Part II. Forms and genres
32. High fantasy
C. W. Sullivan III
The literary or compound term ‘high fantasy’ is enormously evocative and, like most evocative terms, it is pluralistic in meaning and therefore difficult to pin down with a neat or precise definition. ‘High’ can refer to style, subject matter, theme or tone. It can also refer to the characters themselves - their elite or elevated social status or the moral or ethical philosophies which they espouse or exemplify. It can even refer to the affective level of the story itself. ‘Fantasy’, as a literary term, refers to narrative possibilities limited, at least initially, only by the author’s own imagination and skill as a story-teller. When combined, ‘high fantasy’ identifies a literary genre which includes some of the most universally praised books for young readers.
Fantasy, or the fantastic element in literature, has been most usefully defined by Kathryn Hume. In her book, Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature, Hume argues that any work of literature can be placed somewhere on a continuum, one end of which is mimesis and the other fantasy. All literature, Hume suggests
is the product of two impulses. These are mimesis, felt as the desire to imitate, to describe events, people, and objects with such verisimilitude that others can share your experience; and fantasy, the desire to change givens and alter reality - out of boredom, play, vision, longing for something lacking, or need for metaphoric images that will bypass the audience’s verbal defences.
(Hume 1984: 20)
Fantasy itself, she continues, ‘is any departure from consensus reality (21, italics in original). The relative proportions of the two elements - mimesis and fantasy - in a specific work will determine that work’s place on the continuum.
The departure from consensus reality, or the inclusion of what most critics have referred to as the ‘impossible’, in high fantasy places books in that sub-genre quite close to the fantasy end of Hume’s continuum, because high fantasy contains a great deal of material which is not a part of contemporary consensus reality. Unlike science fiction, however, which departs from contemporary consensus reality by extrapolating that reality into the near or far future where it has been significantly changed by discovery, invention and development, high fantasy departs from contemporary consensus reality by creating a separate world in which the action takes place. In Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Glossary and Guide to Scholarship, Gary K. Wolfe defines high fantasy as that fantasy ‘set in a secondary world ... as opposed to Low Fantasy which contains supernatural intrusions into the “real” world’ (1986: 52).
J. R. R. Tolkien was one the first critics to articulate the importance of the secondary world; in ‘On Fairy-stories’ (1947), he delineated the concept and stressed the importance of its cohesiveness.
What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.
(Tolkien 1966b: 37)
Tolkien realised the importance of the reality and cohesiveness of the secondary world, not from writing The Hobbit, which is, along with The Lord of the Rings, certainly an excellent example of the secondary world taken seriously, but from his study of ancient epic, especially Beowulf.
In ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ (1936), published a year before The Hobbit, Tolkien defended the reality of the monsters against those who would see them only as symbolic or metaphoric constructs. The Beowulf poet, Tolkien argues, ‘esteemed dragons ... as a poet, not as a sober zoologist’ (1966a: 11). ‘A dragon is no idle fancy’, he continues (15), and ‘the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness’ (19). Tolkien the academic scholar knew that, before Beowulf could be taken seriously as a poem, the monsters had to be taken seriously as monsters, monsters which actually existed within the world created by the artist; Tolkien the high-fantasy writer knew that, before a work of high fantasy could be taken seriously, the author had to create a world that was real, a world of logical internal cohesiveness, within the pages of the story.
Writers and critics since Tolkien have, consciously or unconsciously, echoed his sentiments on the need for the author and the reader to take seriously the fantastic elements of the secondary world. Ursula Le Guin has asserted:
I think ‘High Fantasy’ a beautiful phrase. It summarises, for me, what I value most in an imaginative work: the fact that the author takes absolutely seriously the world and the people which he has created, as seriously as Homer took the Trojan War, and Odysseus; that he plays the game with all his skill, and all his art, and all his heart. When he does that, the fantasy game becomes one of the High Games men play.
(Cameron 1971: 137)
And it is not coincidence that Le Guin, like Tolkien, draws upon ancient epic for analogues by which to explain high fantasy.
