In thinking about the fantasy genre and history, my mind circled around a few topics. One that it kept coming back to was the origins of the genre and its tropes. There are many scholars and others who have argued that the origins of the fantasy genre are the ancient Greek epics, perhaps even the Mesopotamian epics like Gilgamesh. I tend to disagree on that point, in large part because the ancient epics, and the myths, were all religious in nature. That is to say, they were considered to be part of the religious canon of their respective cultures.
I would argue that the modern fantasy genre begins with the medieval romances and epics/sagas. These tales possess all the elements of modern fantasy, display most of the tropes, and concern many of the character types involved in the genre.
But, wait, you say . . . the romances and sagas involved God and gods. Weren’t they religious?
Yes and no.
Although they often incorporated religious elements, whether the devotion to the Abrahamic God in the Arthurian tales or the presence of Norse deities in the northern sagas, they were not considered part of their respective cultures’ religious canon (or cultural origin stories, for that matter).
Both genres were inherently linked to history and shaping society. The sagas and epics reinforced societal norms through tales of punishment for violations. They also set and reflected social ideals. Most focused on tribal warfare, whether mortal or divine. For their part, the romances and lais focused on royal courts and proper behavior. They were, arguably, written in an attempt to pacify the wild warriors of the early-12th century French court (and spread throughout Europe). It is believed that the romances, and lais, may have originated in the court of Marie of France, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. At the very least, she was a major patron of romance writers.
I’ve chosen three examples to look at a bit more closely, and will address them in chronological order.
(10th century; trans. Seamus Heaney, Norton, 2002)
Throughout the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, we see many elements of modern fantasy. We have the (semi-)wandering hero, who is also a prince. We have a monster threatening civilization, in fact we have a pair of them. In the first two thirds, the Grendel section, we have magic swords—“a sword in her armor, an ancient heirloom / from the days of the giants” (1558-9) that could slay Grendel’s mother. In the less well known final third, we have dragons and barrows—“Then an old harrower of the dark / happened to find the hoard open, / the burning one who hunts out barrows, / the slick-skinned dragon” (2270-3). Many of the elements found in Beowulf’s story continue to appear throughout Tolkien’s work and that of his contemporaries.
Yvain: The Knight of the Lion, Chretien de Troyes
(c. 1170; trans. Burton Raffel, Yale UP, 1987).
Chretien’s romance, written for Marie of France, is chock full of modern fantasy tropes, many of which also happen to be tropes of the medieval romance. The questing knight, attempts to restore honor, fights with monstrous beasts, and sacrifice appear throughout the romance. Chretien discusses giants, different from the Norse, as herdsmen and monsters. He writes, “And I saw, / Sitting on a tree stump, a lowborn / Creature, black as a Moor, / Huge, and hideously ugly” (287-90). Later, in order to complete his quest of honor, Yvain needs to infiltrate a castle. He meets a woman who “gave him the little ring / And told him it had such power / That, just as bark hid the wood / Of a tree, and no one could see it, / So this ring would conceal anyone / Who wore it, as long as the stone / Sat in his palm” (1025-32). In short, she loans him an invisibility ring, possibly the earliest appearance of one that I can recall.
The Story of the Volsungs
(13th century; trans. Douglas Killings & David Widger, Project Gutenberg, 2013)
The Volsunga Saga is one of the most well-known of the Norse sagas. It appears throughout our culture and tales, from Richard Wagner through Rick Riordan. But, the original features the dragon hoard as one of its primary elements, including the dragon. “Now crept the worm down to his place of watering, and the earth shook all about him, and he snorted forth venom on all the way before him as he went” (Ch. 18). It also includes both dwarves and elves, although the Volsunga Saga tends to conflate the two. Some versions consider Andvari an elf, others a dwarf. As Killings and Widger translate, “there was a dwarf called Andvari, who ever abode in that force, which was called Andvari’s force, in the likeness of a pike, and got meat for himself, for many fish there were in the force; now Otter, my brother, was ever wont to enter into the force, and bring fish aland, and lay them one by one on the bank” (Ch. 14).