Influential Authors in Fantasy, pt2

N.B. for the background explaining what this list is meant to be, see the first post in the series, here.

The Romantic, Gothic, and Oriental

Horace Walpole (1717-1797)
Johann von Goethe (1749-1832)
William Blake (1757-1827)
William Beckford (1760-1844)
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
Novalis (1772-1801)
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1785-1863, 1786-1859)
Lord Byron (1788-1824)
Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875)
Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890)


It may seem ridiculous to include eleven names (well, twelve, but eleven ‘authors’, counting the Grimms as one) from such an early period, but this is where modern fantasy began: with the rebellion against Enlightened realism. Sometimes the rebellion was open, as in Romanticism. Romanticism wasn’t often overtly fantastical, but its emphasis on emotion and symbolism, on the sublime and disturbing, was vital in paving the way for later fantasy; so too its openness to fairy tale and myth and legend and the worth of “children’s stories”; and so too its heroic, epic plots and characters. Goethe was one of the leading figures of Romanticism in literature, and in particular his Faust resurrected an old mediaeval tale of demons and magic – when Marlowe wrote his version, the subject matter was unremarkable, but for the same subject to be addressed two centuries later was deviant and odd. Works like Faust legitimised fantasy. Blake went further – his visionary, symbolic way of seeing the world, his willingness to adopt ‘simple’ and ‘childish’ forms, and the shear wild weirdness of his self-authored mythology in his ‘prophetic’ poems laid the foundation for fantasy and have kept recurring as an influence on generation after generation. Byron solidified the tropes of heroic adventure, not only in his work but in his life. Novalis was a more immediately influential, and shorter-lived, German Blake, whose passionate philosophy of longing for the transcendent, of mystical symbolism, would be a huge influence on magical realism (a response to Novalis’ ‘magical idealism’) and on the Christian romantic fantasists – he also explored idealised mediaeval settings. Tennyson’s resurrection of Arthurian legend in his Idylls of the King not only reintroduced Arthuriana as a subgenre of fantasy but helped establish many of the tropes of epic fantasy as a whole.

Other parts of the rebellion against realism were less direct, finding less coldly rationalistic worlds in other places. One form was the early ‘gothic’ novel, which harked back explicitly to the past as a place of fear and intimidating strangeness; it was established by Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto”, which, though largely non-fantastical in content (barring a few prophecies) nonetheless laid down many of the tropes for gothic horror, and more generally for any fiction with creepy old castles. Beckford was another early Gothic writer, but he took the genre in a different direction, combining gothicism with orientalism. Orientalism – the movement that escaped realism and rationalism through appeals to far-off places, and in particular to ancient, wise, yet titillatingly decadent societies – was in many ways the direct ancestor of modern fantasy, and Beckford’s “Vathek” a sensationalist tale of Arabian caliphs, has cast a very long shadow, particularly over the Lost World, Planetary Romance, and Sword and Sorcery genres. Byron too played a major part in creating the Orientalist ‘other’, while, generations later, a new and more authentic inspiration came from the controversial translations of Sir Richard Burton, in particular his unexpurgated Arabian Nights.

Meanwhile, the Brothers Grimm had assembled folk tales into a compilation of ‘fairy tales’, and HC Andersen wrote his own to match. These tales became widely read in the 19th century – when later authors talk of fairy tales, it’s no longer the old oral traditions they’re talking about, but the stories of the Grimms, of Andersen, and of others following in their footsteps.

Finally, Scott must surely be reckoned one of the most important figures of all in preparing the way for fantasy: before Tennyson had his take on Arthur, Scott had created the middle ages – romanticised, chivalric, simplified – that later became the default setting in fantasy.

9 thoughts on “Influential Authors in Fantasy, pt2

  1. Katie says:

    This is wonderful. When your list is done I think I’m going to aim to read one thing by each author.

    (Though I understand why you had to draw your parameters where you did, the medievalist in me is sad that you didn’t start earlier).

