In this second installment, I am still mapping the geography of capital punishment before turning to arguments about it. Looking at the U.S., we saw 15 states (plus the District of Columbia) without the death penalty and 35 states (plus the federal government and the U.S. military) with the death penalty. But several of those states seemed poised to eliminate it: In 2010, Connecticut passed repeal, but it was vetoed by the governor. The same thing had happened to New Hampshire in 2000 and a threat by the governor to veto it led to repeal failing in the 2010 NH senate after passing the house. Colorado came within 2 senate votes of passing repeal. Illinois’ legislature has passed repeal and waits to see if the governor will sign it. Repeal movements are getting stronger in states as diverse as Nebraska, South Dakota, Oregon, Washington State, and even Kentucky and Tennessee. So, how does this compare to the situation globally?
As shown in this nice color-coded map, there are 139 nations which have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Of that number: 95 nations (including the entire European Union, Canada, Mexico, much of Central and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and much of the Southern Cone of Africa) have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Many of these have gone further and changed their constitutions to make certain that a crime wave cannot easily restore the death penalty. Another 9 countries (Bolivia, Brazil, the Cook Islands, El Salvador, Israel, Fiji, Kyrgystan (!), Latvia, and Peru) have eliminated the death penalty for ordinary crimes (i.e., reserving it for war crimes or political assassinations or murders in the military). An additional 35 countries have the death penalty on the books, but have not executed anyone in over 10 years and have not sought the death penalty for longer. (Death penalty opponents still work to get this “practical” abolitionist countries to go further and eliminate the penalty from the books.)
That leaves only 58 countries where the death penalty is retained in both law and ordinary practice.
Five (5) countries account for the vast majority of executions yearly. Those five nations are China ( 470 executions in 2007, 1,718 excutions in 2008, and thousands in 2009); Iran (317 in ’07, 346 in ’08, and 120+ in ’09); Saudi Arabia (143 in ’07, 102 in ’08, and 69+ in ’09); Pakistan (135 in ’07; 36 in ’08; 120 in ’09) (Pakistan sometimes trades off with Iraq, the Sudan, or Syria), and the United States (42 in ’07, ’37 in ’08, and 52 in ’09). The United States should look in shame at being regularly listed alongside the world’s greatest abusers of human rights!
The other trend to note globally is that the direction and momentum is toward abolition. Since 1976 (the year that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gregg v. Georgia that states with re-written capital punishment laws that are “fair” and not “arbitrary in application” could resume executions), 81 nations have abolished the death penalty–and the pace is increasing. As an American, I find it embarrassing that my country has a more ruthless punishment than Turkey (abolished in ’04), Kyrgystan, Argentina, Chile, Cambodia, or Bosnia-Herzogovina! Hong Kong won the right to remain death-penalty free even after being returned to China in 1997!
This isolation hurts the U.S. in fighting crime and terrorism since abolitionist countries usually will not extradite accused criminals to countries that retain the death penalty unless they have assurances that the person will not be executed. On December 10, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly voted for a global moratorium on executions (109 “yes” votes, 41 “no” votes, 35 abstentions, and 7 absences).
George Lakoff, the communications expert who uses brain studies to help progressives better sell progressive politics, has a column reinforcing what I said about Obama’s attempt to use center-right language to move the center back from the left. Lakoff notes that for his first two years in office, Obama, with sizeable Democratic majorities in Congress, was all about policy and refused to sell those policies with any kind of image or narrative. Now he has a narrative image: competition. Lakeoff notes that the slogan “winning the future” looks to be helpful in splitting business conservative off from rabid, far-right, “Tea Party” types. But “winning,” fits with either a war or a sporting competition and several things that progressives care deeply about don’t easily fit into either narrative. Lakoff also has helpful suggestions for the way the Obama team can fit many of those progressive concerns into the “winning the future” competition narrative.
As I said in my earlier post, I think those of us who are U.S. progressives and liberals should try to help Obama move the center back from the right. Bob Cornwall, who has been a more thorough Obama partisan than I am, reminded me privately that U.S. politics is always determined by who wins the center. But, as I emphasized, it makes a difference whether one is winning the center by Clinton-style watching where the right moves the center and then moving there or trying to move the center back from the right.
Obama is trying the right strategy, but I wonder if “winning the future” is the right narrative image to do this. Lakoff is right that Obama had been neglecting the necessity of selling his policies–he let the right define him–a mistake made by Jimmy Carter to disastrous results in 1980. But Obama had been toying over the last 2 years with a different metaphor: “A New Foundation.” That’s not the metaphor of a war (which can be used for progressive ends, as with LBJ’s”War on Poverty”), but of construction. What if Obama, or progressives independent of him, talk not of “winning the future,” but of building the future?” That fits with the desire for investment in infrastructure, education, innovation and green energy, but it also allows more concern for the common good. “Winning,” competitions can reinforce rightwing social Darwinist narratives of “ruthless tooth and claw” competition, which doesn’t do much for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, universal healthcare, ending the Afghanistan war, etc. (Yes, Lakoff shows how Social Security can be defended in Obama’s image as something already earned by competitors and other ways of defending progressive programs in the competition narrative, but some of it is forced and can be easily hijacked by conservatives.) “Building the Future,” allows us to see society not as a fierce competition, but as a web of connection or as a home (images which help bring back concern for the environment). It also helps us forge a foreign policy that is more about cooperation than competition.
Yes, Gentle Readers, I am following the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and throughout the Middle East VERY closely. But other than my prayers for the protesters, I don’t have anything blog-worthy to say. I always support people’s right to be free and always believe in nonviolence and always pray that toppling dictators will actually lead to liberal democracy rather than anarchy, failed states, new dictators, or theocracies. One never knows. Self-determination is messy. So, I offer my prayers and I wait to see, and I hope my govt. and others will not stand with the dictators but with the people. But I don’t fool myself into thinking that I have any insight into this that one cannot find better elsewhere. So, I will resist the urge to pontificate and simply continue to pray.
But the death penalty is a moral and legal issue that I have followed since my teens. I’ve written on it many times. So, I want to write a series of posts on the moral and legal dimensions of the death penalty. I will be making a case for abolition. Now, I am a pacifist and, as such, believe that lethal violence or deadly force is always and everywhere wrong, whether done by private individuals or the state. But I won’t be arguing the case on pacifist grounds. If one is pacifist, one already believes the death penalty to be wrong. So, I will be arguing against the death penalty in terms that should apply to those who believe violence is sometimes justifiable. I want to argue against the death penalty from several directions over the next month: Christian theological arguments; arguments from other faiths (since we live in a pluralistic democracy); arguments based on legal justice; arguments based on constitutional and international law; sociological arguments concerning what does and what does not lower violent crime rates; even economic arguments (loathe as I am morally to put a pricetag on human life) and the science that shows that we convict the innocent and have sent the innocent to death row. Because abolishing the death penalty is considered a “liberal” viewpoint and I am a political liberal (of sorts–a democratic socialist), I want to pay particular attention to conservative arguments against capital punishment, including the testimony of police officers, prison officials, and conservative political and religious leaders. I also want to pay close attention to victims of crime, especially the family members of murder victims.
Before doing any of that, however, I want to spend this first post in the series describing the geographical lay of the land, so to speak, in the U.S. My next post will map out the other countries which have the death penalty, those which have abolished it, and those which have it on the books, but have not executed anyone in a decade or more. Getting a sense of “where we are” in the world may help us see where we need to be going. Since I live in the United States, one of the few industrialized nations with the death penalty, I will start with a state by state analysis here. Note: I indicate the number of women on death row in states with the death penalty, not because I am sexist, but because both historically and currently there is more resistance to executing women than men. Governors and presidents used to grant clemencies routinely, without it being a sign of being “soft on crime,” but since the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 (Gregg v. Georgia) that executions could continue, few governors have been willing to grant clemency for fear of political consequences.
In alphabetical order, these are the states which do not have the death penalty:
- Alaska: Had executed only 12 people in it’s history (both as a territory and state) prior to the Supreme Court’s temporary ban on the death penalty in 1972 and did not seek to reinstate the death penalty after the ban was lifted in 1976, even though it is usually considered a conservative state. Only has 3.1 murders per 100,000 people per year.
- District of Columbia: (A federal city which has a greater population than Idaho and needs to become a state with full representation in Congress.) Had executed 118 people before 1972 and zero since, never seeking to reinstate the death penalty after 1976. Averages 24 murders per 100,000 people.
- Hawai’i: Had executed 49 people prior to 1972and none after 1976, not seeking to reinstate the death penalty. Averages 1.7 murders per 100,000 people (which is not the impression one would get watching Hawai’i Five-O).
- Iowa: 45 executions before 1972, zero since then, not seeking reinstatement of the death penalty.
- Massachussetts: Prior to 1972: 345 executions. After 1976: Zero. There have been a few attempts to reinstate the death penalty, but they have never garnered much popular support nor made it very far in the state legislature. 2.6 murders per 100,000 people.
- Maine: Prior to 1972: 20 executions. After 1976: Zero. 2 murders per 100,000 people.
- Michigan: Prior to 1972: 13 executions. After 1976: Zero. 6.3 murders per 100,000 people.
- Minnesota: Prior to 1972: 66 executions. After 1976: 1.4 murders per 100, 000 people.
- New Jersey: Prior to 1972: 361. After 1976: Zero. New Jersey reinstated the death penalty in 1982 but did not execute anyone. In 2007, the New Jersey legislature abolished the death penalty. The governor then commuted the sentences of the 8 people on death row. Despite its reputation as a haven for organized crime, there are only 3.4 murders per 100,000 people in NJ.
- New Mexico: Prior to 1972: 73 executions. After 1976: 1. New Mexico reinstated the death penalty in 1979, but did seldom sentenced anyone to death and did not execute anyone until the year 2001. In that time, 4 innocent persons were freed from death row and 5 cases had enough doubts that a series of governors, both Republican and Democratic, granted clemency and commuted the sentences to life. In 2009, the New Mexewico legislature abolished the death penalty and Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM), signed the bill into law. Because the law was not retroactive, New Mexico still has 2 people on death row, but there is a campaign to urge the governor to commute their sentences. New Mexico has 8.7 murders per 100,000 people.
- New York: Prior to 1972: 1,130 executions. After 1976: 0. There was little desire for years in NY to reinstate the death penalty, but the rising crime rate of the 198os and early 1990s, led the legislature to reinstate the death penalty in 1995, although it could not be imposed for accessories to the crime, as in many states. It was seldom sought and juries seldom imposed it and no one had been executed. In 2004, the New York Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty violated the state constitution and it was struck down. There are 4 murders per 100,000 people in NY.