The secondary world of high fantasy cannot be totally fantastic, however, or the reader would not be able to understand a word of what was written. There have to be elements of the secondary world which the reader can recognise and understand, and no small amount of critical effort has been expended over the years in enumerating the traditional sources on which high fantasy has drawn for its reality. The roots of high fantasy, and the literatures which continue to be a source of everything from general inspiration to specific character names, can be traced back to the most ancient of traditional literary impulses in Western Europe: myth, epic, legend, romance and folk tale. To date, little high fantasy has come from the Eastern countries but, given the structural, stylistic and thematic analyses that follow, there is no reason why there could not be more books like R. R. MacAvoy’s Tea with the Black Dragon, a high fantasy based on Chinese rather than Germanic dragon lore.
Some of the most imaginative aspects of modern high fantasy have come from the oldest of stories. The continuing battles between the dragon and the dragon slayer can be traced through the St George legends and Sigurd’s slaying of Fafnir in the Volsunga Saga to the battles between Thor and the Midgard Serpent in the Norse myths; and the avuncular magician/tutor who guides the young prince or hero to manhood and triumph has his origins in the stories of Merlin, himself based on the Celtic druids. The contemporary fantasy hero looks back through a myriad of folk-tale and legendary heroes to the epic heroes: Beowulf, Achilles and Odysseus; and the ‘larger than life’ aspects of the hero’s task or quest and those supernatural powers which are effective in the fantasy world come from myth and epic as well.
If much of the content and many of the concrete items come from myth, epic and legend, the essential structure of high fantasy is taken from the magic tale, the Mdrchen.
The Mdrchen is, in fact, an adventure story with a single hero ... The hero’s (or heroine’s) career starts, as everyone else’s, in the dull and miserable world of reality. Then, all of a sudden, the supernatural world involves him and challenges the mortal, who undertakes his long voyage to happiness. He enters the magic forest, guided by supernatural helpers, and defeats evil powers beyond the boundaries of man’s universe. Crossing several borders of the Beyond, performing impossible tasks, the hero is slandered, banished, tortured, trapped, betrayed. He suffers death by extreme cruelty but is always brought back to life again. Suffering turns him into a real hero: as often as he is devoured, cut up, swallowed, or turned into a beast, so does he become stronger and handsomer and more worthy of the prize he seeks. His ascent from rags to riches ends with the beautiful heroine’s hand, a kingdom, and marriage. The final act of the Mdrchen brings the hero back to the human world; he metes out justice, punishes the evil, rewards the good.
(Degh 1972: 63)
Although not all high fantasies contain each and every element in Degh’s outline, each tale contains most of them; and sometimes, as in the case of the death and rebirth of the hero, the action may be metaphoric rather than realistic.
The society of high fantasy is drawn from medieval romance as is much of the material culture and technology. The people live in castles and manor houses, the transport (unless magical) is by horse on land and by sailing ship at sea, both the domestic and military technologies (except for wizardry) are essentially frozen at a level which would be recognisable to a medieval Briton, and the ideals are a distillation of those which have come down to the twentieth century as the Arthurian tradition - the dream of Camelot. And although most of the main characters are from the upper classes - kings and queens, princes and princesses, wizards, knights and ladies - there is always the chance that the orphan will prove himself worthy (in which case, he, too, will join the elite at the end of the tale). In addition to these rather concrete materials, medieval romance also provides high fantasy with something more abstract, its style.
What separates the good from the bad in high fantasy has less to do with the material on which the writer draws than it does on how he or she tells the story. Ursula Le Guin argues that the ‘style is, of course the book ... If you remove the style, all you have left is a synopsis of the plot’ (1982: 84). Style is especially important in high fantasy, Le Guin continues, because to
create what Tolkien calls a ‘secondary universe’ is to make a new world. A world where no voice has ever spoken before; where the act of speech is the act of creation. The only voice that speaks there is the creator’s voice. And every word counts.
The elevated and sometimes formal style of the medieval romance is certainly appropriate to the actions being described. As Dainis Bisenieks comments, ‘There is no pretending, as in some modern novels, that inconsequence is the rule of life; the tales of Faerie are of those who walk with destiny and must be careful what they are about’ (1974: 617). Chronologically more recent than myth and epic, medieval romance may be the most observable ancestor of and influence on high fantasy.
