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Fantasy = (Original) Fiction

Posted on Monday, May 17, 2010 in Rant

I just got finished reading Gilgamesh, specifically the New English Version by Stephen Mitchell. I, of course, knew of Gilgamesh for a long time but never got around to reading the actual epic. Mitchell’s version, while not a scholarly translation (which he readily admits), is a great re-telling of the story and moves right along. The language is masterful, like Mitchell’s other works. There are also copious notes and background information. One of my favorite parts has to be Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s slaying of the Bull of Heaven and then ripping off its leg and throwing it at the goddess Ishtar. That takes some chutzpah!

Okay, but what does this have to do with conlanging? Well, a number of conlangs are products of fantasy literature, not the least of which are Tolkien’s Quenya and Sindarin. Some literary types look down their collective noses at “fantasy” as a lesser kind of literature, just a “genre.” While Gilgamesh does not have any conlangs (although Sumerian and Akkadian would make for great inspirations, not to mention cuneiform as a con-writing system inspiration), it does have numerous “fantasy” story elements: the gods’ interventions in human affairs, Humbaba, the Bull of Heaven, Urshanabi’s Stone-Men, immortal Utnapishtim, and much more. All of these would not be out of place in a modern fantasy novel. And Gilgamesh is sometimes referred to as the “the oldest story ever written.”

Gilgamesh and Enkidu killing the Bull of Heaven

Furthermore, consider some other literary works of ancient times: The Odyssey (lots of fantasy elements there), Beowulf (Grendel, his mother, the dragon), various myths from all over (Greek, Norse, Egyptian, etc., etc., etc.), the Metamorphoses of Apuleius (where the protagonist is turned into an ass), and many more examples.

All of these are fantasy literature, so I propose that all literature – in the widest sense – started as fantasy. Fantasy was literature. The other genres – romance, “literary” fiction, sci-fi, westerns, etc. – are simply descendants of fantasy.

So, the next time someone gets on your case for reading “just” fantasy, steer them toward a copy of Gilgamesh…the original fiction…and say “Purus!” (That’s Akkadian for “You decide!”)(Well, “Pursi!” if you’re talking to a woman).

Bring on the comments

  1. (Opinion following.)

    You’ve got this totally backwards.

    First, I absolutely love The Epic of Gilgamesh (I think it might be the first homosexual love story ever written, and it’s gorgeous). And most of what I read nowadays was published before 1800 (unless it was published in Russia, in which case it was published between 1800 and 1900). Indeed, I’ve read everything you mentioned in this article, plus lots of other fantastical works (Journey to the West, The Nibelungenlied, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—currently Orlando Furioso). They’re some of my all-time favorites.

    However, calling these books works of Fantasy (capital “F” for the genre title) is revisionist history (as is calling Gilgamesh a homosexual love story, I know, I know…). To put it simply, the presence of fantastical plot elements or characters doesn’t make a novel a Fantasy novel. These works were written before genres existed. Many of the older epics, in fact, were believed to be true (at least in part), and were treated as histories—and many older “histories” contain fantastical and obviously untrue elements.

    Genres proper (as they exist today) seem to be an outgrowth of the emerging capitalist economy of the Western world. That is, genres are a way of more effectively marketing literature to consumers (kind of like Amazon’s “Readers who bought x, also bought y and z“). This is why the authors of so many new books are described on the book jacket as “He’s like author X meets author Y, with a twist!” or the plot as “Imagine X set in space—with pirates!” There’s a pressure to fit into a certain niche—perhaps playing with similar plot or setting elements, while changing one particular point and exploring a small section that the market hasn’t seen yet. (Ever wondered why there are so many “literary” books nowadays that are famous stories told from the point of view of the main character’s spouse, or the villain, or a minor character?)

    So the difference between today and ancient times is today an author sits down with a market in mind—a genre. Not so in the days of yore. Back then, writers just wrote stories. It didn’t matter whether they included fantastical elements or not, or whether there was actual history, or whether part of it was in verse and part in prose: It just was.

    Calling something like Gilgamesh “Fantasy”, then, seems to me to be a bit of a misnomer. It’d be kind of like saying that we now know that Charlemagne was a Democrat since he favored a strong central government. (Come to think of it, I don’t think you could apply modern terms like “liberal” or “conservative” to Charlemagne; the times were just too different…)

    But, of course, it’s not like this is a bad thing. I’ve read a ton of books I never would have even heard of thanks to modern marketing practices—and I feel I’m the better for it. And actually, the Amazon “unintelligent” marketing may turn out to be the best way to do it (by “unintelligent”, I mean the way it simply looks at purchase histories, not at content). One byproduct of genres is, as you mention, that they’re set in opposition to one another, and that their adherents tend to regard each other suspiciously, much like those in opposing political parties. However, if, let’s say, someone purchases a book from Amazon, and it recommends to them X, which they’ve read and loved, Y which they’ve read and loved, and Z which they’ve never heard of and would never have picked up because it belongs to a genre they don’t read, that’s an opportunity for expansion. It’s kind of like having a friend whose opinion you trust but whose knowledge base is vast, and who is completely unbiased.

