Fantasy and the Anglosphere

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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101 Responses

  1. Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

    There is a confusion here, although I suspect I know the reason. For a certain set of people, their belief that Christianity is true means that fantasy stories mirror a good deal of the Christian story about the world. Of course, the reality is that Christianity, being itself a fantasy story, traffics to a large extent in the same kinds of metaphors and allegories that other fantasy stories do.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      Yes but again, many other religions have the same feature and nevertheless have not inspired a huge, profitable, fantasy-book industry. There is something distinctly Anglosphere about fantasy that goes beyond, ahem, mere Christianity.Report

      • Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

        I can’t comment too deeply on that aspect, in that I don’t read in languages other than English. It’s possible that this is right, and fantasy is a distinctly Anglo genre, especially the way we think of it. I’m thinking to some extent of the rise of “magical realism” in Latin America over the past century or so. It’s pretty fantastical stuff, for sure, but it’s not faeries and dragons, so we gave it a different name. Notably, also, the Brothers Grimm were German.Report

        • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

          Very true. I think a discussion about why fantasy-qua-fantasy took off in the Anglosphere and magic realism took off in the Spanish speaking world would be really interesting. And yes, the Brothers Grimm were German, but I’m not sure German fantasy authors have capitalized on the Grimm folk tales as much as English authors have. This could be the fact that I only read in English that’s coloring my view, but I don’t think so. It could also be the residual of Empire.Report

          • Avatar Chris says:

            Hmm… if much of Japanese literature, particularly anime, isn’t fantasy, I don’t know what is.Report

            • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

              Actually I think Anime is a distinctly Japanese/Asian form of fantasy that is not at all the same thing as American/Anglosphere fantasy. It may be fantasy, but it’s a whole different genre.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                In that its structure mirrors entirely different cultural narratives? Fancy that.Report

              • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

                Well I think you’re right to say “structure” for one thing. It is an entirely different medium than Western fantasy, for one thing. It’s not just a difference in mythology but in how that mythology is retold. But I could simply be speaking out of ignorance. Do you think that fantasy and Anime are similar enough to be lumped together?Report

              • Avatar wardsmith says:

                Does Zork belong in the same category as video games?Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                I do, but not having participated or paid attention to the recent discussions about what fantasy is, I’m not sure I could defend that. I’ll put it this way, if fantasy as it’s conceived in the western world (France and Germany have produced plenty of fantasy authors, from what I can tell, so it’s not just the English-speaking world) is distinct because of the content of its narratives, or their structure, I suspect that it is because it is much more similar to non-fantasy western literature than because it is the product of a different, distinctly Christian impulse.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                Land of Elves is not different substantially from Land of Tennyo. Neither is Ronin all that different from Hedgeknight (but note that British fantasy shows a persistent tendency to change hedgeknights into “lords and sworn knights” see Robin Hood).Report

              • Avatar Joe G says:

                Sure. I could cite to you dozens of anime and manga that traffic in the same tropes as do modern fantasy stories. I could also point you towards ones that mostly serve up reworked Japanese mythology. We could find plenty that do both.

                Two great examples are Revolutionary Girl Utena, which deconstructs the western fairy tale with a distinct Japanese sensibility, or Neon Genesis Evangelion, which is an interesting theological take on a western religion.

                There is a lot of scholarly study out there pointing out the similarities between mythic tropes all over the world. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice, for example, has analogues in both Japanese culture and Indian culture. The story of a great flood is common all over the world. The resurrection myth far predates Jesus of Nazareth.

                There is nothing inherently Christian about fantasy stories because, as the first commenter pointed out, Christianity is built around a fairy story itself, one which was inspired by fairy stories before it. It is simply because Christianity is the dominant fairy story of our culture that we would even debate such a thing.

                If anything, modern fantastic writing probably owes more to pre-Christian mythology than anything else. The moral teachings of Jesus are what concern Christian fantasy writers, but we must note that they typically universalize the actual resurrection story by channeling it through another character. C.S. Lewis is undoubtedly the most famous example of someone overtly relying on that story in his narrative.Report

              • Avatar Mike says:

                Actually, many of the structures in Anime and Eastern fantasy find strong counterparts in Western fantasy.

