High Fantasy IS Science Fiction

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

Some introductory remarks

Years ago, and maybe still today, it was customary in large bookstores to place high fantasy books in the same section as science fiction. Only the alphabetical order separated the Asimovian Foundation series from Tolkienian Middle-Earth narratives. Thus, a genre of fiction allegedly based on reason as well as natural and applied sciences could be found along another one admitting the material existence of supernatural entities and events, and in which magic really works. Thus, the most scientific and the most ascientific kinds of fiction were entwined on the bookshelves and, presumably, in the minds of their buyers as much as in those of booksellers. However, it would be both unfair and misguided to blame them for such apparent blatant disregard for the purported essential features of each sort of fiction. Out of respect for their literary acumen, it would be rather advisable to see whether their closeness on the market shelves was truly an unsettling contradiction. Is there, indeed, any sound reason for such proximity?

Having emerged later, high fantasy was the genre added to science fiction bookstore shelves, not the other way around. What is to be discussed, therefore, is why it was placed there, although it is not, in principle, a genre of scientific fiction as ‘science fiction’ is, as its very name suggests. We could, however, question the alleged rational and scientific status of science fiction proper. SF stories and plays often show occurrences violating the known natural laws of our universe. Among those violations could be mentioned any kind of remote exercise of mental powers such as those attributed to the Mule in the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov and to the Bene Gesserit in Frank Herbert’s Dune cycle. Nevertheless, it is the perception of being scientific what often distinguishes ‘science fiction’ from other genres, while the opposite occurs in the case of ‘fantasy,’ which would supposedly be mainly fantastic, as its own name indicates. ‘Fantastic’ is, however, a term so broad that its conceptual value is negligeable.

We could consider that all kinds of fiction with supernatural elements are to be called ‘fantasy,’ as is the case in a landmark reference book on the matter, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), edited by John Clute and John Grant. The only common feature in the many works of fiction there considered is that they welcome the supernatural in one way or another. We have seen that so does much of science fiction. There would then be no reason to exclude it from the ‘fantastic.’ In fact, not even the so-called realistic worlds, such as the 19th-century novels of manners, should be excluded from it, since there is little more fantastic that a narrative voice describing in minute detail the most inner thoughts of the characters. We would need then a more precise taxonomy of ‘fantasy,’ and specifically of ‘high fantasy’ as a particular genre. It is time to shortly address some boring, but necessary theoretical issues on the matter.


Now for a bit of theory

Like science fiction, high fantasy can be recognized with relative ease, but it is not easier than science fiction to define it. However, the basic concept of high fantasy is that of subcreation, proposed by J. R. R. Tolkien in his 1939 lecture “On Fairy-stories”(1947). Subcreation implies a secondary creation, i.e. the artistic invention by someone from our primary ‘created’ world of an imaginary world presented as a fully fictional entity. Therefore, it does not pretend to be a reflection of our natural and social universe in the past (historical fiction), in the present (‘realistic’ fictions of any kind, from novels of manners to thrillers) or in the future (science fiction). A fully invented world can be shown as co-existing with settings borrowed from our factual universe in portal fantasies such as C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series or historical fantasies with imaginary states such as Jean D’Ormesson’s La Gloire de l’Empire (The Glory of the Empire, 1971). Nevertheless, Tolkien’s theory implies that completeness of the subcreation also entails a notion of full autonomy in high fantasy, as opposed to those related fantasy genres. The subcreated universe is a secondary world fully independent from the primary world in the realm of fiction as well. This allows for, and even demands, an ontological order in it that is different from that of the universe we inhabit. Since this order is not a mundane one in any recorded or extrapolated time and space of our universe and considering the historical roots of many high fantasy worlds in the long-standing tradition of popular and artistic fairy tales, it is small wonder (pardon the pun) that magic and other supernatural occurrences are so often found in high fantasy. Their presence is, however, not compulsory in the genre. There are, indeed, significant works of high fantasy from which magic and supernatural occurrences are virtually absent, such as Samuel R. Delany’s Tales of Nevèrÿon (1978).