- North Dakota: Prior to 1972: 8 executions. After 1976: 0. The death penalty was never reinstated after 1976. Murder rate: 0.5 per 100,000 people.
- Rhode Island: Prior to 1972: 52 executions. After 1976: 0. The death penalty was never reinstated. There are 2.9 murders per 100,000 people in Rhode Island.
- Vermont: Prior to 1972: 26 executions. After 1976: o. The death penalty was never reinstated. There are 1.1 murders per 100,000 people.
- Wisconsin: Prior to 1972: 1 execution. After 1976: 0. The death penalty was never reinstated. There are 2.5 murders per 100,o00 people.
- West Virginia: Prior to 1972: 155 executions. After 1976: 0. There have been a few attempts to reinstate the death penalty in West Virginia, but they have not gotten very far. There are 3.3 murders per 100,000 people.
In alphabetical order, here are the states which have the death penalty:
- Alabama: Prior to 1972: 708 executions. After 1976: 50 executions. The death penalty was reinstated in 1976. There are currently 201 people on death row, including 5 women. 1 clemency was granted since 1976 and 6 innocent people freed from death row. The first execution after reinstatement was in 1982. There are 6.9 murders per 100,000 people.
- Arkansas: Prior to 1972: 478 executions. After 1976: 27. The death penalty law was reinstated in 1973, but could not go into effect until 1976. The first post-reinstatement execution was in 1990. There are currently 42 people on death row. One clemency has been granted and zero innocent people freed from death row. 6.2 murders per 100,000.
- Arizona: Prior to 1972: 104 executions. After 1976: 24. The death penalty was reinstated in 1973 but could not legally take effect until 1976. 135 people currently on death row, including 2 women. First execution after reinstatement was in 1992. 8 people freed from death row due to innocence. 0 clemencies granted. 5.8 murders per 100,000.
- California: Prior to 1972: 709 executions. After 1976: 13. The death penalty was reinstated in 1974 but could not legally take effect until 1976. First execution after reinstatement: 1992. Current death row population is 607 including 16 women. 3 innocent persons freed from death row; zero clemencies. 5.3 murders per 100,000 people.
- Colorado: Prior to 1972: 101 executions. Since 1976: 1 execution. The death penalty was reinstated in 1975 but could not legally take effect until after 1976. First (and only) execution since reinstatement: 1997. Current death row population: 3. Since abolition, Colorado seems to like the death penalty in theory more than practice, and even in theory support is waning. In 2010, the Colorado legislature fell just 2 votes shy of abolishing the death penalty. The governor, a devout Catholic who knows his church is against the death penalty, was seriously considering signing the bill if it passed. Murder rate per 100,000 is 3.5.
- Connecticut: Prior to 1972: 126 executions. Since 1976: 1 execution. The death penalty was reinstated in 1973, but could not take effect until 1976. Date of first (and only) execution since reinstatement: 1994. Current death row population: 10. In 2010, the CT state legislature narrowly abolished the death penalty, but the bill was vetoed by the governor and there was nowhere close to the votes to override her veto. CT legislators say they will try again. 3 murders per 100,000 people.
- Delaware: Prior to 1972: 62 executions. After 1976: 14 executions. Current death row population: 19. The death penalty was reinstated in 1974, but did not take effect legally until after 1976. First post-reinstatement execution: 1992. 4.6 murders per 100,000 people.
- Florida: Prior to 1972: 314 executions. After 1976: 69 executions. Current death row population: 398, including 2 women. First execution after reinstatement: 1979. Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 23. Number of clemencies: 6. There is an annual average of 5.5 murders per 100,000 people.
- Georgia: Prior to 1972: 950 executions. After 1976: 49 executions. Current death row population: 106, including 1 woman. Death penalty reinstated in 1973, but not legally effective until after 1976. First post-reinstatement execution: 1983. 5 innocent persons freed from death row. 7 clemencies granted. Note: Georgia may be thought to have some kind of special love affair with capital punishment since both the Supreme Court decision which state that state death penalties, as then written, were unconstitutional (Furman v. Georgia, 1972) and the decision which allowed states with new (and supposedly fairer/less arbitrary) death penalty statutes to resume executions (Gregg v. Georgia, 1976) were in response to Georgia cases. But it is clear that Georgia has sentenced to death and executed less than several other states.
- Idaho: Prior to 1972: 26 executions. After 1976: 1 execution. Current death row population: 17, including 1 woman. Death penalty reinstated in 1973, but not legally effective until 1976. First execution after reinstatement: 1994. 1.4 murders per 100,000 people. 1 innocent person freed from death row and 1 clemency granted. Like Colorado, Idaho seems to like the death penalty better in theory than practice.
- Illinois: Prior to 1972: 348 executions. After 1976: 12 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1974, but not legally effective until 1976. First execution after reinstatement: 1990. Current death row population: 15. Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 20. Number of clemencies granted 172. Note: In the late 1990s, a number of journalism students found major errors in Illinois’ death penalty including numerous cases where someone was on death row, but probably innocent. At the time, 1 more person had been freed from death row than had been executed. Reading the articles and noting the huge error-rate, then governor Ryan (R) in 2000 imposed a moratorium on executions and, just prior to leaving office in 2003, granted clemency to all prisoners on death row. That moratorium has not been lifted. The Illinois legislature first tried to overhaul the death penalty, but this year (2011) the legislature voted to abolish the death penalty. As of my current writing, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) has not decided whether to sign or veto the bill to abolish.
- Indiana: Prior to 1972: 131 executions. After 1976: 20 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1973, but not legally effective until 1976. First execution since reinstatement: 1981. Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 2. Clemencies granted: 3. 4.8 murders per 100,000 people.
- Kansas: Prior to 1972; 57 executions. After 1976: zero. Death penalty reinstated in 1994. Current death row population: 10. Zero people freed from death row and zero clemencies granted. 4.2 murders per population. Note: Kansas only reinstated the death penalty during the 1990s–a decade which saw the largest public support for the death penalty since World War II. It still seems to like it more in theory than in practice since there have been no executions.
- Kentucky: Prior to 1972: 424 executions. After 1976: 3 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1975, but not legally effective until 1976. Current death row population, 35 including 1 woman. 1 innocent person freed from death row; 2 clemencies granted. 4.1 murders per 100,000 people.
- Louisiana: Prior to 1972: 632 executions. After 1976: 28 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1973, but not legally effective until 1976. Current death row population: 85 including 2 women. First execution after reinstatement: 1983. 8 innocent persons freed from death row and 2 clemencies granted. 11.8 murders per 100,000. Note: A study this year shows that in Louisiana, one is 97% more likely to receive death as a sentence for murder if the victim is white than if some other race. This should be mean that LA’s death penalty violates the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment.
- Maryland: Prior to 1972: 309 executions. After 1976: 5 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1975, but not legally effective until 1976. Death row population: 5. First execution after reinstatement: 1994. 1 innocent person freed from death row. 2 Clemencies. 7.7 murders per 100,000. Note: The current governor of MD, Martin O’Malley (D-MD), has continued to push the MD legislature to abolish the death penalty and has imposed a moratorium on executions until the death penalty is abolished. The MD legislature has so far responded by raising the standard of evidence of guilt in capital cases and with other barriers, all of which O’Malley has signed into law, but they have not yet abolished the death penalty. O’Malley continues to push for abolition.
- Missouri: Prior to 1972: 285 executions. After 1976: 67 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1975, but not legally effective until 1976. First execution after reinstatement: 1989. Current population of death row: 53. 3 innocent persons freed from death row. 3 clemencies granted. 6.4 murders per 100,000 people.
- Mississippi: Prior to 1972: 351 executions. After 1976: 13 execution. Death penalty reinstated in 1974, but not legally effective until 1976. First execution after reinstatement: 1983. Current population of death row: 61 including 3 women. 3 innocent persons freed from death row. Zero clemencies granted. 6.4 persons murdered per 100,000.
- Montana: Prior to 1972: 71 executions. After 1976: 3 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1974, but not legally effective until 1976. First execution after reinstatement: 1995. Zero innocent persons freed from death row and 1 clemency. 2.9 murders per 100,000 people.
- Nebraska: Prior to 1972: 34. After 1976: 3. First execution after reinstatement: 1993. Current population of death row: 11. 1 innocent person freed from death row and 0 clemencies. 2.2 murders per 100,000 people. In 2009, the Nebraska legislature considered abolishing the death penalty, but the bill died in committee for that session. There has been an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty, but the state is considering its first execution since 1997.
- New Hampshire: Prior to 1972: 24 executions. After 1976: 0. Death penalty reinstated in 1991. Zero executions since reinstatement. Current death row population: 1. Zero innocent persons freed from death row and zero clemencies. 0.8 persons murdered per 100,000 people. In 2000, the NH legislature voted narrowly to abolish the death penalty, but Governor Shaheen (D) vetoed it and the legislature failed to override her veto. In 2009, the House voted again to abolish the death penalty, but the bill died in the Senate when Governor Lynch (D) promised to veto it. New Hampshire clearly does not like the death penalty, but reinstated it during the ’90s when the rising crime rate made it more popular than at any other time and is now finding it hard to eliminate again.
- Nevada: Prior to 1972: 61. After 1976: 12. Death penalty reinstated in 1973, but not legally effective until 1976. First execution after reinstatement: 1979. Current death row population: 77. Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 1. Clemencies granted: 1. 5.9 murders per 100,000.
- North Carolina: Prior to 1972: 782 executions. After 1976: 43. Death penalty reinstated in 1977. First execution after reinstatement: 1984. Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 8. Number of clemencies: 5. Current death row population: 167, including 4 women. 6.5 murders per 100,000 people.
- Ohio: Prior to 1972: 438 executions. After 1976: 40 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1974, but not legally effective until 1976. In 1978, the U. S. Supreme Court declared that Ohio’s new death penalty statute did not meet the constitutional requirements of Gregg v. Georgia (1976) and threw it out. 120 death row prisoners, including 4 women had their sentences commuted to life in prison. Ohio then drafted a death penalty statute that passed constitutional muster which went into effect in 1981. First execution after reinstatement: 1999. Current death row population: 168 including 2 women. Number of innocent persons freed from persons: 5. Number of clemencies: 12.
- Oklahoma: Prior to 1972: 132 executions. After 1976: 96 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1973, but not legally effective until 1976. First execution after reinstatement: 1990. Current death row population: 84, including 1 woman. 10 innocent persons freed from death row; 4 clemencies granted. 6.2 murders per 100,000 people.
