Friday, October 1, 2010

Who are the founders of Fantasy?

What are the roots of fantasy?

The standard response has been to point to Tolkien, mutter some stuff about Western folklore and Arthurian romance, throw in some educated remarks about Greek and Roman mythology and the Kalevala, and then declare the Lord of the Rings the foundational text, full stop. But it seems to me, at least, that fantasy is a genre with many fathers. Tolkien casts a long shadow, to be sure – anyone writing epic fantasy for the last few decades has basically been following in the path laid by LOTR, despite many heroic efforts to the contrary. But that shortchanges other authors as well, who have had just as much of an impact on the development of the genre.

If there were such a thing as an ancestral temple of Fantasy Founders, I would put a statue of Robert E. Howard right up there next to JRR – REH basically invented Sword and Sorcery (predating Tolkien by several decades) and introduced a whole other style of (anti)hero very much the opposite of Aragorn and Frodo. (For the record, I think Conan could wipe the floor with Aragorn, stomp Sauron too mush, and pick his teeth with the splinters of Gandalf’s broken staff…just my humble opinion, of course.) Also, an honorable bust of Edgar Rice Burroughs – yeah, he’s considered a scifi writer, but his Barsoom series is still one of the most impressive examples of speculative world building ever.)

Anyone else care to venture a thought?


  1. It's very hard to nail down any one "father" of fantasy, in my mind. If pushed, I'd go for Lord Dunsany: his work is fairly recognizable as modern fantasy fiction, he influenced both Howard and Tolkien, after all, in addition to Lovecraft, Vance, Wolfe, Pratt, Borges and any number of other fantasy authors.

    I think definitely Howard deserves equal consideration with Tolkien: both authors had a comparable impact on later fantasy authors despite being very different in prose style. I'd say they'd be part of a pantheon that includes Lovecraft, Eddison, Burroughs, Smith, Merritt and a few others, like the Norse/Greek/Celtic pantheon.

    As for Conan vs Middle-earth, I wouldn't short-change Aragorn/Sauron/Gandalf by any means. I prefer thinking that he'd reach a stalemate with Aragorn, he'd defeat Sauron with a little magical backup (the Heart of Ahriman, a Stygian girdle, and a sword with the Mark of Epemitreus), but would be incapacitated by Gandalf. But that's just me. (I've often daydreamed about Conan in Middle-earth myself...)

  2. If I was pressed, I'd pick Lord Dunsany. He influenced both Howard and Tolkien, as well as other foundational figures like Lovecraft, Smith, Vance, Wolfe, Pratt and Borges.

    I definitely think Howard deserves equal consideration alongside Tolkien.

  3. Ha! I was thinking of Lord Dunsany...Tolkien alwaya citied him as an influence...

  4. He did.

    Sorry for the double post, btw.

  5. Conan vs LOTR? One of the neat things about Conan is that he doesn't use or trust magic. So the LOTR cast would probably defeat Conan but it wouldn't be an honest battle, nothing to truly be proud about. This may be why REH chose to keep Conan from being magically assisted. It's far more impressive when the hero does what he does because he is who he is.