Saturday, May 8, 2010

Myth and Fantasy Literature (IV)

By Victoria Goddard

I was originally going to write this next as a separate post from my two on myth and fantasy, but then it occurred to me that the relationship between modern fantasy literature and medieval studies fits right in with the mythophiloi and the mythopoeoi I talked about before.  A modern fantasist and medievalist, Dr. Debra Doyle has argued that speculative fiction in general is derived from medieval romance rather than the modern novel (her rant on the subject is available at  Small wonder, then, that a love of the Middle Ages -- whether amateur or professional -- characterizes many a fantasist.  (I speak from my own love; my knowledge of other branches of speculative fiction is limited.)

The roots of modern fantasy certainly come from both medieval literature and medievalists. William Morris in the nineteenth century, that doyen of Arts and Crafts, wrote a handful of fantasy romances of which the most resonant of both myth and fairy tale is The Well at the World’s End, which title is (to rework something C.S. Lewis wrote) almost a myth in itself, together with The Garden of the Hesperides or the Isles of the Blessed (for the use of which in literature one might look at Lud-In-The-Mist, by Hope Merrilees, or The Odyssey, by Homer). There was George MacDonald, most of whose books are fairy tales and who even called his adult fantasy Phantastes: A Faerie Romance

But of course, it was C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien who revived fantasy literature by going back to those old sources, the gardens and the springs and wild forests.  The first time I read the Divine Comedy, I came to the end of Purgatory with a catch in my throat not only for the scene between Dante, Virgil, and Beatrice but because on entering the Earthly Paradise I was pleasantly flabbergasted to realize I’d been there before -- in Narnia.  Then I read a Norse saga, and found the names of Tolkien’s dwarves long since written.  Or I read Chrétien de Troyes, and then Gerald Morris’ YA retellings of Arthuriana (which I like particularly because they are about the knights and ladies, and not the overdone love triangle of the King), and like them both the more for the connection.

One of the joys of studying the classics is entering into the game of allusions that has been played since Virgil’s time and which some modern authors (I do not say, all) seem to have dropped in favour of originality.  In some of the best fantasy literature, I find the game still going strong, in this love of myth and fairytale, which are permitted to echo and be reworked, embroidered and re-dyed and generally made new and wonderful.  Virgil reworked Homer, and Dante Virgil, and C.S. Lewis Dante, and Terry Pratchett made fun of Lewis, and the game goes on.

Victoria Goddard has lived in more of Canada than most people even know exist.  She has lived from the East Coast to the prairies, from the High Arctic to lake country, from villages at the end of the road to Canada’s largest city.  Although in the midst of a five-year doctorate in medieval literature, she has managed to avoid breaking her record of not living for more than three years consecutively in any one house by haring off to Europe periodically to learn languages and look at medieval manuscripts.  A keen reader, particularly of fantasy (from all periods and places), she also writes (as-yet-unpublished) novels, mostly on the subject of the lives that lie behind the fairy stories, trying to combine pithy details of not-so-ordinary days with sometimes all-too-matter-of-fact magic. 

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