The Fantasy Novel Analysis

Eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

To speak of the “fantasy novel” in the context of the eighteenth century comes close to committing a contradiction in terms: Novels were about life as it was lived and had left behind the conventions of allegory and fable along with the decorations of the marvelous and the magical. It is arguable, though, that the withdrawal left behind a connecting spectrum of ambiguous works, and—more important—that it soon led to some important reconnections. Jonathan Swift’s use of the techniques of narrative realism in his chronicling of the imaginary voyages of Lemuel Gulliver gave to his work a crucial modernity that is responsible for its still being widely read and enjoyed today.

The rise of the gothic novel in the last decades of the eighteenth century, in connection with the emergence of the Romantic movement that spread from Germany to France, England, and the United States, represents a definite reaction against the advancement of literary realism. The gothic novel, indeed, is almost an “antinovel” of its day, substituting a fascination with the ancient for a preoccupation with the modern, an interest in the bizarre for an obsession with the everyday, an exaltation of the mysterious for a concern with the intelligible, a celebration of the barbaric for a smug appreciation of the civilized. From the standpoint of today, the gothic can be seen to have been subversive in several different ways. It was subversive in a literary context because it opposed the dominant trend toward the development of the modern realistic novel. It was subversive in a sociological context because it reflected the fact that the values of the ancien régime were under stress and that the decadence of that regime was symptomatic of its imminent dissolution. It was subversive in a psychological context because it...

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Victorian era

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The revival of the fantasy novel in the last two decades of the nineteenth century was associated with several trends that can be traced through the fiction of the twentieth century. The partial eclipse of substantial work in fantastic fiction in the mid-nineteenth century is clearly related to the repressive morality of that period—it is notable that in France, where the repression was less effective than in Great Britain, the United States, and Germany, the Romantic heritage was more effectively conserved. It is possible, in consequence, to see the various threads of the revival in terms of reactions against and attempts to escape from that repression.

During this repressive period, indulgence in fantasy came to be seen as a kind of laxity: It was in the Victorian era that the notion of escapism was born. An exception was made in the case of children’s literature (though even here there was a period when fantasy was frowned upon), and there eventually arose in Britain a curious convention whereby fantasies were considered suitable reading for Christmas, when a little token indulgence might be overlooked, an idea that led to the emphasis on fantasy in the Christmas annuals to which Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray contributed. Such writers as Thackeray, MacDonald, and Lewis Carroll brought to the writing of books nominally aimed at children an artistry and seriousness that commended them to the attention of adults and helped to open a space for the production of fantastic novels within the British literary marketplace.

Another form of fantastic fiction that became to some extent associated with the British Christmas annuals was the ghost story, which became extremely popular in the 1880’s and remained so for half a century, during which virtually all the classic British work in that genre was done. There is, however, something intrinsically anecdotal about ghost stories that keeps them more or less confined to short fiction. Though there have been some excellent novellas, there have never been more than half a dozen outstanding ghost novels. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, who stands at the head of the line of British ghost-story writers, produced several neogothic novels, but almost all of them are so ponderous as to be nearly unreadable. M. R. James wrote only short stories, and Algernon Blackwood’s novels have not worn nearly as well as his shorter pieces.

The Victorian interest in ghosts, however, went far beyond the traffic in thrilling anecdotes. The influence of such contemporary fads as spiritualism and Theosophy sparked a new interest in the occult that began to be reflected quite prolifically in literary production. The great majority of the spiritualist fantasies of communication with the dead and accounts of the afterlife supposedly dictated by the dead through mediums are wholly inconsequential in literary terms, despite the eventual involvement in such movements of writers of ability, such as Arthur Conan Doyle. They did, however, lay important groundwork for those...

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Fairy tales and heroic fantasy

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although traditional fairy tales had, at the time of their origin, been set in the believed-in world, their remote printed descendants could not help but seem to their consumers to be set in an entirely imaginary milieu. The magicalized medieval milieu of such stories became a stereotype useful to modern writers, who began to repopulate it with complex characters whose adventures were filled with allegorical significance. The pioneers of this kind of enterprise were the German Romantic Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, in his novel The Magic Ring (1813), and George MacDonald, in Phantastes (1958), but their example was followed in far more prolific fashion by William Morris, whose several romances of this kind include The Wood Beyond the World (1894) and The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897). The form gathered further momentum in the work of Lord Dunsany, most notably in The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) and The Charwoman’s Shadow (1926); other contemporary examples include Margaret Irwin in These Mortals (1925) and Hope Mirrlees in Lud-in-the-Mist (1926). These sophisticated but slightly effete fairy tales then began to give way to a more active brand of heroic fantasy, first featured to extravagant extent in E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ourobouros (1922).

Modified fairy-tale fantasy reached new heights of popularity in the fantastic volumes included in James Branch Cabell’s “Biography of Manuel,” set in the imaginary magical European kingdom of Poictesme. It was also developed in a much more extravagant way by several of the contributors to the magazine Weird Tales, who used imaginary lands set in remote eras of prehistory in order to develop the subgenre commonly known as “sword-and-sorcery” fiction. Because it was initially restricted to the pages of a pulp magazine, this subgenre was developed...

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Twentieth century gothic fantasy

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In parallel with these works appeared a new wave of stories that developed the gothic images of fear into new archetypes, treating them with a determined quasi-scientific seriousness. The great success in this line was Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), which has remained in print and which surely stands as the most heavily plundered fantasy of all time, being the sourcebook for literally hundreds of vampire stories and films.

This resurgence of fiction that deals with the supernatural in a deadly earnest fashion may seem rather paradoxical. It was possible for nineteenth century rationalists to imagine that their victory over superstitious belief was almost won and to look forward to a day when the irrational might be banished from human affairs. If anything, the reverse is true: Superstition, mysticism, and irrationality now thrive to a greater extent than ever before, and modern fiction reflects that fact.

Fantasy novels intended to evoke horror and unease are more prolifically produced and consumed today than they were in the heyday of the gothic, and one of the world’s best-selling novelists, Stephen King, is primarily a horror writer. In addition, the role played by occult forces within the neogothic novel is crucially different; in gothic novels, normality was usually restored, and when the forces of the supernatural did break free, they usually did so in order to punish the guilty and liberate the innocent. In later neogothic fantasies, however—whether one looks at the respectable middlebrow...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

While the contents of popular fantasy fiction have overspilled in this remarkable fashion, fantastic motifs and literary methods have been imported again into the literary mainstream on a considerable scale. The mid-1960’s and early 1970’s saw the beginnings of a significant break with the American realist tradition in novels by such fabulists as John Barth, Thomas Berger, Richard Brautigan, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Coover, which eventually expanded in the 1980’s into an entire field of postmodern fiction closely connected—at least in the eyes of critics—with a series of formal challenges to the very ideas of realism and reality. British writers of a broadly similar stripe whose work spanned the same period include...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Anatol, Giselle Liza, ed. Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Fourteen scholarly essays examine the Harry Potter series, the biggest-selling fantasy series of all time. Topics include theories of adolescent development, book banning, literary influences, and morality and social values.

Attebery, Brian. The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. Comprehensive and intelligent study of the development of American fantasy, from Washington Irving to Ursula K. Le Guin.

Barron, Neil. Fantasy Literature: A...

(The entire section is 511 words.)