- Oregon: Prior to 1972: 122 executions. After 1976: 2 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1978. First execution after reinstatement: 1996. Zero innocent persons freed from death row and zero clemencies granted. 2.2 murders per 100,000.
- Pennsylvania: Prior to 1972: 1040 executions. After 1976: 3 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1974, but not legally effective until 1976. First execution after reinstatement: 1995. Current death row population: 222, including 5 women. Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 6. Zero clemencies granted. 5.2 murders per 100,000 people.
- South Carolina: Prior to 1972: 641 executions. After 1976: 42 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1974, but not legally effective until 1976. First execution after reinstatement: 1985. Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 2. Clemencies granted: 0. 6.3 murders per 100,000 people.
- South Dakota: Prior to 1972: 15 executions. After 1976: 1 execution. Death penalty reinstated in 1979. First execution since reinstatement: 2007. South Dakota abolished the death penalty (hanging) in 1915, but reinstated it (electric chair) in 1933. 2.6 murders per 100,000 people. In 2010, South Dakota introduced legislation to abolish the death penalty, but it did not pass. The abolition of capital punishment is strongly supported by The Association of South Dakota Churches. The voters of South Dakota seem to like the death penalty more in theory than practice.
- Tennessee: Prior to 1972: 335 executions. After 1976: 6 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1974, but not legally effective until 1976. First execution since reinstatement: 2000. Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 2. Number of clemencies granted: 2. Current death row population: 90, including 2 women. 7.3 murders per 100,000. In 2007, Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) imposed a three month moratorium on executions while a committee proposed new rules for fairer implementation. But nonetheless, Bredesen felt compelled to commute a sentence from death to life without parole on 11 January 2011 because the crime did not seem to meet TN’s “aggravating circumstances” criteria.
- Texas: Prior to 1972: 755 executions. After 1976: 465 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1974, but not legally effective until 1976. First execution after reinstatement: 1982. Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 12. Number of clemencies granted: 2. Current death row population: 337, including 10 women. 5.4 murders per 100,000 people. Texas has executed more people since 1976 than any other state, more than twice that of the next highest execution state (Virginia), despite the fact that two states (California and Florida) have larger death row populations. The death penalty enjoys wide popular support in Texas, despite the fact that, when polled, most Texans reply that they think the state has probably executed innocent people. Unlike most states, Texas has been more aggressive in executing people since reinstatement than before 1972–and shows no signs of slowing down.
- Utah: Prior to 1972: 43 executions. After 1976: 7 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1974, but not legally effective until 1976. First execution since reinstatement: 1977. Zero persons freed from death row and zero clemencies granted. Current death row population: 10. 1.3 murders per 100,000 people.
- Virginia: Prior to 1972: 1,277 executions. After 1976: 108. Death penalty reinstated in 1975, but not legally effective until 1976. First execution after reinstatement: 1982. Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 1. Clemencies granted: 8. Current death row population: 15, including 2 women. 4.4 murders per 100,000.
- Washington: Prior to 1972: 105 executions. After 1976: 5 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1975, but not legally effective until 1976. First execution after reinstatement: 1993. Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 1. Clemencies granted: 0. Current death row population: 9. 2.7 murders per 100,000. Washington briefly abolished the death penalty in 1913, but reinstated it in 1919. The Washington voters seem to like the death penalty more in theory than in fact.
- Wyoming: Prior to 1972: 22 executions. After 1976: 1 execution. Death penalty reinstated in 1977. Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 0. Number of clemencies granted:0. Current death row poplation: 1. 2.4 murders per 100,000 people.
In addition to the states, the U.S. government also imposes the death penalty for several crimes and so does the U.S. military.
U.S. Federal Death Penalty: Prior to 1972: 340 executions. After 1976: 3 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1988. Expanded in the Omnibus Crime Act of 1994. First execution since reinstatement: 2001. Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 0. Clemencies granted: 1. Current death row population: 59, including 2 women. 5.7 murders per 100,000 people.
U.S. Military Death Penalty: Prior to 1972: 1,206 executions. After 1976: 0 executions. Death penalty reinstated in 1984. Zero executions since reinstatement. Number of innocent persons freed from death row: 0; Clemencies granted: 0. Current death row population: 8.
Progressives like myself were hardly thrilled with Pres. Obama’s State of the Union. At first hearing, it sounded like a prayer to the capitalist gods of the Free Market to save us as a nation. (At least the constant claims that the President is a “socialist” should stop.)
But MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who is as progressive as I am, if not more so, used the opening sequence in her Thursday night program to show that Obama used the State of the Union to try to move the center of the country back from the right. Many progressives have responded skeptically, but conservatives have not. They noted immediately what the president was doing. For instance, conservative columnist Cal Thomas claims that Obama used “Reaganesque language” to push a “liberal agenda.” Now, every liberal and every progressive knows full well that Obama has never had a “liberal agenda” but to Thomas anything that is not far right must be “liberal.”
How should we understand the truth of the matter? I want to begin where Dr. Maddow does. At the end of World War II, BOTH major political parties were far more liberal than anything in U.S. politics today. But, beginning in the 1950s, the modern Conservative movement began. It was, from the beginning, well-financed because it serves the interests of the wealthy oligarchy. It uses the Republican party, but the Conservative movement is separate from the Republican party and works to constantly move the debate and the country ever more conservative. Progressives are nowhere near as organized, certainly not as well-financed, and so have seldom been able to move the country leftward though outside events have given a few exceptions.
Consider the following agenda items:
We believe that basic to governmental integrity are unimpeachable ethical standards and irreproachable personal conduct by all people in government. We shall continue our insistence on honesty as an indispensable requirement of public service. We shall continue to root out corruption whenever and wherever it appears.
We are proud of and shall continue our far-reaching and sound advances in matters of basic human needs—expansion of social security—broadened coverage in unemployment insurance —improved housing—and better health protection for all our people. We are determined that our government remain warmly responsive to the urgent social and economic problems of our people.
We shall continue vigorously to support the United Nations.
We also propose:
Legislation to enable closer Federal scrutiny of mergers which have a significant or potential monopolistic connotations;
Procedural changes in the antitrust laws to facilitate their enforcement;
Continuance of the vigorous SEC policies which are providing maximum protection to the investor and maximum opportunity for the financing of small business without costly red tape.
Is that from the Communist Manifesto? No. Nor is it from any Democratic politician today–who are all too timid to say things like this. No, this is the Republican Platform of 1956! The document bragged that Republicans had raised the minimum wage, had extended Social Security and expanded its benefits. The Republicans in 1956 promised to increase physical and job safety for workers, to further civil rights, the creation of the Department of the Health, Education, and Welfare. They promised more farm aid!
In 1956 the president was Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. The top tax rate was 92% but Eisenhower decided it could not be lowered until the gap between rich and poor had been narrowed! He said that if any party threatened Social Security that party would disappear and never be heard from again. What would Eisenhower think of the nearly constant GOP attacks on Social Security in the last 20 years?
The Conservative movement pushes rightward. We just passed a healthcare reform law that Conservatives have decried as “socialist.” But “Obamacare” (as they like to call it) was first proposed as an alternative to Canadian style universal healthcare (favored by Democrats like Ted Kennedy) by REPUBLICAN Richard M. Nixon. It was again proposed, complete with mandate by Kansas Sen. Robert Dole (R-KS) as an alternative to the public option healthcare plan proposed by Democratic president Bill Clinton. It was finally adopted in Massachusetts by Republican governor Mitt Romney. No one claimed it was unconstitutional, then. No one called it socialist. It was a conservative alternative. But, by the time Democrats enacted that under Obama, the conservative movement had once more moved further right.
The same happens on so many issues. Ronald Reagan is considered THE presidential hero for conservatives and Republicans–and he was the first movement conservative since WWII elected president. (Barry Goldwater was the first movement conservative to run for President, but he was defeated by Lyndon B. Johnson in a landslide in 1964, with Goldwater winning only 5 states.) But the real Ronald Reagan could never pass the litmus tests of today’s conservative movement. Yes, Reagan was against abortion–but he appointed the mildly pro-choice Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court. Yes, he cut taxes, but when his military buildup created a huge deficit, Ronald Reagan enacted the largest peacetime tax increase in U.S. history (which is why conservative demanded that George H.W. Bush promise no new taxes). Ronald Reagan granted two large amnesties for illegal immigrants living in the U.S., too.
Take another issue–cap-and-trade as a way to combat climate change. This was originally a Republican idea. Democrats wanted to use “green taxes,” i.e., to tax polluters until the polluters found ways to limit their pollution. Republicans wanted a more market-based solution, but by the time Democrats agreed, the Conservative movement made the same Republicans that proposed it pretend that it was a Democratic idea they never heard of before.
George W. Bush campaigned for president on comprehensive immigration reform–but was blocked by his own party from getting it. The DREAM Act, a minor step in immigration reform, was another Republican idea–until the Conservative movement pushed further right.
So, what does one do? Especially when one has a divided Congress? Well, Bill Clinton tried “triangulation,” he moved to the center. But since the center kept moving, Bill Clinton actually enacted legislation that was too conservative to get passed under Reagan and Bush I. If you look for the (moving) center and move there, you can be successful as the public thinks your opponents are too conservative. But the center of debate keeps moving right–until disgust with war, corruption, and an economic fiasco gets people thinking (briefly) in more progressive fashion. But the media are almost all owned now by the Conservative forces and so push back toward the right, demonizing the baby steps taken for 2 years in a (slightly) more progressive direction.
Now, President Obama has a divided Congress. He has no choice but to govern from the center if he is to get anything done at all. But there is more than one way to govern from the center. In his State of the Union, Pres. Obama was decidedly centrist, but in several ways worked to try to push the center back from the right.
Take his call for more investment into infrastructure. He had called for the private sector to create more jobs for us to “win the future,” but private businesses will not make the roads, the high-speed rail, etc. which will help the economic situation for all. That was Obama making a case for a government having a role in the economy. It takes on the constant right-wing attack on “spending” (as if all spending was bad) and “interference.”
Or take Obama’s defense of the DREAM Act and immigration reform (once Republican ideas that are now considered “too liberal,”). He made the defense in economic terms in order to get a wider buy-in for immigration reform. Instead of viewing immigrants as either threat (the current right-wing view) or victims needing sympathy and aid (as too many liberals do), Pres. Obama touted immigrants as valuable resources. To prevent children brought into this country illegally, but who have earned college educations or been in the military–and who have never known another home that the U.S. is not just wrong, but is wasting potential inventors, entrepreneurs, etc.