The secondary worlds of high fantasy are a very particular kind of invented fictional world. As such, they are quite different from those found in other genres of speculative and science fiction. As Lin Carter showed in his landmark essay Imaginary Worlds (1973), high fantasy worlds have their own specific features. They are not the worlds of allegories, with their symbolically abstract characters and venues, or those of the afterlife, or those discovered by imaginary travelers to unknown lands on our planet or other celestial bodies. More importantly for our contention, these are not the worlds bequeathed to us by written or oral tradition, such as received myths and folktales, as those are not subcreations, not having been invented by particular persons. Artistic fairy tales are perhaps more akin to high fantasy, since they are often written as personal works of literary art, such as those by H. C. Andersen and Oscar Wilde. In addition to often taking place in the primary world, they still draw from a common pool of conventional plots, characters and places largely limiting the extent of their subcreation. As an illustration of the essentially different nature of the fictional world in high fantasy and fairy tales, it is worth reminding that, whereas maps as paratexts are usual and welcome in high fantasy narratives, they and any other kind of ‘documentary’ information are wholly unnecessary, if not inconvenient, in fairy tales. Where the castle of Sleeping Beauty is located, how it is named, which kind of state is her kingdom and how tense are its foreign relations, what are the myths, beliefs and institutions of her nation, and other cultural and historical data are fully irrelevant to her fairy tale, while they are paramount in high fantasy proper.

Despite his talking of fairy-stories, Tolkien’s idea of subcreation does not apply to any type of fictional ‘magic’ worlds, including those featured in fairy tales. His own practice as a writer, which underpins and determines his literary theory, is rather to be considered along a number of taxonomically similar works by different authors that would later be grouped together and labelled as (high) fantasy. These works describe civilizations with a legendary outlook, lacking advanced technology even when set in the future, usually showing a sociopolitical order typical of ancient civilizations, from the first sedentary societies to early empires, when heroism of the sort exhibited and sung in ancient epics was proper. They are worlds where gods and other mythical beings can be seen acting alongside humans, worlds in which characters perform religious and social rituals alien to known religions[1] and act according to motives and beliefs unlike those common in our modernity. They are also worlds whose completeness demands inner credibility to seem as consistent as our own primary world is portrayed, among others, in so-called realistic fiction. In order to reach such a level of realistic plausibility, the subcreated secondary world typically follows a particular set of procedures to enhance its logical consistency as fiction.

Science fiction follows a rational procedure of extrapolation or anticipation inspired and underpinned, at least in theory, by the modern scientific method, with its technological and societal outcomes. This is what makes seem plausible both the most extraordinary inventions described, as well as the most humanely incredible eutopian and dystopian institutions imposed upon an imagined society. On the other hand, what rational basis is required for a fully invented civilization in an unfamiliar universe, in an undocumented past, or even in a future implausibly lacking advanced technology? How to persuade modern readers used to ‘realism’ to suspend disbelief in the true (fictional) existence of the worlds of high fantasy? The answer is perhaps not as alien to science as one might think at first.


A smattering of history

Whereas recent commercial high fantasy can take advantage of a wider public already familiar with the narrative conventions consecrated by the global success of the Howardian series of Conan stories and the Tolkienian epic adventures in Middle-Earth, the first modern authors of the future high fantasy genre published works whose fictional secondary worlds, being subcreated and fully invented, were unprecedented. This is likely why many tried to prevent the bewilderment of their readers by resorting to some contemporary methods and discourses able to endow, through analogy, a measure of rational and scientific authority to the invented world, as it were a genuine reality in a time and place divergent from our known human universe. The first to do it was perhaps Plato when he presented his invention of Atlantis and his empire as a real historical place by using not only the method of verified documentation proper to historiography, but also the rhetoric of narrated history developed, among others, by Herodotus. Plato was, indeed, so successful in his use of nascent historiography for fictional purposes that there are still quite a few scholars taking it at face value and looking all over the world for the remains of Atlantis, an endeavour as futile as trying to unearth Tolkien’s Númenor…

