David J Howe explores the long tradition of Fantasy fiction and reveals the impact that female writers have had on this most popular of genres.
The roots of fantasy fiction can be traced right back to 1500 BC with the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s 750 BC Iliad and Virgil’s 19 BC Aeneid, not to mention Beowulf in the 8th century. However despite these predominantly male roots, arguably one of the first exponents of modern ‘fantasy’ was Mary Shelley, whose 1818 story Frankenstein; or: the Modern Prometheus was a classic tale of desire and revenge, couched within a fantastic premise: that man could breath life into his own creation. It seems that, in this genre, a good story can be all things, blurring the boundary between science fiction, fantasy and horror with ease.
Female writers have always been prominent in this most popular of genres. In fact, despite the high profile of science fiction, fantasy novels outsell SF by four-to-one, and according to industry statistics, fantasy is one of the most profitable genres in the business. One has only to look at the unprecedented world-wide success of J K Rowling and her engrossing Harry Potter novels to see that fantasy fiction is extremely popular with readers of all ages and that women are diversifying the genre as never before.
For example, in stark contrast to Shelley’s monstrous creation are the cute and acquisitive Borrowers, created by Mary Norton for five novels between 1952 and 1982. Norton also explored whimsical wish-fulfilment with her novels The Magic Bedknob (1943) and Bonfires and Broomsticks (1947) which are perhaps better known today through the Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Mythology and childhood innocence have always been rich sources of inspiration, and authors like Susan Cooper sent a group of modern children embarking on a terrifying ‘Grail quest’ in her award-winning sequence The Dark is Rising (1965 – 77). A similar approach was used by C S Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia (1950 – 1956) while Ursula Le Guin crafted her Earthsea trilogy (1968 – 1972) around the exploits of a young apprentice magician called Ged, an idea returned to by Rowling for her books.
Not all fantasy fiction is for or about children, however, and today female writers are exploring every avenue available to them. The late Marion Zimmer Bradley hit the best-seller lists in 1982 with her interpretation of Arthurian legend The Mists of Avalon, told through the eyes of Morgan le Fay, and went on to produce a library of collaborative works with other female writers. An eagerly awaited sequel, Priestess of Avalon, to be published posthumously next year, is already being tipped for industry awards. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (1968), is the first in an enduring series of novels about the dragons of Pern, a series which has influenced the way in which dragons are now characterised in fantasy. Anne Rice has shaped the way we view vampires; and her sister Alice Borchardt has breathed new life into the werewolf mythos with The Silver Wolf (1998), a stunning tale set in the medieval court of Charlemagne. Robin Hobb is in a class of her own. She’s been compared to Tolkien and Le Guin for the scope and fluidity of her work, and her Farseer trilogy (1995-98) justifies the plaudits. Returning to ancient myth is Jan Siegel who explores the mysteries of Atlantis in Prospero’s Children (1999). And to defy any critics who claim women can’t handle high testosterone sword and sorcery, consider Juliet E. McKenna’s The Thief’s Gamble (1998), or the epic Wars of Light and Shadow series (1993– ) by Janny Wurts. And what about the works of Storm Constantine, Sarah Ash, Mary Gentle, Maggie Furey …?
Bookshop shelves are crammed with fantasy fiction written by talented female authors. It may have been men who started it all off, but women have made a crucial impact on the genre and as we reach the end of the twentieth century it is they who are carrying the traditions, the romance, the excitement and the occasional battle axe into the next millennium.
© 1999 David J Howe