Likewise, Obama defended the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but then pivoted to asking universities to allow ROTC and military recruiters back on campus. As a Christian pacifist, I hope many universities resist that call. I worry about the militarization of education. But I also know that many Americans resented the banning of the ROTC from many college campuses. By calling for this ban to be lifted (now that DADT is repealed), Obama is working for a “wider buy-in” of the repeal.
Again, Obama agreed with conservatives that many regulations on business is outdated (conservative talking point), but then reminded people that not all regulations are outdated–we want safe food and medicine, safe conditions for workers, etc. This once more makes a case for government involvement–in a way that reminds people that blindly hacking away at “red tape” and cutting “useless government workers” hurts them–without ever using liberal buzz words like “the common good.”
He argued for paying for investments in green energy by ending the taxpayer subsidies for oil companies who are doing just fine without them. This will make the oil lobbies angry, but the public doesn’t like this corporate welfare and the GOP will be hard pressed to defend it.
He agreed with the conservative talking point that education is best fixed at local and state levels, instead of “one size fits all” top-down federal control, but he did this while reminding them that the latest top-down, federal control was the failed and much-hated (and ill-named) “No Child Left Behind” program–which was George W. Bush’s program, enacted by a Republican-controlled Congress. And, knowing that local school districts and states are cash-strapped, Obama promises federal money for local programs that work. He’s already argued for federal investment in better schools to meet our “Sputnik moment.” He compares ignoring the need for better education out of supposed fiscal responsibility to trying to lighten the load of a faltering airplane by tossing out the engine!
He supported the long-held desire of conservatives to cut the corporate tax-rate, but only if coupled with a simplified tax code that closes the many loopholes which allow many big corporations to end up paying no federal taxes at all! If enacted, the lower corporate tax rate will help small businesses, while the closing of the loopholes will result in far more revenue for the government, thus lowering the deficit and making all businesses pay their fair share. If the Republicans try to cut the tax rate without closing the loopholes, not only will Obama veto it, but they will be exposed to the American people as not really serious about the deficit, but only trying to make the rich, richer.
He even tackled the need to cut the military budget, but did it by mentioning that the Secretary of Defense (a Republican and Bush’s last SecDef) had found $78 billion to cut. Now that’s nowhere near enough, but it is the first CUTS proposed by a Defense Secretary in some time and Republicans will have a hard time arguing for weapons, etc. that the Pentagon neither needs nor wants.
The speech made these moves constantly. Now, as a progressive, I found many things lacking in the speech. There was no talk of the role of outsourcing in robbing American jobs, no proposal to fine or tax companies that outsource and reward those who don’t. There was no defense of labor, no call for corporations to show economic patriotism by hiring and paying living wages. No call for a “Made in America” campaign. Nor was there any effort to pivot from the Tucson tragedy to at least mild forms of gun control (or ammo control). There was no call for the Fed to give 5-year zero-interest loans to the states, 45 of 50 are in deep debt, so that police, teachers, and firefighters are not laid off. There was no recognition that climate change presents a MUCH bigger challenge than our “Sputnik moment.” The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were barely mentioned with adherence to the VERY SLOW withdrawal in Iraq (not completed until 2012!) and the beginning of withdrawal from Afghanistan this July (not to be finished until 2014!)–even though these wars have cost us $3 trillion and counting (plus thousands of ruined lives) and is a huge drain on us. (Progressive anti-war Democrats might make common cause with libertarian-leaning Republicans who also want to end the wars and cut the military budget.)
And I am not sure that this rhetorical strategy will work. The nation loved the speech, but the Republicans in Congress seem determined NOT to get behind his goals, but to see their primary job as “making sure Obama is a one term president” as Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) put it.
To really move the center back from the right, we need an organized progressive movement working as hard as the conservative movement does to move it ever more rightward. And others beside the president need to push back at the dominant conservative narrative.
But after two years of simply ignoring “politicking” for policy, the President has achieved several victories but at the price of evermore resistance. He let the Republicans and the Conservative Noise Machine set the narrative and change public opinion against them. Now he’s selling his policies by co-opting conservative language and redefining the center. I hope the effort is successful.
Vincent Gordon Harding (1931-) is a former Mennonite minister, a historian, and a nonviolent activist for social change. Born in New York City, Hardin attended public schools and graduated from Morris High School in 1948. While doing social justice-related mission work for Mennonites, Harding earned a B.A. in history from City University of New York (CUNY) in 1953. In 1957, Harding moved to Chicago to continue his studies in history at the University of Chicago, receiving his M.A. in 1959 and Ph.D. in 1960. While in Chicago, he met Rosmarie Freeney, his future wife, at a Mennonite conference. (Rosemarie Freeney-Harding (1930-2004) will be the subject of a future profile in this series.)
In 1958, Harding became part of an interracial pastoral team at Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago, where he and Rose were married 1960. In 1961 the Hardings moved to Atlanta as representatives of the Mennonite Central Committee and founded “Mennonite House,” the South’s first interracial voluntary service agency (which also served as the Harding residence). It was located around the corner from Martin and Corretta King’s house and served as a base for the Hardings’ travels around the nation in various civil rights campaigns. The Hardings worked closely with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC–Martin Luther King’s organization) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, known to both friend and foe as “SNICK”), but also worked other Freedom Movement groups such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) which the Hardings had known from their Chicago days.
While in Atlanta, Vincent taught history and sociology at Spelman College (a historic African American liberal arts college for women). When Howard Zinn left Spelman in 1964 for Boston University in 1964, Harding took over as chair of the Department of History and Sociology at Spelman from 1964 to 1968. The Hardings’ deep involvement with the Freedom Movement led to conflicts with the Mennonite Church, due to the Mennonite tradition of isolation from “the world.” Therefore, after Martin Luther King’s death in 1968, the Hardings turned over Mennonite House’s operations to others. [Addition from a Mennonite friend: This conflict led Harding to leave the Mennonite ministry and the Mennonite Church.] Harding became the first director of The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
In 1969 Harding founded theInstitute of the Black World in order to help shape the emerging educational discipline of Black Cultural Studies. From 1974 to 1981, the Hardings lived in Philadelphia where Vincent taught simultaneously at Pendle Hill Quaker Study Center, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania. From 1981 to 2004, Harding was Professor of Religion and Social Change at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO, where he continues as Professor Emeritus. Harding was the senior historical advisor to the PBS-TV series Eyes on the Prize and Eyes on the Prize II which chronicled the Freedom Movement in depth. In 2000, Harding founded the Veterans of Hope project at Iliff to preserve oral histories of veterans of social change movements.
Harding has been a contributing editor to Sojourners, (a magazine for Christian social activism) and his many writings include:
Must Walls Divide? Questions for Christians (1965); The Religion of Black Power (1968); The Other American Revolution (1980); There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America (1981; rev. ed., 1993); We Must Keep Going: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Future of America (1989); The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader (C0-editor, 1991); Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement (1990; rev. ed., 2000, 2010); Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Inconvenient Hero (1996; rev. ed., 2008); We Changed the World: African-Americans, 1945-1970 (Co-author, 1997).
James Leonard Farmer, Jr. (1920-1999) was born in Marshall, TX (USA), the son of a Methodist minister, living and working in the Jim Crow South during the very worst days of segregation. He was raised to value education, religious faith, and working for social justice. An outstanding student, he graduated from Wiley College with a B.A. in philosophy in 1938 (at the age of 18!), earning a full scholarship to Howard University Divinity School in Washington, D.C. There he earned a Master of Sacred Theology (MST) in 1940.
Farmer became a thoroughgoing Christian pacifist while at Howard and, having been introduced to the work of Gandhi in India (still ongoing at the time), Farmer determined to use Gandhian methods to forge a mass movement for Black liberation in the USA. (Through the Black Press, African Americans followed Gandhi and the Indian struggle far more closely than did their white contemporaries.) As a Christian pacifist, Farmer refused to serve in World War II and applied for exemption from the draft as a Conscientious Objector–something seldom granted to African Americans in those days. When his application was rejected, he prepared to serve time in prison rather than violate his conscience by taking up arms, but he was unexpectedly given a clergy exemption from the draft–on the basis of his divinity school degree, even though he was never ordained. (Farmer refused to follow his father into the Methodist ministry because the Methodist Church–South–now part of the United Methodist Church–was segregated.)
Upon graduation from divinity school, Farmer joined the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a religiously-based grassroots organization working for peace and justice since 1914. At the FOR, Farmer was assigned to work on racial justice issues in Chicago. Together with other FOR members, Farmer’s work in Chicago led to the founding of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942 as an instrument to help forge a Gandhian mass movement of nonviolent direct action to end segregation. CORE, with Farmer as the first national director, was to be dedicated to nonviolent methods, but, as a vehicle for mass action, would be open to non-pacifists who agreed to abide by nonviolent discipline–whereas all who joined the F.O.R. were expected to be committed to religiously-rooted pacifism.
After using Gandhian methods to integrate several Chicago restaurants and other facilities, Farmer conceived of a “Journey of Reconciliation,” whites and blacks riding Trailways and Greyhound buses together through the upper-South in order to test compliance with a recent Supreme Court ruling that segregation in interstate travel was unconstitutional. The Journey of Reconciliation, co-sponsored by CORE and the FOR, happened in 1947 and was a partial success–setting the pattern for the later Freedom Rides on 1960-1962, also initiated by Farmer and CORE.
During the 1960s, Farmer, as head of CORE, was considered one of the “Big Four” civil rights leaders, along with Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of The National Urban League, and Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The charismatic and brilliant Farmer was a major strategist in the Freedom Movement until CORE began to leave its nonviolent philosophy in the later ’60s. (It returned to its nonviolent roots in the 1980s and continues in that path, today.) Farmer resigned from CORE in 1965 when it began to reject white members as it embraced the new separatist militant philosophy of Black Nationalism that was so strong in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Farmer pointed out that his own wife was white and declared that he no interest in being part of a Black Nationalist organization.
Previously, when CORE had spoken out against the Vietnam War, Farmer had insisted that the organization reverse itself. He remained a committed pacifist and opposed the war as an individual, but believed that CORE, as an organization, should stay focused on the struggle for racial justice and reconciliation.
