Fantasy Forms

Fantasy is not a genre of literature: it is an expression of the imagination and a response to reality. It is an impulse of equal merit to realism. The best literature is that which combines both fantasy and realism – hence fantastic realism becomes an important term for critics – or more recently, the useful ‘Slipstream’. The fact that we have to differentiate fantasy from realism and then attempt to justify it or even apologise for it is evidence of the unjust marginalisation of fantastic literature. It has been left to genre critics to argue the case for fantasy and science fiction although development in theory and criticism is slow. Science fiction is way ahead in these terms, possibly because fantasy is so hard to define, whilst sf has a more specific focus.

In basic terms, fantasy is a huge term that encapsulates many forms and genres, including myths, fairy tales, heroic romance, Gothic, horror, science fiction and magic realism.
What has happened is that definitions and appellations have become mistakenly confused. So a shop will have a section entitled Science Fiction and in it will be found fantasy and horror. Many genre magazines prefer the name science fiction and yet also review and discuss fantasy texts. For them sf includes fantasy, but this makes very little real sense. Why do they prefer the label sf to that of fantasy?

Fantasy has become misrepresented as anything copying Tolkien or plagiarising the Conan mythos. This has led to different attitudes. Firstly, a patronising one that views fantasy as jolly fairy-tale bedtime stories for children, as shown by the popularity of Harry Potter (It’s okay for adults to read but we know that it is really for the kiddies – bless ‘em) and the way folk-tales of yore have become moralising Disney fables with happy endings. Secondly, fantasy is seen as badly written pulp read by anoraks obsessed with role playing games, seeking adolescent wish fulfilment, on a par with pornography. Thirdly, fantasy does not fit in with our rational, materialistic culture, which continues to deny anything spiritual or supernatural, so who wants to read unrealistic stories about magic, other worlds, talking animals or mythical creatures? Some will accept certain fantasy texts because there is clear symbolism or allegory thus giving it direct meaning for our real world. But even then this is denying the whole concept of fantasy. Finally, some are frightened that fantasy only offers an unfeasible method of escape from our real world, thus putting fantasy literature on the same and dangerous level as hard drugs. But why is escape such a bad thing?
Let’s face it even the word ‘fantasy’ immediately creates suspicion; implying sexual desire and perversion. (As a test, type ‘fantasy’ into a search engine – but only if you’re over 18!) Our western culture equates fantasy with something capricious or preposterous. To fantasize suggests that you are unhappy or unsatisfied.

However, the Collins Concise Dictionary defines fantasy as ‘imagination unrestricted by reality’ and this gives us a useful and positive focus. Fantasy is potent exactly because it is free and unrestrained, which also makes it dangerous and subversive, which are good things to be. This freedom means that fantasy is an elusive and protean element that breaks down traditions and boundaries, which is exactly what good literature should do. The dictionary definition reminds us that whilst reality cannot limit it, fantasy is still grounded in and related to reality. I think it is important to remember that the imagination, dreams, desires and spirituality are essential elements of reality and that we ignore them at our own peril. On a related note, I also like the way that the word ‘fantastic’ has come to be used as an informal way of expressing admiration for something on a par with ‘amazing’ or ‘excellent’. This can only encourage people to become less suspicious towards fantasy literature.

To understand fantasy it is helpful to be aware of some of its permutations, which we could call genres for the sake of argument. Different critics prefer particular terms, but the following covers most of what can be considered fantasy.

Myths, legends, fables and folklore: These source texts contain stories, characters, symbolism, locations and tropes that are plundered by fantasy authors. Greek, Roman, Norse, Hindu, Pacific, African, Icelandic, Arabian and British myths and legends continue to feed into contemporary fantasy. What John Clute calls ‘taproot texts’ also include seminal works such as The Canterbury Tales, The Faerie Queene, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Don Quixote, The Pilgrim’s Progress and even Gulliver’s Travels. The anthropomorphic Wind in the Willows and Watership Down are direct descendents of fables whilst E.T.A. Hoffman’s stories are dark fairy tales.

Romance: Chivalric or medieval romance is best exemplified by the Arthurian cycle of legends and poetry, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. This form of heroic romance with its themes of quest and battles between good and evil is the template for classic modern fantasy as practised by William Morris, Lord Dunsany, George MacDonald, JRR Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock and Stephen Donaldson that has been much copied since and is often referred to as ‘sword and sorcery’. Sword and sorcery is a descriptive name, but ‘heroic romance’ is to be preferred. ‘Science fantasy’ on the other hand is a misnomer.

Gothic Romance: In 18th and 19th century Europe, Romanticism was an artistic movement in opposition to the ‘Classicism’ of science and reason, drawing on supernatural and mythological imagery. Leading Romantic philosophers and writers include Rousseau, Goethe, Blake, Keats et al. This movement led to the Gothic novel. The first acknowledged gothic fantasy is The Castle of Ortranto by Horace Walpole; other Gothic authors include Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis and William Beckford; the two best examples are Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Gothic elements can be found in novels by Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens, Daphne Du Maurier, Mervyn Peake and Tanith Lee.

Horror: Horror comes directly from the Gothic Romance of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales, R.L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Some horror relies on supernatural elements, which are more fantastic, whilst other texts are humanistic, in that the violence and mystery can be explained rationally. The master of modern horror is of course H.P. Lovecraft who along with Clarke Ashton Smith wrote some of the classics of supernatural or ‘dark fantasy’. Not to be forgotten are Arthur Machen, Sheriden Le Fanu, Guy de Maupassant as well as contemporary best-selling authors such as Stephen King and Clive Barker.

Science Fiction: As a genre of fantasy, sf typically employs themes of space travel and technology in a futuristic setting. The term ‘hard sf’ signifies a form of explicit scientific realism. Established by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, sf famously went through a ‘golden age’, through the years of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, to the ‘New Wave’ instigated by Moorcock, which was more concerned with ‘inner space’ and psychology, thus opening up the limited boundaries of sf. Cyberpunk is the latest and most important recent subgenre. Utopian fantasies and alternate realities are also often considered sf. ‘Science fantasy’ is a confusing term that Judith Merril suggested to show that sf is an aspect of fantasy.

Magic Realism: Related to surrealism, magic realism interprets reality through dream imagery and abstract symbolism and the term was quite specifically linked with Latin American writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Borges tends to employ intertextual references and create labyrinthine versions of reality. The term can also apply to writers such as Angela Carter and Salman Rushdie who play postmodern games with their readers.

Fabulation: Writers of fabulation tend to break generic boundaries and their mainstream books use fantasy to subvert reality – e.g. Anthony Burgess, William Burroughs, Ital Calvino, Umberto Eco, Franz Kafka and Michael Moorcock. Robert Scholes came up with ‘structural fabulation’ in an attempt to embrace novelists such as William Golding and Doris Lessing who write mainstream and fantasy novels.

Slipstream: A term devised by Bruce Stirling to categorise postmodern writers who react against reality without their books being explicitly fantasy or sf, such as Peter Ackroyd and J.G. Ballard. As the name suggests, slipstream is a reaction to and divergence from the mainstream. Some authors have stories grounded in a recognisable world but are not limited by the strictures of ‘realism’. Slipstream reminds us that reality is not simple, logical or only materialistic, but also consists of dreams, memories, creativity, emotions and spiritual reality.

Clearly, some fantasy just cannot be pigeon-holed, nor should it have to be. This is not the fault of the text, but merely points to the fact that the system of labelling and structuring literature is too limited and narrow. Fantasy continues to subvert not only existing genres and forms, but also subverts the very process of understanding and analysis, showing up literary theory as a futile and finite gesture of those obsessed with categories and labels. However, some labels are useful as a language for reference, but the critical vocabulary needs to widen further.

Fantasy should not be sidelined as the poor relation of realism; something that has to be explained. Fantasy is a potent and enriching resource that is available to any writer who wants to extend the imagination of their readers, explore our world more fully, and to challenge, subvert, shock, amaze and inspire.

Fantasy: Exploring the Imagination

The origins of literature exist in fantasy and fantasy writers include Homer, Euripides, Virgil, Milton, Spenser, Shakespeare, Dickens and James Joyce. Yet in literary terms fantasy is still somewhat marginalized by scholars and critics. Much of it is dismissed as pulp and regarded as science fiction, when sf is a genre of fantasy. Fantasy is also treated in a patronising way and labelled as children’s literature much as folklore has been
debased into moral bedtime stories. Others may view fantasy in the same way
they do religion: as an anachronism in our modern scientific world. Perhaps our
British culture has become too atheistic and logical to appreciate the power of
imagination, creativity and spirituality. Ever since the Enlightenment, Western
culture has placed more value on rational thinking, whilst symbolism and myth
have become regarded with suspicion and, today, fantasy suffers from the same
prejudice. So what exactly is fantasy and why is it important?

