Influential Figures in Fantasy, 4

Other Worlds

Jules Verne (1828-1905)
William Morris (1834-1896)
H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925)
H.G. Wells (1866-1946)

Four immense names in setting the ground for speculative literature; all four broke away from mainstream fiction to create stories that were not only fantastical in their events, but fantastical also in setting. Verne is today best known as a writer of ‘science fiction’, but the science in his fiction is for the most part little more than an excuse for fantastical environs. Wells too is considered a ‘science fiction’ writer, but this is pigeon-holing him excessively – The Invisible Man, for instance, uses a little technobabble to introduce the fantasy premise of an invisibility device into a contemporary setting, while The First Men in the Moon is a fantastical Lost World story that just happens to be set in space.

Speaking of Lost Worlds, we cannot forget the man who created that genre: H. Rider Haggard. The Lost World genre – in which hardy Victorian gentlemen inspect the peculiar ecology and society of strange colonial places, with or without dinosaurs – may seem at first to have little to do with fantasy, but this conclusion would be entirely wrong. Lost Worlds represent a development of orientalism, transferring the wondrous, incredible ‘other’ from real societies of Earth (which were becoming increasingly understood) into what were essentially pocket fantasy worlds that just happened to be set, theoretically, somewhere in Africa, or South America.

Morris, however, went even further. Unlike the other three, he’s not primarily known as a novelist at all, but rather as a philosopher-cum-wallpaper-designer, and when his fiction is mentioned it’s usually his SF utopia, News from Nowhere. And yet Morris is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in the history of fantasy: the first major modern novelist to set his stories not in a distorted reality, nor a far-off land, nor in a dream nor in a vision of the future, but in a fully solid and independent fantasy world. Morris’s fantasies were an attempt to revive the mediaeval romance tradition, and alongside their fantasy worlds and their historical trappings was an aesthetic of the old Germanic myths, and an artificial, intentionally archaic and elevated language, that we still hear echoes of in the idiom of fantasy today.

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3 thoughts on “Influential Figures in Fantasy, 4

  1. Katie says:

    That’s fascinating. I hadn’t realized that William Morris was the first to set up his story in an independent world. It’s not really something I’d thought about before.

    Does it work well, do you think? Or does he wind up doing too much / not enough world building?

  2. Yeah, I think we just assume that it’s normal to have a secondary world, but actually the idea seems to have been extremely counterintuitive to people. I can’t say for sure that nobody had tried it before Morris, but certainly Morris is consistently credited as the first, or at least the first that anyone is likely to have heard of.

    I can’t comment on how well it works, I’m afraid, since I’ve not read his work yet! But my impression is that he doesn’t emphasise world building at all (in his fantasy books) – they’re essentially just fairy tale versions of mediaeval Europe. As I understand it.

  3. […] foundational influences)The Macabre (the 19th century tradition of horror/dark fantasy/mystery)Other Worlds (four writers late in the century who took fiction to new places)Pulp Fiction (etc.) (early 20th […]

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