  2. The Conlanging Librarian says:

    Hmmm….I’m not entirely convinced, but let me explain.

    I agree that calling the ancient and medieval tales “Fantasy (capital “F” for the genre title)” is a little bit of revisionist history. However, my point is that there is a direct line from the inclusion of fantasy elements then to the fantasy elements in Fantasy genre novels now. It’s not so much the name given to the type of literature, but the various story and plot elements in each. Fantasy elements don’t show up in most genres today. You usually don’t have supernatural gunslingers (albeit from Stephen King) in Westerns or monster-slaying amorous couples in Romance. Humbaba and Grendel would, however, not be out of place in a modern Fantasy. It is that continuity from the ancient times of Gilgamesh (the “first” story) to the modern day that I was referring to. I’m not necessarily calling Gilgamesh “Fantasy” but elements of that story resonate throughout what has become a niche, leading me to say that that “kind” of story is the oldest.

  3. Fantasy elements don’t show up in most genres today.

    Right, and that was part of my point. There’s a reason that they don’t. Plot elements have been compartmentalized and commodified. One can’t sell a literary novel with fantasy elements any more than one can sell a fantasy novel without any. It wasn’t until recently, though, that this split was present. Take, for example, The Master and Margarita: A novel about the Devil coming to Moscow with his 6′ talking black cat henchman Behemoth in order to perform a millennial rite. The book was published in Russia in 1967 as literary fiction. I doubt if it could be published in America today as literary fiction, though, because it’s “too fantastic” (and it probably couldn’t get published as fantasy because it’s not fantastic enough).

    The separation of fiction by content, though, has had an unfortunate side-effect: More attention is paid to content than to quality. Furthermore, content is constrained. Why are there no fantastical literary novels nowadays? Because Fantasy, the modern genre, has robbed literary fiction of the fantastic. A novel like Frankenstein could never be written today—at least, not as it was. It could be made into a horror novel or a fantasy novel (maybe science fiction), and it could work as a literary novel if the Frankenstein monster weren’t actually a monster but were, say, a live human from a disenfranchised social group, but it simply would be unpublishable as it exists: Too fantastical for literary fiction, and too literary for the genres.

    I also wonder about the continuity… Stories in the West remained fantastic for as long as readers (and writers) were interested in fantastical stories (consider The Faerie Queene). It all kind of died in the 19th century (consider how Sir Walter Scott is made fun of in Twain). Things were different: Writers became interested in realism, and the inner consciousness of human beings. There were some lone hold-outs, but who today has even heard of William Morris and Lord Dunsany? (And before you answer, consider first the average Fantasy reader.)

    Things seemed to change in the 20th century as mass communication became more common. Suddenly niche markets were possible, and myriad styles of writing could be supported—and doing so became easier and easier. All the while, the general direction of literature was continuing on its normal course, until its course was irrevocably altered. If every type of story suddenly has a market, then someone can write the same type of story forever without adapting. And it seems like that’s what happened. Pretty soon new writers came along who could produce something that was more like what readers wanted (more prototypical), and genres were the natural outcome.

    The result is that there is no longer a literature: there are dozens—hundreds—of literatures: the various genres. And each genre’s development is constrained by the mere presence of the others. Perhaps fantastical stories would have come back in vogue had there been no mass communication revolution (I suspect they would have). Now they will never return to the “literary” genre, because they can’t: Fantasy has laid claim to them as plot elements. The same is true of mystery (there won’t be another Dashiell Hammett), romance (D.H. Lawrence, Kate Chopin) and science fiction (Aldous Huxley, George Orwell).

    Also, Gilgamesh (as opposed to a lot of the other old epics) seems to me to be an intensely personal story, and has far more in common with the early modern works of the late 19th and early 20th centuries than with traditional works of Fantasy. It contains fantastical elements, sure, but what it’s about is the inevitability of death, and how one deals personally with the ephemeral nature of power and life itself. The Bull of Heaven, Humbaba, et al. are just props, really—allegorical elements necessary to tell the real story.

  4. The Conlanging Librarian says:

    Fascinating conversation, David, and I now have to read The Master and Margarita (Especially after reading the glowing review on your site).

    Stories in the West remained fantastic for as long as readers (and writers) were interested in fantastical stories (consider The Faerie Queene). Okay, so here’s where I might have a chance of an opening 😉 . Those fantastical elements did have a long-lasting run even as “just props”. Even your reference to The Master and Margarita as literature (not fantasy, not horror, not genre) shows use of these plot elements as late as 1967, albeit in Russia. That’s the continuity I was thinking of.

    I fully agree that Gilgamesh is “an intensely personal story” and does share a number of similarities with more modern fiction. Gilgamesh’s anguish over Enkidu’s death is poignant. However, Fantasy (with a capital F) when done well also has the potential to be intensely personal. In reference to your earlier post, I’m not sure that the Babylonians would see The Bull of Heaven and Humbaba as “allegorical elements.”

    I definitely defer to your knowledge of literature. I’ll admit I had to look up William Morris. Thanks for the thought-provoking insights and any others you might have are welcomed!

