Fantastic Journey through Time

a century of fantasy
Some of the titles I pulled for this post.

We were talking, my First Reader and I, about what to write for you Mad Geniuses. He suggested writing about old hats. Not literal hats, although it is a lot of fun to look at costume through the ages and see how fashions have changed. But what about writing? he asked, how can you pick up something that is old hat, knock the dust off, and create something fresh and new?

I’m not entirely sure you can, but it sparked another thought. Prose styles have changed over the years. What was once eminently readable and made for a book you could curl up with and while away an afternoon now reads leadenly, making it more work to read than it is worth.

I walked from the office into the library (well, sitting room, but it’s where the books are kept in our house) and called for him to follow me. I opened the hutch where I keep my antique books and started trying to decide where to start. The First Reader reached over my shoulder and tapped a spine. “Fantasy,” he suggested.

So we begin with a century-long voyage through time with fantastic tales, to see how prose has changed, and remember fondly stories that we may have outgrown, but affect us to this very day. Before the genre we call Fantasy came into being, there were fairy tales and folklore, like the collected tales that Andrew Lang put into the ‘color’ fairy books. I have a couple of these, and pulled The Red Fairy Book off my shelf. This was originally published in 1890.

“Well, I can’t stand it.’ says Koshchei the Deathless.  ‘I will pursue.’

After a time he came up with Prince Ivan, lighted on the ground, and was going to chop him up with his sharp sword. But at that moment Prince Ivan’s horse smote Koshchei the Deathless full swing with its hoof, and cracked his skull, and the Prince made and end of him with a club. Afterwards the Prince heaped up a pile of wood, set fire to it, burnt Koshchei the Deathless on the pyre, and scattered his ashes to the wind. Then Marya Morevna mounted Koshchei’s horse and Prince Ivan got on his own, and they rode away to visit first the Raven, and then the Eagle, and then the Falcon. Wherever they went they met with a joyful greeting. 

‘Ah, Prince Ivan! why, we never expected to see you again. Well, it wasn’t for nothing you gave yourself so much trouble. Such a beauty as Marya Morevna one might search for all the world over – ad never find one like her!'”

I have in my hands a 1920 edition of Arabian Nights. (If you’d like to see some of the illustrations from these two oldest books in the post, look here).

“The captain of the thieves, with a bag on his shoulder, came close to a rock, at the roots of the tree in which Ali Baba had hidden himself. Then he called out, “Open, Sesame!” Instantly a door in the rock opened; and the captain and all his men quickly passed in, and the door closed again. They stayed there for a long time. Meanwhile, Ali Baba was compelled to wait in the tree, as he was afraid some of them might see him if he left his hiding-place. 

“At length the door opened, and the forty thieves came out. The captain stood at the door until all his men had passed out. Then Ali Baba heard him say, “Shut, Sesame!” Each man then bridled his horse and rode away. 

“Ali Baba did not come down from the tree at once, because he thought the robbers might have forgotten something, and come back. He watched them for as long as he could, and did not leave the tree for a long time after he had lost sight of them. Then, remembering the words the captain had used to open and shut the door, he made his way to it, and called out, “Open, Sesame!” Instantly the door flew wide open!”

Now, despite the rather stiff writing style, I love that later in the story Ali Baba’s clever friend Morgiana boils the thieves in oil, but then again, I’ve been known to be a bit bloodthirsty.

In 1937 a little book called The Hobbit appeared in print for the first time, and the genre we now call epic, or classic, fantasy was born.

“So they laughed and sang in the trees; and pretty fair nonsense I daresay you think it. Not that they would care; they would only laugh all the more if you told them so. They were elves or course. Soon Bilbo caught glimpses of them as the darkness deepened. He loved elves, though he seldom met them; but he was a little frightened of them too. Dwarves don’t get on well with them. Even decent enough dwarves like Thorin and his friends think them foolish (which is a foolish thing to think), or get annoyed with them. For some elves tease them and laugh at them, and most of all their beards.”

