termed a series of the fantastic with overtones of gothic and surrealism. It also doesn't take the typical route of having one central character as the narrator. It stands as a unique work of fantasy and if you are looking for a little known classic that is quite unique you might want to check out this series. There are three novels .
The 1960's and 1970's were a good period of growth in the realm of fantasy. As a whole it still suffered from a lack of exposure and was still oft considered to just be a subsection of science fiction. But there were some works that changed this and helped bring the genre into the beginnings of its own birthright.
A Boy Goes to Wizard School
That title right above this is a pretty familiar line right? Of course, it is the story of Harry Potter, but it was done earlier by one of the grandmasters of science fiction and fantasy - Ursula K. LeGuin. And it is the writing of one of her series of books that had an indelible mark on the whole genre. It is the Earthsea series of novels. They were originally written as a trilogy but decades later LeGuin expanded on them. These books are categorized as childrens books or young adult books but they are just as wonderful for adults. If you haven't read these books I highly recommend them. They are not as lengthy as LOTR but they are just as beautiful. They take place in world of an archipelago called Earthsea.
There are currently six books in The Earthsea Cycle
- A Wizard of Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 1)
- The Tombs of Atuan (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 2)
- The Farthest Shore (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 3)
- Tehanu (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 4)
- Tales from Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 5)
- The Other Wind (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 6)
The Heroic Quest is not just for humans or Hobbits
I want to point out this book as a wonderful example of the richness of the fantasy genre. This book is often a staple of high school reading and deservedly so. It is a wonderful tale of an epic adventure - among rabbits. Huh? Yup, rabbits. And this is partly where the magic and the fantasy comes in. There are of course many parallels to human life and it is a heroic fantasy novel in every sense of the word. If you want a break from castles, sword fighting, dragons and swords yet still want to stay in the fantasy genre you should consider getting this book. It was first published in 1975 and has never gone out of print since.
The Growth and Explosion of the 70's
Everything here is leading up to the publication of "The Sword of Shannara" in 1977. The genre is very much growing and there are a lot of well known authors putting out series of fantasy books. Awards are now specificlly aimed at Fantasy works including The World Fantasy Awards which began in 1975, The Mythopoeic Awards and the British Fantasy Awards.
Some Notable fantasy works that were an important part of this growth and maturing of the fantasy genre.
- Katherine Kurtz has put out a large number of novels and series and it all began with her first work in the Chronicles of Deryni: Deryni Rising (Chronicles of the Deryni Series #1)
- Patricia McKillip who is still writing and publishing today and is most known for her Riddlemaster of Hed series of books which began with The Riddle-Master of Hed
- Michael Moorcocks Elric series of books (Swords & Sorcery) The Elric Saga Part One 1: (Elric of Melnibone, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, the Weird of the White Wolf)
- Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber which begins with Nine Princes in Amber
- Piers Anthony's Xanth Series of books which begins with A Spell for Chameleon (Xanth, Book 1)
All of these novels and series are classics in their own right but they all remained the realm of the budding genre of fantasy and none of them really hit the mainstream audience. Nothing really did that since the Lord of the Rings until the releas of Terry Brooks' "The Sword of Shannara" which is a book heavily inspired by LOTR. This book was released in 1977 and it shot to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list.
And it is with this book that we will move into the last of my three part series on the history of fantasy. The Present
RESOURCES AND MORE
Some of the earliest books written - The Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Odyssey - are fantasy, dealing with monsters, marvels, extraordinary voyages and magic. Fantasy remained an essential part of European literature until the rise of the modern realist novel. But even then fantasy remained popular, in the guise of Gothic horror, the ghost story, the fairytale and stories of imaginary worlds: it was in part a reaction to the Enlightenment, to realism and to industrialisation. This book traces the history of fantasy from the earliest years through to the origins of modern fantasy in the twentieth century. From the 1950s (when Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings and Lewis published the Narnia books) the story is dealt with decade by decade. In the 1980s, fantasy earned its own section in bookshops in the English-speaking world and beyond, and by the end of the 1990s, fantasy writers such as Terry Pratchett and J.K. Rowling had become the best-selling writers in Britain, while Tolkien was a best-seller in all the major languages of the world. A Short History of Fantasy explores the great variety of fiction published under the heading 'fantasy' in the twenty-first century, and also seeks to explain its continuing and growing popularity.