I know I said I’d talk about elves and things today, but I realized that there was a post that needed to be written first, that probably should have been written before the Dragons post, but oh well.
I want this post to be about how fantasy has been transformed. Obviously, there’s really only so much I can go over, and I can’t say that I’ve heard every fantasy story out there. But I know enough to show you, I think.
Your question probably is: Why is this more important than elves and magic? One of my professors says that the reason history is so important is because in order to know where a thing is going, you have to know where it’s been. Fantasy novels have changed with the times. People are looking for new and improved ways of doing things that have become a cliche. So what I’m trying (and perhaps failing) to do, especially when I go over topics like Dragons and Elves and Magic, is show where we’ve been in fantasy. You can then take some of that information, and add onto it for something newer and something better.
So. Most people consider Arthurian legends to be the basic foundations for all things Fantasy. That may be true, but I’m going to go back a little further, to Beowulf. Beowulf is about a proud young warrior who fights first Grendel, then Grendel’s mother, and then, much later in life, a dragon. There are a lot of important themes going on in the story, which I don’t really have time to go into, but the long and short of it is: 1) The destructiveness of vengeance, and 2) Pride and bravery (especially found in the third portion of the story, against the dragon). What’s interesting about Beowulf is that it seems like such a cliche story, from our point of view, because its basics have been recycled so exhaustively. The three-act structure, for example. But Beowulf was one of the firsts, there’s no denying it.
With Beowulf out of the way, we can now bring up the Arthurian legends. Everyone knows Arthur. Everyone loves him. (At least, a lot of people do. Me included.) He and his knights are noble. Chivalrous. Kind. Brave. Perhaps a bit arrogant at times, but we all have our faults. For a long time, Arthur’s and his knight’s adventures (many of which portray at least some mystical element) were a big portion of our written fantasy. What’s so interesting about Arthur is that he’s everywhere. So many people have learned of and fell in love with these legends that they’ve taken it and written their own versions. The Anglo-Saxon English (who were, for those who are curious, the people that Arthur was at war with in the legends), the French, the Germans. You’ve got stories such as Lancelot’s betrayal to King Arthur with his love of Queen Guinevere. You’ve got stories like Gawain and the Green Knight, where a completely green knight tests Sir Gawain’s honor and bravery and honesty. You’ve even got stories of knights like the clumsy-yet-good knight, Sir Percival, who goes in search of the Holy Grail. Et cetera. Displays of chivalrous (or not-so-chivalrous) knights in fantasy books of the present (or very-recent past) draw from the Arthurian legends.
Then you’ve got Tolkien. Tolkien, I believe, revolutionized fantasy writing. Or, if you think that’s a bit far, you have to admit at least that he did something. The creation of Middle Earth, of all its languages and its inhabitants, the maps, the lore, the plot, the characters.. It felt real. Beowulf and Arthur… yes, they’re great. But they weren’t based in an entirely fictional world. They only had fictional elements. While I don’t know enough about Tolkien’s era to say he was the first to create a completely make-believe world, I have to say that I think he’s done a lot for the genre.
You’ve got other Greats, of course. Robert Jordan, who wrote a massive fantasy series called the Wheel of Time, which I hope to reread at some point in the future.Wheel of Time was special, not only for its length, but for its complexity and its characters. A sort of pre-George Martin (see below). And Jordan did something else: he might’ve made Rand al’Thor the Chosen One, but he made the female characters just as important. Women were the only ones who could channel (which means, using magic). There were male ones, but they often went crazy. Personally, I thought that was a nice touch.
You’ve also got George Martin who, whatever his faults may be, has likely had an impact on the fantasy genre himself. I’m sure you know what I mean. He has a reputation for killing off characters and taking the story in a direction that his readers might not have originally anticipated. I think that, once he writes the last book (if he ever gets around to it), a person could read it from start to finish and see that he was heading to the climax the whole time. But he’s pretty slick, you have to give him that.
Okay, I think I covered all of the basics. Let me know in the comments if you think I missed any important ones. Anyway, with that out of the way, I should be right back on track, ready to go over elves and other mythical elements of fantasy! I also hope you join me on Wednesday for our exciting writing prompts.