All things have their beginnings, and while I've used this column to explore some of the notable roots of Science Fiction (and last month, Horror), we’ve yet to cover the roots of fantasy literature. In recent years, Fantasy has become a popular umbrella genre, with major blockbuster novels such as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and movie franchises such as The Lord of the Rings (and the forthcoming Hobbit Trilogy) and Chronicles of Narnia that have brought those classic works back into the public’s eye. As we’ve seen with Science Fiction, teasing out the origins of Fantasy is a similarly messy proposition: The influences of the genre extend into the murky depths of the past, while a number of authors slowly piece together the elements that make up the genre that we recognize as fantasy. One author does stand out as an early influence on modern authors: George MacDonald.
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George MacDonald was born Averdeenshire, Scotland, on December 10th, 1824, to a long and troubled history. His family clan had survived a massacre in 1692 by a rival clan, and was known as for its bards and piers in Glencoe, Scotland. As a child MacDonald explored the ruins of the Huntly castle in Scotland and the surrounding town of Averdeenshir's valleys and forests, which sparked his imagination and curiosity from an early age. Growing up in a Calvinistic household, MacDonald questioned many of the lessons that he learned in school, and according to a biographer, Michael R. Phillips, "clung in large measure to the values and spiritual viewpoints of his Calvinistic upbringing. He was uncomfortable with them, but he had not yet entirely cut the string."
By the time MacDonald was 16, he enrolled in the King's College in Aberdeen and began studying to become a minister. After he graduated, he eventually ended up in London, where he worked as a pastor but was later brought up on charges of heresy and had his salary reduced. In October of 1850, he fell seriously ill; while he recovered enough to return to preaching, his illness and recovery prompted him to write and work on publishing his stories.
In 1855, he published his first narrative poem, Within and Without, but it was in 1858 when he published his first work of fantasy, Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women, an immediate hit with the Victorian public. In it, Anados comes across a fairy, his grandmother, and soon finds himself in a fairyland, where his beliefs and convictions are tempted from him. The book draws from German folklore and importantly, as author C.S. Lewis notes, Phantasies bridges myth and literature: "What he does best is fantasy—that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic."
MacDonald would go on to write more than 50 books before his death in 1905 at the age of 81, including several other notable fantasy novels: The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and Lilith (1895). His fantasy works would leave a major impression on a number of authors who would go on to be known for their own speculative stories: Lewis Carroll, a friend of the family who brought early drafts of a story called 'Alice's Adventures Underground'; H.G. Wells, who thought highly of Lilith; C.S. Lewis, who picked up Phantastes at the age of 16 and found himself a vastly changed man; and J.R.R. Tolkien, who commented that MacDonald's fantasies were "stories of power and beauty," not to mention childhood favorites. MacDonald's revival of fairytales by bringing them into the literary fold was instrumental in bringing forth the modern fantasy genre and all of the wonders it’s brought to readers.