John Clute in his Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) begins with Brian Attebery’s vague concept of fantasy as a ‘fuzzy set’ where clear boundaries do not exist and where the best
definition is derived from exploring significant texts. Beyond this however,
Clute does contrive a most helpful definition: ‘a fantasy text is a self-coherent narrative which, when set in our reality, tells a story which is
impossible in the world as we perceive it; when set in an otherworld or secondary
world, that otherworld will be impossible, but stories set there will be
possible in that otherworld’s terms’. He also provides some more specific
definitions of sub-genres of fantasy, including Dark Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy,
Recursive Fantasy, Science Fantasy and Urban Fantasy, which demand further
exploration. The encyclopedia is a useful tool for the fantasy critic and may
well become the definitive reference book for the fantasy reader and scholar,
but what is missing is the depth of research into the critical theory of


Fantasy is the oldest form of storytelling and generations have relied
on legends, myths and fables as part of their cultural heritage and system of
socialization. Fantasy begins in the primeval depths of man’s mind creating
superstition about world and divine power. Ancient myths and religious belief
systems have created pantheons of gods, demons, heroes and monsters to
symbolise the origins of creation and explain the workings of the universe; to
personify good and evil; to help moralise and legitimise law and order, and
therefore power and punishment. Sir James Frazer in his study of magic and
ritual, The Golden Bough (1890), reminds us of the importance of
mythology and rituals, warning us not to dismiss them as primitive and
irrelevant. ‘To stigmatise these premises as ridiculous because we can easily
detect their falseness, would be ungrateful as well as unphilosophical’. The
same warning is pertinent to those who reject fantasy literature.

The psychiatrist, C.G. Jung believed that ‘primordial experiences rend
from top to bottom the curtain upon which is painted the picture of an ordered
world and allow a glimpse into the unfathomable abyss’. Fantasy allows us to
enter the spiritual realm of the ‘collective consciousness’ of humanity that
helps us to find our own individual identity and Jung applied psychological
models to fairy tales and romantic texts in his book, Modern Man In Search
of a Soul
(1933). The process Jung called ‘individuation’, of becoming
whole or enlightened, demands a symbolism of transcendence. We need to reclaim
the mythologies as represented by the ancient poets and modern fantasists in
order to gain a greater personal and spiritual hold on our own realities. Continuing
Jung’s theory, Michael Moorcock  explains how fabulous romance subconsciously symbolizes the inner landscape of the mind; ‘When we read a good fantasy we are being admitted into the subterranean worlds of our own souls’.

The hero-warrior, such as Hercules or Cuchulain, is an archetype which
exists in all cultures and Jung developed the idea by suggesting that ‘the
God-image does not coincide with the unconscious as such, but with a special
content of it, namely the archetype of the self’. Archetypes help us to create
symbols to express our deepest fears and emotions. Through these archetypes
fantasy forces us to confront those parts of our life that are inexplicable and
deeply personal. These stories have become an important part of our
understanding of self and society.

Medieval romantic poetry, such as the legend of St. Brendan from the tenth century and
the chivalric poems of the sixteenth century, like Palmerin of England, follow
these mythical patterns. Whilst the heroic epic represents tribal warfare, the
romance is concerned with quest and the mystery of the supernatural, employing
visionary themes, metaphysical imagery and baroque language. Since then fantasy
has been developed by literary movements and forms such as Gothic Romance,
Decadence, surrealism, horror, sf and postmodernism. These texts testify that
fears, hopes and dreams are best expressed through fantasy. Some of the
greatest novels written today are fantastic literature without much of the
general public or academic world realising.

Fantasy Theory

In literary theory, the fantastic is usually discussed as a contrast to the seemingly preferred realistic or mimetic literature. Tzvetan Todorov in his ground-breaking study, The Fantastic (1975), gives a structuralist analysis of stories by Edgar Allan Poe and E.T.A.
Hoffman. In summary he concludes: ‘the fantastic is based essentially on the
hesitation of the reader’ referring to a tension that exists between what is
real and not real and the purest example he offers of fantastic uncertainty is
Henry James’ ambiguous narrative The Turn of the Screw.

Todorov naively suggests that ‘psychoanalysis has replaced (and thereby has made useless) the literature of the fantastic’ as if people no longer rely on supernatural explanations (the
marvellous) because science gives us rational answers (the uncanny). This is
only because his definition of fantastic literature is so limited.  The problem with Todorov’s study is that he is not interested in textual interpretation, only in formalist criticism and the difficulty occurs because a classical discipline is used to analyse
romanticism. The wrong language is being applied.

In her book Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion (1981), Rosemary Jackson develops a cultural and psychological investigation into gothic romance and texts by Dickens, Tolkien, Kafka and Pynchon. She develops Todorov’s scheme by arguing that the fantastic
is not a genre at all, but ‘a mode, which then assumes different generic
forms’. In fact, fantasy subverts or breaks conventions by constantly reinventing
itself and by tackling taboo themes and issues. It is a dangerous and powerful
form of literature.

She argues that ‘Fantasy recombines and inverts the real, but it does
not escape it: it exists in a parasitical or symbiotic relation to the real’.
In this sense all literature has an element of both realism and fantasy, which
makes the term ‘fantastic realism’ a useful one. The symbiotic relationship
between fantasy and reality is the key to appreciating the importance of
fantasy as a mode, which interrogates the important human activities of
imagination and desire.

Jackson manages to widen the fantastic canon so as to include such notables as the Brontes, Hardy, Conrad, Flaubert and Eliot – mainstream novelists also employing non-realistic modes. Jackson argues that ‘Fantasy has not disappeared, as Todorov’s theory would claim, but it has assumed different forms’. The nature of fantasy is such that as soon as one scholar creates a definition or identifies rules, then they are bound to be subverted.

Kathryn Hume, in Fantasy and Mimesis (1984), takes the debate
further by insisting that fantasy is not a genre or even a mode. ‘It is truer
to literary practice to admit that fantasy is not a separate or indeed a
separable strain, but rather an impulse as significant as the mimetic impulse,
and to recognize that both are involved in the creation of most literature’.
She also states that ‘it is the fantastic elements which allow literature to
convey most of its varied sense of meaning’.

The dismissal of fantasy says more about the society and culture than about the
merits of individual fantasy texts and Hume goes back to classical philosophy
to uncover the origins of this suspicion towards fantasy. ‘Plato and Aristotle
between them tore a large and ragged hole in western consciousness. Ever since
their day, our critical perceptions have been marred by this blind spot, and
our views of literature curiously distorted. To both philosophers, literature
was mimetic, and they analyzed only its mimetic components’.

Hume’s thesis is a well-argued and timely call for a paradigm shift in
critical theory. Our postmodern world no longer depends on solely rational
thought, because the metanarratives have been deconstructed and science does
not provide all the answers. As Hume concludes – ‘The rediscovery of fantasy
should be a cause for optimism, and good reason to alter our critical
vocabulary’. Realism has failed to represent the whole of reality in its widest
sense and critical theory has also failed to explain the fantastic, so new
terms of reference are required.

Lucie Armitt, in Theorising the Fantastic (1996), suggests that fantasy is an
elusive and intangible paradox ‘beyond our grasp and beyond articulation, but
it continues to proffer glimpses of an enticing and forbidding unknown of which
we could otherwise only dream’. This remains an evocative definition. Armitt employs Freudian and feminist readings in her interpretation of fairy tales, gothic horror, nonsense and science fiction. Armitt demonstrates how fantasy is a powerful resource
available to every writer. ‘Now we can look at the fantastic as a form of
writing which is about opening up subversive spaces within the mainstream
rather than ghettoizing fantasy by encasing it within genres’

Structuralism, as a literary perspective, fails to enable readers to
understand a text, Armitt argues, because it is so often ‘Obsessed with
classifying’ leaving a text as an empty piece of data. This leaves fantasy
literature and literary theory in a dialectical tension. Armitt is paraphrasing
other critics when she writes, ‘If … fantasy is at its most subversive when
located on the margins of the canon, then surely there is much to be said for
it being likewise located on the margins of theory’.

Fantasy’s marginalisation has much to do with the Enlightenment notion
that art was separate from reason or that artistic expression is not concerned
with ‘reality’. This is a dangerous premise that belittles the power of the
symbol and of artistic imagination. Literary theory fails fantasy because
fantasy transcends reason and explicit meaning, so that scientific tools of
enquiry are inappropriate.

More explicitly, author J.G. Ballard expresses antipathy for all
literary theory. He believes ‘all schools of “English literature” should be
closed … fiction is meant to provoke, exhilarate, entertain, inform, amuse
and scandalise – not to be poked and prodded like a cadaver on an autopsy
table’. Ballard suggests that the danger of theory is that the theory becomes
more important than the text being studied: ‘the trouble with literary
criticism is that it tends to turn into a self-serving ideology, constantly
concerned to purify itself. Leavis’ notion that the novel is a moral criticism
of life being complete bunk – the imagination, thank God, transcends morality’.

The mistake made is in attempting to impose our own order upon fantasy,
thus rewriting the text. As readers, we could take the less comfortable option
of peering into the inchoate darkness to discover something far richer than our
impotent, material existence. Fantasy involves the reader, as long as they have
not lost their imaginations and the ability to dream.

Whether we call it romance, fable, the grotesque, non­-realism, fabulation, metafiction, postmodernism or slipstream, fantasy is not so much a genre or a mode, but it is a protean
element: a resource or tool that exists for any writer to use to add depth,
colour, richness, imagination and a greater sense of reality to their art. We
should celebrate the existence of fantasy in our lives and in our arts.

Fantasy is not a lower but a higher form of art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.

