Fantasy: Origin of the Genre and Tropes

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).


Content Questions

With the last of the Codex material posted, I now need to generate content again.  🙂

There is a project I’m working on, but as it’s handwritten (my preferred for fiction), it’s not exactly postable.

So, I’ll open this up to the hive mind.  Are there any questions or is there anything you’d like to see my take on covering:
– Writing (fiction or non-)
– Fantasy (written or film)
– Sci-Fi (written or film)
– Worldbuilding
– Education (post-secondary)
– History (pre-17th century)
– Gaming (Tabletop RPGs; I’m a bit behind, but still follow such things)

– Shapeshifters

– Magic (historical or genre)
– Anything else interesting

Charlottesville, American Fascism, & White Supremacy

While I generally try to avoid political or real world cultural issues posts here, the events of last weekend in Charlottesville, VA deserve, I think, some commentary. I waited on writing this, and posting it, to fully gather my thoughts and response to the situation. Even so, this may ramble a bit, my apologies in advance. First, despite a certain “world leader’s” claim, there were no “many sides” and the situation was clear cut. The situation is always clear cut when neo-Nazis and white supremacists are involved and there are always only two sides: neo-Nazis/Supremacists & everyone else. There really is no middle ground here. I’m the first to argue against oversimplifying and dichotomies, but, in this case, there are only the two and it really is that simple. Claims of equivalency between the neo-Nazis/Supremacists and the antifa/BLM movement are false; the former use violence against people simply because of their skin color or for being Jewish in order to kill or intimidate, the latter use violence less often, but do so to protect people of all races & creeds from being beaten or killed. Regardless, the default state should always be Nazis = bad, no “buts”, no “what abouts”, no excuses. Nazis always = bad.

A little semi-digression.

My paternal grandfather was the child of Polish immigrants. He was an irreverent Catholic. He was not, to my knowledge, especially political. He was known to occasionally indulge in what can euphemistically be called “ethnic humor”. I never heard him raise his voice in anger (it probably happened, but I don’t ever recall it). He was also an NCO in the U.S. Army MPs during the occupation of Germany after WWII. In this role, he sometimes escorted Nazi officers, particularly SS officers, to their trials. Occasionally, in the process, he shot at, or ordered others to shoot at, Nazis. Keep in mind, the second largest ethnic population sent to the concentration camps was the Poles, possibly some of his relatives. I can only imagine what he’d think of the events in Charlottesville and those on the American Right who stood up for Neo-Nazis.

(To Head off Objections: No, people who fought in the Korean War did not fight communists or Marxists. They fought fascist oligarchs. The same holds for the entire Cold War. Cuba? Military dictatorship. Yes, they called themselves communists, but they weren’t any more than I’m a Catholic, no matter what I may choose to call myself.)

Back to the main point.

The central element of white supremacy, and really the neo-Nazis, is this idea that they are somehow “defending White Culture”. However, “White Culture” (or “White European Culture”) is a myth. There is no such thing. There are many white, European cultures, not a single unified one. A culture involves traditions and tangibles, ex. food & attire. “White Culture” lacks both. Rather, there is Irish culture, German culture, Romanian culture, Canadian culture, etc. The argument that says, “If White Culture is racist, then so is Black Culture” is another false equivalency. In the U.S., if you ask a white person (or Asian or Latinx) what country (or countries) their family originated in, they can probably tell you. Ask the same question of a black individual and the majority are unable to say, because it’s impossible to tell unless their families immigrated in the 20th century or later. Thus, “Black Culture” or “African-American Culture” is not equivalent to “White Culture”, it is equivalent to saying Irish culture or Vietnamese culture or Puerto Rican culture.

