Thu
Dec 2 2010 12:08pm

SFContario Panel: The family trees of fantasy

SFCOntario logoSFContario 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.

25 comments
John Ginsberg-Stevens
1. eruditeogre
I think that we should call "city fantasy" metro-fantastico. It's snappy!

This immediately brings to my mind Moorcock's Wizardry & Wild Romance, which spends a lot of time discussing the progression of influences that shape fantasy literature, and which mentions a lot of these authors. It's only recently, through books like his and now this post, that I have come to see the array of influences that feed into fantastika. It sounds like the panel covered a lot of ground and teased out some roots and branches that we could examine more closely.

I think we should have a The Broken Sword reading group online somewhere.
Jonathan Crowe
2. mcwetboy
That was an amazing panel, probably the best one I've yet attended in my brief con experience. I suspect it's a good sign when audience comments and questions don't get a chance to interrupt the flow of things onstage (except maybe for me holding up my iPad so that Jo could see "1970" scribbled onscreen -- I looked up Mary Stewart on Wikipedia after Jo wondered aloud when her novels had been published) because the flow of things is just too enchanting to interrupt.

Henchminion's LJ post about the panel was probably the result of serious note-taking; I'm amazed Jo could remember as much as she did while up on stage.

"We must go to the plotting chamber and scheme" is now a catchphrase in our house. I want a sign on my office door: "PLOTTING CHAMBER. Scheming (in progress / not in progress)" with a little arrow.
Mike G.
3. Mike G.
Marion Zimmer Bradley? I don't know if she originated fantasy themes, but IIRC she "sponsored" lots of fantasy writers over the years - a different kind of family tree...
Andrew Mason
4. AnotherAndrew
Jack Vance? The Dying Earth was published in 1950, hence before LOTR, and while it didn't originate the theme it certainly popularised it - there are many later treatments, some of them pure SF, but others fantasy or edge cases.
David Levinson
5. DemetriosX
I'd have said that what Dunsany introduced was not so much "funny names" as a kind of incluing to an enormous backstory and world by tossing off casual references to things.

The only potential heir to Eddison I can think of would be M. John Harrison. But Viriconium has a lot of other influences as well. Hard to say.

The only names missing that I can see would be Cabell, Bierce, and perhaps Robert W. Chambers (who was influenced by Bierce). I think Bierce also influenced HPL and early 20th century weird in general and Chambers certainly gave a little to Lovecraft. Who Cabell's heirs might be, I have no idea.
Nancy Lebovitz
6. NancyLebovitz
I look forward to your post about The Broken Sword-- is it the earliest fantasy with no good guys? I remember being somewhat on the side of the elves (they were better looking and closer to the viewpoint), but when I went over what everyone was doing, they and the trolls were equally bad.

And one more possible topic-- there are a lot of inherited houses in fantasy.....
Mike G.
7. Ben JB
Very interesting discussion--I do love family trees, and find that something like genealogy/cladistics more helpful than strict definition when talking about f & sf.

But when you say the house in a Gothic was the reward, not the prison, I'm not sure what gothics you're reading. That is, I agree with you that the house is important (just look at how it's in the title: The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, even Northanger Abbey (for my purposes, parody is fair game here). But are those houses the rewards? It seems that in many cases, the house in the title is the prison / tomb--but that doesn't mean there isn't a good house out there at the end as a reward. (Or we could look at the origin of the English novel--something like Pamela or Clarissa--for houses that have qualities of the prison and of the reward.

Also, I'm a little surprised that R. E. Howard wasn't mentioned in a panel on the family of fantasy. Crazy uncle, maybe, but still part of the family, no?
Mike G.
8. Chris, Elflands2ndCousin
Neat discussion! I'm sorry I missed the con, as the panel sounds really interesting!

I'd also throw Rudyard Kipling, H. Rider Haggard and William Hope Hodgson onto the list.

Kipling and Haggard both had major influence on the adventure fantasies and lost world stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, which then continued to influence others like the already-mentioned Fritz Lieber. I'd even go so far as to call Howard's Solomon Kane a direct descendent of Kipling's dark short stories and Haggard's African adventure novels.

Kipling's short stories and the work William Hope Hodgson's also had a significant impact on early 20th century horror, especially on HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and (if I recall correctly) Theodore Sturgeon (especially his ghost stories).
Mike G.
9. Zvi999
What a great panel.

With regard to Arthurian fantasy, Mary Stewart may be too late to be a much of a fantasy root, but T. H. White's books were published in '38, '39, and '40, with the omnibus published in '58, sez Wikipedia.
Mike G.
10. HelenS
And for humorous fantasy, F. Anstey (one of E. Nesbit's inspirations/sources/guys-to-rip-off/whatever you want to call it).
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Zvi: T.H. White's books -- well, the original ones -- were first published as children's books. My point about Stewart would have been that they were written by a romantic suspense author and published as adult historicals, but they were full of magic and this fed into the female end of fantasy. 1970 (thank you mcwetboy!) is too late for this to really work, however.

BenJB -- click on my link above for my post here on Gothics.

mcwetboy -- I'm thinking of repainting the Games Room as a Plotting Chamber, but my son insists that it would need a hexagonal table. It does already have the essential glow in the dark stars on the ceiling and planets hanging below the lights.
John Ginsberg-Stevens
12. eruditeogre
@mcwetboy: thanks for the LJ link; it's a great supplement to what Jo Walton has written here.