J.R.R. Tolkien


The Fantasy of Mythology

pegasusAny exploration of fantasy must acknowledge the origins of imagination. Fantasy begins in the primeval depths of the human mind where feelings and ‘spirituality’ are expressed in tales about fears, desires, triumphs, rites of passage, the natural world and superstitions. Religious belief systems have created pantheons of gods, demons, heroes and monsters to symbolise the origins of creation and explain the workings of the universe; to express the mysteries of fertility; to give meaning to existence and death; to personify good and evil; to help moralise and legitimise law and order. Hero myths describe how particular individuals deliver a nation to safety – often through quest or war. We can see how myths have created a potent source of fantasy whose influence is easily detectable in much literature and art. In fact, in our post-modern world we seem to be returning to myths as a source of both meaning and entertainment.

The ancient Greeks came to consider mythos as inferior to logos, but why should fantasy be deemed inferior to the rational word? Give me the myths any time over Plato’s dull republic, which allows no place for the artist, being too obsessed with order and stifling control. Latin writer Ovid (43 B.C. – A.D. 17) wrote Metamorphoses at the same time as the birth of Christ, and it contains the best-loved versions of the Classical myths, retelling Greek, Latin and Babylonian folklore and legends. He gives an account of creation and a flood, then after the golden age of Saturn, his son Jupiter (also known as Zeus or Jove) and Juno (Hera) become king and queen of Mount Olympus, standing alongside the pantheon of Phoebus (Apollo), Diana (Artemis), Venus (Aphrodite), Neptune (Poseidon), Mars (Ares) et al. It is Prometheus the titan who creates humans from dust, prompting the volatile relationship between the supernatural and human worlds. This begins Ovid’s epic retelling of tales about gods, demi-gods, heroes, nymphs, love, murders, journeys to the underworld, tragedies, and of course, metamorphoses. Alongside Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid and the Greek tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus, Ovid has helped us to keep alive some of the most exciting and fantastical stories the world has ever created.medusa

Myths offer us an overview of our complex world and provide us with symbolism and imagery on which to base our philosophical, religious and psychological understanding of the world around us. The seasons are explained by the abduction of Proserpina; evil enters the world via Pandora’s box; Phaeton burns the world by bringing the sun too close to the earth, thus creating deserts. Some of our language and words come directly from the myths, such as ‘lycanthropy’ from Lycaon who was turned into a wolf; ‘cygnet’ from Cygnus, who became a swan; Arachne transforms into a spider, giving us ‘arachnid’ and hence ‘arachnophobia’; and we all have an Achilles heel. Some of the tales have become overly familiar, such as the golden touch of King Midas, the twelve labours of Hercules, the fall of Icarus and the legend of the wooden Trojan horse. Shakespeare has ruined the elegiac romance of Pyramus and Thisbe, whilst the stories of Jason and Perseus have been made into epic, if not wholly successful, films.

What is striking about the Greek and Roman myths is the horrific and tragic violence that abounds between men and gods. The gods are not role models or loving deities, but have human emotions and jealousies, often engaging in petty squabbles or falling guilty of hubris themselves. Zeus takes the shape of a swan and rapes Leda; Jove rapes Callisto, a beautiful nymph, and rather than jealously avenging her husband, Juno punishes poor Callisto by turning her into a bear who is then killed by her own son. Likewise, Actaeon happens to see Diana bathing naked and for his trouble is turned into a stag and ripped apart by his own hunting hounds. Niobe makes the fatal, but seemingly common, error of not worshipping a god when ordered to do so. Her pride leads to the death of all her fourteen children before she is turned into a weeping statue. Prometheus is tortured for stealing fire from heaven – an eagle rips his guts out every day and it is constantly mended – for thirty years.

On the other hand, love is also a prominent theme, as something for which people are even willing to die. Echo wastes away in misery, heartbroken at her rejection by Narcissus, who falls in love with himself. Venus mourns for the death of Adonis, whilst Cupid and Psyche eventually marry in triumph over adversity. Pygmalion falls in love with the statue he has created of the perfect woman; the Trojan War occurs because Helen of Troy is abducted by Paris; Salmacis out of lustful obsession, refuses to let go of Hermaphroditus causing them to be joined as one one new creature who is both male and female. The haunting story of Orpheus tells of his misery when Eurydice dies on their wedding night. He visits her in the underworld and makes the mistake of turning round once more to look at her. For doing so he is silenced and cannot play his beloved lyre. Classic mythology contains some of the most beautiful romances, but also some of the most terrifying horrors.

Two of the most disturbing stories are those of Myrrha and Tereus. Myrrha is sexually attracted to her own father and she manages to seduce him and trick him into bed. This tale goes one step further than Oedipus who only unwittingly married his own mother. Tereus, however, was greedy. Obsessed with his own sister-in-law, he kidnaps her, rapes her and keeps her prisoner, cutting out her tongue to stop her telling anyone. His wife, Procne, finds out and coldly gets revenge on him by killing their own son and feeding him to Tereus. She also, rather unnecessarily, brings out the son’s head as proof. This is reminiscent of Medea who discovers her husband, Jason, is to marry another woman so she kills the bride to be with a poisoned robe and murders her own sons before escaping in a dragon-drawn chariot. Many of the tales are the most gruesome and violent you will ever read, and some people think horror is a modern phenomenon!

Classical mythology has provided a fertile nutrient tank for fantasy writers. Not mentioned here are Pan, Atlas, Medusa, Pegasus, Nemesis, Bacchus, the minotaur, cyclops, satyrs and centaurs. But of course, the Greeks and Romans do not have a hold on mythology. Every society collects and develops its own system of folklore and legends, often connected with its religious beliefs. Notable myths and legends can also be found in Egyptian, Hindu, Celtic, Norse, African tribal, American Indian, Aboriginal and Polynesian cultures.

  •  In the Egyptian legend, Isis pieces together the dismembered and scattered pieces of Osiris’ body and with embalming fluid, brings him back to life.
  • Hindu god Brahma has four faces, Shiva has four arms and three eyes, and Devi is the Great Mother Goddess. Vishnu is incarnated as Krishna.
  • Celtic warrior Cuchulain had superhuman powers, able to make one eye disappear whilst the other grew terrifyingly large. Finn still sleeps, ready to fight for Ireland. Arthurian tales developed from the Celtic traditions.
  • Norse gods Odin, Thor, Frigg and Loki battle it out in Valhalla until Ragnarok. Creatures such as elves, dwarves and giants appear in epic poems.
  • Beowulf was a Viking hero who defeated monsters and dragons.
  • In Nigeria, the Ibo people believe the largest yam in a crop embodies the spirit of the King Yam and it is blessed with fresh blood. This is typical of African totemic religions. Much misunderstood is Voodoo with its worship of spirits. Wise god of death, Baron Samedi guards the eternal crossroads in his top hat.
  • For North American Algonquin Indians the Manitou is a name for the Great Spirit. The shaman uses trance to exorcise spirits or give wisdom.
  • Australian Aborigines believe that their ancestors went ‘walkabout’ in ‘Dreamtime’, creating all things, and each clan is named after its spirit animal.
  • Maoris believe that Rangi the sky god so loved Papa the earth goddess that they would not let go of each other. When they finally did, light came into the world, but they still weep to be parted thus explaining the dew and the mists.

The symbolism of fantasy has become closely linked with the subconscious since Freud declared that the content of dreams relates directly to the psyche. Carl Jung, however, believed that the images of myths, such as those of The Arabian Nights and Faust, allow the individual to enter the primitive realm of the collective consciousness. Archetypes are presented in these texts, which relate to those existing in the human collective consciousness that help us to create symbols to express our deepest fears and desires. These archetypes include familiar characters such as the hero, wise woman, shadow, innocent child and tempter. In this way fantasy and myth help us to identify different parts of our own reality. Jung called fantasy texts ‘visionary’ and described their creation and subject as, “a primordial experience which surpasses man’s understanding”.

The process Jung calls ‘individuation’, of becoming whole or enlightened, demands a literature of transcendence, and symbolism of the archetypes serves an essential function in helping us to understand ourselves. We need to reclaim the primordial or archaic mythologies as represented by the ancient poets and by modern fantasists in order to gain a greater personal and spiritual hold on our own realities.myth

Fantastic elements in literature are frequently allusions to, or themes directly purloined from the world’s oldest legends. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales includes stories about the Knights of the Round Table, animal fables, fairy tales and romantic songs. John Keats wrote poems about the sun god ‘Hyperion’ and of ‘Endymion’ who slept forever in a cave, whilst W.B. Yeats famously retold the legends of the Celtic Twilight. Thorne Smith in 1931 pre-empted Terry Pratchett with his hilarious satire on the classical pantheon, The Night Life of the Gods. Poul Anderson and J.R.R. Tolkien have adapted Norse and Teutonic legends in their fantasies. Henry Treece rewrote many myths as adventure stories in the 1950s, whilst Michael Moorcock has also employed various Celtic and Arthurian mythologies to his own advantage. More recently China Mieville used the Pied-Piper of Hamlyn and the Caribbean spider god Anansi in King Rat (1998), just as Neil Gaiman writes of Odin, Thoth, Anubis and others in American Gods (2001).

Many great writers continue to narrate stories with a mythical power, including venerated authors such as William Golding, Jorge Luis Borges, Angela Carter and John Barth. Contemporary fantasists have developed mythology into urban legends, thus creating new myths and stories for our cultures. Herman Hesse succinctly expressed the important function of fantasy in the following aphorism: “Like art and poetry, the religions and myths are an attempt on the part of mankind to express in images the ineffable”. And long may fantasy continue to pursue this exciting, vital and challenging task.


