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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).