It was, in fact, the interest of the English Romantics in the medieval which led directly to the writing of high fantasy. Whereas myth, epic, legend, romance and folk tale contain most of the elements which are found in modern high fantasy, they are traditional narrative forms from ages in which the distinctions between the mimetic and the fantastic were less formalised than they are now. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the scientific method, with its emphasis on rationalism and experimentation, began to take hold; and the literary world, like the scientific and technological worlds, attempted to ban the fantastic as unsuitable for modern, educated tastes. The prose which grew during that period - history, biography, newspaper reporting and the essay - reflected the interest of the times in things factual.
The Romantics, rejecting or bypassing the rational orientation of the previous centuries, looked to the medieval and beyond for their inspiration, bringing back to popularity the vast resources of the fantastic in the Celtic and Scandinavian literatures as well as reinvigorating classical pieces such as The Iliad and The Odyssey. Reawakened interest in pre-Renaissance literatures, along with the popularity of gothic fiction and a century of tales imported from the Middle East, the Far East and South America, contributed to the conditions in which high fantasy could be created. In addition, other intentionally fantastic literature was appearing in Britain in the latter half of the nineteenth century. John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River, Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies and George MacDonald’s numerous books, among other works, while not high fantasies themselves, certainly helped set the stage for the creation of that form. That creation began with William Morris.
Morris, well known for his interest in all aspects of the medieval and especially his literary inclinations toward the Arthurian materials and his interest in the Icelandic sagas, is generally acknowledged to be the first to have brought the elements of traditional narrative together in novel form to create a secondary world within which to set a fantastic tale told in a high style (Carter 1973: 25). There were certainly tales which a modern reader would call fantastic written and told before Morris wrote The Wood Beyond the World (1895), but they were not deliberate attempts to create a logically cohesive secondary world.
We have no way of knowing what cultures previous to the Renaissance thought was mimetic and what they thought was fantastic; those categories were not then the mutually exclusive categories we consider them today. In fact, they may not have been mutually exclusive for British culture (and by extension American culture) until some time in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. The novel, developed from the factual prose of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was initially mimetic, if at times certainly exaggerated; and Morris was the first to consciously break from that realistic tradition and create the world in which the action of The Wood Beyond the World is set.
The Wood Beyond the World illustrates the difference between content and intent, a difference that many fantasy critics and historians have ignored. Certainly there appeared in myth, legend, and folk tale all of the paraphernalia of high fantasy - dragons, witches, wizards, shape-changers, magic spells and rings, cloaks of invisibility and the like; but having any or all of those elements in the content of a story does not necessarily mean that the author was intending to write high fantasy. At one time, people did believe in witches, wizards and magic spells and would have thought them mimetic, not fantastic, elements in a story. By the late nineteenth century, consensus reality no longer included those items; and Morris’s intent in including them in the content of The Wood Beyond the World was to create a story that was, in fact, a departure from consensus reality - that is, a high fantasy.
Morris’s story begins in Langton on Holm, certainly an English-sounding place name, with a hero named Golden Walter who is, we are told, the son of Bartholomew Golden of the Lineage of the Goldings. Walter, following a disastrous first marriage, decides to depart on one of his father’s ships and see something of the world. After seven months of travel and several encounters with a mysterious trio - a woman, a young girl and a dwarf - Walter receives word that his father has died and sets out for home. The ship is blown off course, and Walter leaves a world at least objectively like our own for a secondary world in which he will encounter aspects of the fertility goddess. Having seen the old goddess destroyed and having himself slain the dwarf, Walter will marry ‘the maid’ (a goddess as well), descend from the wilderness to the secondary world’s major city, and become king.
