Since fantasy writing comes in many different shapes and sizes – novel, short story, poem – and is thus not defined by form, we need other ways of thinking about it. When it comes to thinking about the content, it is easy to get caught up in the complex relationships between fantasy and the fantastical. Since Tzvetan Todorov wrote his book The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre in 1975 there have been many attempts to tighten up both the genre and the terminology. Todorov’s approach centred on his identification of a ‘hesitation’ on the part of the reader (experienced either through a central character or externally) as to the nature of events which seem strange in the story: within the world presented in the work, are they normal or supernatural? This, coupled with a text which was not to be read allegorically, constituted the fantastic. (There is a lot more to the theory than this, of course, and if you are interested in pursuing it you can find Todorov in the library.)
This hesitation, however, provides us with some questions when the texts that we are dealing with were produced not since the eighteenth or even sixteenth centuries, but right back in the Anglo-Saxon period or even the classical period. Some critics have argued that works like Beowulf and even Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey should be seen as part of the tradition of fantasy writing given their dealings with the supernatural, but this assumes that there was some hesitation on the part of audiences at the time as to the nature of the events they describe. Was a story containing the interaction between gods and men fantastical to an audience in ancient Greece? Did people listening to Beowulf experience a moment of hesitation as to whether the monsters were real or not? Or were they an accepted part of the actual world, even if not a part that the audience had experieced personally or ever expected to?
Our problems with this are intricately connected to our problems with describing and imagining the past, which often seems like a fantastical place to us in any case. Much of the strangeness of the past chimes with what Todorov called the ‘fantastic uncanny’, but once we add the question of fiction we are moving into other areas again, trying to reconstruct the imaginary worlds of people very different from ourselves. I have recently been thinking and writing about the ways in which modern authors seem to tip over into treating the past as fantastical even when their approach purports to be historical and potentially explanatory. Their own hesitation as to whether events are natural or supernatural is expressed in the structure of the stories they present.
For now, I will suggest that we look at these earlier texts not as prototypes for either fantasy writing or the fantastical, but as sources of inspiration for the imagining of fantasy worlds; that we see the gap between our experience of the ‘natural’ and theirs as a space in which that hesitation becomes productive and full of possibility. Beowulf, as Tolkien himself suggested, is not a text to be pulled apart and dissected until it is nothing but a pile of textual rubble; rather it is a textual tower, something to be taken as a means of seeing further, providing a perspective on a wider world that may appear fantastical to us. We will be tracing the ways in which later fantasy writing saw, used and developed that world.
Tzvetan Todorov (1973). The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University Press).
J. R. R. Tolkien (1936). ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,’ Proceedings of the British Academy, 22: 245–95.