  5. The Master and Margarita is wonderful; I highly recommend it.

    Just a quick clarificatory point (hey, it says “clarificatory” isn’t a word! Why not?!). When I suggested that fantastic elements didn’t survive, I mean that they dropped out of literature in the West. Modern Fantasy writers, then, don’t refer back to a long tradition, but a very short one: The reintroduced fantasy of the late 19th and early 20th century.

    I would consider the USSR outside the mainstream. Russia has had a kind of tangled history in its relationship with the Western world. It’s kind of on the border, and even to this day, I think the world (and Russians themselves) struggle with Russia’s identity. (Think about any political election in any of the former Soviet Bloc countries nowadays. A big point is whether a candidate believes the country should have stronger or weaker ties to the West.) After the revolution, I’d argue that Russia firmly removed itself from the Western tradition.

    For literature, of course, that didn’t matter much, since Russia has one of the richest literary traditions of any country on the face of the planet—or, rather, it shouldn’t have mattered. Unfortunately, the communist government crippled its artists, many having to self-censor their own work just to survive (in the strictly literal sense).

    Back to the main point I was getting at, I believe there was a distinct break in the tradition, and that modern authors can only claim to be writing in the old tradition in a kind of…ceremonial way. If I can borrow a linguistic metaphor, Modern Hebrew is Hebrew, all right, but its linguistic history is not unbroken. The same is true of Modern Cornish, and any number of Native American languages. It’s fantastic that the languages have been revived (and unprecedented how much success a language like Modern Hebrew is enjoying), but it wouldn’t be quite true to say that Hebrew has steadily evolved over the centuries into the Modern Hebrew spoken in Israel today.

  6. The Conlanging Librarian says:

    Ah, ha! Now, I think I better understand where you’re coming from. The linguistic metaphor makes sense. I like your analogy of Modern Hebrew. There’s a connection, but it’s not an unbroken one. The Fantasy literary tradition has ancestors in the mythic and legendary past but those are not necessarily “direct” ancestors. Modern fantasy is “related” to some of that earlier (earlier as in centuries and millennia), but it’s not a grandchild…maybe a great-grand-nephew or -niece, a couple times removed. Okay, I’ve taken that analogy about as far (or further) than I should.

  7. Michael Chui says:

    Well, two things:

    1) Tolkien is largely regarded as the father of the fantasy genre, and he was basically borrowing Norse mythologies hand over foot, and his stated intent was to create an English mythology. That’s a pretty clear line of descent by itself.

    2) What genre would you put Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” in? In a recent Q&A (http://docs.google.com/View?id=dck87t53_5gwg83kzt), he responded to that question with: “@acertainmiss when it was published, it was a Bestseller. Now it’s an Award Winning Classic. This sidesteps the genre issue entirely”.

  8. And, of course, the real point is this: Every topic eventually comes back to language.

    Score!

  9. Kendra says:

    Wow, the original blog plus Mr. Peterson’s comments were like watching a good debate. Honestly, I am on the fence as good points were made on both sides. I do think modern fantasy fiction
    does veer into the too heavily marketed – I mean, look what has happened to Twilight. I actually enjoyed the book, but not all the ridiculous hype surrounding it. There is an interesting quote about the nature of fantasy from the author L.R. Saul, “Fantasy has the power to get past nearly every wall we have built for ourselves. For example, if I say, “Iraq”, you are going to bring to that word, emotional baggage, and as I writer, I would have to break down your wall first – and may never do so. But if I say to you, “Korzekans” . . . you’re a blank slate. Korzekans happen to be a race in my book, and you’re going to think and feel what I want you to think and feel about that race. And now, you see, you have just let me in. I have gone into your mind through a place that has no walls yet.” Thoughts?

  10. The Conlanging Librarian says:

    @Michael Chui
    1) While Tolkien did a lot to set the “standard” of the modern fantasy genre (e.g., everybody has to write a trilogy even though the LOTR is not a trilogy), Tolkien himself was indebted to his predecessors. Take a look at http://tinyurl.com/BeforeJRRT. Undoubtedly, JRRT gleaned a lot of inspiration from Germanic/Northern European mythologies and legends, but he was also firmly in a literary tradition that wrote about the fantastic and Faery.
    2) The Neil Gaiman quandary is a great example to bring up. I would also re-iterate David’s mention of The Master and Margarita of May 23. Some authors and novels defy the urge of marketeers to pigeon-hole them. Three cheers for that 🙂

  11. The Conlanging Librarian says:

    @Kendra
    Glad you’ve enjoyed the conversation and thanks for your contribution.
    I understand your point as illustrated by Saul’s quote; however, fantasy words and/or conlangs inserted into a text can also have the effect of making readers unconcerned with unfamiliar names or words simply scan over them. “Korzekans” also sounds, to me, like Corsicans or maybe Corsairs, so my mind tends toward thinking “French pirates” in a Rohrschach-ink-blot sort-of-way. Coming up with a word designed to be a “blank slate” (“Oh, no one’s every heard of this word before!”) can sometimes have different connotations for different people or can lead to pareidolia (like Korzekans and Corsicans).

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