That brings to mind another thing I keep hearing: “Let’s get rid of the prefixes, we’re all Americans.” I have two problems with this. First, no one ever says this when a white guy identifies as Irish-American or German-American. The prefixes only seem to be a problem for certain people when they’re used by someone who is black (African-American) or brown (Mexican-American, etc.). Second, those prefixes are an important part of our American culture, a reminder that we are a hybrid culture, a multicultural society, Frankensteinian if you will. In the States, it’s difficult to find anyone, except a recent immigrant, whose lineage is entirely from one country. Virtually all of us are mixed something, e.g. multicultural. For example, I’m a mix of Polish (paternal) and Anglo-Scots-Irish (maternal). This also goes to cultural festivals. There are those who complain about “black pride” festivals or black history month, of course they say nothing about the country’s numerous Irish cultural festivals, celebration of Oktoberfest, etc.

On the whole, the States are an experiment on a number of levels. We’re not the first multicultural society in existence—Rome, China, India, Russia, and others beat us there—nor are we the oldest multicultural society is existence—again, see China, India, Russia. To think otherwise is sheer ignorance. But, we’re, most of us, trying very hard to make it successful despite elements of our society that wish to sabotage society.

Re-History: Revisiting History in Worldbuilding

History is an important element of every worldbuild, regardless of genre. In Clancy-style thrillers, the history of nations and the history of organizations are important. David Morrell built entire action thrillers out of small pieces of history, and built secret organizations and societies with their own histories. On a larger scale, Tolkien and George Martin constructed huge continental or global histories going back several millennia.

Facing this daunting task, one thing writers and worldbuilders find themselves facing the question of what to include. Limiting history to rulers, battles, and wars gets boring and dull fast. Histories can include foundations of nations, cities, other sites, and organizations; reigns of rulers and dynasties; conflicts between nations, leaders, religions, and groups; treaties, good & bad times (ex. the Great Depression); inventions of note; first contacts between civilizations and species; the rise and fall of nations, families, and organizations.

In fantasy, urban fantasy, and sci-fi, history forms the foundation of current events and national or species relations. It affects current organizational relations as well, ex. the mages and clergy are at odds because the priests tried to purge magic from the country 100 years ago.

The depth and detail of histories varies widely, for a host of reasons. We know that Tolkien’s history is very complex and detailed thanks to the Silmarillion and Lost Tales. Frank Herbert’s was probably equally detailed, based on what Kevin Anderson and Brian Herbert have been able to reconstruct from his notes. Rowling and George Lucas’s histories seem to have started rather sketchy and been filled in when needed. Michael Moorcock seems to be somewhere in between. The depth of detail also depends on the length of the piece. Neil Gaiman didn’t need to be excessively detailed in putting together a history for Neverwhere, a relatively short standalone novel. Herbert needed a detailed history for his extended epic. The role of history in the piece can also determine detail. For Neverwhere, detail and depth were not particularly necessary, just a general knowledge of London history and the Atlantis legend even though that history forms the plot. On the other hand, the history of Middle-Earth drove the plot of a wide ranging epic.

Once the history is outlined or fleshed out, how does it get incorporated?

The methods are almost as varied as the elements of history itself, sometimes they aren’t even necessary.

History can be introduced through the laws and cultural traditions of the setting. J.K. Rowling’s wand usage laws derive from the wizarding world’s history with non-human species. Frank Herbert’s imperial edicts against artificial intelligence have their roots in the Butlerian Jihad, 10,000 years before the events of Dune.

Tolkien utilizes the songs and stories of the elves, dwarves, hobbits, and Rangers to convey elements of Middle-Earth’s history.

In certain settings and types of stories, courses and books can relate parts of history. A good example of Rowling’s use of the school setting to convey her fictional history.

The very landscape can be tapped to tell the reader about the world’s history. For example, Tolkien’s use of the Argonath, the Barrows, and Weathertop or George Lucas’s shots of the temple of Yavin IV.

Family and national relations are another good way to bring in the world’s history. George R.R. Martin does this well, if in a somewhat heavy handed way, with the Starks (former Kings of the North) and the relationship between Dorn and King’s Landing.

Species relationships build out of the family and national ones. Rowling’s discussion of the various Goblin Rebellions and the plots present in many vampire-werewolf movies—in which ancient relationships lead to species conflict—are good examples.