Tales of epic romance were once the domain of the bard who sang of heroes, gods, war, love and adventure. Today’s minstrel is the rock singer and some of the best poetry can be found in the lyrics of rock music. Rock music, that is, as opposed to pop music which is the battery-farming equivalent of the music industry. Rock music is a very literary genre that has parallels with the subversive nature of fantasy.

Some rock bands show obvious literary influences and there is a good deal of intertextuality between the two arts. Both Steely Dan and Soft Machine took their names from William Burroughs; Marillion from Tolkein; whilst bands like Iron Maiden have been inspired by such luminaries as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Aldous Huxley. Heavy Metal is perhaps more akin to horror, owing something to Aleister Crowley, H. P. Lovecraft and Hammer Horror.

I particularly want to explore Progressive Rock, which continues to provide some of the most fantastical as well as intelligent ideas in music today. Progressive Rock is a particular sub-genre that explores moods, emotions, textures and themes with a more cultured and experimental style. Many Prog Rock bands, such as Hawkwind, Genesis and Yes released concept albums in the 1970s that explore fantasy and mythical realms to show the psychological or spiritual responses to heightened emotional experiences or altered states of consciousness. Hawkwind and Yes are still going strongly to this day.

Psychedelic band Hawkwind explore science fiction themes which appeal to their drug fuelled trips into ‘inner space’. Michael Moorcock has famously written for and performed with the space rock hippies, but Hawkwind’s other writer in residence was Robert Calvert, sf poet and novelist who also contributed to 60s underground magazine, ‘Frendz’. Calvert has developed something of a cult following and his writing is of an imaginative and literary quality with its unique blend of metaphor, wordplay and surrealism. Calvert’s lyrics for ‘Spirit of the Age’ (1977) demonstrate his irony and wit:

I would’ve liked you to have been deep frozen too
And waiting still as fresh in your flesh for my return to earth
But your father refused to sign the forms to freeze you…
Your android replica is playing up again, but it’s no joke
When she comes she moans another’s name.

In a different tone, ‘Damnation Alley’ (1977) is based on the Roger Zelazny post-nuclear holocaust novel of the same name and is written using extremely effective rhyme and rhythm that reflects the urgent mood of escape.

Ride the post-atomic radioactive trash
The sky’s on fire from that nuclear flash
Diving through the burning hoop of doom
In an eight wheeled anti-radiation tomb.

His use of metaphor is always vivid and original, for example, in ‘High Rise’ (1977), the skyscraper is described as ‘A flypaper stuck with human life’ and when someone is pushed from a window his body on the pavement becomes a ‘Starfish of human blood shape / Tentacles of human gore’.

Calvert’s most psychedelic lyrics are contained in the song ‘Steppenwolf’ (1976), inspired by Herman Hesse’s masterly novel about madness and altered states of mind and Calvert evokes a strange mood of melancholy and paranoia through his use of certain abstract images to reflect the changing emotions of the despairing voice of the narrator. Note also the subtle use of alliteration.

The moons are howling mouth of mercury
Quicksilver quivering in the sky
It echoes like a cave of chromium
They’ll vacuum up my soul when I die.

In the same song and typical of Calvert’s style, he chooses precise vocabulary to metaphorically describe the eyes of the man-wolf: ‘My eyes are convex lenses of ebony / Embedded in amber’.

Calvert was an artist using words to paint his portraits of urban and futuristic fantasy and his death in 1988 was tragic and untimely. He certainly was visionary but whether this was inspired by genius or acid is left purely to conjecture.

Not many rock bands work with known writers, but there are certainly lyricists within rock bands whose poetry is of a great literary quality. One of those is the erudite Peter Gabriel who fronted the classic line up of Genesis. Nursery Cryme (1971) utilises influences from nursery rhymes, Greek mythology and traditional English culture; the front cover of the album is a grotesque parody of Alice in Wonderland. The track ‘Musical Box’ is about the ghost of a decapitated boy who falls in love with his murderer leading to the discovery of sexuality. The lyrics move from ‘Old King Cole’ to ‘Brush back through your hair and let me get to know your flesh’. This sense of lost childhood innocence and the realisation that the adult world is a frightening place is most clearly shown in the lines:

And the nurse will tell you lies
Of a kingdom beyond the skies
But I am lost within this half-world…

The final track, ‘The Fountain of Salmacis’ is a retelling of the Greek myth of Hermaphroditus, which can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A water nymph, Salmacis, falls in love with Hermaphroditus, the love-child of Hermes and Aphrodite, who, unfortunately, rejects her advances. Not to be put off the nymph embraces him, refusing to let go and calls on the gods to unite them forever. According to the Genesis song:

Unearthly calm descended from the sky
And then their flesh and bones were strangely merged
Forever to be joined as one.

The song is worthy of the myth and it highlights themes of sexuality and gender.
‘The Battle of Epping Forest’ from Selling England by the Pound (1973) is a typical Peter Gabriel lyric with its puns and daft characters putting it in the tradition of nonsense poetry or absurd comedy. The song describes certain characters involved in a gang fight and includes lots of witty word-play and neologisms, including the ‘thumpire’, ‘robbing hood’, ‘a karmachanic with overall charms’

However, Gabriel’s magnum opus is, without a doubt, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974). This is a double concept album about the individual human psyche. The style is that of a postmodern, surreal urban fantasy that owes something to Mervyn Peake. It covers a psychological landscape with Freudian imagery of fears, dreams, castration and plenty of sexual symbolism such as caves, secret passages, cocoons and lakes. The narrative also contains a number of Jungian archetypes like Lilith, the demon woman who disturbs men at night, and the Lamia, serpent-like sirens who seduce people only to devour them.

The story is hard to follow, but it tells of Rael (an anagram of ‘real’), who, after a strange vision, wakes up in a womb-like cocoon in a cave leading to the majestic song ‘In the Cage’. This extended track begins with a lullaby, ‘And I can’t keep me from creeping sleep/ Sleep deep in the deep’ but is quickly disturbed by the sensation of ‘drowning in a liquid fear’. In the cave stalagmites and stalactites become the bars of a cage, leading to a further vision of people trapped in their lives left only with their memories. Mention of ‘strap’ and ‘strait-jacket’ makes you realise that Rael is perhaps a patient in a psychiatric ward:

When they got me by the neck and feet
Pressure’s building, can’t take more,
My headaches charge. My earaches roar.

The chorus changes to ‘Get me out of this pain’ and there is a conscious ambiguity between what is memory and hallucination. This is a classic fantasy technique.
This is just the beginning of Rael’s quest to find his brother who turns out to be his own doppelganger. In this way, the album is about discovering your identity through confronting your own fears, yourself and ultimately, death. Western materialist culture ultimately creates people on an endless conveyor belt and life is just a matter of ‘counting out time’. After being led by Lilith to meet Death, also known as ‘the supernatural anaesthetist’ he is seduced by the Lamia, and when he finally meets his brother, John, they realise how disfigured they have become. The only answer, apparently, is castration – to lose his sexual urges – but Rael’s dismembered penis is stolen by a Raven. Pursuing it, they are swept away by rapids before Rael discovers the surprising identity of his brother. It is here that the narrative comes to a mysterious end. Gabriel then leaves the ambiguity to us with the enigmatic ‘It’ in which it is left to us to decide what exactly ‘it’ is, and in case we have taken it too seriously then we are told ‘it’s only knock and knowall but I like it’. Maybe like life itself, it’s all just an absurd joke.

The lyrics to Yes songs are usually labelled pretentious, but like the band’s name they are always optimistic and uplifting. Sense becomes shrouded and ambivalent and words are chosen as much for their sound as their meaning thus creating a surreal soundscape where mood and tone is as important as the subject matter, like an abstract painting. Jon Anderson considers the voice and the musicality of words to be his solo instrument.
However esoteric Anderson’s poetry may be, there is certainly artistry and insight behind them. His vocabulary and lyrical style is certainly softer and more feminine than most rock lyricists, as he tends to capture moments of enlightenment and passion to express his spiritual vision of unity with nature.

The double concept album, Tales of Topographic Oceans (1973), inspired by ancient Hindu scriptures begins with a myth of epic proportions, ‘The Revealing Science of God’, which deals with the creation of the world, light, knowledge and most importantly the ‘Dawn of love’. The lyrics examine the meaning of mortality but the answer is ambiguous and inexpressible, however we are reminded that there is ‘freedom in life everlasting’. On the other hand, mankind has misused knowledge, as selfishly we ‘rape the forest’ and conduct ‘wars we do not mean’ leaving the question ‘What happened to this song we once knew so well?’ We were once, long ago, in tune with the music and dance of nature and need to listen to it once more to discover our true identity as part of creation. ‘The Remembering’ creates a gentle, inviting atmosphere, encouraging us to lie back and recall our own past – to ‘Stand on hills of long forgotten yesterdays’. This is our chance to escape our busy lives and to dream.

The third part, ‘The Ancient’ is the most avant-garde and trippy of the four passages. Here we are cast back beyond our own memories into pre-history where ancient civilizations like the Incas, Atlantis and Mayas worship creation symbolised by the sun – the giver of life. The final track, ‘Ritual,’ is a love song.

Lay upon me, hold me around lasting hours
We love when we play.

It is through genuine expressions of love that we return to innocence and joy: when we realise that we are a part of creation itself.