The Wood Beyond the World contains elements from all of the traditional sources. The old goddess’s sacrifice so that the young goddess can marry and assume her role as fertility figure is a variant of a pattern common in ancient mythology. Golden Walter’s taking his father’s last name as his first is evidence of Morris’s interest in Scandinavian traditions. The journey across the ocean to a vastly different world is based on voyage literature from a variety of Western European literary traditions, including the legend and the folk tale. The technology of wooden sailing ships, the descriptions of clothing, and the swords, knives, and bows and arrows are all found in medieval romance. The language of the novel, including such words as ‘mickle’ for ‘much’ and ‘wot’ for ‘know,’ has a late-medieval ring to it, and Morris’s overall style is reminiscent of the medieval romances he is known to have studied. Although he wrote many other books, William Morris and The Wood Beyond the World deserve their initial place in the development of high fantasy.
The possibilities for fantasy broadened considerably in the late years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth. Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Beatrix Potter’s various animals and their adventures, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, A. A. Milne’s Pooh books, and L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, to name but a few of the most famous, opened the door wide for fantasy written and marketed for the young reader. Another major publishing series was undertaken by Howard Pyle; his most famous works, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883) and The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903), reinvigorated traditional British legends. It was also during this time that the educational system began to reach children at almost all socio-economic levels and to teach them to read; simultaneously, the publishing industry developed faster and cheaper printing techniques, ensuring that the enlarged reading public would have books and magazines to read. Almost simultaneously, the next steps in the development of high fantasy were taken by a reteller, T. H. White, and a creator who made high fantasy his own domain, J. R. R. Tolkien.
White’s The Sword in the Stone (1939), the first section of what was to become The Once and Future King, is a high-fantasy novel written for young readers. In that book, White tells the story of the child Arthur, covering those years between his birth and his drawing the sword from the stone to become King of England. Unlike the Mdrchen pattern or The Wood Beyond the World, there is no transition in White’s book from the ordinary world to the secondary world; when the reader opens the book, the story begins with the orphan, Arthur, in what is both the ordinary world, for him, and the secondary world in which both he and the reader will discover the existence of the impossible. Merlin is there in both his specific role, as Merlin the Magician, and in a generic role as the avuncular guide and wisdom-giver who superintends the Hero’s growth. At the end of The Sword in the Stone, Arthur emerges from his protective isolation, having conquered the challenges of growing up, to become the High King.
White’s retelling of the Arthurian materials signalled important developments in high fantasy. First, as there is very little of the youth of Arthur preserved in medieval manuscripts, White tells the story of Arthur’s youth from his understanding of the traditional tale; that is, White’s invention or rendition of Arthur’s early years is patterned after the early years of all the heroes in all the tales known. Second, White makes the Arthurian materials fantastic. Instead of merely retelling the stories in modern prose, White augments descriptive passages and action as the novel framework allows, but also adds a larger component of the impossible to make his telling ‘more fantastic’ (especially to a modern audience) than the original. Third, White adds humour to the high-fantasy novel, but while he has fun with the magic, he never makes fun of the magic; the characters who do make fun of the magic are the ‘dolts’ of the book, and White makes fun of them. By rounding out the Arthurian materials in these ways, White transformed them from medieval romances into high fantasy and made both the Arthurian materials and high fantasy accessible to young readers.
As White was finishing the first steps in the reinvigoration of the Arthurian legends begun by Pyle, J. R. R. Tolkien was beginning to map the boundaries of the secondary world. Although not Arthurian, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, like White’s fantasy, is a large book written for children which tells a fantastic tale full of gentle humour, genuine danger and serious magic. It is also a book which displays a carefully crafted secondary world. Bilbo Baggins’s front porch, where the action of The Hobbit begins, is in an even less familiar world than Arthur’s foster home in The Sword in the Stone (even if it superficially resembles an idealised Merrie England) and Bilbo undertakes a Marchen-like journey not through a fantastic and legendary Britain but into a Middle Earth of wizards, dwarves, elves, trolls, giants, shape-changers and dragons, in which even he only half-believed and understood very little of when the story opened. By the end of the novel, with the dragon slain, the treasure recovered and order restored, Bilbo knows a great deal more about the secondary world than he did at the beginning - and so does the reader.