After leaving CORE, Farmer taught at Lincoln University from 1966 to1968. A lifelong member of the (now extinct?) progressive wing of the Republican party, Farmer ran for the U.S. Congress from Pennsylvania in 1968, losing to Shirley Chisholm, an African-American Democrat (and, later, presidential candidate). After his loss to Chisholm, President Richard Nixon (R) appointed Farmer as Asst. Sec. of Health, Education, and Welfare in charge of anti-poverty programs. Farmer resigned from this post in 1971, when he could no longer defend Nixon’s racial policies. Farmer continued to teach and lecture widely and to work for social change.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Farmer the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the U.S. government. Farmer was the author of Freedom When? (1966) and his autobiographical memoir, Lay Bare the Heart (1985).
Fantasy and Science Fiction are distinct-but-related genres of fictitious literature, both belonging to the larger category of speculative fiction. Fantasy is a modern term for fictional literature set in worlds wherein magic works and where there are often supernatural beings (e.g., djinn or genii, ghosts, demons, vampires, nymphs, dryads, goddesses and/or gods, etc.) or creatures from mythology (e.g., elves, dwarves, giants, dragons, etc.). Major characters often have supernatural abilities or magical devices (e.g., rings, swords, harps, lamps, flying carpets, etc.). Fantasy draws from many ancient mythologies, texts from extinct religions (and sometimes from living religions), fairy tales, medieval romances and legends, but, unlike these earlier works (which often serve as source material or taproot texts), modern fantasy is deliberately composed by one or more authors not as history, but as entertainment–-the fantastic elements are not expected to be believed by either the author(s) or readers. Although people often refer to “sexual fantasies,” fantasy literature is not usually a written form of pornography; the term for that “literature” is erotic fiction. (This is not to say that fantasy literature aimed at adult readers may not entail elements of romance or even of the erotic–-but this is not the focus and because of the wide age range of readers, love scenes in fantasy works seldom become overly graphic.)
What distinguishes fantasy from science fiction is that the latter attempts to base all fantastic elements on principles from known science or to give a plausible scientific explanation for the fantastic elements. Usually, the laws of the universe in science fiction either function in ways known to contemporary science or the changes are cautious and a scientific or pseudo-scientific explanation is attempted. (For this reason, despite the genetically altered indigenous lizards of Pern, that the colonists from earth named “dragons,” Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” books are science fiction and not fantasy, as McCaffrey herself would argue.)
The two literary genres do sometimes overlap and, when this happens, the result is often called science fantasy. The currently most famous example of science fantasy are the films and books in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga which include science fiction elements (starships, laser weapons, advanced technology, robots/droids, holograms, alien races, etc.) but also elements of fantasy (e.g., the powers of the Jedi Knights and the Sith Lords; a “quest” structure and a cosmic battle between good and evil, etc.). Other major examples of science fantasy include Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” novels in which the “Mars” to which Captain John Carter of Virginia is transported bears little resemblance to the Mars known by astronomers; C.S. Lewis’ “Space Trilogy,” Lin Carter’s “Callisto” books, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover stories and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. The great pioneer of modern science fiction was 19th C. French author, Jules Verne (e. g., 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; The Mysterious Island; From Earth to the Moon; Around the World in 20 Days, etc.)
Since I believe imagination is crucial to both religious faith and moral discernment, I encourage wide reading in this literature, regardless of the particular religious commitments (or lack thereof) of the author(s). I am also convinced that both fantasy and science fiction are excellent vehicles for exploring moral, philosophical, and spiritual questions, although this should never be so heavy-handed as to dominate the narrative structure. The story must first work AS literature. Far too many Christian apologists with no real literary ability and boringly dogmatic outlooks have wasted trees in attempts as “Christian fantasy,” believing falsely that they are the next C.S. Lewis. (Left Behind and all its sequels should be LEFT OUT. Ugh!)
Those who read this blog primarily for religious social commentary, theology, philosophy, or politics, should try back later. I need a break. Writing about other interests than the main themes of this blog help me to keep from cynicism, depression, despair, or misdirected anger.
Although dominated since Tolkien(1892-1973) by Western Medievalist forms, modern fantasy literature draws from a plethora of ancient sources (“taproot texts”) in numerous mythologies and religions. No source of fantastic elements is off-limits and would-be fantasy authors who don’t want simply to repeat tried and true formulae, might want to explore Native American, African, Australian Aboriginal, New Zealand Maori or other indigenous mythologies and tales. These sources are all under-utilized in modern fantasy literature. Below, however, I list the most common sources for fantasy, in roughly chronological order.
I. The Epic of Gilgamesh. An epic poem from ancient Sumeria, this is one of the earliest works of fiction. We don’t know when the first version was written in Sumerian, but the standard Akkadian version was compiled from older legends sometime around 1,300 B.C.E. It tells of the exploits of a legendary King Gilgamesh, blessed by the gods with supernatural strength but who is bored with ruling his kingdom, and his friend, Enkidu the Wild Man (who is even stronger than Gilgamesh) and their quests and battles with incredible monsters. The story influenced Homer’s The Odyssey, was outlined in brief in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode (“Darmok”), and has even influenced some role-playing video games. For non-scholars only interested in reading the work for entertainment, the most accessible English translation is N. K. Sanders, The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Epics, 2006) which reprints the prose edition of the Penguin Classics, 1960. The “Sword and Sorcery” subgenre of fantasy is particularly indebted to the Gilgamesh stories.
II. Ancient India. Modern Hinduism grew out of a complex of different Indian traditions–and many of those traditions have proved good source material for modern fantasy writing. India has a long tradition of fantastical stories and characters. The Japanese “manga” or graphic novel series, RG Veda, for instance, draws directly from the Rig-Veda, a collection of Sanskrit hymns and stories that represents India’s oldest (Vedic) Scriptures. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are also deep sources for fantasy.
III. Classic Greco-Roman Mythology. The Greek and Roman myths and hero stories may be the most “plundered” as source material for later fantasy literature. Some of the most important stories are: “Theseus and the Minotaur” (minotaurs and mazes that contain monsters are common in fantasy literature), “Perseus and the Slaying of the Gorgon Medusa” (which also includes what may be the first “sea serpent” story in Western literature), “The Labors of Herakles/Hercules,” “Jason and the Argonauts.” And, of course, Homer’s great epic poems (c. 800 B.C.E.), The Iliad and The Odyssey. You can find both in one boxed set edited by Bernard Knox and translated from the Greek by Robert Fagles in a 1999 Penguin Classics edition.
IV. East Asian Legends: Especially from China and Japan. The rich mythologies and cultures of Ancient China and Ancient Japan contain many elements that lend themselves to fantasy writing. One prominent example is the Chinese dragon: Western dragons are usually depicted as sly, evil, cruel, and greedy. Chinese dragons, on the other hand, are considered wise and signs of luck. In modern fantasy literature, we often see dragons drawn more like the Western image (e.g., flying), but many writers have started to give them more noble characters that are more in line with Asian traditions. Taoist traditions have, by her own admission, influenced Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels.
Likewise the Taoist belief in Nei Jin (“internal power”) has influenced both real life martial arts and the kind of Chinese fantasies known as wuxia, where the martial artist can perform superhuman warrior feats: nearly flying, dodging hundreds of thousands of arrows, etc. Wuxia is a word made of two Chinese characters, wu (having to do with things military or martial) and xia which refers to both the Chinese version of chivalry and the person (usually a swordsman) who lives by such a code. Wuxia fantasy is found in Chinese novels, comics, and films, but is known in the West mostly through a series of films beginning with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) based on the novel of the same name by Wang Dulu. See also Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle (2004) is a hilarious spoof of wuxia films–but fantasy spoofs are still fantasy. The Chinese sage, as well as the swordsman, has now become recognizable in many modern fantasy works. See also Albert A. Dalia’s wuxia novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool: A Daoist Quest (2007).
From Japanese culture and legends, fantasy has drawn upon the code of Bushido (“Way of the Warrior”) practiced by the Samurai warrior caste, the contrast between Samurai (knights serving masters) and Ronin (“masterless” warriors), the legendary ninja assassins, and strong interest in traditional Japanese weaponry. Fantasy novels often use Japanese legends for suitable monsters or demons, too. The popularity of Japanese anime (cartooning) has further popularized these legends and their modern variations. A good example of contemporary Japanese fantasy using traditional materials (translated into English) is Noriko Ogiwara’s, Dragon Sword and Wind Child (1993, 2007).
V. Islamic Middle East. The most famous source for modern fantasy from the Middle East is, of course, the book known both as 1,001 Nights and as The Arabian Nights, a book that compiled many traditional Arabic legends and folk tales collected and translated by the English explorer, Richard Burton. (In fact there are layers of stories: Persian tales inspired by Indian mythology and adapted into Arabic by the 10th C. C.E.; Stories recorded in Baghdad in the 10th C., C.E.; and Medieval Egyptian folklore.) This anonymous work first took form in the 10th Century C.E. and reached its final form in the 14th Century, C.E. Western writers have tended to call all Arabic legends “Arabian Nights” stories whether or not they appeared in the 1,001 Nights. There are even a number of tales known in Europe and set in the Middle East called “Arabian Nights” tales, even though there is no known Arabic manuscript. The collection first began to be a major influence on Western fantasy with the translation into French in the 1704-1717 by Antoine Galland. Galland’s version includes the stories, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Aladdin’s Lamp,” that are not found in any Arabic or Persian manuscript–stories that he claimed he heard from a Syrian Christian storyteller from Aleppo. In 1885, Sir Richard Francis Burton gave the earliest popular English version.
The influence of these stories on later fantasy is incalculable: flying carpets, djinn, genii, the characters of Ali Baba, Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor, Scheherazade (and other women using their wiles to survive in very oppressive, and dangerous patriarchal contexts), are all standard features. So is the use of such literary devices as “the unreliable narrator” and stories within stories.
Other Middle Eastern/Islamic literature that has influenced later fantasy writing includes the national Persian epic, The Shahnameh, and the Persian tale, Amir Arsalan which has directly influenced Japanese writer Yoshiki Tanaka’s Arslan Senki, translated into English as The Heroic Legend of Arslan.
VI. Norse and Icelandic Sagas (and related mythology) Norse mythology, as reflected in the Elder Edda (sometimes called The Poetic Edda) and the Younger Edda (sometimes called the Prose Edda ) include the Norse/Germanic gods (the Aesir) such as Odin (German Woden), Thor, Loki, etc. and their battle against the forces of chaos embodied in elves, dwarves, frost giants, trolls, and giants. They have directly, and indirectly, influenced everyone from Shakespeare to William Morris, to J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and Poul Anderson. The Norse fornaldarsagas (lit., “Stories of Times Past”) told more “historical” legends, but drew upon the Eddas for fantastic elements. These Norse and Icelandic sagas depict heroes on dangerous quests fighting dragons, barrow-wights, witch-kings, and other forces of evil, from which they must often rescue “fair maidens.” The quests are also often journeys of self-discovery.
