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 OrientalHorace Walpole (1717-1797)
Johann von Goethe (1749-1832)
William Blake (1757-1827)
William Beckford (1760-1844)
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)
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.