Fantasy Roots

I remember the controversy by people who had grown up reading Harry Potter and suddenly found there were other books about magical education in the world. Their first assumption was they must have stolen the idea from J K Rowling, even though many of the books predated HP.

The truth is that many fantasy books accidentally or deliberately take elements from those who went before, but that does not make them guilty of plagiarism. Fantasy as a genre builds on elements of folklore and myth and often has at its route what Joseph Campbell calls the Hero With Thousand Faces – the Ur myth which exists in not only many traditional tales, but many religions.

Tolkien was lauded for inventing modern fantasy by many, but that ignores earlier writers like E R Eddison, and also the template for much of Tolkien’s work in northern European sagas and medieval romances.

This implicit criticism of genre authors who use parts of fantasy’s shared landscape (or science fiction’s, or crime’s) doesn’t seem to extend to mainstream novels who will, of course, use the world about them. It seems strange to criticise writers for lack of originality who go to the effort to create their own world  rather than just using the one we live in.

Reading some recent books with elements reminiscent of earlier classics I wanted to draw out some of these elements.

The first is the trilogy by James Stoddard who produced the final volume Evenmere in 2015 – 15 years after the first two volumes The High House and the False House. The setting is a house which contains an entire universe inside which regulates the one we live in. The idea is explicitly linked back by Stoddard to William Hope Hodgson’s House on the Borderland and also C S Lewis’ world inside a wardrobe through the names of characters and locations in the trilogy. To a large extent the series is homage to the books Stoddard read and loved  in his youth, while standing on its own two feet as a narrative and world well worth exploring.

For some reason, while Tolkienesque blockbusters are constantly in print Stoddard’s first two books went out of print in their original paperback version quite quickly and have only been reprinted by a small press to coincide with the third volume’s publication by them. Well worth searching out on Amazon.

The second book you may have missed is Tim Clare’s The Honours. A young girl growing up in a Norfolk Country House discovers her host is conspiring to bring creatures from another dimension to help him take over the world. Set between the wars, the similarity to the rise of the Nazi’s in Germany and British Fascism are deliberate and telling.

I don’t know if  Clare’s had this in mind, but for me the closest classic author template is T H White. Best known for his retelling of the legend of King Arthur in The Once and Future King (and Disney’s version of the first book The Sword in the Stone) White also wrote other fantasy novels that have disappeared from the radar. Characters in his Arthurian novels have walked straight out of Victorian huntin’ shootin’ and fishin’ country houses and again the spectre of the looming second world war hangs over them. Clare’s heroine could have walked out of many of White’s novels including Mistress Masham’s Repose and The Master.

A gateway to another world with strange creatures on the other side and plots to use them to take over also feature in Andrew Caldecott’s recent Rotherweird trilogy, although the obvious comparison here is to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast as the titular town has been cut off from the rest of the UK and is ruled by books of restrictive rules. Like Peake, Caldecott’s characters also have apt and evocative names although both may well have lifted this from Dickens.

Peake’s Titus Groan trilogy (quartet if you count his wife’s recent posthumous volume Titus Awakes) was also written in the shadow of WW2, when Peake worked as a war artist including in the liberated concentration camps. Its subtext is the potential for change in society in the aftermath of the war and the loosening of the class and rule driven structures which preceded the conflict. The (literal) social climber Steerpike is one example of this and young Titus’ rebellion is another.

This shadow of World War II has also been observed by M John Harrison in Lord of the Rings – all of the nations get involved in fighting total evil but it is the plucky working class equivalents (hobbits) that win the day and the posh people (elves) then withdraw and leave them to it.

For me the least enjoyable part of Caldecott’s trilogy is the lack of a theme. The characters are mostly well written and realistic and the plotting is clever and well done, but I didn’t really engage with any of them – possibly because none of them really changed internally during the experiences, no matter how much they changed physically.

For me a fantasy novel is never spoiled because the setting has elements that are similar to another one. It is spoiled because the characters’ journey doesn’t touch me, even if the world building does.

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