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A Historic Look at Fantasy

Written by Tanja de Bie


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Is it even possible to have a historic look at Fantasy in the context of Western society? Many would presume that before Tolkien there simply was nothing we would call fantasy. Nothing that is, except for mythology. After all, Tolkien attempted, like a scholar, to create a mythology of his own, including the languages of the people that populated his imaginary world, Middle Earth.

So are elves variations of Greco-Roman nymphs and dryads? Perhaps this is so in the East and the South of Europe. In Eastern Europe there are well documented cases of so called white witches or faeries dancing on the fields in the late middle ages that look remarkably like the goddess Diana and her followers. Social historians have researched the subject extensively and have come to the conclusion that the circumstances under which these faeries are seen, as well as the description of how they look are no coincidence. These images  have become part of a collective memory that  in the time of the middle ages, has been cut loose of religion, yet are very alive in folklore.

There are also Germanic Scandinavian influences as well. For certain Nordic mythology recognized both dwarflike and Fae creatures; not to mention Trolls. Nowhere has this mixed more clearly with Greco-Roman mythology than in the Anglo-Saxon world, where Vikings settled and were christianized. It is no surprise that Tolkien was even more influenced by the rich Norse myths (taking such words as Middle Earth from the Norse Midgard) than by classical mythology. Wagner (the 19th century composer) was also heavily influenced by the Norse myths in his famous opera Ring der Nibelungen, which was in part inspired by the nationalist German movement.

It was the nationalist movement, which moved over Europe in a tidal wave of patriotism, romantic historic interest, and a strongly felt connection with the motherland, that refocused the attention on the middle age as a time when things were simpler, more honest, and more peaceful. A time when people had felt a natural connection with their environment. On this wave of nationalist feeling arose a renewed interest in fantasy images such as; dragons, the fae, and darker creatures. Had they truly ever been completely gone?

In the early middle ages, at the spread of Christianity, the church seems to have condoned these "local" mythical figures, and incorporated them as much as possible within the cannon of the church, either by adding a saint, or by at least giving a Christian explanation for ancient traditions. So many of the female goddesses find themselves reflected in Maria or more local saints; extending their protection to a village or town. Mythical monsters become a thankful object of heroic Christian epics; slaying representatives of Satan, such as the slaying of the dragon by St George. Artifacts like the holy grail grip the imagination of young nobles. The mindset of the average commoner in the middle ages completely accepted magic as part of the natural world. Fairies were as real as saints, and a smart person made sure not to enrage either.


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