Fantasy: A Review

This article is a review of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy by John Clute and John Grant (Published by Orbit 1997). It was written for the Outlanders (Leicester Science Fiction and Fantasy Group) and may have appeared in their magazine.

At £50 (recommended retail price) for over 1000 large-format small-print pages I suppose this book is good value for money, though I must admit that I borrowed the copy for review from the local library and would be doubtful of spending that much, on what is inevitably a reference book of limited currency. Anyone who is into the full range of fantasy literature would also need to invest in its companion and predecessor The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by Peter Nicholls and John Clute (first published 1993). There are many references back to 'SFE'; and fantasy titles that are considered to be more science fiction than fantasy are largely excluded. [I did subsequently obtain copies of both books a much reduced price.]

The entries in the encyclopedia are of three types: (a) Names of authors, with their pen-names, biographical details and bibliography of their fantasy works, with some plot-sketching. (b) Names of films, with details of production staff and actors and a review of the content. (c) Names of themes, motifs, categories of fantasy, critical terminology and other miscellaneous topics with details of their origins, definition and description.

The little essays on specific topics are the most interesting aspect of the book, although they are often less informative than one would hope. For example, the entry on Egypt, Ancient begins intriguingly: “It could be claimed – unprovably – that the ancient Egyptians were the first to write fantasy. Certainly Egypt offers the oldest known examples of the fairytale, the prose short story and several narrative devices.” and continues later: “Quite realistic, quasi-religious autobiographies inscribed in tombs or on stone are the oldest narratives … In contrast the story of Sinuhe transfigured the autobiographic genre. A powerful realistic tale of exile and forgiveness, it includes examples of several other literary genres in an artful structure which well disguises its likely propagandistic purpose.” But this is all we get of the tale of Sinuhe. One is referred to Miriam Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature 1973-80 (3 vols). In the same article, the later tales about Setna are similarly referred to but not actually summarised. In contrast the entry for Gilgamesh does describe some actual events from the epic.

Stories published before about 1750 are referred to as Tap-Root Texts and are often treated somewhat cursorily, while in contrast many worthless modern films and TV series are given full reviews. Not being a movie buff I find 10 pages entirely devoted to Tarzan Movies to be a bit over the top. Similarly on movies there is considerable coverage of Dracula (6 pages) and Frankenstein (5 pages). In addition there is a separate 8-page entry on Cinema. I wonder whether a separate book on Fantasy and SF in TV and Cinema would not have been a better idea. Opera is dealt with in a self-contained 24-page section. Other large sections deal with Anthologies (9 pages), Comics (6 pages), Arthur (6 pages), Disney (the man and the company, 6 pages), Childrens Fantasy (5 pages), Batman (4 pages), Magazines (4 pages), Fairytale (3 pages), Illustration (3 pages) and Ghost Stories (3 pages).

In addition many of these sections are further expanded on in other related sections, for instance besides Arthur there are also long entries for Avalon, Camelot, Excalibur (the sword and the film), Fisher King, Galahad, Gawain, Grail, Guinevere, Knights, Lady of the Lake, Lancelot, Matter (of Britain), Merlin, Morgan le Fay, Perceval, Round Table, Sword in the Stone (not apparently the same as Excalibur) and others. Britain is indeed fortunate in having such an extensive and complex 'Matter' associated with it, even if much of it owes its origin to mediaeval French writers. In fact Arthurian tales “have formed the basis for the largest single subcategory of fantastic literature.”

The largest sections devoted to single authors are claimed, by J. R. R. Tolkien and Michael Moorcock who each get 4 pages or so. These articles are initialled as by the main editor John Clute. In the entry for Moorcock he writes: “He is the most important UK fantasy author of the 1960s and 1970s, and altogether the most significant UK author of sword and sorcery, a form he has both borrowed from and transformed.” … “MM has been prolific since the late 1950s” … “Because he has written copiously for nearly 50 years, because he constantly revises and retitles his texts, and because he habitually reshuffles the order in which those texts appear in omnibuses and collected editions, his bibliography is a nightmare.” Unfortunately the editors are unable to exorcise that nightmare, and merely pass it on to the reader unresolved. In contrast, Tolkien's bibliography is less fraught, although it has been complicated since his death by extensive materials edited by his son Christopher Tolkien.

Some interesting entries that are cross-referenced in the Moorcock article are: the Temporal Adventuress which is traced back to Rider Haggard's She, who travels through time by reincarnation or immortality, and Virginia Woolf's Orlando, who timeslips with changes of gender, and Moorcock's Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius. He is also named as an exponent of Steampunk which is described as technofantasy based on anachronism and bears some relation to Gaslight Romances which are set in a romanticised, smoky, 19th-century London and feature such contemporary characters as Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty and Tarzan. He is said to have coined the term Multiverse (although it is admitted to have been earlier used by John Cowper Powys in Wolf Solent 1929). “Moorcock himself treats his extremely large and varied oeuvre as though all its venues occupy niches in the one multiverse.”