I don’t know when the crossover genre of science fiction so far advanced as to become fantasy was born, but I know my favorite example of it is Glory Road by Robert A Heinlein, which originally appeared in 1963. I’ve quoted the roc’s egg passage recently, so here is a little more playful passage.

“Singing birds are better than alarm clocks, and Barsoom was never like this. I stretched happily and smelled coffee and wondered if there was time for a dip before breakfast. It was another perfect day, blue and clear and the sun just up, and I felt like killing dragons before lunch. Small ones, that is.

I smothered a yawn and rolled to my feet. The lovely pavilion was gone and the black box mostly repacked; it was no bigger than a piano box. Star was kneeling before a fire, encouraging that coffee. She was a cave-woman this morning, dressed in a hide that was fancy but not as fancy as her own. From an ocelot, maybe. Or from Du Pont. 

‘Howdy, Princess,’ I said. “What’s for breakfast?”

Here we see that the prose and story-telling begin to become more informal, more natural to the way people spoke and interacted on a daily basis. Or maybe they really did talk like that back in the turn of the century, but somehow I doubt it.

Bringing the stories up to a much more modern, and funny, standard, I have Terry Pratchett’s Mort in my hand now.This was published in 1987, but his tales of Ankh-Morporkh are somehow timeless, as they capture humanity with all its warts, and sometimes regret that capture, as you will see; his characters are not always housebroken.

“‘And they was kings in those days, real kings, not like the sort you get now. They was monarchs,”continued Albert, carefully pouring some tea into his saucer and fanning it primly with the end of his muffler. “I mean, they was wise and fair, well, fairly wise. And they wouldn’t think twice about cutting your head off soon as look at you,” he nodded approvingly. “And the queens were tall and pale and wore them balaclava helmet things -“

“Wimples?” Mort asked. 

“Yeah, them, and the princesses were beautiful as the day is long, and so noble they, they could pee through a dozen mattresses -” 

Marching forward with time, we come to the book published in , a random one of my Dresden File books, Proven Guilty. Urban fantasy, as Butcher writes it, is night to the day of Tolkein, but still, as you will see, with common threads drawing them together in the genre tapestry.

She prowled across the room to us, all hips and lips and fascinating eyes, looking far too young to move with such wanton sensuality. I knew better. She could have been a century old. She chose to look the way she did because of what she was: the Winter Lady, youngest Queen of Unseelie Court, Mab’s understudy in wickedness and power. When she walked by the flowers that bloomed in Lily’s presence, they froze over, withered, and died. She gave them no more notice than Lily had. 

“Harry Dresden,” she said, her voice low, lulling, and sweet.”

And I said, “Hello, Maeve.”

So what do you all think? Is the old worn out and needing to be discarded? I don’t believe so. Rejuvenated with modern language, perhaps. Retellings of old stories are something I enjoy, as I have done a version of Little Red Riding Hood which I really ought to expand on. And I could keep pulling books off my shelf for hours, but the First Reader is sitting here patiently reading Daniel Hood’s A Familiar Dragon and waiting for my attention. Time to spend some real-life time outside the covers of a book, methinks.

40 thoughts on “Fantastic Journey through Time

  1. First thing I noticed about the Hobbit excerpt was that it’s the only one with a narrator (“I daresay”), But Butcher’s introduction to Maeve made me say “wow”. When I grow up I wanna write like that.

    1. Yes 🙂 I really need to do a re-read, but not until after I’m done with Dragon Noir, I don’t need to absorb his flavor, I’m going back to source materials for the Noir.

      1. You too?
        I always have to be careful about that. I’ll pick up certain flavors and phrases from my latest read, and they’ll pop up in the strangest places. Sometimes I have to speak quite forcefully to myself to tamp such things down a bit.
        Absorbing a bit of flavor ain’t necessarily a bad thing, but that wretch what lives in the back of my brain is a downright thief.