The Hobbit was published in 1937 as a children’s book and was an immediate success. Allen and Unwin, the book’s publishers, soon began urging Tolkien to write ‘another Hobbit’, even though he had a greater interest in the mythological materials which would be published as The Silmarillion some years after his death (Helms 1981: ix). In 1953 and 1954, however, Tolkien completed and Allen and Unwin published, in their regular listings and not as a children’s book, The Lord of the Kings. That enormous book, usually presented in three volumes, drew The Hobbit into its own tremendous aura, and the earlier, smaller volume became, as the Ballantine paperback’s cover announces, the ‘enchanting prequel to The Lord of the Kings’. Today, the two are stocked together in the fantasy or even the Tolkien section of most bookstores and are read by virtually all age groups; this is true of much high fantasy, that whatever age group it might have been written for, it is, in fact, read by all.
It is important to remember, however, that Tolkien began his career in high fantasy with a book that he thought of - as did his publishers - as a children’s book. Picking up on the idea that The Hobbit was a ‘prelude’ to The Lord of the Kings, a number of critics have suggested, as Randall Helms does, that The Hobbit can be seen as a ‘midwife’ to the birth of The Lord of the Kings out of the material that was to become The Silmarillion (1981: 80). Elsewhere Helms states:
Taken in and for itself, Tolkien’s children’s story deserves little serious, purely literary criticism. But we cannot take The Hobbit by itself, for it stands at the threshold of one of the most immense and satisfying imaginative creations of our time, The Lord of the Kings.
(Helms 1974: 80)
But relegating The Hobbit to prelude status allows critics to ignore that book’s value as a children’s book and as high fantasy, and it could lead them to miss some of its influence on Tolkien’s later fiction and on fantasy literature in general.
The Hobbit contains three major characteristics which help identify it as a children’s book: intrusions by the author, a plot about growing up, and word or language play. These characteristics, as Lois Kuznets notes in ‘Tolkien and the Rhetoric of Childhood’, are found not only in The Hobbit but are a part of the general rhetoric found in various classics of children’s literature (1981: 150-1). Tolkien, however, may have drawn on sources other than children’s literature for those characteristics. Authorial intrusion was certainly a part of the ancient literatures he studied; there are numerous incidents of authorial intrusion in Beowulf and in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, two poems with which Tolkien was very familiar. The plot about growing up could also have come from those sources; both Beowulf and Gawain learn from their experiences and return home, as does Bilbo, significantly changed. And Tolkien, as a student of language, was himself delighted by words and word play and, as a student of Scandinavian and Celtic traditions, he knew how highly those peoples valued words, stories and songs. Moreover, Tolkien did not begin with a list of characteristics of children’s literature; he began with a story he was telling his son at bedtime.
Thus Tolkien began with the tale itself. Numerous critics have commented on the structural similarities of the plots of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as if that were a defect in Tolkien’s writing (see Helms 1981; Nitzsche 1979; and Petty 1979); but what they usually fail to note is that Tolkien’s plot structure is the structure of the Mdrchen or magic tale, the legend and the epic. Folklore and mythology scholarship has repeatedly shown that traditional stories share traditional characteristics, and Tolkien wanted to tell a traditional story. As T. A. Shippey remarks,
[L]ike Walter Scott or William Morris before him, [Tolkien] felt the perilous charm of the archaic world of the North, recovered from bits and scraps by generations of inquiry. He wanted to tell a story about it simply, one feels, because there were hardly any complete ones left.
(1983: 54; see also Sullivan 2001)
Unlike the tales he had studied, which were in existence in oral tradition long before they were written down, the tales he published, with the exception of the early parts of The Hobbit, were written down without a specific pre-existing orality.
Some of Tolkien’s sources, however, lie in the traditional stories from pre-Christian Northern Europe and are easily traceable. The names of the dwarves come directly from Sturluson’s Prose Edda, wherein the inquisitive reader will discover, among other things, that Gandalf means ‘sorcerer elf’. The dragon, Smaug, with his soft underside, is very like the Midgard Serpent, the dragon in Beowulf, and Fafnir, in The Volsunga Saga; and Bilbo’s theft of Smaug’s cup is reminiscent of a similar scene in Beowulf. Beorn, the shape-changer, also comes from Scandinavian legend and folk tale. Dain’s reputation as a generous lord and Fili and Kili’s death protecting Thorin can both be traced to Scandinavian prototypes. Gandalf’s role as wizard and guide for Bilbo may be patterned after Merlin’s similar role in the Arthurian stories and more generally based on the Celtic druids. The traditional hero of the story, Bard, certainly takes his name from Celtic sources and his role in the novel from the traditional hero tale. And there is much more.