                Hero-gods? Check. Western fantasy gives you various members of Greek/Roman legend, Nordic legend, and of course the Arthurian knights and similar adventures (such as one Sir Gawain and the encounter with the Green Knight). Eastern fantasy has a plethora of them – Susanowo and Amaterasu, Izanagi and Izanami, and the Shichi Fukujin (“Seven Gods of Fortune”) are just a beginning.

                “Mystical realm” settings? Yes. The “spirit world” settings of the East again have strong counterparts, especially in Chinese and Japanese settings, where the idea of “local deities” for various areas (bodies of water, mountains, forests, etc) and smaller deities or spirits for even smaller localities and objects mirrors well early pre-Christian pagan religions, especially those known today sometimes by the umbrella term of “Wicca.”

                In modern times, Anime has been influenced strongly by both Eastern and Western traditions as well, which produces some striking and interesting creations. The “Fullmetal Alchemist” series is a great example of a series that synthesizes both traditions to create an internally consistent, well-written world and mythology of its own.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                What eastern influences do you see in FMA?Report

              • Avatar Joe G says:

                The country of Xing is clearly supposed to be China, and the Ishvalans are probably meant to represent the middle East. I would agree that the main country of Amnestris is probably either Europe or America, and that the characters seem to have very Western personalities.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Those new atheists remind me of the Ferengi.

    “There is no profit in playing make believe!”Report

  3. Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

    Also, perhaps apropos here is “Epic Pooh”.

    http://www.revolutionsf.com/article.php?id=953Report

  4. C. S. Lewis wrote about the moral benefits of fantasy and science fiction, which can be found here for the interestedReport

  5. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Erik, two quick thoughts:

    1. Regarding your experience with Dawkins: this reminds me of reading Michael Shermer, James Randi and others in the 90s.  THey were dead set on demanding FOX cancel the X-Files, because it encouraged people to actually believe in UFOs.

    2. Is it possible that you (and others) are over thinking the sociology behind fantasy?  Is it possible that England simply had a couple of writers (but really, one in particular) that had a wrote books that were so popular that they produced a sub-genre?  In other words, can it be that simple, with no deeper sociological meaning?Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      Well I do say in the post:

      Perhaps this is an accident of history. Perhaps the confluence of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton – all men with a peculiar aversion to first and middle names – gave birth to contemporary fantasy as we know it in some lucky stroke of happenstance.

      So yes, I do think it’s quite possible. Then again, I think pretty much everything has deeper sociological roots, so I find it doubtful as well.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      Continuing on, maybe other cultures have different modern media that is used to connect with fas folktales and myths.  I know from my son’s reading that much of Japanese manga, for example, is filed with demons and ghosts and other such things from their old tales.

      I suspect that most cultures have this, and that what we think of as Fantasy in our culture clouds our thinking when looking in other cultures. (e.g.: I have been through all these books from South AMerica, and none of them have dragons or knights!)Report

      • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

        I think this is just about right, but also basically what I was driving at – that fantasy as we know it is somehow Anglo in nature, rooted in a way of looking at the world that is particular to the English-speaking world rather than Christendom writ large.Report

  6. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    The dearth of Jewish fantasy, at least, is largely because “there is no spirit realm, no “other world,” in Judaism” according to Myers.

    Myers has apparently never heard of the Kabbalah, nor of Avram Davidson, Steven Brust, Peter Beagle, Charles Stross, or Neil Gaiman.Report

  7. I suspect if you were to eliminate Kafka and Lewis from the canon the whole Jewish-SF (or conceptual fiction, I’d argue), Christian-Fantasy dichotomy disappears. It’s just because those two authors so thoroughly blended their respective religious traditions with their respective genres and carried so much precedent-forming influence that we come to see anything resembling a line today. But it’s arbitrary.