        1. A proper thief files off the serial numbers when a phrase starts looking too familiar… *chuckle*

      1. Funny thing is, your copies of the illustrations made me go back and check MY copy of the Arabian Nights, and I realized it’s not the same one. (Mine was published in Philadelphia, and has only a few colored plates.) I haven’t really cracked it open since I was a kid, and I never read the whole thing.

        1. The first known English edition appeared in 1726, from my research. There have been hundreds if not thousands of them, and this one just happened to be what I had on my shelf. The one I grew up with had been my mother’s when she was a girl, and was part of a collection of books that were bound two to a cover, one right-side up and the other upside down (depending on how you held it).

          1. Your grandma got me those books when I was about eight or nine. I read insatiably (sort of like you, my dear, LOL!) and living on the homestead in Alaska, we didn’t have access to a library, so Mom tried hard to find reading material for me. Those double books were supposed to come one or two per month, which she hoped would give me a year’s worth of reading material, but after one initial shipment, they sent all the rest at once, and I had read all of them within a few days!

  2. Interesting subject. If you go further back, you come to things like “Gulliver’s Travels” (1726), which I think is arguably fantasy. One can even postulate that “The Travels of Marco Polo” (13th century – predating the invention of printing) might have been read as ‘fantasy’ by many of his audience, because the cultures and places he described were so different to their experience that they might as well have been fictional inventions.

    Then, of course, there’s the long-standing ‘practical joke’ type of fantasy – making people believe what they want to believe, based on what’s new and ‘fantastic’ in contemporary society. One of my favorite examples is the so-called ‘Dreadnought hoax’:

    Fantasy indeed!


    1. Oh, I agree on Gulliver’s Travels, and we were talking about Cyrano de Bergerac as well. I’d just limited this post to paper books on my shelf in the interests of keeping the post to a readable length! The First Reader suggested I consider doing a series, more in depth, taking a look at periods (like eighteenth century, or mid-twentieth) by themselves.

      It does reveal a lot about the population when you look at the fiction they enjoyed, doesn’t it? Thought-provoking.

      1. I’d call it “social satire” instead of “political commentary in disguise” (if there’s a difference). [Wink]

        However, even leaving out the “social satire” Gulliver’s Travels is closer to the old “travelers tales” told when people didn’t know what was possible in different lands and you could imagine all sorts of marvels out there.

        I’ve heard arguments that “travelers tales” aren’t really fantasy because while they contain “fantastic elements” they were told in a time when the tellers/listeners could believe that the “fantastic elements” could be true elsewhere in the world.

    2. Gulliver’s Travels might even count as hard science fiction, when one considers the state of the art of science in the 1720’s.

  3. I delight in the archaic language, though. It would almost be a pity to update the stories. Now stealing the basic ideas and plots and maybe even a character or three . . .

    1. Maybe it’s because I grew up on Andrew Lang, and Howard Pyle, and other Victorian collectors of folk-tales, but I like the old language. It has a sense of special magic to it, where the repetitions and rabbit trails are often important. If I were going to write a book of fairy tales from an alternate timeline, say, I’d be tempted to use similar language.

      As Pam says, stealing them? Oh yeah. I’ve got an idea about a Russian emigrant cab driver who almost has a heart attack from fear as he’s stuck in traffic on I-25 in Denver and a little house on chicken feet stalks past . . .

    2. I’m with Pam; the archaic language is delightful! Update the language? Pshaw! Might as well “update” Shakespeare, or the King James Bible. Oh, wait: that’s already been done, hasn’t it? (And badly done, at that [grin])

      1. I saw a thing.

        It was about a Shakespeare production in London where they decided to do their best to revert to period pronunciation. Of course we do Shakespeare’s words, but that still doesn’t catch it all. Particularly things like rhymes and double meanings. They were worried that the audience would have trouble with the language shift but found that, in some sense, it made it easier for the audience to follow rather than harder.

        I thought that was all pretty cool. It mostly seemed to be a few words… they demonstrated some of the differences.

