Fantasy: Violation of the Possible?

betsy tobin

Is it possible to break the rules of fantasy writing by adhering to them too strictly?  When Borders UK first shelved my novel Ice Land in the Fantasy/Sci Fi section, I was gobsmacked (to use a quaint English term).  My first two novels had historical settings that placed them firmly on the fiction shelves.  I had approached the writing (and setting) of Ice Land in much the same way, with a few tiny exceptions.  What had happened?  And how would my readers find me?

Fantasy and Science Fiction terrified me.  I’d not read any since childhood, and knew precious little of its conventions.   Surely I would be exposed as an impostor?   I tried to intervene with the Sales Rep.  ‘Does your main character have wings?’ he asked.  I gulped.  ‘But she hardly ever uses them,’ I protested, knowing that I’d already lost.  The book went straight back to Fairyland, where I consoled myself that its proximity to Tolkien might boost my sales, though I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read him.

In retrospect I was naïve. When I first conceived Ice Land I’d written two serious novels and was looking for some fun.  I wanted to write something mythic and historical, which drew from both written and oral traditions.  And I wanted to inject a sense of playfulness into the narrative: a bit of verve.  On reflection, perhaps verve is what fantasy and sci fi are all about:  audaciousness of one kind or another, and a violation of the possible.  With hindsight, my ignorance of the genre was itself a violation, though possibly a fortuitous one.  If I’d known what I was doing, perhaps I wouldn’t have dared.

From a tip-off by a ten year old, I decided to base my book on Norse mythology.  I knew nothing about it, only that it was arguably more obscure than classical mythology, which was a selling point in my view.  And I began to immerse myself in modern retellings of the Edda, a collection of medieval prose and verse poetry that was spoken aloud for centuries before it was ever set down on paper (well vellum actually) somewhere around the 14th century.  The poems themselves make for difficult reading: the narratives they relate are often hazy and incomplete, and the translations are full of obscure kennings that make them fairly inaccessible.  But I was intrigued by all those who’d been moved to decipher and retell and embellish their often fragmented stories.

One of the earliest of these was William Morris, whose fame as a designer and icon of the Arts and Crafts Movement has tended to overshadow his contributions to literature.  As well as being the father of modern wallpaper, Morris was a talented poet and translator.  In collaboration with the Icelandic scholar Eirikr Magnusson, he produced a series of translations of the poetic Edda, in which he replicated the complex rhyme and alliteration of the skalds while also displaying a deep understanding of the lore behind them.  Like me, Morris also became enamoured of the Icelandic Sagas, that marvelous body of prose stories that underpins our understanding of how life was lived in Iceland a thousand years ago.

I drew heavily from Morris’ retelling of the myth of the Brisingamen for the central plot of my novel, as well as from several other versions by writers who must also have been influenced by his work.  But what I did not realize was Morris’ pivotal role as one of the early proponents of the genre.  Towards the end of his life Morris wrote a series of novels that came to be known as ‘prose romances’.  In reality they were the seeds of modern Science Fiction, for Morris is credited with being the first writer to set his work in an entirely imagined world inhabited by supernatural beings.  Critics now acknowledge that these works directly inspired writers such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, and by association, hundreds of others.

Morris himself wrote that his aim with the prose romances was to amuse the reader, to stimulate ‘pleasant contemplation, dreaming, or what you will’ and by this means the reader would not ‘so soon be driven into his workful orenergetic mood.’ So three cheers for William Morris. Like me, he was after a bit of fun.