    Also, the golem stories of Jewish folklore are pretty fantastic, and Revelations is more Sf than fantasy I think. So much of this scholarship seems like trying to untie knots created in the fabric of history. As for the New Atheists and what they have to say about it and most other topics for that matter, don’t feed the trolls.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Revelation is history rather than SF. They were speaking in codes that would allow their scrolls to be translated as harmless nonsense rather than as sedition against Rome that required burning.

      You could say “The Dragon with 10 horns on 7 heads!” but you couldn’t say “Rome”.

      (The problem is that enough time has passed that people have forgotten that it was code rather than allegory.)Report

      • Interesting. Do you think there is any mainstream modern fantasy out there that is more or less code?Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          I don’t think that code is required anymore.

          I mean, it seems to me that it’d only be used if it was needed to get the stuff to survive and, otherwise, it’s just easier to say what you think. (It’s harder to get people to read stuff these days.)

          The closest example that comes to mind is a news report from Afghanistan that I remember seeing 7 or 8 years ago. The program was talking about the Taliban destroying art that had graven images and there was an interview with an art dealer who saved a number of pieces by painting over the graven images. White paint on the glass protecting the painting underneath. (I remember him talking about how they would have destroyed one landscape because the lake had a boat and the boat had some people in it… and he just painted over the lake.)

          That said, I’m pretty sure that there are people out there who are writing in such a way that they can make sure that only the Nords can read their documents but the Greys and the Reptoids can’t. I shudder to think what folks 2000 years hence will do with those…Report

          • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

            Dude, that’s the first time I’ve ever read about the Nords. Thanks for keeping me abreast of what’s going on. I’ve been following the Greys and Reptoids for quite some time now, but this adds a whole new dimension to things.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          Dungeons and Dragons, Bunnicula, basically anything written during the time when Angels and Devils weren’t allowed to be explicitly mentioned.

          Oh, and don’t forget the Wizard of Oz.Report

        • Avatar Mike says:

          The pre-Muslim pagan fantasy setting ideas – Djinni, Efreeti, and so on – got roundly co-opted into Islamist society as “lesser angels.” Of course, due to the predilection for book-burning of the Muslims, about all we have left of the cultures that these creatures came out of is a very, very few hidden books that somehow survived the purges as the backwards Mohammedians raped, burned and pillaged their way through the lands previously conquered by Alexander of Macedonia, and the precious few – such as Scheherezade’s tales – that wandered out in the trade paths towards Europe before the rise of Islam.

          Heck, today we don’t even have many of the formative Buddhist writings and artifacts, thanks to the work of the backwards Mohammedians in systematically destroying anything “un-Islamic” in countries like AfghanistanReport

          • Avatar wardsmith says:

            Not to mention the ‘backwards’ communists destroying cultural artifacts during the cultural revolution, the backwards Qin Shi Huang who not only burned the books but the authors too, the backwards Inquisitors destroying everything /they/ could get their hands on, the backwards whoever-it-was who destroyed the Alexandria library – in short we needed more forwards and less backwards throughout history.Report

          • Avatar Chris says:

            At least the Christians didn’t lose or destroy most of the writings of the Greeks… er… well, hey, we have everything Plato wrote (probably). Thank Paul!Report

          • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

            Is it possible to simultaneously be “backwards” and attempt to destroy the past?Report

          • Avatar Matty says:

            “Mohammedian”

            Sorry but is that a real word or does it refudiate your argument?Report

            • Avatar Mike says:

              “Mohammedian” is how the Muslim faith was referred to historically, until roughly the mid-1900s. The insistence on changing the name reference, recently, has much more to do with obfuscating searches for historical records of abuses (such as the Armenian genocide) and presenting a “new name” on an old and unsavory product (the Muslim religion) that most people, knowing the full history by the prior name, would steer clear of.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                Most people knowing the full history of Christianity would steer clear as well. Crusade == time when Christians killed other Christians cause they looked funny (and might not be Christian.Report

  8. Avatar existential fish says:

    I’m pretty sure that comic books are Jewish fiction. See: Jerry Siegel, Bob Kane, Will Eisner, etc.