    3. Oh same, same. I’ve used odd phrasing to set characters apart (as older and very much out of touch) and the archaic language in some of the books of yore are great fodder for dialogue style research.

      I know it’s hard for us to imagine people talking like that back in the day, but I’ve experienced first hand some of those differences in speech, and it’s utterly fascinating. (Not quite so severe, but as an example, someone who speaks in a certain manner, as was what was considered the proper way for a well bred lady / gentleman to speak. Heaven forbid you try to address them in informal manners!)

  4. “Filing off serial numbers” is more than just “changing the language.” It can be as simple as “a helicopter firing rockets, looks like a fire breathing dragon.” Most of “Shakespeare” gets rewritten regularly, in “modern language,” and I don’t mean “updated” language. So do many “Faery tales.” But, that doesn’t mean that we can’t “pull old legends into ‘Modern Times.” Baba Yaga’s house stalking the streets of D.C., would be interesting.:-) Obama with the house in background out the window, saying, on the phone. “What do you mean ‘there’s a house on chicken legs,’ coming over the fence?” (Having planted _that_ evil thought, I will take my leave.)

    1. Cool! I have a few in the Old digital library (as separated from my current Amazon-based Kindle library). I put a link in at least one of these posts to the Red Fairy Book, as well. I use them for research for the Noir books, and other projects.

  5. Richard S. Prather’s ‘Shell Scott’ description of an innocent girl walking down the street has made me want to write a detective story just so I can have an excuse to copy that style. Poetry in motion; yeah!

  6. The language an author uses is what makes the story unique. Shakespeare in ‘modern English’ simply isn’t Shakespeare. And I have to admit to loving the King James Version of the Bible, only partly because it was the first Bible I had. I HAVE read some old books that were a struggle to get through, but suspect that contemporaries of the author would have felt the same way!

    My favorite old story is Swiss Family Robinson, but as it wasn’t written in English, and has been translated several times, the style varies according to the translator. I actually prefer the older translations.

    1. I have no problem with the language, it’s the style of the construction that feels stiff and stilted to me in this arabian nights version and the fairy tales. I don’t remember if I was reading George MacDonald in the dialect while I was still at home, or after? But that was an interesting experience. I had to stop reading pretty much anything else and immerse myself. When English isn’t English…

      1. In the early 18th century nobody knew anything about biophysics — the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians seem perfectly plausible from a c. 1700 scientific basis. Likewise magnetism was almost like magic; none of the math was known and so the Laputan lodestone seems reasonable. And the Houyhnhnms actually are biologically-plausible — the equines might very well have produced a sapient species or equine-descended genus.

  7. I like using the “classic guys and gals” as inspiration, and on how they do certain things.

    Louis L’Amour had great fist fights and action sequences. A lot to learn there. Even though he didn’t spend a lot of time on “character development” you wound up feeling you knew the characters.

    Robert E. Howard was probably peerless for action. His character development maybe wasn’t a strength, but his fight scenes were {the longsword fight in “Hour of the Dragon” even stands up martially}

    H. Beam Piper had decent action scenes, but also had a great formula for keeping the story moving.

    Poul Anderson had a way of adding subtle dry humor to a story, and had a different formula than Mr. Piper did for moving a story on.

    Roger Zelazny was strong in all of the above areas. He also had the ability to change styles from novel to novel. Of the authors mentioned so far, was strongest on character development. In my opinion, the best author of these greats, and I’m not taking anything away from them.

    Glen Cook {still alive and writing thank God} can really weave a tone, a feel, an emotional background into a story. Those that read and liked the “Black Company” trilogy will know what I mean.

    These aren’t the only ones I read for inspiration, or to see how they do things, you can add a couple of modern authors to it, Others I’ve studied for one reason or another, more modern, Patricia Briggs, Barb Hendee, Jerry Pournelle, David Drake, and Fred Saberhagen.

  8. For a relaxing trip into yesteryear I recommend J.J.Jerome’s Three Men Ina A Boat, but PENROD is a great discourse into turn of the century American youth.

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