The widespread appeal of fantasy was first sparked off by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though a great number of people hailed Lord of the Rings as the first true fantasy, there were also a number of fantasy authors in the 19th and earlier 20th century. Perhaps three of the most prominent were Lord Dunsany, George MacDonald, and William Morris, who specialized in all forms, from self-created legends to more inward-thought fantasy.
George MacDonald’s Christian background was displayed in his fantasy works. His children’s books such as the Princess duology and At the Back of the North Wind display his moral beliefs to a certain degree, and his adult works display more. Intriguingly, the children’s books have semi-angelic characters and moral dilemmas concerning the loss of life. On the other hand, his adult books are more obvious, referring to Biblical persons and theological themes.
With a certain amount of similarity to C.S. Lewis, MacDonald interwove Christian doctrine and mythos into his plots, making them true “Christian fantasy.” For example, in Lilith, the lead character encounters “… Adam, the old and the new man… his wife, ministering in the house of the dead, was Eve, the mother of us all, the lady of the New Jerusalem.” Such plot twists illustrate MacDonald’s devotion to his beliefs.
A very different tone was taken in the works of Lord Dunsany, whose works ranged from contemporary short stories to the pseudo-myth novel The Gods of Pegana. Eastern and Indian undertones were in many of his fantasies, with their exotic descriptions of “the great pools in many gardened, beautiful Istrakhan where the lilies float that give delectable dreams”. Some were more conventionally British, such as Miss Cubbidge and the Dragon of Romance and Charon.
However, a sense of almost spiritual otherwordliness permeates his stories, novels, plays and poetry. Dunsany’s works often include the clash of mortals and a powerful pantheon of gods whom he created expressly for his stories, in a manner reminiscent of some mythical gods and heroes of ancient times. As a result, his works are quite different from Tolkien, Lewis and MacDonald.
William Morris’s fantasies were quite different in their execution from either MacDonald or Dunsany. Rather than ethereal mysticism or intertwined Christian mythos, Morris employed a heavily formal style. Additionally, while they did not have the flowing descriptiveness of Dunsany’s prose, they retained a very mythic quality. This quality was closer to that of the legends of King Arthur and his knights, rather than that of exotic deities.
Often Morris’s quests are less for slaying dragons and rescuing helpless maidens, as quests for semi-supernatural objects. His main characters often seek such things as “the Land where the days are many: so many that he who hath forgotten how to laugh, may learn the craft again, and forget the days of Sorrow.” The magic of these tales is often restrained, the characters genuinely noble.
Fantasy first became known and beloved by the masses in the form of Lord of the Rings. The effects are still present day in the form of epic fantasies and science fiction. However, the influence of these early fantasy writers cannot and should not be denied. If Tolkien was the father of modern fantasy, these three were the grandfathers of modern fantasy.
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