Atlantis was not a full-fledged secondary high fantasy world, though. It existed along real places such as Athens and it was subjected to the whims of the Greek gods. Moreover, the literary approach of Plato was not followed for many centuries, namely until modern methods in the historical and related human sciences were first developed, above all, in Germany as from the first half of the 19th century. It was precisely in that period when the very first full high fantasy world was conceived: Eduard Mörike and Ludwig Bauer imagined during the summer of 1825 Orplid, an island having existed in the Pacific where an imaginary civilization thrived in full isolation, with no relation whatsoever with any people from our world. Orplid has its own integral culture, with its own toponomastics, its own history with several kingdoms and states fighting each other for supremacy, its own religion with its own gods and myths… All of this was invented, or rather subcreated, following the methods of inquiry in human sciences, namely in the so-called Humanities. Mörike even drew a map, unfortunately now lost, of that island with its cities and states, as well as its natural features. Bauer described the physical and human geography of the island in the introduction to his drama Der heimliche Maluff (Hidden Maluff, 1828), which can be considered the first published modern high fantasy work. Bauer also offered in that same introductory paratext the outlines of the history of the kingdoms of Orplid and of the pagan religion common to all its inhabitants.

Shortly thereafter, a British writer, John Sterling, and a German one, Karl Immermann, subcreated equally consistent fictional universes in their respective etiological myths on the origin of warriors narrated in “The Sons of Iron,”included without title in Sterlings’s novel from 1833 Arthur Coningsby, and of our own universe in “Mondscheinmärchen,” or ‘Tale of the Moonshine,’ included in Immermann’s novel from 1836 Die Epigonen (The Epigones). These two stories are perhaps the first modern instances of mythopoetic subcreations using the language of mythographic form, well before Lord Dunsany’s masterful collections of invented cosmogonic myths titled The Gods of Pegāna (1905) and Time and the Gods (1906).

The first high fantasy long narrative came soon after. In France, George Sand subcreated in Évenor et Leucippe (Evenor and Leucippe, 1856) a fully imaginary early human civilization within which existed a secluded second ‘secondary world’ called Eden, where lived the last of the dives lived, a race of angelic pre-human beings endowed with some supernatural powers, and whose last specimen died just after having imparted moral lessons to the young lovers after whom the novel is titled. These lovers were eventually forced to escape from their fellow humans, along with other peace seekers, to that refuge of Eden in order not to suffer the political intrigues and wars which were corrupting their civilization. Sand’s double secondary world was inspired by Platonic Atlantis and the primordial myths of the ancient Hebrew book of Genesis, but it differs from both by its secular and non-mythic character. Sand published the book with a long paratextual introduction where she invoked the latest theories and discoveries of her time on the transformation of species and the possibility of prehistoric societies very different from those archaeologically documented. Thus, she tried to explain what sort of parable her novel was, but to little avail. Her novel was rather unsuccessful among readers, as was later a longer novel by her son Maurice titled Le coq aux cheveux d’or (The Golden-Haired Rooster, 1867), in which the Platonic legend of Atlantis was retold in such a way that it could be read today as an early example of later Howardian sword and sorcery fiction. The same can be said of an earlier example of that sort of fiction but with female protagonists, the Spanish novel Las amazonas (The Amazons, 1852) by Pedro Mata.

All these works came perhaps too early. It was a time when Gustave Flaubert’s novels were making modern ‘realism’ triumph, even in narratives set in an ancient exotic past, such as Salammbô (1862). However, this very same book was a testament to the new public interest for civilizations different from the classic and biblical ones, both in space and in time, from those of the Neolithic (e. g. novels on the pike-dwelling settlements in Central Europe) to those of Polynesia. Most of these civilizations had recently been (re)discovered by scholars and the wider educated public, thanks to far-reaching geographical and archaeological explorations, which were accompanied by the decisive development of philology. This science allowed to understand living and dead languages previously unknown in Europe and westernized America. This understanding contributed numerous myths, legends and even truly occurred histories to common knowledge all over the world.