The appearance of organizations or groups can be used as a moment to narrate or describe some history. For example, Martin’s use of the return of the Faith Militant under Cersei Lannister-Baratheon.

Other times, the entire plot of the story can reveal world history or the real world antecedents of the fictional world. The entire plot of A Song of Ice and Fire (Martin) is based on the English War of the Roses. Harry Turtledove builds most of his secondary worlds out of history, including Videssos and the setting of the Fox novels which are treated almost like alternate histories.

Turning to real world history is often an excellent option for finding inspiration for fictitious histories. There are many interesting elements, moments, and odd things in our own history that spawn plots, cultures, or even entire worlds. For instance, the appearance of the Plague in Europe, which yielded significant socio-economic and religious change. Or the sumptuary laws that were instituted throughout most of Europe to differentiate the impoverished noble class from the wealthy mercantile classes. Perhaps even the family relations of the European heads of state leading up to and throughout WWI (almost all of whom were cousins).

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Learning New Things

Still under the weather, so not a full post this week.  Instead, a few things I learned this week:

  1. Muslims have been part of the U.S. military in every major war the U.S. has ever been involved in.  Several were documented as members of the colonial army fighting the British in the Revolutionary War and nearly 300 died in the American Civil War (Captain Moses Osman was the highest ranking in the Civil War).
  2. Sikhs have been part of the U.S. military since WWI.
  3. Until 1980, men in the U.S. military were allowed to have beards while on active duty, Reagan changed that policy until it was reversed in the early-1990s.
  4. I really, really hate third person present perspective, especially when it shifts between limited and omniscient (editing job; more on this later).
  5. Being congested sucks, especially when you do your best fiction writing by hand . . . oops, sorry, already knew that.

Anyway, writing largely on hold as I’ve shifted back to handwriting all my fiction.

De-Bunking Myths, Seeking Werewolves

For whatever reason, I’ve been seeing a lot of people bemoaning modern werewolf stories, whining that “werewolves have become sympathetic” as if this is both new and bad.

Rather than respond to each individually, I thought I’d do a list of werewolves in one place instead. Because this is an incomplete list, I’m limiting it to European, mostly named, and pre-modern (mostly to demonstrate a point):

Alphesiboeus & Moeris – werewolves in Greece, no ethical commentary given (Virgil, Eclogue VIII, 1st c. BCE)

Niceros’s Soldier – potentially violent werewolf, but no violent action in the story (Petronius, Satyricon, 1st c. CE)

Lycaon – man cursed by Zeus with a wolf shape for crimes against the gods (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1st c. CE)

Demarchus – one of many werewolves of Arcadia, Olympic champion (Pausanias, The Description of Greece, 2nd c. CE; also mentioned by St. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, 4th/5th c.)

——— – neutral discussion of werewolves (Isidore of Seville, 6th/7th c. CE)

Alphouns – sympathetic werewolf, prince of Spain (Guillaume de Palerne, 12th c.; translated to English as William of Palerne, 14th c.)

Bisclavret – sympathetic knight-werewolf (Marie de France, “Bisclavret”, 12th c.)

Ossory-Meath Werewolves – sympathetic werewolves, married couple (Gerald of Wales, History and Topography of Ireland, 12th c.)

Gorlagon – sympathetic werewolf, king (Anon., “Arthur & Gorlagon”, 14th c.)

Peeter Stubbe – monstrous werewolf, put on trial in Germany (1590)

Jean Grenier – monstrous, yet sympathetic, child werewolf, put on trial in France, deemed psychosis (1603)

Ferdinand – psychosis werewolf induced by incestuous desire (John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, 1614)

Wolf – the monstrous wolf-man of Little Red Riding Hood (Charles Perrault, 1697).

As we can see, the sympathetic and monstrous varieties of werewolves have existed side-by-side for well over 2000 years. In fact, the sympathetic werewolf seems to trace back further in history (and pre-history) than the monstrous variety (see Adam Douglas, The Beast Within, for a good starting history of the figure).