  2. Thanks!
    Yes, I think I’ll add a ‘reading list’ as a coda (although to be honest in a lot of cases it’ll have to be based on reputation and guesswork, since I haven’t actually read most of these people…)

  3. Oh, and to be honest the lack of mediaevalist knowledge in my is one reason why I didn’t start earlier – I may not have read people like Novalis and Walpole, but at least I’ve heard of them, read discussions of them; go back much further than that and I’d really be grasping in the dark. Besides, go back much further and it starts getting hard to find things that AREN’T fantasy. A list of Chaucer, Boccaccio, Dante, Marlowe and Shakespeare would sort of seem… kind of cheating!

    That said, if you know of any interesting precursors that you think are worth reading, do please let me know!

  4. Katie says:

    It’s a good point! You could probably go back ad infintum, especially since myths from various cultures are still some of the biggest jumping-off points for modern fantasy writers.

    I’ll think about some recommendations – though I honestly don’t know very much about medieval literature, so I’m probably not your best source. In terms of the most influential, though, I would guess the various Arthurian legends would be up there (you could start with either Malory or Chrétien de Troyes). It’s still hard to find modern fantasy that isn’t based around some kind of quest structure. Early modern fantasy is different, but still fun – lots of literature in the 16th and 17th century is filled with stuff that’s half fantasy and half quasi-anthropology, based largely on the fact that the world had just gotten much, much bigger for many people and imagination suddenly got more tangible.

    It’s hard to pinpoint, though – modern fantasy tends to be very medieval in its general feeling and atmosphere, but it’s hard to figure out how much of that actually comes from medieval literary influence and how much comes from the neo-medieval Romantic revival. I’m tempted to say it’s more of the latter, but I’m honestly not sure. I do think it’s telling, though, that at least two of the biggest names in modern fantasy were medievalists during their day jobs.

  5. I do think it’s very much mostly the revivalism that’s the greatest influence, rather than the middle ages themselves. Although it’s fair to point to Tolkien as a partial exception, in that he introduced a Dark Ages element, from his own private interests, that was distinct from the later chivalric mediaevalism that the revivalists had been fixated on. But then fantasy since Tolkien has largely ignored that anglo-saxon aesthetic and gone back to plain high middle ages.

    And OK, I know I’m going to kick myself when you answer, but it’s clearly slipped my mind right now: who’s the other mediaevalist you’re thinking of?

  6. Katie says:

    C.S. Lewis! He was a professor of medieval lit. The Discarded Image ( isn’t a perfect book, but it’s one of the best if you just want a broad overview of the medieval worldview via literature.

    I think you’re probably right – the medieval period itself is probably more influential on modern fantasy literature than any particular work that came out of it. But at the same time, without Arthurian writings and chivalric poetry I think modern fantasy would be at a very different place than it is.

  7. Oh, of course! In my defence, he was only a professor of mediaeval lit at the end of his life – he mostly taught ‘english’ lit more generally, having studied ancient history, and briefly been a philosophy tutor.

    And yes, certainly, Arthurianism was central to Fantasy – via the 19th century revivalists.

    (Sorry I took so long to reply – apparently the government here is playing silly buggers with wordpress at the moment)

  8. Katie says:

    Haha, I feel like this debate could go in circles forever: the medieval period is important to modern fantasy largely because of the 19th revivalists, but if it hadn’t existed to begin with, there’d be nothing to revive (or, more accurately, something else likely would have been revived and things would have gone in a whole different direction).

    I do think you picked a good time period to start, though: honestly, if you went back to the medieval period you might as well have gone back to Greco-Roman or even older myths as well. Starting right around the time that the novel came onto the horizon makes a lot of sense.

  9. […] the authors, in batches (not entirely chronologically):Romantic, Gothic and Oriental (early foundational influences)The Macabre (the 19th century tradition of horror/dark […]

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