‘Awaken’ from Going For the One (1977) is Anderson’s favourite Yes track and it is a towering, passionate 18 minute symphony that soars to a crescendo in homage to the ‘Master of Light / Soul / Time’. ‘Awaken’ follows the transcendence of mortals:

Wish the sun to stand still
Reaching out to touch our own being…

But true redemption and fulfilment is realised in personal and intimate terms.

Like the time I ran away
And turned around
And you were standing close to me.

Either the creator has come to us, or meaning is to be found through loving relationships here and now in our ordinary lives.

The lyrics are difficult and arcane but this does not render them meaningless, rather, it adds potency in that their truths are hidden, demanding a more active and creative listener. The themes of Anderson’s lyrics are not fashionably rebellious, but they do contain some real truths worthy of investigation and perhaps our modern world is in great need of spiritual enlightenment. However pretentious Jon Anderson’s lyrics are, in the end his dominant theme is that of the life-affirming power of love; not just a sexual love but one that is fulfilling to body, mind and soul.

Other bands such as Pink Floyd, Rush, Marillion, Dream Theatre and Symphony X have also produced concept albums that have used fantasy elements and woven a further literary thread into the world of rock. In the song ‘Fugazi’ (1984), Fish from Marillion asks the poignant question, ‘Where are the prophets, where are the visionaries, where are the poets?’ and the answer is that today’s visionary poets are to be found in the world of rock music – one of the few arts today that truly inspires millions of people.


A Paradigm Shift

Genres, categories and labels for novels can be misleading and unhelpful. The term science fiction is a misnomer when applied to books like Nineteen Eighty Four or Brave New World. Granted, they are both dystopian visions and the latter deals vaguely with scientific advancement, but the label science fiction seems wrong somehow. Perhaps the genres of science fiction and fantasy have had their day and should be put into comfortable retirement. Admitting you read sf today is akin to revealing you go to church: you feel compelled to qualify your confession by insisting you are not like the others and that you ‘just dabble’. Sf fans put up a brave fight but let’s be honest here: science fiction has a bad image. I quite like the paradox it creates, but basically the word ‘science’ is the stumbling block. I have nothing against science, which helps us to understand and appreciate the miracle of creation and the world around us, bringing us a much needed sense of wonder; it’s just that science suggests technology, laboratories, space travel and boring lessons at school.

 It irritates me when sf critics try to claim the likes of Mark Twain, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolfe, J. B. Priestley, Italo Calvino, Herman Hesse and William Golding as sf authors: I’m sorry, but Lord of the Flies is simply not sf. Likewise oft-cited texts, The Old Men At the Zoo, A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker are not sf just because they are set in the near future: they are just great books about people. In fact, they have more in common with fantasy than with sf. What’s most amusing about calling Brave New World science fiction is that the whole point of the book is to warn us against the dangers of science. It’s probably a question of semantics, but the term science fiction is too narrow to be of any real use. When Michael Moorcock edited New Worlds, he understood that what he called ‘speculative fiction’ should not just interrogate science, but also art, religion, psychology, sociology, history and so on: after all this is the purpose of all literature.

On the other hand ‘horror’ is still cool – or it is if you substitute it with the words modern and gothic. Fantasy – as a genre – has been ruined by bad marketing (just like Prog Rock has in the music industry). We know fantasy is a subversive resource available to all writers, but the general opinion of fantasy is a blinkered one – that it is mainly represented by Tolkien and Harry Potter.

It is time for a paradigm shift. Michael Moorcock began the good work in the 1960s with New Worlds, but the job remains incomplete. These big changes take time – like abolishing slavery and achieving equal opportunities. Sf must either become marginalised into its own ghetto – like Christian books and music – or adapt into something more workable and relevant.

Let’s agree then that calling Slaughterhouse 5 science fiction or Midnight’s Children fantasy is just plain silly. Moorcock once wrote; “I don’t believe there is such a thing as fantasy or science fiction or detective fiction and so on. I think there are certain writers who in their field shine and in every one of those fields you’ll get some good writers emerging”. Many readers just like reading fiction and prefer not to get stuck with one form of writing. Good fantasy and sf (or what gets labelled as such) should be read by everyone and sf/fantasy/horror fans should read good realistic literature. I’m glad Will Self’s novel, The Book of Dave hasn’t been consigned to the sf corners of the bookshops.


Genres are useful to booksellers, but even they get confused. Where do you find Iain Banks (without the ‘M’) or Graham Joyce books? Are they fantasy, horror or mainstream? And what is mainstream anyway but an all-embracing term: a safety net for all literature not in an obvious genre, or, at least, fiction that is mostly realistic (whatever that means). Isn’t it ridiculous how Iain Banks has to put an M in his name to write sf? Is the publisher really saying that one writer is not allowed to switch styles or modes?

The meaning of ‘slipstream’ in aviation is a current of air forced backwards by the aeroplane’s propeller. The implication in literary terms is that slipstream feeds off mainstream but forces itself in different directions, drifting or slipping off to dance playfully. Really slipstream is a neat metaphor for works of literature which cannot be categorised – even as mainstream, but which resist the traditional genres or are so original and subversive they demand a new label. Slipstream is an ambiguous bridging word – possibly a temporary one – a stop-gap until the general public (and/or publishers and booksellers) have been re-educated into accepting fantasy/sf/horror elements back into the mainstream. One day slipstream might be mainstream!

Slipstream implies playful experimentation; inviting the reader to dive in and accept the challenge of going in a different direction. Slipstream novels ‘slip’ between genres and marketing categories. Moorcock described fantasy’s relationship with mainstream fiction in the following way: “The fantasy form has been progressing and refining itself for centuries. It has gone through the various stages of borrowing from or influencing ‘Mainstream fiction and is currently starting a phase where it will once again borrow and influence, until at length it is absorbed, for a while, back into the mainstream”. This ‘phase’ could be slipstream.

Bruce Sterling, (in ‘Catscan’, Science Fiction Eye, 1989) coined the term along with Richard Dorsett, explaining how “the heart of slipstream is an attitude of peculiar aggression against ‘reality’ … These books tend to sarcastically tear at the structure of ‘everyday life’” and emphasised the common trait of employing “unique darker elements”. He goes on to explain: “It’s very common for slipstream books to screw around with the representational conventions of fiction”. Slipstream writing is often surreal and darkly comic, using satirical and metaphorical devices. Novelist Christopher Priest added the interesting definition of slipstream as, “the literature of strangeness … a different way of enquiring into the familiar”.

I know many writers hate being pigeon-holed as sf or fantasy writers. It’s like being an actor type-cast in a soap-opera. Most writers want to be free to write what they feel a passion for and where their imaginations take them. Strangely, Moorcock is still labelled an sf writer by some even though he wrote very little sf and broke most genre boundaries. Good writing should break boundaries and defy categorisation. Novels by Mervyn Peake, Moorcock, Graham Joyce and Jeffrey Ford are just bloody good books whatever type or form they are. Once a novel is tagged with a genre it will lose any potential wider readership, but possibly gain readers within its own self-serving ghetto. Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy is a case in point. Fantasy? Gothic? Comedy? Sf? Who cares? Just read the damn books and enjoy their brilliance.

It is vital slipstream remains open-ended and ambiguous as that is the entire point. Slipstream is protean and elusive – like a cry in the night; a shadow flickering in the corner of your eye; that feeling of unease as you awake with a start. The purpose of literature, like any art, is to exhilarate, entertain, scare, fulfil, scandalise and to make you laugh. Reading is catharsis not trainspotting.

So what exactly is slipstream then? I shall attempt to contextualise by exploring slipstream texts, and in doing so will demonstrate how they flirt with other genres and modes. Whilst alluding to related terms and definitions, I shall attempt to avoid academic obfuscation and attempt to highlight the various flavours, shapes and colours that make the term slipstream so elusive. This is not a bibliography or an exhaustive definition, just a starting point, or at least a station on the way.


One term that cannot be avoided when discussing slipstream is the equally slippery ‘postmodernism’. Literary scholar M.H. Abrams, cites Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Pynchon and Roland Barthes as postmodern writers whose works “so blend literary genres, cultural and stylistic levels, the serious and the playful, that they resist classification according to the traditional literary rubrics … An undertaking in some postmodernist writings is to subvert the foundations of our accepted modes of thought and experience so as to reveal the ‘meaninglessness’ of existence and the underlying ‘abyss’ or ‘void’ or ‘nothingness’ on which any supposed security is conceived to be precariously suspended”.  This is an admirable attempt to describe the indescribable.

Many slipstream works are subversive and ambiguous. None more so than William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959) which employs surrealistic devices and black comedy to express complex psychological (or psychotic) perspectives. Like Franz Kafka and James Joyce, Burroughs creates works of existential angst in an absurd framework.

Naked Lunch perfectly encapsulates the unpredictable psychosis of a junk addict by allowing us into the crazy whorl of the Interzone where junkies trade, “Black meat, flesh of the giant aquatic centipede”; drink with Mugwumps secreting an addictive fluid that “prolongs life by slowing down the metabolism”; a place where a talking arsehole becomes “a novelty ventriloquist act”. These insane events and visions are almost made to seem ordinary but the reader is never allowed to settle into a conventional plot or follow familiar characters thus making the reader experience the randomness and insanity of Burroughs’ world.  It is a novel overloaded with seedy locations, paranoia, sometimes tedious pornography (mostly homoerotic), nightmarish hallucinations, medical terminology and expletives. Drug addiction is closely linked with the sexual act and with death, where “Junk is the ideal product … the ultimate merchandise”. Naked Lunch bridges de Sade and Artaud with Irving Welsh and is either a visionary work of genius or the irrelevant ravings of a washed-up addict. You choose. Burroughs explains in his own introduction: “I do not presume to impose ‘story’, ‘plot’ or ‘continuity’”. However, his use of language is so lifelike and realistic that it is recognisably our world – if a horribly skewed version of it.