Tolkien’s use of these obvious Scandinavian and Celtic materials does not make his tale derivative, however. In The Celts, Gerhard Herm describes the education of a Bard or Druid and notes that the Bard had to learn ‘all of the old stories circulating that the public invariably wished to hear again and again, in the same traditional form’ (1979: 239). Tolkien would have known, from his own studies of the ancient tales, that the traditional story-teller was not inventing new stories but retelling old ones, that the art of the storyteller was not, like that of the modern novelist, in inventing something new but in retelling something old and retelling it very well. Tolkien took the traditional materials he knew, including the dragons which had held his attention since childhood, and retold them as The Hobbit. What Tolkien was able to do was to call on a lifetime’s study of Northern European languages, histories, legends, mythologies, literatures and the like; to simmer them together until the whole was distinct from the origins as well as greater than the sum of its parts; and to synthesise a cohesive secondary world for his high fantasy which was both original and resonant with the echoes of hundreds of years of preRenaissance European culture - especially the Celtic and Scandinavian sources which have influenced so much post-Tolkien high fantasy (Sullivan 1989).
The reader who moves from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings moves from a novel with a single plot and a limited number of characters to a novel with several plots and an enormous number of characters; from a novel which follows the folk-tale format quite closely to a novel which has the folk-tale format as its base but also contains much of the structure and content of legend as well as elements of myth; and from a novel in which there is a finalising conclusion to a novel which points to events both previous and subsequent to the story told within its pages and whose conclusion is, at best, a temporary victory for the main characters. In short, The Lord of the Rings is written for a more mature and experienced reader who can deal with its complex and highly textured story.
If the initial publication of The Hobbit and, later, The Lord of the Rings were important steps in the development of high fantasy, their paperback publication was crucial to high fantasy’s current status. That publication of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the mid-1960s created a popular market for high fantasy, and for fantasy in general, which continues to this day. As Ruth Nadelman Lynn’s Fantasy Literature for Children and Young Adults: An Annotated Bibliography (1989) illustrates, there are many books which might fall under the general heading of fantasy. Her chapter entitled ‘High Fantasy (Heroic or Secondary World Fantasy)’ runs approximately eighty pages and is divided into three sections: alternate worlds or histories, myth fantasy, and travel to other worlds.
All three sections contain books immediately recognisable as children’s or young adults’ books as well as books usually considered adult reading. The first section contains Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books as well as Richard Adams’s Shardik and Gene Wolfe’s Torturer series. The second section contains Natalie Babbit’s Tuck Everlasting and White’s The Sword in the Stone as well as Terry Bisson’s The Talking Man and Evangeline Walton’s Mabinogion tetralogy. And the third section contains L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and Andre Norton’s Witch World series as well as Greg Bear’s The Infinity Concerto and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
Not only is Lynn’s definition of high fantasy more inclusive than most, the second set of works mentioned for each section includes books written and marketed for an adult audience. The reader who moves easily and naturally from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings moves just as easily from any of the obvious children’s or young adults’ books in Lynn’s bibliography to many if not most of the adult books also listed there. The fact that adults read The Hobbit and young readers work their way through The Lord of the Rings points up a major feature of this kind of writing: high fantasy appeals to a kind of reader rather than a reader of a certain age. High fantasy’s reliance on traditional form and content makes it accessible to the younger readers and, at the same time, invests it with thematic significance for the older readers who will appreciate it on a different level.
The popularity of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings not only created a popular interest in high fantasy, it also created an academic interest in fantasy. That interest supports a major scholarly organisation, the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, as well as dozens of fantasy subgroups within other scholarly organisations. The fantastic is the subject of articles appearing in a variety of academic journals, and there are fantasy literature courses on most university campuses in the USA and at universities across the world.