Consequently, not only retellings by European and American writers of all this new worldwide cultural heritage were published in the 19th and early 20th century, but also some works portraying imaginary equivalents of the ancient cultures that archaeology and philology were gradually revealing. A representative example, due to its extensive and obvious use of human sciences to build a rich secondary high fantasy world, is the novella “Dyusandir y Ganitriya” (Djusandir and Ganitrija, 1903) by Luis Valera. This romantic legend about the two young lovers of the title is presented as a story told to the narrator by a Czech archaeologist who had found and deciphered the relevant documents stemming from an imaginary Puruna empire, a fully invented Indo-European ancient civilization in Asia. Valera describes it to minute detail, including the political organization and history of the two Puruna nations, as well as their shared religious beliefs and rituals, as they could have been reconstructed by archaeology, to the point of even discussing divergent hypotheses on the historical reliability of the narrated facts. The extent of Valera’s recourse to the historical sciences was not to be matched for quite a long time, but other contemporary narratives were also using similar methods of subcreation based on the Humanities. Among the examples by renowned authors that could be mention are the historic-looking high fantasy romances by William Morris, both without supernatural features, such as The Roots of the Mountains (1890), and with them, such as The Story of the Glittering Plain (1891), as well as other works rather inspired by ethnography, such as Gabriele D’Annunzio’s short narrative poem “Il sangue delle vergini” (Virgins’ Blood, 1883/1894), and philology, such as J.-H. Rosny aîné’s novella “Les Xipéhuz” (The Xipehuz, 1887), which is presented as a critical translation, including notes, of a document written in a language prior to the first ones documented in Mesopotamia.

Shortly afterwards, following Lord Dunsany’s fictional mythographic works, high fantasy acquired in the English-speaking major nations a critical mass unknown in the other linguistic areas where high fantasy was also first developed. Without diminishing the significance of weird high fantasists such as Clark Ashton Smith and of their French Decadent masters such as Camille Mauclair, high fantasy reached maturity mainly due to the monumental work of two writers, each of them representative of the two main strands of later high fantasy: the one focusing on subcreated history and the other focusing on subcreated myth. Robert E. Howard came first with his stories on the adventures of Conan in Hyboria, a land on our Earth where civilizations thrived prior to recorded history. Although older than Howard, Tolkien published later his narratives set in Middle-Earth, which was a part of Arda, a mythic universe having preceded ours. After them, high fantasy followed its course until today without major changes.[2] Howard and Tolkien did not invent high fantasy, but their work helped it become an accepted and specific sort of fiction. They are, therefore, of paramount importance, also for our inquiry, since they produced important texts suggesting that the scientific contents of high fantasy are not only related to the methods of the Humanities, but alto to their discourses, to the rhetoric governing their conventions when presenting their findings to the scholarly community, as well as to the general public.


A touch of rhetoric

The rhetoric of the Humanities and generally the human sciences consists in the set of linguistic conventions governing the presentation of their arguments and conclusions, this is to say, the kinds of writing specific to each of them. This particular register allows readers to recognize that a narration of past events is not told as if these events were invented stories, but documented facts in our universe and time, among human beings interacting with each other (historiography), or in a supernatural dimension where gods and godlike entities are shown as really acting (mythography). A specific kind of rhetoric also signals if we are describing the rites and customs of a particular population (ethnography), or if we are rather trying to explain the features of a text, from its language to its deeper meaning, as it can be guessed from it using the philological method. Describing the full range of rhetorical conventions across the different human sciences could be the subject of huge treatises. It will suffice for now that these formal conventions determining the discourses of those sciences are to be abundantly found in high fantasy from its very beginning. Ludwig Bauer already felt the need to explain, using those discourses, what Orplid looked like, and how its culture was shaped, in order to put his literary fiction related to his imaginary island in an apparently factual context. The language of science was then used to present the invented secondary world as having really existed, thus supporting the realistic plausibility of the fictional events presented as taking place in that world. A similar rhetorical procedure was occasionally followed by Howard and Tolkien. Both great masters of high fantasy produced mock documentary writings with the clear purpose of complementing their novelistic subcreation, which lacked any discursive authority, with expository pieces that could have that authority. In this way, their statements about their subcreated worlds seem to be the result of scientific inquiry, at least formally. In Howard, the rhetoric chosen is that of historiography in “The Hyborian Age” (1936/1938), which tells the history of the Earth several millennia ago, when Conan fought against his many enemies in the realms supposedly existing in that distant epoch. For his part, Tolkien began the subcreation of the fictional universe of his novel The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) by narrating his cosmogony as a piece of mythography in “Ainulindalë,”although this text only appeared posthumously in 1975.