Professor Kathryn Hume explained how “Dreams and psychosis create new models of reality. So do the chemical reactions of psychoactive drugs. More clearly than the others, these show us the peculiar unreliability of our senses … Reality is a function of our receptive senses and their physical, chemical condition. This is disturbing perspectivism.” This perspectivism is something exploited by slipstream writers as a way of getting a unique or interesting purchase on that strange thing known as reality. This kind of writing forces us to ask the question: what exactly is reality anyway?

 Magic Realism

Magic Realism is a postmodern genre in which fantastical elements appear in an otherwise realistic setting, using elements of memory, sensuality, symbolism, ambiguity, use of myth, multiple perspectives and richness of sensory details. John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy adds, ‘the regions of the real may be irradiated with dream imagery, dislocations in time and space, haunting juxtapositions’.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude’(1967) follows six generations of the dysfunctional Buendia family in South America, recounting dreams, memories, miracles, love, loss, ghosts, civil war, death, madness and plagues. The various protagonists appear frustrated, lonely, egotistical, selfish, repressed, reclusive, or are misunderstood victims. The first generation suffer a plague of insomnia, having to label everything to stop the inevitable insanity certain to ensue. Melquiades, the ancient gypsy, “really had been through death but had returned because he could not bear the solitude”. Remedios the Beauty tortures men with her sexual scent, leading to death as one man tries to watch her bathing. Too perfect for this world she finally disappears in a flight of transfiguration. Ursula lives to well over 150 years, goes blind, but uses her intuition to keep an eye on her family. She visits her husband’s ghost daily beneath the nearby chestnut tree. This novel expresses ‘sighs of disenchantment that preceded the most tenacious nostalgia’. Marquez’ style is ambiguous, poetic, surreal and often deliciously infuriating. He reminds us how oblique and inexact the world is around us, whilst breaking literary rules, particularly in the way he reports action by telling, not showing.

Whilst Magic Realism began as a specifically South American genre, the stylistic blending of realism and fantasy influenced a host of authors from around the world such as Angela Carter, Milan Kundera, Toni Morrison, Ben Okri, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson and Jonathan Carroll.

Speculative Fiction

New Worlds magazine in the 1960s and 70s, edited by Moorcock, became the focus of the ‘New Wave’ of science fiction. Moorcock called on new writers to exercise “passion and craftsmanship” in an attempt to create quality literature that blended fantasy and realism. In his first editorial as editor of New Worlds (#142) he suggested sf could be an acronym for ‘speculative fantasy’, showing a preference for the surreal fiction of William Burroughs. Moorcock had a vision for ‘a different kind of fiction … (which) could come out of a marriage between experimental forms and old-style genre sf’. New Worlds nurtured a completely new direction in contemporary speculative fiction, more concerned with man’s alienation from the world, expressed through imagery rooted in the modern world. The new territory to be explored became known as ‘inner-space’, a concept introduced by J.G. Ballard in New Worlds issue 118, which implies an existentialist condition that explores real life experiences such as alienation, sexuality, drug trips and psychosis. Moorcock was obsessed with the ambition to celebrate inventive, radical and relevant writing, which would go beyond the limited genre of science fiction and cross over into literary and popular culture.

One of the writers most admired in this New Wave was Kurt Vonnegut whose Slaughterhouse 5 (1970) is a first hand account of the Dresden bombing by the Allies. Billy Pilgrim “is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next”; an existential time traveller. “So it goes” is the fatalistic mantra repeated after every reference to death. Both a work of satire and autobiography, it includes scenes set on the planet Tralfamadore, which involve typical sf trappings of flying saucers and telepathy; but this is never cosy sf. Being a prisoner of war is compared to being experimented on by aliens and whether the experience is real or just a hallucination is never explained. The satire and the absurdity of each situation become more important than the verification of Pilgrim’s story. Vonnegut employs the novel format as cultural commentary, emphasising how Middle America is culturally bereft and how humanity is essentially brutal. Like Burroughs’ writing this is episodic montage as novel.

Moorcock himself developed into a protean novelist, constantly attempting to avoid the sf/fantasy tag which continues to haunt him. His symphonic novel Mother London (1988) possesses a complex structure following is a non-chronological pattern which undulates like a tide to and fro, forwards and backwards, framed by vignettes of the main characters set in the present. Unusually, the climax occurs in the middle with horrific descriptions of the Blitz, which leaves a gradual and anti-climactic ending. Motifs are developed and themes are revisited throughout the novel and this non-linear and seemingly random collage makes it a surreal picture of London and its history. The landscape and inhabitants of the city are explored through an episodic narrative carefully placed around the chorus of the city’s collective consciousness. During the Blitz, Josef witnesses an apocalyptic hallucination of the city coming to life rousing “the sleeping gods of London” like some modern day Blake. These sequences are the most obvious moments of fantasy in which the three aspects of the city combine. He sees angels and giants from the city’s mythology, and hears the voices of all the inhabitants and is aware of “his voice joining the millions to form a single monumental howl”. London contains the ‘inner landscapes’ of memory, dreams and a variety of voices. The irony is that the protagonists are deemed ‘mad’, but as readers, we are shown how true madness comes with war, destroying all that is dear to us: our families, our identity, and our own home. Mother London is a complex novel about love, loss and redemption in which the city becomes a metaphor for faith and salvation. Mother London is also an excellent example of metafiction and fabulation.

Metafiction & Fabulation

Robert Scholes coined the terms metafiction and fabulation in response to identifying a new movement in modern literature. Fabulation, according to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, “is a novel in which verbal and formal structures are heightened or placed in the foreground, often with an effect of self-conscious play or joyfulness, and generally with the intention of uncovering the exemplary fable-like elements inherent in the ordering which takes place in creating the imaginary worlds of all narrative fiction”. Fabulation foregrounds ‘story’; fantasy and myth is the same as story and narrative which are inextricably linked. A great example is Neil Gaiman’s ‘Anansi Boy’.

In a discussion of romance, allegory, comedy and the grotesque, Robert Scholes identified a form of experimental fable that had turned its back on realism. Scholes explained further that “Reality is too subtle for realism to catch it. It cannot be transcribed directly. But by invention: by fabulation, we may open a way toward reality that will come as close to it as human ingenuity may come”. Writers like Italo Calvino also employ the playful techniques of fabulation in an attempt to transcend the usual laws of fiction.

Metafiction on the other hand overtly draws attention to its own artifice – its fictionality through use of self-reflexivity or intertextuality. Robert Scholes in Fabulation and Metafiction used the term metafiction to describe a growing group of unclassifiable novels refusing to fall neatly into the category of realism or romance. Fabulation for Scholes described the narrative invention of those novelists who experimented with form and genre blurring the traditional boundaries, employing fantastic and mythical infusions in their novels’ heady mixtures. Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie is such a work employing many postmodern techniques and could be described as fabulation and metafiction.

 Saleem Sinai is born at the precise instant of the birth of a new India. Written in a first person, self-reflexive narrative voice, Saleem tells the reader: “whenever my narration becomes self-conscious … like an incompetent puppeteer, I reveal the hands holding the strings”. Somehow, he can smell “truth, beauty, happiness, pain” and has the gift of telepathy, which he calls “All-India Radio”. The superpowers of the other midnight children include transformation, time-travelling, flying, sorcery. These elements are typical of sf and fantasy but Midnight’s Children is clearly neither.

Saleem is egotistical, comparing himself to Gautama Buddha and describing himself as “a would-be-saviour of the nation”, although the novel ends in bathos, emasculation and sterility. A similarly unreliable narrator can be found in Michael Moorcock’s Colonel Pyat quadrilogy, beginning with Byzantium Endures (1981). Pyat also rewrites history to ensure his place in it, and the more he attempts to convince us and himself of his importance the more apparent his self-delusion becomes.

Slipstream or Fantastic Realism?

Rosemary Jackson in her groundbreaking study Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (1981) identifies a trend in Victorian literature whereby: “mainstream novelists, working primarily with realistic conventions, also relied upon non-realistic modes”. Whilst she mainly cites Gothic texts, the same ‘dialogue’ between the two modes is more commonly occurring in modern texts and a definite trend can be identified within the realms of mainstream, popular and literary novels. Jackson calls this ‘fantastic realism’. There are a number of excellent modern novels still defying categorisation that deserve some mention.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) is an unconventional ghost story using poetry, streams of consciousness, magic realism, memory and different narrative perspectives to create a haunting atmosphere of oppression and paranoia. Sethe’s daughter Beloved, killed by her own mother’s hands, returns for retribution as the adult she would have become. But the revenge is subtle and Sethe’s justification for the murder – “If I hadn’t killed her she would have died” – makes her a sympathetic character. Death becomes a form of salvation thus creating a much deeper meaning for the whole slave community which far transcends the story here of a few individuals.