I think that the diversity of influences is telling, because to a large extent fantasy writers seem to conjure their own pedigrees. Critics and readers can detect influences and impugn ancestry and offshoots, but authors tell their own origin stories best. It's always fascinating to discuss.
Mike G.
13. Foxessa
Eddison seems to have more in common with Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles and The House of Niccolo series than straight fantasy. I, for one, know for a fact, that Dunnett has had a huge influence on some of the writers that were mentioned as descendants of other Fantasy forebears -- one so far as to have lifted a plot nearly wholesale from one of the Lymond novels.
Eddison is so much about scheming, about plots within plots, hosts of vibrant, intelligent and lovely female protagonists and deeply colorful, non-contemporaneous language, in the ways are also Dunnett's. Both authors, then, are capable of building in a distance between the world of the story and the reader -- total immersion is not easy, if one is paying attention, at least to the language.

Those have been some of my thoughts, anyway, re Eddison, about whom I am no expert, any more than I am one for Dunnett.

My favorite bits of the Eddison series are the frames. That world from which the narrator departs for strange other realms is at least as exotic and removed as those he yearns for.

Love, C.
Pamela Adams
14. Pam Adams
And to throw another name into the 'lost-race' hat, there's Ganpat (M.L.Gompertz) A very Kipling-like writer, probably best known for Harilek.
Mike G.
15. Ben JB
@bluejo:
I actually skimmed your post on Gothics before I posted, but now I've read it more carefully (as well as re-reading my own comment here--"I'm not sure what Gothics you're reading" doesn't quite come off the way I meant it to).

But, while I agree with you in large part in your post on Gothics, I think you weigh the equation too much here on one particular side. That is, in your post on Gothic, you make it sound like the house is both the threat and the reward, but here you focus on the reward angle. And I'm not sure why it can't be both threat and reward--or be mistaken as threat and turn out to be the reward--or be threat, until the heroine learns how to navigate its particularities, at which point it turns into the reward.

(Honestly, my thinking on Gothics as romances owes a lot to Janice Radway's excellent Reading the Romance.)

P.S. I'm not trying to be combative, I just think the idea of house's only having one role isn't a great fit for the Gothic or for Peake's Gormenghast.
Mike G.
16. Donald Bowles
William Morris , William Beckford, and Sir Walter Scott!
Jo Walton
17. bluejo
Ben JB: You're right that the house is a threat as well, but it seems to me that at the end the house is purified and becomes the reward in the way that Gormenghast doesn't -- but I suppose Peake didn't finish it. And there is the heroine's journey thing, where men go out from home and have adventures and then go home to inherit the kingdom while women go out and stay out in the new place they've won. The house is a very complex symbol, and I'm not trying to reduce it to just a reward. But I think it needs to stay a reward as well.

(I now feel terribly rempted to write a gothic.)
Mike G.
18. Ben JB
@bluejo: and I would read that Gothic. Maybe I should think more about houses... Could you write a Gothic with a moving house? (I mean, lots of spaceships get called haunted--like sea ships, I suppose. But the mechanism of haunting seems to operate differently. Like, try to take this sentence seriously: "The spaceship is built on an Indian burial ground!"

More seriously, in the haunted house, the uncanny invades the space of domesticity. But that's not true of haunted vehicles, is it? They start out weird. (I suppose there's also the sense of expropriation that goes along with lots of haunted places--which seems a little strange in regards to moveable objects.)
Mike G.
19. dancing crow
I'm surprised no one mentioned all of Lang's various colored Fairy Tales. Those, with Nesbitt and Kipling at an early age set me up nicely for Tolkein and Heinlein later on. The rest flowed from those, reading-wise if not precedent-wise.
Jo Walton
20. bluejo
Ben JB: Oh my goodness -- Merchanter's Luck. It has a haunted spaceship and a girl going into it and a mysterious man and I never ever saw it that way before. Thank you.
David Dyer-Bennet
21. dd-b
Cabell's literary heirs (or descendents) would have to include Heinlein, though of course he's mostly an SF author.

Probably Neil Gaiman, too. I don't know Cabell's works well enough to show you the influences, but I don't imagine many authors care about any other as much as Neil does about Cabell without there being some visible evidence of it in the work.
Kevin Maroney
22. womzilla
Clark Ashton Smith was tremendously influential on Vance, and through Vance's fantasy directly and indirectly on a great many other fantasy writers. His direct influence is smaller, but definitely felt--not just in Cthulhu Mythos stories, but on individual works like David Drake's Lord of the Isles series.
Mike G.
23. Dasein
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!)

Would a Plotting Parlour do? There's a very old pub, Ye Olde White Harte, in (Kingston-Upon-)Hull, East Yorkshire, which has a Plotting Parlour, which was used by anti-Charles I plotters.
See
http://www.yeoldewhiteharte.co.uk/plotting.htm

(The local SF Group used to meet in that room.)
Mike G.
24. Christopher Johnstone
I'd have to hunt up the reference (could be in the Tolkien letters, might have been in a biography), but if I'm remembering correctly, Tolkien was influenced by E.R. Eddison (along with influences from Andrew Lang and William Morris).

Another non-fantasy fantasist who is worth mentioning in G.K. Chesterton. Pterry has mentioned Chesterton in talks a few times, I think

To mention a couple female writers other than Mirrlees, I'm sure that both Mary Shelley and Christina Rossetti have had influences on fantasy in their way (though perhaps Shelley more than Rossetti). She's not so well remembered today, but Lucy Lane Clifford's children's stories were weird, sometimes dark and often wonderful--I remember Gaiman describing reading one of her stories on a con pannel. I suspect there is a thread of fantasy inheritance there too.

This is a fun game. It could go on more or less endlessly.
Jonathan Crowe
25. mcwetboy
I said:

"We must go to the plotting chamber and scheme" is now a catchphrase in our house. I want a sign on my office door: "PLOTTING CHAMBER. Scheming (in progress / not in progress)" with a little arrow.

Well, I was born lucky, whatever my gaffer may say. There's another wish come true!

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