Thus, Tolkien shows that the subcreation of the secondary world could predate the writing of the related fiction itself. Even if the world-building exercise in high fantasy does not necessarily predate the literary operation of the subcreated world, it is often considered convenient to underline its ontological status as an independent and full reality on its own by presenting it as such through rhetorically non-fictional means. A high fantasy book or series may therefore frequently be accompanied by paratexts objectively describing the setting and culture of the relevant world, or by companion books entirely devoted to that description. This is the case of fictional encyclopedias in which the subcreated worlds are comprehensively presented, including their geography, history, social and political organization, among other data. This is the case, for instance, of The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (1997) by Robert Jordan & Teresa Patterson.

In addition to fictional encyclopedias combining texts written in the manner of the various human sciences, there is also several high fantasy books entirely written as if they were compilation of myths, such as O’Yarkandal (1929) by Salarrué. Historiographic accounts also exist in high fantasy, such as the imaginary chronicle of the world of Westeros titled Fire & Blood (2018) by George R. R. Martin. Ethnography has not been neglected either in this genre, since there are some interesting books devoted to the description of the manners and rituals of imaginary ancient civilizations, for example, those of Los zumitas (The Zumites, 1999) by Federico Jeanmaire. For its part, philology, understood as the science of editing, translating and interpreting texts, has inspired the creation of anthologies of pseudo-translated literary documents from subcreated civilizations, sometimes linked to a particular fictional cycle, such as The Rivan Codex (1998) by David & Leigh Eddings, as well as in the form of independent books that suffice, along with the comments of the supposed editor/translator, to subcreate a whole world through the texts allegedly produced there. In particular Frédéric Werst did so in his two volumes of Ward (2011-2014), which are presented as a bilingual edition of a selection of classics of the Ward civilization in French and in the imaginary language of that invented nation, a language created from scratch by the author and whose grammar and vocabulary are fully offered in these two books, thus surpassing the limited attempts of Tolkien at writing texts directly in a subcreated language.

Ward probably represents the extreme point that can be reached in world-building through fictional non-fiction, but all those examples and others that could be mentioned hint at the importance that the rhetoric of human sciences has always had in high fantasy. Even in the usual commercial three-, five- seven- or n- deckers that are currently crushing bookshelves and high fantasy itself under the sheer weight of their literary fat, the unavoidable maps in the printed volumes are to be seen as a token sign of the scientific seriousness of their world-building. Drawing a map is certainly easier than devising a whole language and the culture going with it; it is also easier than telling the whole history of a world beyond the limited sphere of some individual characters. Drawing a map may also prove easier than knowing how to use the language proper to each human science correctly, but the fact that maps of imaginary lands are so pervasive in high fantasy books suggests how closely intertwined this genre has become with the Humanities. Even in the many cases where commercial considerations supersede literary ones, high fantasy seems to be reluctant to cut all ties to science, perhaps because these ties are no less essential to it than they are to ‘science fiction.’