The Child in Time (1987) by Ian McEwan depicts a man’s gradual breakdown. During a car accident he realises time is more a matter of perspective:  “If only he could live in the present he might breathe freely”.  The novel is full of memories, visions, errors of judgement, time stretching out of proportion. Stephen has an epiphany when he finally understands “the mystic’s experience of timelessness … the infinite, unchanging time of childhood”. He even seems to see into the past.  Finally he knows that logic and knowledge can no longer help him – “Since he had exhausted all possibilities on the material plane … then it only made sense to deal on the level of the symbolic and the numinous”. This encapsulates the purpose of slipstream writing: recognising that life is not just material or easily understood using rational thought. McEwan explores loss through the use of ambiguity and lack of resolution.

Graham Joyce is a one-man slipstream factory. Requiem (1995) pre-empts The Da Vinci Code but with a more successfully sensual and psychological content; The Tooth Fairy (1996) incorporates dark humour and the grotesque in a powerful coming-of-age tale; Smoking Poppy (2001) explores paternal love; The Limits of Enchantment (2005) interrogates the role of superstition and magic in our own mundane world. Graham Joyce is a consummate writer whose novels should be best-sellers and his style bears many similarities to that of his American counterpart, Jonathan Carroll.

In Portrait of Mrs Charbuque (2002), Jeffrey Ford creates a decadent atmospheric novel of fantasy, psychology and metaphysics in a realistic setting. Written in an evocative and sensual style, it weaves tales within tales, contrasting dreamy reminiscence with stark brutality. When Piero Piambo is commissioned to paint Mrs Charbuque without being able to see her he discovers as much about himself as he does his subject. The novel is a brilliant work of fabulation and storytelling; a compelling study of the artistic spirit of humanity.


Certain films also seem to encapsulate the mood and stylistic experimentation of slipstream, such as Edward Scissorhands, Twelve Monkeys, Trainspotting, Pi, The Sixth Sense, Memento, Donnie Darko, Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Pan’s Labyrinth, Inception and anything by David Lynch – particularly Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive, whose surrealism and intertextuality create a nightmare on an unconscious level that shrug off all attempts at literal interpretation. It is clear elements of slipstream are feeding into films, many of which are now hybrid genre.

So what is slipstream?

Perhaps slipstream is the same as fantastic realism. It is certainly postmodern. It could just be magic realism produced in the northern hemisphere. Slipstream is a ‘Literature of the Imagination’ for those who are not afraid of escaping from their own lives and of developing their own creativity. Life is not scientific, logical, rational, material or even realistic. Life is emotional, surreal, spiritual and completely unpredictable.

Slipstream is a protean term and that is the entire point. One day, slipstream will be seen as a major tributary back into the mainstream. Hopefully, fiction will follow films and develop more hybrid genre entertainment, loosening the shackles of generic expectations and conventions. These conventions have become constraints, institutionalising certain books and authors, and finally becoming something of a liability. We want writers who use their imaginations, transcending traditions, thus feeling free to experiment. Only then will literature once again exhilarate, amuse, scandalise, terrify, and fill us with a magical sense of wonder.

Children’s Fantasy

I remember the first time I read The Wind in the Willows – I wept profusely when I finished because I wanted it to go on forever. When we are children we have much better developed imaginations and have the time and inclination to allow ourselves to escape into flights of fancy. This is right and healthy as it helps the individual to develop into a whole and intelligent individual. In his ground-breaking study of the psychological functions of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim concludes that “the minds of both creative and average children can be opened to an appreciation of all the higher things in life by fairy tales, from which they can move easily to enjoying the greatest works of literature and art.”

The development of fantasy itself owes a great deal to children’s literature, but this does not mean that fantasy is only for children. However, the Harry Potter books have made it trendy to read fantasy again, but I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of the great tradition that preceded Rowling’s books and helped children to grow up realising that it is okay to be imaginative and to continue dreaming.

Fairy tales were originally dark, horror stories told by word of mouth that became sanitised into nursery morality tales by Charles Perrault whose versions of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘Cinderella’ et al appeared in the 1690s. Then the Grimm brothers’ interpretations of such as ‘Hansel and Gretel’, Rapunzel’ and Rumplestiltskin’ appeared in 1812. Hans Christian Anderson on the other hand was more original, writing mostly his own folk tales, for example ‘The Ugly Duckling’, ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘The Tinder Box’, first published in 1835. Even Aesop’s Fables, the first anthropomorphic fantasies in which animals are given the attributes of humans, from the sixth century BC were originally intended as general folk tales.

Texts such as The Pilgrim’s Progress and Gulliver’s Travels are sometimes called children’s books, but were not aimed at children, only abridged and reprinted for the younger market. Swift’s comic masterpiece in its original form is biting political satire that includes grotesque and disturbing writing that was removed or ‘bowdlerised’. Whilst through the years many early books for children came in the form of poetry, such as William Blake’s Songs of Innocence (1789) and the wonderful nonsense verse of Edward Lear (1846), the first great children’s fantasy novel is Lewis Carroll’s unparalleled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).

Both Carroll (Rev. Charles Dodgson) and his book have been the subject of much literary analysis and psychological, particularly Freudian, scrutiny. Alice has been interpreted as a satire on Oxford academia or the court of Queen Victoria; it has also been considered to be a parody of the English legal system, or merely a study of the unconscious mind. Whatever the interpretation, it will always be haunted by the rumours about the relationship between the author and little Alice Liddell for whom it was written.

The novel is surreal, episodic, absurd, grotesque and haunting. Who could ever forget the Mad Hatter, the psychotic Queen, the leering Cheshire Cat, the sentimental Mock Turtle and the stoned Caterpillar? Carroll later wrote an afterword explaining how reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is similar to “that delicious dreamy feeling when one first wakes on a summer morning”. Through the Looking Glass (1871) is a more carefully structured book (based on chess moves) that contains the greatest nonsense poem of all time – ‘Jabberwocky’ and marvellous characters like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Both Alice books are witty, playful and downright entertaining, full of clever conceits and genuine comedy.

Whilst much great children’s fiction was being produced the next major fantasy text to appear was L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (1899), which was the first book to create a wholly American mythology. Particularly memorable is the anti-climax when the wizard, Great Oz, turns out to be a humbug balloonist and ventriloquist. Baum wrote fourteen Oz books about Ozma, Glinda, Jack Pumpkinhead and Tiktok, all full of magic and adventure. It’s a sign of our times that more people have seen the film than read the book of The Wizard of Oz, and Baum is still under-rated in American literary history. Apparently, the name Oz came from the third drawer on Baum’s filing cabinet where the files for O – Z were kept.

In terms of children’s fantasy an important author is E. Nesbit whose Five Children and It (1902) and The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) are both novels about children finding magical creatures who grant wishes that only get them into trouble. Her fantasies are very much embedded in English culture. J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan was originally a stage play (1904) and has proved to be incredibly influential to both the stage and screen. The idea of never growing old has captured the imagination of millions.

1908 saw the publication of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham – one of the best written children’s books. Charming, graceful and eternally enchanting it is full of laughter, happiness, danger, suspense and magic. It is strangely both simple and yet complex. The image of Mole and Ratty having their picnic by the pastoral idyll of the River Bank reminds me of those glorious summer holidays when I had not a care in the world; the blustering Toad dressed as a washerwoman, escaping prison filled me with delightful laughter; the fight with the weasels and stoats at Toad Hall terrified me beyond measure. And then there is what might be the most beautiful chapter ever written for children – ‘The Piper At the Gates of Dawn’ – a mystical interlude in which Rat and Mole meet the great god, Pan. The Wind in the Willows, more so than most children’s books, is one that can be reread and enjoyed by adults.

Like many classic children’s books, Doctor Doolittle (1920) has become more famous as a film, which is a shame as Hugh Lofting’s books are not only engaging and funny, but contain some extremely memorable characters. This series of books sustains a witty, light atmosphere alongside compelling and fantastical adventures (Hugh Lofting also included his own illustrations). The Doctor and his entourage go to Africa, to the moon, meet a creature who was alive before Noah’s flood and, of course, find the mythical pushme-pullyou. The Doctor Doolittle books have never gained the wider recognition they fully deserve but they certainly justify a respectful place on the shelves of any young fantasy fan. The Doctor is eternally optimistic and one of the most laid-back heroes encountered in literature. The idea of talking to animals must be one of the most popular fantasies amongst children (not to say adults – how many of us wish our pets could talk?)
Not much more can be said about A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh (1926), which has suffered from severe disneyfication, although the pictures in our minds are really those sketched by E.H. Shepard (who also drew the famous pictures of The Wind in the Willows). The bumbling bear of little brain, along with the boastful Tigger, brave little Piglet, the clinically depressed Eeyore, pompous Owl, the bumptious Rabbit and sensible Christopher Robin take on the typical roles of any self-respecting Harlequinade.
In the 1920s a writer appeared who became the most famous and well-read children’s author ever and yet who became rather unfairly maligned: Enid Blyton. Whilst the accusations of racial-stereotyping may have some foundation, she, more than any one single author, encouraged millions of children to read, much in the way the Harry Potter books are doing today. Although she is best known for her adventure books, her first full-length fiction work was The Wishing Chair (1937), that takes children into fairytale adventures and in terms of fantasy the marvellous creations in stories about The Magic Faraway Tree, which is a portal to a million different worlds, is a significant contribution that inspired the minds of countless young readers.

C.S. Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) as a consciously Christian fable, where Aslan is Christ resurrected by “Deep Magic from the dawn of Time”. The wardrobe is a brilliant conceit and the subsequent Narnia books are extremely literate and thrilling, making these the ultimate books to be read by children of all ages. It still surprises me that some people have read Harry Potter but not the Narnia Chronicles – surely some mistake!

