Taproot Texts: The Sources of Modern Fantasy Fiction in World Religions and Mythologies
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.
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