The eagle-eyed reader at the English Faculty Library may have spotted our new display on Fantasy Fiction: spanning two display cases that explore the ‘Classic Roots’ of fantasy in literature and the ways that it’s been ‘Branching Out’ in the last couple of decades. This blog post is the third and final part of the collection (after all, who doesn’t love a trilogy?). ‘Scattered Seeds’ looks at some fantasy-themed digital editions available in the Bodleian and beyond, and the ways in which fantasy has grown beyond fiction – and sometimes even circles right back around to its literary beginnings…
The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor
This tale from Middle Egypt is stated by Richard Mathews to be “the earliest” of “the oldest known examples of ancient fiction – texts we would now call fantasy” (p.6). The short tale can be read in its entirety on pages 261-264 in Ancient Egyptian Literature (which is available as both an electronic resource and in the Sackler). Lichtheim gives us this tantalizing piece of contextual information about the papyrus copy which dates from the Middle Kingdom: “The only preserved papyrus copy of the tale was discovered by Gole-nischeff in the Imperial Museum of St. Petersburg. Nothing is known about its original provenience.” (p.260). I could write a whole blog about how interesting the historical contexts of this story are, but that would be quite the tangent – besides, Joshua J. Mark has already done such a fascinating job of that over on World History Encyclopaedia.
The story, short though it may be, contains many of the trappings of a typical fantasy narrative. From the hero’s voyage, to the frame narrative that Mathews calls a “clear precursor” to The Thousand and One Nights, even down to the fantastic serpentine monster that Mathews considers a “prototype” of fantasy fiction’s greatest looming threat: the dragon (p.6). Given its age, this story is clearly not a scattered seed of the genre, but I have included it because I believe it could be the seed of the genre.
We’ve well established within this blog post and the aforementioned displays that adaptation, reinvention, and influence are the bread and butter of the fantasy genre, linking the most modern works right back to the shipwrecked sailor. But the pivot to television and film adaptation added a whole new dimension to the fantasy genre, and encouraged massive innovation not only in the way that on-screen content was produced (e.g. special effects) but also in the way that fantasy fiction in the 21st century is often written and published with forethought to screen adaptation.
One of the oldest examples of fantasy screen adaptations is the silent movie The Thief of Bagdad, released in 1924 and later colourised and given special effects in 1940. This was the first feature-length adaptation from The Thousand and One Nights, and it’s available in the EFL’s film collection. Armitt implies that this adaptation keeps faithful to the original book when she says it “is careful to retain an overt connection with books and storytelling” (p.35). She also compares it favourably to Disney’s Aladdin (1992) in terms of its international politics (p.37). Disney, of course, has carved deep grooves in the canon of fantasy films, but they are not the only studio to wade into the genre. The last 30 years has seen a boom in the fantasy film and TV adaptation, including adaptations of the literary giants mentioned in our display.
Crucially, what these adaptations bring is not simply a motion picture of your favourite book, but a collaborative invitation of new ideas, a restructuring to benefit a different audience, or previously unseen depths to the characters, world, or narrative events. For example Peter Jackson, in his adaptation of The Hobbit, altered the plotline to include some allusions and characters that appear later in the Rings trilogy. This decision and similar choices in the Lord of the Rings films, likely served multiple purposes: for example in The Hobbit, allowing the narrative to expand across three feature-length films, or adding some female characters to what was originally a male-dominated book. Generally speaking, these kinds of changes allow a narrative to speak to different audiences, priorities, and cultural contexts.
To emphasise this final point on cultural context, let me borrow a quote from The Fantasy Film by Katherine A. Fowkes: “Tolkien eschewed an allegorical reading of [The Lord of the] Rings, but there is no denying that both the films’ military triumphalism and their emphasis on solidarity and friendship speak to and reflect the historical moment of their release.” (p.144). Her book is available to loan from the EFL, and contains a far more comprehensive exploration of fantasy cinema than could ever be achieved in a single blog post.
TV and film aren’t the only places that one can find an abundance of influence from fantasy fiction. Gaming has had a growth (or renaissance!) in the last few decades, from video to board to table-top, fantasy is prevalent throughout the gaming. A prime example of this is The Witcher, which began as a series of books written by Andrzej Sapkowski. The first book was released in 1986 (and the complete electronic box set is available in the Bodleian reading rooms!), and since that time the series has been adapted into, among other things, a trilogy of video games (beginning with The Witcher, 2009). The video games in particular were wildly successful, and are played in the RPG (role-playing game) style – favouring narrative and storytelling, which seems fitting given the roots of the games.
To bring my point to a full circle, I’d like to end this (already rambling) blog by talking about a different type of role-playing game – that is, the table-top role-playing game. For the uninitiated, these games are played by a group of people collaboratively telling a story and engaging in combat/exploration, aided by rolling dice. RPGs are not necessarily fantasy-themed endeavours, but one of the most renowned games: Dungeons and Dragons, was (in the words of Edward James) “initially inspired by Tolkien, but RPGs have taken their fantasy settings from other novels, and they have also been the core texts upon which novelizations have been based.” (p.75). James then goes on to mention the example of the Dragonlance universe created by Laura and Tracy Hickman, and published in hundreds of novels (some of which, yes, are available through the Bodleian: Dragonlance Tales (1991), for example). Therefore, we have books inspiring games and circling back round to inspiring books.
I bring this up because I think it is a perfect encapsulation of creativity begetting creativity. In all honestly, it is nothing new or particular to the fantasy genre that one form of art can inspire and breed creativity in another art form. A brilliant idea may begin as ‘inspired’, but grow into something independent and wonderful – even sometimes beyond the remit of the original – but nowhere does this astound me more than in fantasy: in a genre where the writer builds the world in its entirety, where that world can be populated or changed or developed by multiple hands.
Whether you are watering the growing buds of your predecessors, collecting fruits from their boughs, or climbing the branches of matured trees to catch sight of something fresh and new – it all comes from a seed – and always back to a seed.
Armitt, L., 2020. Fantasy, London: Routledge
Fowkes, K.A., 2010. The Fantasy Film, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 2012. Jackson, P., dir. [Film] Warner Bros Pictures
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, 2013. Jackson, P., dir. [Film] Warner Bros Pictures
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, 2014. Jackson, P., dir. [Film] Warner Bros Pictures
James, E., ‘Tolkien, Lewis, and the Explosion of Genre Fantasy’ in James, E. & Mendlesohn, F., 2012. The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Lane, E.W. & Poole, E.S., 1865. The Thousand and One Nights: Commonly called in England, The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments: a New Translation from the Arabic, with Copious Notes, London: Routledge
Lichtheim, M., 2019. Ancient Egyptian Literature, Oakland, California: University of California Press
Mark, Joshua J.. ‘The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor: An Egyptian Epic.’ World History Encyclopedia. Last modified January 18, 2012. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/180/the-tale-of-the-shipwrecked-sailor-an-egyptian-epi/
Mathews, R., 2002. Fantasy: the Liberation of Imagination, New York; London: Routledge
Sapkowski, A., Stok, D. & French, D., 2020. The Witcher Boxed Set, London: Gollancz
The Thief of Bagdad, 2001. Walsh, R., [Film] Eureka