There Have Always been Fantasy Novels For Adults – Article by Author Ryan Howse

Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun came out in the 1980s, and is a perpetual puzzle people still try to solve. Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren dealt with the intersection of race and sexuality in an anarchic city. Gormenghast is a thoughtful book premised around the manipulation of ritual. Evangeline Walton’s retelling of the Mabinogion  is crisp, insightful, and brings ancient folklore to life, and it came out the year Howard died.

Frankly, Tom Shippey should know better.

The Wall Street Journal writer recently pushed an article entitled “Finally: A Grown-up Fantasy.” (Here, for those who wish to brave the paywall: https://www.wsj.com/articles/science-fiction-finally-a-grown-up-fantasy-11595020733)

To be clear, the ledes are usually written by the editors rather than the article author, and it could have simply been a poor title with a reasonable article inside.

It was not.

If the author of the article was simply someone who usually didn’t read fantasy, but had enjoyed Game of Thrones and the old Schwarzenegger Conan, and had stumbled across and enjoyed this book, it would be one thing. It would be a chance to say “Well, if you enjoyed that, why not try this?”

But Shippey is a distinguished academic who has written several books about Tolkien. He has edited both The Oxford Book of Science Fiction and The Oxford Book of Fantasy back in the 1990s. By any stretch, he should be at least vaguely familiar with adult fantasy.

In the article, in addition to Sarah Kozloff’s Nine Realms series that he is reviewing, he brings up precisely two other series—A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, mostly to point out that the last book is pretty late, and Conan.

If one’s premise is that fantasy has just now grown up, one should probably mention books from series that aren’t quite so old at this point. The first ASOIAF novel came out in 1996, and the most recent a decade ago. Robert E Howard died before Shippey was born. To be clear, I enjoy both ASOIAF and Conan, but the idea that they, between them, defined ‘adult’ fantasy prior to the Nine Realms series is utter nonsense.

Now: there is plenty of fantasy out there that is aimed to be fun, rather than deep. (Some, of course, can be both.) No one disputes that. I will note that he is singling out Conan, which was literally pulp fiction, and A Song of Ice and Fire, which is also a page-turner. He does specifically denote heroic fantasy, but within that more narrow definition, it’s hard to determine what constitutes adultness. (Why is Conan adult, but not Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, not Elric, not any of the other famed pulp heroes?) 

“Secondly, The World Fantasy Award has been given out for decades for literary fantasy, which by any measure should include fantasy for grown-ups. Shippey won the award, back in 2001, for a book he wrote about Tolkien. He knows this.”

His definition of fantasy is rather strange as well.

It is, however, a general rule in heroic fantasy that you have to combine two elements in your world-building. First, a medieval world, with swords and halberds, battles and executions, but along with it, a magic strain, spells and witches, amulets and curses.

First off, a medieval world is hardly a prerequisite for fantasy, which is simply about things that are not real. Conan himself did not exist in a medieval world. Nor, for that matter, did Elric, nor Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.

Medieval implicitly suggests fantasy modeled after Europe, and in the last decade there has been an explosion of non-European fantasy.

In much fantasy, the setting predates our current technology, but steampunk, flintlock, and bronze age settings are all common enough. Urban fantasy is huge. While rare, there are even futuristic fantasies, because the genre is limitless.

Secondly, The World Fantasy Award has been given out for decades for literary fantasy, which by any measure should include fantasy for grown-ups. Shippey won the award, back in 2001, for a book he wrote about Tolkien. He knows this.

Madeline Miller’s books are beautiful retellings of ancient Greek myths, with the traditional focus shifted from war and honour to personal relationships. Catherynne Valente’s Deathless cleverly tied Russian folklore with early 20th century Russian history. Hal Duncan’s The Book of All Hours duology follows characters who endlessly reincarnate through our myths and histories. China Mieville’s Iron Council capped off his Bas-Lag trilogy—a trilogy so successful they spawned their own subgenre, for a short time—with the ideals of a revolution that will always be coming and never truly arrive, back in 2003. Those are all adult fantasy novels that came out this century.

Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun came out in the 1980s, and is a perpetual puzzle people still try to solve. Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren dealt with the intersection of race and sexuality in an anarchic city. Gormenghast is a thoughtful book premised around the manipulation of ritual. Evangeline Walton’s retelling of the Mabinogion  is crisp, insightful, and brings ancient folklore to life, and it came out the year Howard died.

And speaking of the Mabinogion, ancient folklore by any stretch absolutely counts as fantasy. Which means: Faust, Hamlet, Macbeth, Beowulf, The Aeneid, The Iliad, The Odyssey, and for that matter, Gilgamesh, one of the earliest pieces of literature of all time—counts as fantasy. These are all mature works, dealing with adult themes.

So no, fantasy didn’t just grow up, in the year 2020, through the publishing of the Nine Realms series. It’s always been that way.  

Ryan Howse

I’m funnier without context.

Okay, you want context.

I’m a mid-30s nerd, married, with two kids. Also two cats–Cathulhu and Necronomicat.
I like, in no particular order, tabletop gaming, board games, arguing over books, ancient history and religion, and puns.
I’m unconundrum on reddit.

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Comments

  1. Pingback: Saturday Miscellany—7/25/20 – The Irresponsible Reader

  2. Montgomery

    So glad for this; the idea that there’s no fantasy for adults (or in general the idea that fantasy has to be a specific way for it to ‘be’ for adults) really doesn’t hold water if you actually read a lot of fantasy, or if you’re at the base level somewhat familiar with the genre.

  3. Claire

    I totally agree. There has always been this image that fantasy is for children or childish in some way (usually with people who don’t read any), but I’ve never understood it… Very odd to come from someone who should be familiar with the genre!

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