The Volsungasaga and The Nibelugenlied, in addition to being source material for Wagner’s operas, depict more historical legends, battles over thrones and dynasties, but still include many elements that have influenced modern fantasy.
Related to these source texts is the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf (c. 8oo C.E.) which tells the story of the defeat of two hideous monsters, Grendel and Grendel’s mother, by the hero Beowulf. J. R. R. Tolkien, while a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, gave a 1936 lecture, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” which was the first serious look at the saga for literary purposes. John Gardner’s Grendel (1971) retold the myth from the monster’s point of view.
Celtic mythology and folklore is another related source for modern fantasy. Particularly rich is the Welsh tradition since it was collected into one source, the Mabinogion (c. 1350-1410) , iron age tales which contain, among other things, the roots of the Arthurian legends. One modern fantasy writer, Evangeline Walton, attempted to retell the Mabinogion in a series of four novels(for the four “branches” of the Mabinogion), The Island of the Mighty (1970); The Children of Llyr (1971); The Song of Rhiannon (1972), and Prince of Anwynn (1974). In 2002, Overlook Press republished this series under one cover as The Mabinogion Tetralogy. The Irish Ulster Cycle and Fenian Cycle have also been mined repeatedly for modern fantasy.
But the greatest influence of Celtic mythology has been indirectly through the “Matter of Britain,” the medieval romances we know as the Arthurian legends. These legendary histories of Britain took on lives of their own, apart from the Welsh mythology of their source–an important step in the history of fantasy. Chaucer, Geoffrey of Monmouth ( The History of the Kings of Britain ), and others told versions of these tales, but they were most influentially collected and reworked by Sir Thomas Mallory in Le Morte D’Arthur (c. 1470), making Mallory probably the first fantasy anthologist. This work is directly the source for many modern retellings of the Arthur stories, especially T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958) and the 1981 film, Excalibur. The Victorian retelling by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King, which is heavily Christianized, is also influential–including on the third volume of C.S. Lewis’ science fantasy “Space Trilogy.” The best resource for all things related to “The Matter of Britain” is Alan Lupak’s The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legends.
In addition to T. H. White, the following modern reworkings of Arthurian legend stand head and shoulders above the rest: Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) while poking fun at some aspects of contemporary society is mostly using satire to take issue with the romantic view of the Middle Ages; Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series; Mary Stewart’s “historicised” version told through Merlin and heavily influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth (The Crystal Cave, 1970; The Hollow Hills, 1973; The Last Enchantment, 1979; The Wicked Day, 1983); and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist re-telling through the eyes of the women (which sees the tales as a struggle between Augustinian Christianity and the older pagan religions of the Great Mother), The Mists of Avalon (which also attempts to recreate pre-Augustinian Celtic Christianity as a form of Christianity which lived more in harmony with the pagans). I would NOT recommend the “Pendragon Cycle” of Stephen Lawhead in which the Arthurian legends suffer because of Lawhead’s heavy-handed Christian apologetics. (His novels have won evangelical awards, but they just aren’t good as literature. I don’t object to Lawhead’s Christianity since I am also a Christian, but a novel has to work first as good fiction.)
Finally, there is the Finnish epic, The Kalevala, which, though not published until the 19th C., collects stories that date back centuries. J.R.R. Tolkien has said directly that both The Kalevala itself, and the Finnish language he learned in order to read it, were direct influences on his The Silmarillion. I would think this epic could prove to be a rich source for others as well.
These appear to be the major “taproot texts” or sources of modern fantasy literature. Some are more heavily used than others. I noted at the beginning that traditional stories from Native American, African, Australian Aboriginal peoples, and New Zealand Maoris are all very under-utilized. So, I think, is pre-Islamic Egyptian mythology.
III. Late Victorian Era.: The Flowering of Fantasy
At the end of the 19th C. and beginning of the 20th C., it was more acceptable for fantasy writers to write for children than for adults, so writers often deliberately wrote for children or adolescents in order to be marketable as fantasy writers. One result was that some top-notch children’s fantasy was written by brilliant writers–producing works that that have remained popular long after their authors’ deaths.
J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), Scottish baron, author, and playwright, created the enduring children’s fantasy character, Peter Pan as part of a serialized novel (The Little White Bird) in 1901. He then staged the play, Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in 1904. This play also popularized the female name “Wendy,” which was rare in English prior to this. The numerous follow-up appearances of Peter Pan by Barrie and others continues to this day.
L. Frank Baum (1856-1919), an American writer was simultaneously creating the great “Oz” series of books. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first published in 1900 and in 1901 became the first “global” mass-market children’s fantasy, the “Harry Potter” series of its day. It also drew controversy similar to Rowling’s later “Harry Potter” books, with fundamentalist preachers denouncing the “witchcraft” and supposedly “terrible morals” of the story. Baum wrote 13 sequels, none of which became as popular as the original. He acknowledged the influence of The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, and even Lewis Caroll‘s “Alice in Wonderland” books, but was deliberately setting out to create “American fairy tales.” The books had numerous semi-allegorical allusions to political turmoil in the U.S. of Baum’s day. (Baum was a Populist and Progressive whose wife, Maude Gage Baum, was a leader in the suffragist movement of early, first wave, feminism.) The 1939 film version, starring Judy Garland, continued the influence for successive generations. Baum continues to be a major influence to this day.
Other children’s fantasies of this era include Lewis Caroll (Charles Dodgson, 1832-1898)’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland(1865) and Through the Looking Glass–And What Alice Found There(1872) (which mathematicians, philosophers, and logicians love because of the “inside jokes” that children and most adults miss) and Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)’s many “Peter Rabbit” and related stories. Nor should one miss Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932)’s The Wind in the Willows (1908).
In this Victorian period, adult fantasies were being written, too, especially in an adaptation of the old “traveler’s tale” format known as “Lost World” stories. Often set in Africa (which was still mostly unknown to Western writers) or on unexplored islands, these were adventure stories outside the increasingly tamed industrial world. Some were straight “realistic” adventure stories with no fantastic elements. Others, an early form of science fiction, depicted advanced civilizations or the hidden bases of rogue scientifice genuises (forming one of the roots of contemporary “steampunk” fiction). But some included magic or other fantastic elements. Among the most influential of the latter was H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887) and its sequel Ayesha (1905). Haggard’s numerous adventure stories of English explorer, Allan Quartermain also sometimes contained fantasy elements–and that influence continues even to Steven Spielberg’s films about archeologist “Indiana Jones.”
The American author, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) is most famous for his novels and short stories concerning “Tarzan,” a son of an English lord who is raised by apes, teaches himself languages, and grows up to be “king of the jungle.” Though wildly improbable, the main Tarzan novels contain little or no explicit fantasy elements. But Burroughs also pioneered several science fantasy works of a “sword and sorcery on other planets” type as well as lost world novels. The most famous of these were a series of novels concerning Captain John Carter of Virginia (a Civil War veteran) who is mysteriously transported to a “Mars” that was nothing like the Mars that even the astronomy of Burroughs’ day knew–a “Mars” the natives call “Barsoom,” containing beautiful Red Martian princesses who need rescuing from giant, 4-armed, green Martians in a desert world of canals with a strange combination of high technology and swords. The first John Carter tale was serialized in 1912 as Under the Moons of Mars and published as a novel in 1917 under the title, A Princess of Mars. 10 sequels were published over the next 30 years, adding characters and complicating the picture of Mars as a dying, post-industrial, planet. Burroughs also wrote of Carson of Venus (Amtor), and Pellucidar (a lost world at the earth’s core). This kind of Sword and Planet science fantasy would influence later writers like Lin Carter, the highly sexist John Norman, and others. Writers as diverse as Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Michael Moorcock have paid tribute to Burroughs’ Mars’s stories.
At the tail end of this era comes an author who is pivotal to the later development of fantasy due to his large influence on J.R.R. Tolkien, E.R. Eddison (1882-1945). I, personally, find Eddison’s style dry and contrived, but he attempted to recreate the old Norse sagas in a world of total fiction–a self-contained, wholly invented mythology. It was that project which Tolkien eventually undertook in far more detail and with far more talent. Eddison’s novel is The Worm Ouroboros (1922), in meticulously recreated Jacobean English (which I find tiring), creates a world of aristocratic heroes who war for honor and to escape boredom. Michael Moorcock finds Eddison’s villains to be more authentic than Tolkien’s and even Ursula LeGuin pays tribute to Eddison. But I find the casual disregard for human life and suffering of Eddison’s “heroes” to be off-putting. It is worth noting that the Demons, Witches, Imps, Pixies, etc. are not separate species, as in Tolkien and many others, but various nationalities of human beings. The novel also deals with the classic theme of time as an eternal wheel (the “worm” or dragon Ouroboros is the serpant which eats its own tale, a classic symbol of rebirth and cyclical history). Even though Eddison is not my cup of tea, his importance to this history cannot be denied.
IV. The Post-Victorian/Pre-Tolkien Era:, 1920s-World War II.
In 1923, an American publisher launched Weird Tales, the first English-language (and maybe first in any language) magazine dedicated solely to fantasy and horror. This was the era when pulp magazines were huge and many a novel began as a serialized story in pulp pages. Weird Tales (and other sister publications soon to follow, like Fantastic Adventures and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) launched numerous publishing careers in fantasy fiction. Among those careers, pride of place must go to four very different American writers, H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), Fritz Lieber (1910-1992), and C. L. [Catherine Lucille] Moore (1911-1987), all of whom continue to have numerous fans and imitators.
Lovecraft, a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and the Gothic novels of the Victorian era, wrote in the boundary between the fast-separating horror and fantasy genres–-a boundary crossing tradition that today would be called “dark fantasy.” Lovecraft created the Cthulhu Mythos, a shared universe (other authors were allowed to use it and friends like August Derleth and Robert E. Howard did and others have continued) a series of stories and novels concerning demons and dark gods from ancient civilizations which, disguised, continue to threaten modern existence. The stories usually take place in fictional New England towns and center on struggles against the Great Old Ones, a fearsome assortment of ancient and powerful gods who came to earth from outer space and once ruled the planet–and seek to do so again. The essence of these many stories is that the human world is an illusion–and the heroes of these stories, at risk of their sanity, catch glimpses of the true world behind that illusion and the cosmic struggle therein. Lovecraft has been a major influence on later fantasy (Michael Moorcock and much dark fantasy) and on horror writers like Stephen King and Robert Bloch. For an accessible secondary study, see Lin Carter, Lovecraft: A Look Behind the Cthulu Mythos (Ballentine Books, 1972.) (It is worth noting that though Carter is a fan, he is far from uncritical, both of Lovecraft’s writing style and of some of his less savory beliefs, including his racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.)