    How is someone from another planet dressing in tights, flying around and fighting crime while being impenetrable to bullets not fantasy?Report

  9. Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

    I completely agree with seeing fantasy as a contemporary way of writing mythology, but I’m not sure how much we can attribute fantasy to an Anglican setting.  The Anglo-Saxon world clearly had an impact on the stories of Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton, and Rowling, but, when I think of the fantasy genre, while few films come to mind, I am taken also to the fantastical/mythical worlds of video games that originated in Japan and that have an Eastern (or East meets West) expression of the otherworldly (Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, etc.).Report

    • Avatar North says:

      A very good point Kyle. Japan and Asia in general has a titanic body of fiction/fantasy/sci-fi in the form of Manga and Anime. I don’t know if any non-graphic novels are created from that but I wouldn’t be surprised if some were. Anyone know for sure?Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        certainly. Tenkosei-Sayonara Anata is based on an old legend (not sure if you wanna call it fantasy, but if they’re doing that, they’re doing actual fantasy as well, I figure)Report

  10. Avatar Matty says:

    Nitpick, is Anglo Saxon the right term because a lot of this stuff strikes me as more Celtic especially when you are playing off the Arthurian myths but more generally with the whole otherworld concept.Report

  11. I’m going to have to argue against the suggestion that Anglicanism in particular is hospitable to fantasy, or at least argue that your reasons don’t fully stand up. For example: of the writers you mention, only Lewis was an Anglican. (Chesterton was also a Catholic, and neither particularly esteemed Anglicans.) And if you look at primary sources of inspiration for these English writers, there’s not much Anglicanism there either. You’ve got George MacDonald, raised as a Scottish Presbyterian, and you’ve got a huge body of European mythology (as you say): Icelandic sagas, Scandinavian mythology, and the distinctly pre-Reformation English/Celtic idea of faerie.

    Against a Protestant backdrop, German Romanticism (a movement with a notable lack of Anglicans) had something of an obsession with mythology. I don’t know if you’d count Goethe’s Der Erlkonig as fantasy, strictly speaking, but it’s certainly uncanny. And in Wagner’s Ring Cycle you have an artist struggling to render mythology in a modern form without any Christianity. There’s fantasy all over European art — but not fantasy novels. I think the real genre innovation in the British Isles was not so much in the religious wrestling with mythology, but in working that struggle out within the conventions of the British novel.

    Also: “Most fantasy is written by British and American authors.” Are there any numbers out there on genre fiction and market share in various nations? Because I really know nothing about what, say, Russians are reading these days.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      Well for much of his life, Chesterton was an Anglican. And in any case, I think that British Catholicism is distinct from European Catholicism. In any case, the religious/cultural blend of the British isle seems particularly hospitable to fantasy in ways that other cultures, as they evolved, were not. Nor would Puritanism have been had it taken deeper root in Britain, I imagine.

      But that’s just one theory. I don’t think fantasy is as popular elsewhere, to take up your second point, but I don’t have hard numbers to prove it.Report

  12. Avatar D G Myers says:

    E.D.K.,

    A question that just occurred to me. You are quite suggestive on the “accident of history” that might well explain Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien.

    Might it not also explain the absence of Jews? The Jews were excluded, after all, from the English world that you describe so well.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      Very true. Jews were excluded from this history and culture and kept their own myths distinct from the old myths of Europe in ways that the Christians did not, though in Britain Jews probably found a more welcoming home than in many other parts of Europe, and indeed at least one famous Jewish Prime Minister has found his way into a handful of fantasies since.Report

      • Avatar D G Myers says:

        A Jewish-born Prime Minister who had, of course, converted to Christianity by then.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        Shakespeare knew no jews, for at least four hundred years (if my timing’s right) there were no jews in England.Report

        • Avatar J.L. Wall says:

          Unless, of course, Bill Shakespeare was really Aemilia Lanyer, who, rather than being merely the granddaughter of an Italian converso was herself some kind of Talmud-studying Roman-Jewish secret agent.  Because then there would be background for Italian Jews.  Of course, this would also raise the possibility that, while pretending to be a man, she wrote a bunch of sonnets above a love triangle in which Dark-Lady-She betrays Bill-Shakespeare-She.