But the most important thing that Tolkien did in those two books was to set the standard by which other high fantasy would be judged. Numerous book covers pronounce this or that offering to be ‘in the Tolkien tradition’ or ‘the next Lord of the Rings’ or the author to be ‘the next Tolkien’, but in truth few even merit comparison and the vast majority fall far short. Even C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, which is itself a classic high fantasy and must be ranked with Tolkien’s books, seems, at the very least, a bit too obviously didactic when compared to the more subtle ethics and morality in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Two prominent inheritors of Tolkien’s legacy are Ursula K. Le Guin, who considers herself a writer in the Tolkien tradition, and Philip Pullman, who sets himself apart from it. In the original Earthsea trilogy, Le Guin presents the education, maturation and triumph of the male wizard, Ged; and although the books are heavily influenced by Eastern philosophies, the product is very much a traditional high fantasy. In the two books she has recently added to the series, Le Guin reverses her orientation and discusses the role of women in such a society, speculating about their power and how it is different from men’s power. Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, somewhat reminiscent of writings by Mark Twain and Harlan Ellison, challenges traditional Western notions of spirituality, salvation and especially God. Pullman intentionally rejects the traditional happy ending (Tolkien’s ‘consolation’) for most of the main characters; and their journey of self-discovery, which has changed both them and the cosmos, does not lead to the typical Marchen ending described by Degh (above). Both Le Guin and Pullman build upon the Tolkien tradition, using its solid foundation as a platform from which to create, as Le Guin aptly puts it, a ‘revisioned’ story.
Any listing of books by genre opens the doors for debate, and a category as narrow as high fantasy has very disputable borders. Still, some of the following books, in addition to the ones mentioned above, may well be listed among the twentieth-century classics of high fantasy when literary history passes judgement: Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn; John Bellairs’s The Face in the Frost; Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon; Gillian Bradshaw’s Arthurian trilogy; Emma Bull’s The War for the Oaks; Joy Chant’s Red Moon and Black Mountain; Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series; Jane Louise Curry’s The Sleepers; Charles de Lint’s Moonheart, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant; Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series; Alan Garner’s The Owl Service; Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane; Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana; Louise Lawrence’s The Earth Witch; R R. MacAvoy’s Tea with the Black Dragon; Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld; Kenneth Morris’s The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed and Book of the Three Dragons; Rosemary Sutcliff’s Celtic and Iron Age novels; and Roger Zelazny’s Amber series.
The current popularity of high fantasy and the quality of the best books in that genre today are due in large part to Tolkien’s being in the right place at the right time - twice. From the 1920s to the early 1950s, he was in the right place and time to acquire the education and interests that inform The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In the 1960s and after, he, in the person of his books, was in the right place and time to influence a whole generation of readers and writers who took his works as the model for high fantasy. What Tolkien had succeeded in doing, as reading the books aloud clearly demonstrates, was wedding the oral tale’s style and content to the novel’s format, creating an epic every bit as large as The Iliad and The Odyssey. Those who would be Virgil to his Homer are fortunate to have a climate hospitable to high fantasy.
The most recent developments in high fantasy have not been in the adult literature department but in film and in young adult literature. Although perhaps not technically high fantasy, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books share much of their structure and content with traditional high fantasy, as does a newer series, the Artemis Fowl novels of Eoin Colfer. The popularity of these two series, especially the Harry Potter books, may well be creating a readership for high fantasy that will be moving on to other books by other authors. Similarly, the film series made from the Harry Potter books and the films of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings have both been extremely popular, also creating a readership that might not have been aware of this literature without them; this is particularly true of the Tolkien films, for they have returned The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to the best-sellers’ list for the first time in many years.
The future of high fantasy lies in the past. Because it is a form that draws so heavily on the past for virtually all of its context, content, and style, there can be little literary innovation in the genre. This lack of room for innovation has led many writers to produce formulaic fiction with plenty of action but little thematic content beyond a basic good-wins-over-evil ‘lesson’. But within the flood of such books, truly thoughtful, well-crafted, and thought-provoking fiction, like Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, will shine out. And in the end, the best high fantasies will be written by those authors who, like Tolkien, can most successfully synthesise their knowledge of the traditional narratives and the cultures in which they were popular, and who can also tell a story well.
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