From the 60s onwards children had the pleasure of reading Roald Dahl whose prose is tougher and more irreverent than most children’s books had been before. He appeals to the naughty child within us all and his books contain some of the most imaginative and original ideas ever seen in print. My own favourites are James and the Giant Peach (1961) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), which both owe something to the nonsense of Lewis Carroll.

At about the same time appeared another writer of great importance to fantasy in general, Alan Garner, whose mystical adventure stories appealed to older and more sophisticated readers. The novels tended to be more serious, containing some philosophical depth – perhaps some of the most literary of all children’s fantasy. These are the kind of books that would be enjoyed as much by adults. Michael Moorcock, for one has vociferously argued his preference for Garner over the safe and gentle nursery fables of Lewis and Tolkien. Garner’s fiction tends to contain echoes and analogies from Nordic and Celtic mythology.
Other important fantasy texts worthy of mention include Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child (1967) about clockwork toys who attempt to discover who they are and how they work; Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man (1968) contains pathos and a brooding atmosphere, and last, but not least, Gerald Durrell’s greatly under-rated The Talking Parcel (1975) with cockatrices, griffons, moon-calves and a giant sea-serpent with an ear trumpet.
Today children’s literature is dominated by fantasy authors such as Brian Jacques, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman and David Almond and there is something of a renaissance in not only children’s literature but in fantasy itself. Most of the accolades are going to J.K. Rowling for the Harry Potter books, for which parents and English teachers are most grateful, but has anyone noticed how similar they are to a certain series of books by Ursula LeGuin that began with The Wizard of Earthsea (1968)? That’s about a boy who goes to wizard school and has adventures fighting against the dark forces of evil … oh!

A Glimpse of the Numinous

I’m thrilled that Eibonvale Press are going to publish my short story collection and would like to thank David Rix for his encouraging support. All authors want to know that their writing is being read, or even having some kind of effect upon each reader. Whilst still in my excited state I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore the title of the collection – ‘A Glimpse of the Numinous’. It is my attempt to express the idea that our world is not just a material world, but one of wonder, mystery and the unknown. Those elements can be frightening or awe-inspiring.

The artist M.C. Escher once said: ‘The reality around us, the three dimensional world surrounding us, is too ordinary, too boring, too common. We yearn for the unnatural, or the supernatural, the impossible, the miraculous.’ Fantasy provides our modern, materialistic and so-called ‘enlightened’ culture with a sense of spirituality or a numinous mysticism. The word numinous implies religious awe inspired by the presence of a deity, and fantasy can be awe-inspiring, stimulating the reader into an imaginative and spiritual understanding of our complicated and mysterious existence. Fantasy has its roots in mythology and, like many religions, is attempting to see beyond the mere physical reality of our world. Two great individuals who have helped us to put these ideas into words and whose works have been invaluable to literary critics are Carl Jung, one of the founding fathers of Psychology, and anthropologist Sir James Frazer, both of whose works lead to archetypal criticism. What both Jung and Frazer show is that ritual, dreams and by extension, fantasy literature, tell us a great deal about the inner workings of our mind and soul. In a sense fantasy is offering us something similar to that of religion: not competing with it, but likewise challenging us to look closer into the realms of imagination and spirituality. Our souls can be touched by the creative arts. Fantastical and imaginative leaps of faith help to give symbols and images to those things most difficult to understand. Myth, art and symbolism are human attempts to understand our incredibly complicated world and existences.

Carl Jung claimed that, “All the works of man have their origin in creative fantasy”. In Modern Man in Search of A Soul (1933), Jung stated that in attempting to understand the unconscious psyche we must also study dreams, mythology, religion and visionary literature, i.e. fantasy. He names particular texts such as The Arabian Nights and Faust, and also cites authors such as H. Rider Haggard and William Blake. For Jung, visionary literature offers “glimpses of chaos” and cannot be easily explained in logical terms, but rather through the profound effect they have upon the individual human spirit. Jung explains at length how the individual’s soul finds a voice in his own imagination and dreams, which then connects him to the “collective unconscious”: the spiritual, primeval bond that unites all human beings together and where we experience the sense of the numinous. If we are to find God anywhere, it will surely be in a creative, emotional realm.

Jung also identified archetypes that exist within the collective unconscious that provide us with mythological symbols to express our deepest fears, desires and emotions: to help explain the inexplicable. These archetypes recur in stories, myths, legends, art and literature and include familiar characters, such as warrior, wise man, mother, saviour and trickster. Jung’s psychological theory of types is a useful way of identifying the deeper mythological resonances within a text and to see that fantasy is not mere child’s play or escapism, but art that speaks to us on a grand and important scale. Michael Moorcock has explained how he employed such symbolism in his own novels, concluding that, “When we read a good fantasy we are being admitted into the subterranean worlds of our own souls”.

Whilst Jung showed the psychological appeal of fantasy, J.G Frazer demonstrated how fantasy has analogies to rituals in his study of magic and religions, The Golden Bough (1890, abridged in 1922). The study shows in detail how the patterns of myth and romance are echoes of rituals, particularly those of fertility overcoming the wasteland, or the death and resurrection of a messianic figure or scapegoat. Frazer makes extensive connections between different cultures, traditions and ages, concluding that similar patterns emerge in responses to the natural world. Fantasy begins with imagination, the primitive depths of the human mind, which has always been fascinated with superstition regarding the world and divine power. Ancient myths and religious belief systems have created pantheons of gods, demons, heroes and monsters to symbolise the origins of creation and explain the workings of the universe; to personify good and evil; and to help moralise and legitimise power. We can also clearly see how myth and religious, sacred writings have created a potent source of fantastic imagery whose influence is easily detectable in much literature and art.

Frazer explores the development from magic to religion, giving useful, if very general, definitions of each. He sees magic as the manipulation of “impersonal forces … by the appropriate ceremonies and spells”, whereas a religion is “a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them”. Then Frazer traces certain myths in order to provide evidence that certain archetypes and ceremonies have always existed and continue to do so. He identifies the messiah archetype as one celebrated in most cultures who need to explain “the fluctuations of growth and decay, of reproduction and dissolution, by … the death and rebirth or revival of their gods”. The symbol of the messiah goes back to early heathen magic, originating in myths that attempt to express the human desire to understand the annual cycle in nature, from the fertility of spring, to the sterility if winter as told in the myth of Persephone and the Arthurian legends. Frazer compares the Egyptian worship of Osiris and the ritual of Attis to the Christian belief in Christ’s resurrection, and claims to have discovered a striking resemblance that would account for the practice of replacing pagan festivals with Christian ones, such as our Christmas Nativity of the Son allaying the winter solstice Nativity of the Sun.

This thesis was expounded further by Frazer’s disciple Jessie Weston in From Ritual to Romance (1920), who showed the link between ceremony and romantic literature more explicitly. She was particularly fascinated by the Grail legends and their similarities to fertility rituals and after convoluted argument concluded that literary romance had its origins in primitive, mysterious cult ceremonies. The romantic pattern she identified is the familiar one of questing knight seeking a redemption that will renew the sterile land and his dying fisher king.

Like Jung, Frazer has identified not only archetypes that work on the level of universal imagination or collective conscious, but also demonstrates the importance to all cultures and individuals the essential place of spirituality and the desire to comprehend the supernatural. In The Golden Bough, Frazer reminds us of the importance of mythology and rituals, warning us not to dismiss them as primitive: “To stigmatise these premises as ridiculous because we can easily detect their falseness, would be ungrateful as well as unphilosophical”. The same warning would be pertinent to anyone who rejects fantasy.

A much more mystical justification for the appeal of romance and mythology is given by the poet Robert Graves in The White Goddess (1948). His theory is that the language of poetic myth is linked to ceremonies in honour of the Moon goddess. His book examines romantic poetry and connects Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Celtic and Norse mythologies. For him the function of poetry is like that of fantasy – to inspire awe: “the experience of mixed exaltation and horror”, which is excited by the presence of the Muse or goddess. Much of the book is taken up with lengthy study of arcane alphabets, cryptology and numerology, particularly the druidic tree alphabet so full of riddles and hidden symbols. Graves even considers the “Holy, unspeakable name of God” and the meaning behind the number of the beast. His conclusions remain mystical and ambiguous, like the subject he is studying.

Unfortunately, our culture is losing its soul and sense of mysticism, and seems to be suspicious of anything linked with the supernatural or ‘primordial visions’. However, some of the best of world literature can be described as ‘visionary literature’ including great works by such authors as Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, Herman Hesse, William Golding, Michael Moorcock, Robert Holdstock and Ben Okri. Their fantasies are visions that inspire a sense of awe and spirituality on many different levels: Hesse is obsessed with personal mysticism, whilst Moorcock paints on vast canvasses depicting gods and worlds engaged in eschatological battles. Fantasy today plays the same part that myths used to and they contain important truths and statements that we would do well to consider and allow ourselves to be challenged by.

My plea for fantasy to be taken seriously, or even stronger, that fantasy provides us with a more potent art-form than realism, echoes Nietzsche’s call for the reawakening of Dionysus – exciting and dangerous, but also life-affirming, challenging and full of spiritual energy. In the end, literature is not the same as reality, only a response to it, but it should also be a response to the complex reality of the human soul: and this tantalising ‘glimpse of the numinous’ is what fantasy can provide for us in our secular society.

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