The History of Fantasy, Part II: Barbarians and Elves and Jesus Figures and D20s


The nineteenth century closes with two books that will be imitated constantly for the next hundred years or so: Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. To a very real extent you have the spectrum of Fantasy right there: children’s stuff with its own unique self-contained logic and then the forerunner of modern horror (and it is horror, make no mistake: anyone who makes an argument for Dracula as a romantic antagonist automatically loses at the rape sequence, end argument).

In the early twentieth century, you get the wonderful, immortal pulps. Let’s take a moment, because pulps are beautiful: they were the cheapest possible material for a cheap literature, the most disposable of disposable entertainments. They are garish and bright and burning themselves to death from the inside out, because the chemical lignin is a naturally occurring property of wood pulp, and these are books and magazines that simply will not physically exist in another century, barring a minor miracle of science.

Right, moment taken? Sweet.

The crown prince of pulp fantasy is indisputably Robert E. Howard. His most notable creations include Conan the Barbarian, Solomon Kane, Kull the Conqueror, and Dark Agnes. If you’ve never seen or read any of these characters or their derivatives, you’re … well, you’re something, anyway. His influence leads to the quintessential Sword & Sorcery stuff: barbarian warriors, witch women, big swords, chain mail bikinis…you get the picture. This was the popular literature of the 1920s and the 1930s, and it was great.

In the 1930s, a young Oxford don you might have heard of, J.R.R. Tolkien, began writing a children’s adventure story called The Hobbit. It was published in 1937 to wide acclaim, and was followed up two decades later with The Lord of the Rings, whose own popularity gave us the framework of the epic trilogy. (Of course it’s not a real trilogy, it’s a single novel that was broken up into economically feasible segments for publication… This is pedantry for another day, isn’t it? I believe it is.) Tolkien’s work is definitive world-building at its finest and most comprehensive: alternative geographies, new languages, a mythos and history so comprehensive as to require volumes of their own to flesh it out.

Concurrently, Tolkien’s friend and colleague C.S. Lewis had been writing his own series of children’s books, set in the fantastic land of Narnia. These stories combined adventure tales with religious and philosophical meditations that seemingly fly over the heads of most young readers and prove relentlessly divisive to adult audiences. Read against one another, both authors’ works create a fascinating dialogue based on their shared experiences—as young men fighting in World War I and older men having to watch World War II at a distance (well, as much distance as Englishmen could observe WWII anyway), as educated men grappling with their own spirituality, and as intellectuals engaged with academic discourse on the one hand and their own fantasias on the other.

While each of these authors had a hand in irrevocably shaping contemporary culture’s view of fantasy, in a sense they also culminated with the birth of Gary Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game in the 1970s. While some might be derisive of this claim, it is worth noting that the useful “shorthand” of D&D is perhaps amongst the most pervasive—and visible—in mainstream culture today—largely because from the 1970s onwards, almost everyone played or encountered the game at some point. Many formerly devoted gamers have risen to become cultural creators in their turn: just look at Stephen Colbert!

Next time, we’ll conclude this historical waltz with a look at fantasy lit at the turn of the century—the twenty-first century, that is. From Harry Potter to A Song of Ice and Fire, we’ll look at the current conversations in the field and what these may mean for the future of the genre.

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