Under the heading Revisionist fantasy the point is made that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings “came to be loved, imitated and in due course engaged with because it was read … as an attack on industrialization and militarism, and thus progressive in at least those respects, whatever its class, racial and sexual politics.” Much of the section on Tolkien is taken up with an account of his influential article 'On Fairy Tales' which informs much of the editors' own analysis. Their commentary is not exclusively positive: “JRRT's influence on fantasy and SF has been not merely profound but also demeaning. It is his work which has given licence to the fairies, elves, orcs, cuddly dwarfs, loquacious plants, singing barmen, etc., who inhabit Fantasyland, which itself constitutes a direct thinning of JRRT's constantly evolving secondary world.”


I find the terminology of literary analysis that the compilers employ overelaborate and not entirely helpful. A lot of the trouble stems from the emphasis placed on the concept of an otherworld (a term which goes back to concepts of Heaven and Hell) or of a secondary world (a term attributed to Tolkien) which is conceived of as an imaginary world, separate from the real world, and having its own internally consistent laws of nature thoroughly worked out. Certainly some fantasy tales fit this pattern, but for most it is too rigid. The approach I prefer is to start from the familiar and to depart from it by degrees. Most ghost stories for instance are set largely in familiar real settings and the fantasy elements introduced involve quite simple modifications to the laws of nature, usually that the persona of a dead person can persist after death and affect the living in some way. The precise details of how ghosts are perceived and how they interact with the living vary from story to story; there is in fact no one universally accepted set of rules for ghosts; the only requirement is that within the story such rules as are adopted are applied consistently. My point is that it is not necessary for the author to have constructed a complete set of laws that will govern the behaviour of ghosts in all conceivable situations. The same goes for the introduction of other fantasy elements.

This view in fact accords with the first part of the definition given in the entry on Fantasy itself, which is as follows [my italics and insertions]: “A fantasy text [under which term they include books, comics, cinema, opera, etc] is a self-coherent narrative [i.e. one that tells a story, and is not merely a kaleidoscope of images].” But they continue: “When set in this world it tells a story which is impossible in the world as we perceive it; when set in an otherworld, that otherworld will be impossible, though stories set there may be possible in its terms.” and: “science fiction tales are written and read on the presumption that they are possible – if perhaps not yet.” My point is that this is too prescriptive; most fantasy realms are never fully defined to the extent that it is determinable what is and what is not possible. In fact I would say that the world-as-we-know-it (reality) is likewise indeterminate in many respects. This uncertainty or incompleteness of our knowledge is one of the factors that help to make ghost stories plausible.


The following are some interesting terms used that relate to literary analysis:


There are several other interesting groups of entries that are worth mentioning. One group relates to religious and occult traditions, with entries on for example. Adam and Eve; Alchemy (associated with quests for the Elixir of life and the Philosopher's stone); Apocalypse; Babel; Christian Fantasy; Flood; Gnostic fantasy (“… the physical world is an imperfect and even evil creation”); Lifestyle fantasy (that with “the most conspicuous influence on modern fantasy fiction is New Paganism.”); Lilith (“the first wife of Adam; her existence is recorded in the Talmud and various apocryphal documents … expelled from Eden for refusing to accept Adam's domination … a name frequently worn by Femmes Fatales”); Reincarnation (“… 'karmic romances' – whose troubled characters are deemed to be atoning for sins committed in former lives … The most popular sources of reincarnated souls are Atlantis and ancient Egypt.”); Rosicrucianism; Theodicy (the function of evil is to make good visible); Theosophy (Madame Blavatsky's two main books Isis Revealed (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888) “are in fact enormous, entrancing honeypots of myth, fairytale, speculation, fabrication and tomfoolery.”)

There are a number of geographical entries, these are of two types: Either as the homeland of a particular group of fantasy writers: Australia, Canada, France, Latin America get extensive entries, but not Russia. Or as a setting for fantasy adventures: Baghdad, Jerusalem, London, Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans, Paris, Prague, San Francisco, Transylvania all feature, not to mention less definite locations such as Atlantis, Heaven, Hell, Lemuria, Ruritania and Shangri-La.

There are also many entries for fantasy creatures, including: Animals unknown to science, Apes, Dragons, Giants, Gorgons, King Kong, Mermaids, Minotaur, Monsters, Mythical creatures, Unicorns, Sea Monsters, Spiders, Trolls, Vampires, Werewolves, Wyrms and Zombies. Many of which may well be the result of Metamorphosis or Transformation of humans.

In short, a bewildering cornucopia of ideas, well worth a sustained browse.