Even more influential than Lovecraft was Robert E. Howard whose troubled life ended in an early suicide, but not before writing numerous stories of horror and fantasy. Howard created the sub-genre of fantasy called “Sword and Sorcery,” usually featuring barbarian heroes, damsels in distress (often scantily clad), and a series of obstacles reminiscent of those from ancient mythologies (sorcerors, monsters, etc.). This kind of fantasy differs from “epic” or “high heroic” fantasy (exemplified by Tolkien and all his imitators) because the protagonists (heroes or antiheroes) are not often great moral characters and the adventures usually do not serve as epic battles between the forces of good and evil–they are played out on a smaller scale. (Some writers and fans of each of these sub-genres have held the other form in contempt, but Tolkien is said to have enjoyed Howard’s Conan tales.) Howard’s fantasy heroes included Kull the barbarian king of Atlantis, Bran Mak Morn, King of the Picts, and Solomon Kane a Puritan-Adventurer, but his most famous creation was Conan the Barbarian from lost Cimmeria in a pre-Ice Age “Hyborian Age.” The Conan stories would eventually become a staple of Marvel Comics and a series of movies that launched the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger–although I doubt the people of California can blame Robert E. Howard for the incompetent rule of “The Governator.” L. Sprague deCamp and Lin Carter collected unpublished Howard stories into anthologies, finished some fragments, and wrote their own Conan stories, too. See the official Robert E. Howard page here.
Fritz Leiber added realism (carefully controlling the fantasy elements and researching ancient weapons, technologies and cultures in a way Howard never bothered to do) and humor with his stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser a fantasy partnership between a Northern barbarian (somewhat more realistically depicted than Conan) and a suave, sophisticated, city-dwelling thief. The stories were written over 50 years and most originally published in pulp magazines before later anthologization.
C. L. Moore was one of the earliest female writers of sword and sorcery. Challenging the sexism of the “he-man barbarian” approach, Moore wrote stories in the 1930s (usually published in Weird Tales) about “Jirel of Joiry,” female ruler of an alternate Medieval realm somewhere in our France who was as tough as Conan, smarter, just as scantily clad, and always fighting sorcery.
The era closes with the publication in 1938 of T. H. White’s (1906-1964) humorous re-telling of the Arthurian cycle, The Once and Future King. (Actually, only the first section, The Sword in the Stone, was published in ’38. The “finished” novel was not published until 1958 and a “conclusion,” The Book of Merlin, was published posthumously in 1977). Comedy has long been a feature of fantasy which has an amazing ability to spoof itself when it starts to become pretentious.
IV. Tolkien and the Post-Tolkien Explosion
It is simply impossible to overestimate the impact of one, rather ordinary, Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon Language, named John Ronald Ruel Tolkien (1892-1973). A pre-Vatican II Catholic of conservative views from his childhood in South Africa onward, Tolkien was uncomfortable with educated women and much else of the rapidly changing world. He was an early environmentalist and critic of overindustrialization who preferred books and created his entire “Middle Earth” imaginary world in order to have characters to speak the invented languages he developed. (You can actually learn to speak Elvish and the actors in Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of Tolkien’s work do so.) He wanted to create a mythology for Britain which, he believed, had lost its mythology.
In 1937, Tolkien published The Hobbit, a children’s fantasy based on stories he used to tell his own children. It enjoyed modest success and, if Tolkien had stopped there, he might have been only mildly influential on later fantasy. But he noticed that his characters had, at the edges of his tale, wandered into the high history of Middle Earth that he had been creating over decades. He decided to connect the stories and worked on them by longhand, sending chapters out as letters to his son Christopher, serving in France during WWII. The resulting saga, The Lord of the Rings (first published 1954-1955) was so large it had to be published in three volumes. It is NOT a trilogy, despite all those who claim otherwise.
There have been critics ever since, but Tolkien’s work was such a huge success that it created fantasy as a mass-marketing reality. (That is, someone could actually make a living just writing fantasy novels–something virtually impossible pre-Tolkien.) He was never really comfortable with his fame and its attendant wealth. After his death, his son, Christopher, began editing and publishing the many pieces of the longer mythology behind the Lord of the Rings, but these have been of interest usually only to diehard Tolkien fans. (Interested fans can find the complete Tolkien works here.
Tolkien’s success had 3 immediate impacts on fantasy: 1. It spawned a host of imitators of The Lord of the Rings–most of them very bad. (One, Terry Brooks’, The Sword of Shannara and its sequels, I really dislike–but they became the first post-Tolkien “epic fantasies” to make the New York Times‘ bestseller lists.) 2. It spawned, or at least sped-up, the republication of many of Lovecraft and Howard’s works (and other Weird Tales’ contributors) in fantasy anthologies. 3. It gave renewed attention to some of Tolkien’s friends and associates–a group of English writers known as “The Inklings.” (All of the Inklings were male, but Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), a popular Christian apologist, creator of both the mystery hero, Sir Peter Whimsey, and a translation of Dante, is often considered an honorary “female Inkling” because of her friendship with several of the members.)
Among the most important Inklings for this history are C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Clive Staples (“Jack”) Lewis (1898-1963) was Fellow and Tutor in English Literature, Magdalen College, Oxford (1925-1954) and Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University (1954-1963). Irish by birth, Lewis was an adult convert from atheism to Christianity and became a popular apologist for a rather traditional (though by no means fundamentalist) Anglicanism. In addition to works on popular Christianity, two spiritual autobiographies, and various scholarly works, Lewis published several works of fantasy, the most famous of which is the series of children’s books known collectively as The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956). The Narnia books may be the most famous children’s fantasy works between Baum’s Oz books and J.K. Rowling’s recent Harry Potter works, though its explicit Christian themes leads the series to have FEWER (but still some) critics among conservative evangelicals. Lewis also wrote a trilogy of science fantasy novels where the Christian apologetics is somewhat more heavy-handed than in the Narnia books. See Out of the Silent Planet (1938); Perelandra (also published as Voyage to Venus, 1943); That Hideous Strength (1945–which also brings back in the Arthurian cycle). Lewis also wrote explicitly theological fiction in fantasy form, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933, a fictionalized autobiography); The Screwtape Letters (1942; hilarious series of letters from a senior devil to a novice tempter), and The Great Divorce (1945; A bus tour of the fringes of heaven from hell in the tradition of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In Lewis’ work, his guide is not the Roman poet Virgil, but the Scottish minister and fantasy writer, George Macdonald [see previous post].)
A third Inkling with an influence on fantasy is Charles Williams (1886-1945), a staff editor at Oxford University Press who wrote a series of fantasy novels that have been characterized as “Christian Lovecraft.” They aren’t my cup of tea, but many find them wonderful. In chronological order, Williams’ novels (all later republished by the American evangelical publisher, William B. Eerdmans) are War in Heaven (1930; involves the Holy Grail); Many Dimensions (1931); The Place of the Lion (1931; very Platonic); The Greater Trumps (1932; involving Tarot Cards and the Great Dance); Shadows of Ecstasy (1934); Descent into Hell (1937), and All Hallows’ Eve (1943).
V. Pioneering Female Fantasy Writers:
The rediscovery of Tolkien, Lovecraft, and Howard by the countercultural youth movements of the 1960s (ironic considering the deeply conservative trends of each in his own way) led to an explosion of fantasy in the 1960s and 1970s–most of it mediocre at best. The genre had been dominated by men, but a generation of women began to push at these boundaries–and today the genre is full of strong female voices.
Alice Mary Norton, writing as Andre Norton (1912-2005), was an American writer of historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. In the fantasy genre, she became famous for her “Witch World” novels–a long series of books depicting a parallel earth in which magic works, but is, at least at the beginning, the exclusive possession of women. The females who dominate the witch world believe that magic only works for virgin females and that loss of virginity will translate to loss of magic. They are slowly forced to revise their beliefs because of the adventures of Simon Tregarth from our Earth who is able to handle some magic, marries the witch, Jaelithe (who does not lose her magic), and whose children, both male and female, are stronger magic users than the traditional witches.
By contrast, Ursula LeGuin (1929-), influenced by Taoist and feminist themes, wrote a series of novels set in the world of Earthsea where magic is mostly male–controlled and female magic users have to unbend the conservative heirarchy of wizards. Other than the Earthsea books, LeGuin is mostly known for her works of science fiction rather than fantasy. For all things LeGuin, see this site.
Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930-1999) built on the legacies of Le Guin and Norton (and earlier, C. L. Moore) and on the post-Tolkien explosion. She has written both science fiction and fantasy. She is most famous for her science fantasy “Darkover” novels, but also for the way she worked to get more women in the field by editing a series of short-story anthologies known as Sword and Sorceress, vols. 1-23 which helped to launch the careers of C. J. Cherryh, Mercedes Lackey, Diana Paxson, Elizabeth Waters, Elizabeth Moon, and others. From 1979 onward (continuing with Diana Paxson), Bradley reworked the Arthurian cycle from a feminist (and neo-pagan) perspective beginning in The Mists of Avalon (1979) which spent 3 months on the New York Times bestseller lists. (Bradley herself experimented with Wicca and other forms of neo-pagan worship, but eventually became a confirmed Episcopalian.) Eventually there were sequels to The Mists of Avalon, some of them completed by Diana Paxson.
Madeleine L’Engle(1918-2007) was an American writer of novels aimed at adolescent audiences. She wrote at the blurry boundaries between fantasy and science fiction (“science fantasy”). I like her books, especially her best known (and award winning), A Wrinkle in Time (1962), but my wife, Kate, is an even bigger fan and has several of L’Engle’s works autographed by the author–which is so cool. Influenced both in writing style and in religious views by the Victorian-era Scottish minister and fantasy writer, George MacDonald (see part I of these history postings), L’Engle, a lifelong and very active Episcopalian (American Anglican) was also a thoroughgoing believer in universal salvation. For that reason, many conservative Christian bookstores would not stock her books, despite their prominent themes of faith.
Katherine Kurtz (1944-) renewed the “alternative history” form of fantasy by creating an alternate Medieval Wales (Gwynnedd) that is the setting for her many Deryni novels–stories of a race of magic users persecuted by a Medieval Church–but more tolerated in lands where the Moors (Muslims) or the Eastern Church are dominant. Kurtz was one of the first writers to go into detail about the mechanics of magic (often it seems like a form of Extra-sensory Perception or psionics) and her characters wrestle with the morality of their actions more than is common in the genre. Although born in America, she has spent most of her adult life in a castle in Ireland, but recently moved back to the U.S. (Virginia) to be with her children and grandchildren in her senior years. (She is known to be close friends with the science fiction writer, Anne McAffrey.) The Deryni novels first began being published in 1970.
