SFContario Panel: The family trees of fantasy

SFContario is a new literary based con in Toronto—this year it ran November 19-21st, next year it’s running November 18-20th. It had great guests and consistently interesting program and I had a very good time. If you like hearing smart people talking about books and getting into conversations with them you might consider going next year, if Toronto isn’t ridiculously far from you.

On Sunday the 21st I had the good fortune to be on a panel on “Family Trees of Fantasy” with Michael Swanwick, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Ed Greenwood and James Alan Gardner. The panel could be summed up as being about the wellsprings of modern fantasy, apart from Tolkien. There are some things you really could draw out as family trees, and other things where a lot of influences fed in.

Some people take notes on panels and can write about them tidily in order. I never do this, so this is going to be vague and impressionistic. Things may be misattributed and rearranged, as it’s all done from human and fallible memory.

We all started off with picking one wellspring of fantasy each. Michael Swanwick’s was, unsurprisingly, Hope Mirrlees. (He’s written a biography of her.) Mirrless was part of the generation of fantasy writers that emerged independently after the Great War. Her descendent-writers are Susannah Clarke and Neil Gaiman, and Swanwick himself.

Teresa mentioned Fritz Leiber, who introduced the idea of the city to fantasy—almost all fantasy cities owe a lot to his Lankhmar, and all Thieves Guilds to his. There’s a line of descent that goes Leiber-Moorcock-Mieville, and also Leiber-Kushner-Monette, and Leiber-Pratchett. (We don’t have a name for city-fantasy now that “urban fantasy” means something else.)

Ed Greenwood mentioned Talbot Mundy who wrote men’s pulp adventures featuring monsters and magic artifacts. No people did magic in them, but they were proto-fantasy all the same.

James Alan Gardner talked about The Prisoner of Zenda and The Three Musketeers and other historical swashbuckling that paved the way for fantasy. He also mentioned gothic novels and the dialogue of Georgette Heyer, although she has nothing fantastic he sees her as an influence.

My choice was Lord Dunsany. He was working in the early part of the twentieth century, mostly at short length. He introduced funny names to fantasy. He’s one of the few proto-fantasists we know Tolkien read. (He mentions him in a letter.) He was influential on Lovecraft and on Leiber, and I think even on Mirrlees.

Then we ranged more widely—Arthurian fantasy was mentioned, (Mary Stewart’s Arthurian turns out to be later than I thought, 1970, spiking my argument) and Robin Hood, and Lovecraft, the great American fantasist who contributed as much to fantasy as he did to horror.

Then there’s Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword. I must re-read and write here about The Broken Sword. I’ve been meaning to for ages. It’s this absolutely brilliant book that was published in the same year as The Lord of the Rings, and it’s weirdly dark and Norse and I think it’s one of the things that influenced Moorcock and lots of other writers. Watch this space. Ed then mentioned The High Crusade and Piper’s Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen and de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall as examples of low tech science fiction that influenced fantasy. We talked a little about fantasy and SF disguised as each other.

We talked about Shakespearian influences on fantasy—not just his fantastic plays, but also the history plays. I think The Song of Ice and Fire is influenced more by the history plays than it is by the history. I recently saw Henry VI for the first time and I kept thinking of Martin.

Michael Swanwick mentioned E.R. Eddison, though he couldn’t exactly cite any descendants—Eddison is very much sui generis. He did a wonderful description of a lord coming home and saying “Then we must go to the plotting chamber to scheme!” (I want a plotting chamber!) We then naturally moved on to Mervyn Peake—who has influenced Mieville and the New Weird. (I really dislike Peake, and if anything is compared to Peake on the cover that’s a good warning for me.) Jim said it was Gothic, and I said the house in a Gothic was the reward, not the prison, and we talked about that for a while. Teresa said Gothics influenced Terry Gilliam. Michael Swanwick said that Peake influenced Moorcock, particularly Gloriana.

Jim brought up E. Nesbit and the early twentieth century tradition of fantastic children’s fiction, a half-generation ahead of the post-Great War fantasists.

There’s all this early stuff out there, much of it wonderful and a lot of it in print, it’s well worth seeking out if you want something different, or if you want to know where else fantasy came from.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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