          Aren’t Authorship conspiracies fun?  (Anyone willing to pay me lots of money to write a ridiculous script for a blockbuster film that pretends to be historical and imagines that a communal eye-roll/groan from English Departments makes it “controversial,” you know where to find me.)Report

  13. Avatar James K says:

    When I published my fantasy piece in the Atlantic it was linked (reproduced?) by Richard Dawkins’ site and a number of the atheists in the commentariat had scathing things to say about fantasy literature. Apparently it is not enough that readers of fantasy do not, in fact, believe in their make-believe. Apparently the fact that dragons and sorcery are not based in science is enough to earn the scorn of some anti-religious types.

    As a sceptic and New Atheist myself, these people need to chill.  I do get annoyed when a paranormal-themed piece of fiction claims to be “inspired by actual events” (like, Medium for instance), because then it’s feeding into the idea that something paranormal actually happened, which is the sort of thing sceptics and atheists can get legitimately annoyed about.  But what’s the problem with pure fiction?  The whole point about being a sceptic is that you’re prepared to separate what is real from what is not, and in my experience fondness for fantasy and science fiction is higher among sceptics than the general population.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      What if you have a credible witness? I don’t say that you’ll take my credible witness for granted, of course, but I do know someone who has seen a ghost (in Ames, of all places).Report

      • Avatar James K says:

        Without doing the whole sceptical spiel, I’ll just say that there are a great many reason why an entirely sane and well-adjusted person might mistakenly believe that had seen a ghost, and that these explanations are far more likely than the laws of physics are wrong in precisely the right way to permit ghosts to exist.Report

  14. Avatar Steve the hyena says:

    I think “strange cultural tick of the English” is probably a good direction. I’d also point to England’s historical geography: it is a country littered with abandoned castles and crumbling monasteries.

    But I think both of these are less important than the accident that a good chunk of England’s great ancient fiction was Arthurian legend. Arthur isn’t alone in the genre–the Lais of Marie de France or the Song of Roland are also fairly fantastic–but it is more epic than the former and much less Christian than the latter. (Though the Lais have werewolves, a point awesome enough to bear mentioning.) Gothic Revivalism restored interest and I suspect that nationalism pushed it forward into the 20th century; it is an excellent mythos for an imperial state

    This prominence would leave behind an audience looking for more material and the original medieval stuff is pretty sketchy–lots of repeats, boring interludes and just untranslated Old English/French/German/is that even a language. Writers like Tolkien would have filled that space and any who accidentally tread there would find themselves trapped by praise and excitement.

    America, I think, has an interesting offshoot owing to its relationship with England and its status as “the paradigmatic modern industrial nation”, to paraphrase Marx rather badly. We produced something rather odd ourselves: weird fiction and spiritual sci-fi. Libertarians might rush to Heinlein, but don’t discount the Lovecraft (which is a strange blend of Frankenstein and witchcraft) or Star Trek (which is enamored of “spatial anomalies” of quasi-spiritual import).

    I’ve rambled enough.Report

  15. Avatar Little Boots says:

    Christianity has about 2000 years of reshaping and reinventing older religions into “fantasy.”  pretty much the whole of the Old Testament is now fantasy, shoved into a Christian reformulation.  Same with Zoroastrianism.   It is that experience that probably made it so easy for old Pagan ideas and ideals to be forced into new wineskins, which really is the essence of fantasy.

    and incidentally, can we all stop pretending that Narnia ranks anywhere close to Middle Earth when it comes to determining the birthplace of modern fantasy?Report

  16. Avatar Little Boots says:

    and just to quibble, Protestants were extremely eager witch burners, even more than Catholics.  Even in the brave New World, puritans couldn’t wait to kill some witches of their own, although they didn’t burn them, as that would waste good fertilizer.Report

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