Patricia A. McKillip (1948-) is an American writer who has lived abroad and writes both science fiction and fantasy. Her fantasy works usually take place in a Medieval- like setting in which music plays a large part. Though sometimes her writing reflects divisions of labor among the sexes, she portrays strong female characters who are the equals of their male counterparts. The books usually involve elements of mystery as the main characters possess and/or are confronted by powers they don’t understand. Her “Quest of the Riddlemaster” Trilogy from the early 1970s is particularly inventive.
Today, the numerous women who write in this field–with as many male fans as female–all stand on the shoulders of these determined pioneers.
VI. The Post-Tolkien Era.
As the counterculture kept the Lovecraft, Howard, and Tolkien books continually in print, fantasy began to splinter into numerous sub-genres: Sword and sorcery, epic/high fantasy, sword and planet and other science fantasy, historical fantasy, alternate histories, etc. Most were only of mediocre quality. But some stood out. Michael Moorcock (1939-) is a British writer of science fiction and fantasy who did not like the way Tolkien dominated the field–and did not like the way barbarians like Conan dominated the field of Sword and Sorcery. So, he created an anti-hero, “Elric of Melnibone,” who was a degenerate, a city-dweller, a hedonist and prince who disdained barbarians and from a long line of evil magic users. Far from Conan’s rippling muscles or the clean living of Tolkien’s heroes, Elric was an albino (white hair and skin, pink eyes), weak and with disgusting habits. Then Moorcock cursed Elric with a magical sword, “Stormbringer,” which sucked out the souls of people to give Elric both physical and magical strength. He cannot throw the sword away–and he is chosen to be the champion of Order vs. Chaos, a battle that is presented as more cosmic than the one between good and evil. Eventually, Moorcock linked up his Elric stories with other heroes as incarnations of an “Eternal Warrior” in the battle between Order and Chaos. Moorcock did for fantasy what Sergio Leone did for Western films–-gave a grittier, grimmer feel that fit well with the cynicism of the 1970s and early ’80s when they enjoyed their highest popularity.
I am not a fan of Terry Brooks (1944-) whose first successful novel, The Sword of Shanarra (1971), I considered to be a cheap retelling of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Though he modified this and became more creative in sequels, I never got over my initial disappointment. But Brooks showed that others could write Epic fantasy after Tolkien. He has now written 22 New York Times bestsellers during his career.
After Brooks (and, in my view, a much better writer) came Stephen R. Donaldson (1947-) who began working on his fantasy writing while growing up in India where his parents were medical missionaries. Donaldson’s 1977 book, Lord Foul’s Bane introduced “Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever” an anti-hero as powerful as Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone and placed him in an Epic tale and in a Land as beautiful as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.
Where will fantasy go from here? Who knows? The possibilities are literally endless. I hope to write future posts on science fiction, on the sub-genres of fantasy, and some major themes.
One note of criticism for this genre, I love. Though the initial male-female imbalance is much less, today, the Anglo-American scene is still dominated by writers from the so-called “dominant” Caucasian culture. (This IS changing. The late Octavia Butler [1947-2006] wrote science fiction and fantasy that was both popular and critically acclaimed. Carol McDonnell, author of Wind Follower and Alaya Dawn Johnson, author of Racing the Dark are two contemporary African-American authors. And more Asian writers of fantasy are being translated, thanks to the popularity of manga comics and Japanese anime. But the field is still WAY too moncultural.) We need far more fantasy writers of more diverse cultural backgrounds. That would help keep from having the overly-Caucasian casts. Look, folks, even our “real” Europe of the Middle Ages was not so very white as most Medieval flavored fantasy novels. Huns and Mongols and the Russ had brought Asian peoples and influences. There were Islamic influences from both the Middle East and Africa–even in Britain, but much more in France, Portugal, and Spain. And why must every other fantasy novel depic a society with a king, some nobles, and peasants? Even the “real” Middle Ages had wider political patterns with “free towns” run by guilds and merchants, or the cantons of Switzerland under democratic rule, etc. And actual “barbarians” are usually only barbaric to those who consider themselves above them, and they are almost never like Conan. Some variety and research, please.
First published in ’09 on Levellers, my old blog. Reprinted here because I’m trying to save the best of that blog even as I go forward with new things here at Pilgrim Pathways. Everyone knows of my passions for theology-related subjects (including biblical studies, theological ethics, dogmatic/systematic theologies, church history and historical theology, theology from the Two Thirds World, and the intersection between philosophy and theology). Everyone who reads me also knows of my passion for politics, especially, but not only, in the U.S. context. But I can’t focus on those passions all the time. I like sports, but have never been tempted to blog on sports. However, I am a reading addict and I have special loves for 3 genres: detective stories, science fiction, and fantasy. From time to time, I may blog on any of those as a way to take a break from my two dominant passions. So, here are some reprinted postings on fantasy literature. MLW-W
Fantasy has its roots in ancient mythologies, of course, and in Medieval stories of all kinds. But modern fantasy literature, while it usually mines these as sources, attempts to create worlds of fantastic fiction for sheer entertainment.
If we define “the Modern Age” as beginning with the Renaissance and Reformation movements of the 16th C., then the earliest “Modern” writer of fantasy literature may be Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). Spencer’s The Faerie Queene, is not only fantasy, but an allegory praising the Tudor dynasty and, especially, Queen Elizabeth I. (He was trying to suck up to the Queen for a place at court, but it didn’t work.)
Nor should we overlook the great Bard of Avon, himself, William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Shakespeare’s poems and plays covered many genres, but at least the following are fantasies: A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Tempest; and there are, at least, elements of fantasy in the tragedies, Macbeth (the 3 witches), and Hamlet (the ghost of Hamet’s father).
Little fantasy writing was done during the Enlightenment of the 17th C. because this “Age of Reason” valued science and history and empiricism. It gave birth to realistic fiction with the adventure stories of writers like Willem Dafoe. This desert was necessary, however, because it allowed fantasy to develop as a distinct and separate genre from realistic fiction. However, even in the 17th C., the great blind Puritan poet, John Milton (1608-1674) gave us the theological fantasy, Paradise Lost (1667), an epic poem depicting the pre-historical Fall of Satan and his Angels and the subsequent temptation and fall of human beings.
The Romantic movement in the 18th C. reacted to the Enlightenment focus on reason, by celebrating emotions and imagination including reviving “romances” that continued the development of fantasy literature. One major contribution of the Romantic period was the birth of the Gothic novel (which is also a forerunner of horror fiction). The first Gothic novel is usually said to be Horace Walpole’s 1794 work, The Castle of Otranto which introduces such Gothic features as a doomed castle or house, a cursed family, an author claiming to be only a translator or discoverer of an ancient manuscript, a haunted castle, a rightful heir, etc.
II. Pioneers of Fantasy:
In the Victorian Age (late 19th and early 20th C.), fantasy really becomes a distinct genre–and this era also saw the beginning of true science fiction (a story for another time). The earliest Victorian fantasy is probably Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) which uses the devices of a realistic novel to make a ghost story seem plausible. (Scrooge’s initial doubt about the reality of the ghosts includes a skeptical explanation that his senses are fooled–and that explanation is never really refuted, leaving the reader to decide for herself or himself whether or not Scrooge really was visited by the ghost of his old business partner and 3 other spirits one Christmas Eve.)
Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786-1859) were two German brothers who were academic linguists–studying the way that words change in sound and meaning over time. However, history will forever know them for their hobby: collecting folk stories and fairy tales. Grimms’ Fairy Tales was first published in 1812, with later editions expanding the collection. Many of the best loved fairy stories and folk tales of Europe were anthologized by the Brothers’ Grimm: Rumplestiltskin, Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, The Frog Prince, Cinderella. A good contemporary edition is The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers’ Grimm trans. Jack Zipes (3rd ed., Bantam Books, 2003).
Whereas the Brothers’ Grimm anthologized traditional fairy tales, the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) took the next step in the development of fantasy: writing original fairy tales with the same “spirit” as found in traditional folklore. (See an excellent collection here.) Then the Scottish minister, poet, and author, George MacDonald (1824-1905), a direct & deep influence on both J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and also an influence on others as diverse as Mark Twain, W. H. Auden, and Madeleine L’Engle, took the next step: writing novel-length “fairy stories” such as The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and Phantastes (1858). The latter is usually considered to be the first fantasy novel written specifically for adults, rather than children or adolescents.
A major fantasy writer of this period whom I knew nothing about before doing this research was William Morris (1834-1896). Morris was an English architect, furniture and textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Morris wrote widely, but 7 of his novels toward the end of the 19th C. are fantasies. A Medievalist, Morris deliberately wrote in a style modeled on the Medieval Romances. His work represents a major development in fantasy because whereas previous authors set their stories in foreign lands or forgotten times, Morris was the first to create an entirely separate fantasy world for his books. Apparently, his most famous fantasy novel is called, The Well at the World’s End (1896) and I look forward to reading it. [Still haven’t gotten around to this in January 2011. MLW-W]
Although today fantasy and horror are distinct genres, they were not during the Victorian era. (Even today, writers who want to, can blur the lines.) Some of the best known horror writers of the Victorian era, Mary Shelly (1797-1851), Bram Stoker (1847-1912), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and the playwright, Oscar Wilde(1854-1900) were also influential in the development of fantasy. Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818) is both early science fiction (arguably the first “robot” story), horror, and fantasy. Stoker’s Dracula(1897) draws from both the legends surrounding Vlad Tepes (a.k.a., Vlad the Impaler), whose actual history was bloody enough, and selects from the many ancient vampire traditions and uses them to tell a Gothic novel. Most of Edgar Allan Poe’s works are Gothic (a style he chose because of its current popularity), but he also invented the detective story (“Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Purloined Letter,”) and contributed to science fiction. But his only completed novel, The Narrative of Arthur Golden Pym of Nantucket (1838) (which I admit, I have not read), is a Gothic fantasy–but was also influential on Jules Verne’s science fiction. Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) is the last great horror story in the Gothic tradition, but it’s fantastic elements also influenced many a later “dark fantasy” writer, such as H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937).
End part I. Part II will describe the flowering of fantasy literature in the twentieth century and then outline the many roads taken since the pivotal work of Tolkien.