And conclusions, for good measure

Human sciences are as scientific, albeit in another way, as the applied sciences which have inspired canonical works in science fiction proper such as H. G Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), as well as the social sciences underpinning utopian fictions such as William Morris’ News from Nowhere (1890). They are also as scientific as the natural sciences describing the material universe, including living beings, in xenofictions such as Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937), to which one could very well add the divine sciences of metaphysics and theology transposed into fiction through symbolic and allegorical works such as George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858), whereas formal sciences have found some fictional counterparts in mathematical fantasies such as Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland (1884). The relative true cognitive value of those different sciences is open to discussion, but it can hardly be denied that human sciences have allowed us to obtain a wealth of valuable insights about our diverse past on a sound documentary basis, second only to the information gleaned from natural sciences in their field. Since high fantasy is the kind of speculative fiction corresponding to at least some human sciences, it deserves to be considered just as speculative and scientific as ‘science fiction,’ although high fantasy has traditionally been more open to the supernatural, precisely in the same way as human cultures have traditionally been prone to believing in divine interventions as well.

The key to our understanding of high fantasy, as opposed to the usual fairy tale staple with unicorns and elves that often mimics it, is not the supernatural understood as a matter of fact in its fictional universe, but the rational way it approaches it. According to Palmer-Patel, “Fantasy can be defined as a narrative that you use similar structures and language of Mythology, Legends, and Fairy-Tales to create a new world with its own rational laws. As a result, Fantasy fiction is logical even when it is not possible. (…) Fantasy must have internally consistent laws as a point of reference from which the reader can hope to understand the fiction. (…) the Fantasy genre, though often defined by the ‘impossible’, still follows the logic of our current scientific and philosophical understanding of the world.”[3] If magic in high fantasy could very well have stemmed from fairy tales and inherited myths, it is no less true that a mutation occurred in the 19th century that gave rise to a new genre of speculative fiction that cleaves as much as science fiction to the “positivist spirit” and to the “logic of our scientific and philosophical understanding of the world.” In this context, science brings authority, but also ‘realism,’ which is a term that we should understand here as a modern literary approach intended to give fiction an illusory ‘effect of reality’ supported by the authority of science as conveyor of ‘truth(s).’

Certain historical conclusions in a number of human sciences seem to obey more to the prejudices of past mentalities than to the actual reality of the studied cultures, resulting in interpretations that we considered erroneous now, perhaps on the basis of our own biases. This fact should not hinder, however, our recognition of the scientific status of their methods, just as the methods of the natural sciences do not prevent further discoveries from modifying and even refuting previously widely accepted ideas on the material universe. In fiction as well, the human sciences in properly conceived high fantasy are no less logical and rationally sound that the natural sciences in xenofiction and the applied sciences in ‘science fiction,’ both traditionally put under a single taxonomic umbrella, despite their widely divergent ‘scientific’ approaches. In this perspective, and considering that it often borrows the discourses, or at least the maps, typical of human sciences as well, we can only conclude that booksellers were right after all. Indeed, high fantasy is science fiction in its broadest sense.

[1] High fantasy excludes Christianity, as well as any other really existing religion in the present or the past, since such a significant dimension of a culture would deny the secondary world its full completeness and independence from the primary one. This is why the medieval fantasy romances by William Morris, where Christian monks exist as much as papal Rome, are to be excluded from high fantasy, despite Lin Carter’s contention that these romances are the first instances of the genre. There are other works by Morris which would truly qualify as high fantasy, without being in any case the ‘first’ ones. High fantasy had long been invented elsewhere, as we will see.

[2] It could be argued that Ursula K. Le Guin’s high fantasy narratives set in Earthsea are mainly inspired by Ethnology, given the importance in that fictional universe of rituals and ceremonies, whereas history proper, which usually focuses on the secular exercise of power and on the fights to secure it, is downplayed. In this, her Earthsea books were the main literary heirs to an early masterpiece of ethnological high fantasy, Laurence Housman’s novella “Gods and Their Makers” (1897). However, perhaps due to the lesser narrative potential that ethnography has compared to historiography and mythography, contemporary high fantasy has rarely adopted the ethnologic approach as its main tool when it comes to fictional world-building.

[3] C. Palmer-Patel, The Shape of Fantasy: Investigating the Structure of American Heroic High Fantasy, New York, Routledge, 2000, p. 5 (italics in the original).


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