In part 4, we looked at the fantasy of the nineteenth century. This section of the short history of fantasy covers the period from the beginnings of the 20th century until the beginning of World War II.
In the 20th century, fantasy thrived and produced some of the greatest works in the genre. L. Frank Baum started the century off right with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz published in 1900 (the eve of the 20th century). The book was extremely popular and was followed by many more Oz books as well as other works of fantasy and collections of fairy tales.
Lord Dunsany was first published in 1905 with The Gods of Pegana, a work that foreshadowed much of his later work and also influenced many other writers like H.P. Lovecraft (first published 1917), A. Merritt (The Moon Pool – 1918) and E. R. Eddison (first published 1922). These writers are similar in that they use antiquated, stilted prose to suggest archaic, outré, and weird circumstances and supernatural characters.
In 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs published his ground-breaking Tarzan of the Apes series, followed not long after in 1917 by his John Carter of Mars series and then by several other wildly popular fantasy series. (Note that even though the John Carter series takes place on Mars, it is not really based on any scientific principles. It is truly a fantasy series, not science fiction.)
James Branch Cabell was a critically acclaimed and popular writer in the early 20th century. In 1919, he published Jurgen, a satirical fantasy whose popularity was boosted by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice when they called the book obscene. This book had a great influence on such future writes as Robert Heinlein and Fritz Leiber.
A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay was one of the first fantasy novels to promote a philosophy and deal with religion and morality. It was a strong influence on both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien later in the century.
In 1923, the growing popularity of fantasy spawned the new pulp magazine, Weird Tales, that published both new works and reprints by such authors as Robert E. Howard, H. G. Wells, and Edmond Hamilton. It also published essays by Harry Houdini debunking some of the charlatans of the time.
Another critically acclaimed book, Lud-in-the-Mist by the almost forgotten author, Hope Mirrlees, was published in 1926. This delightful, unusual, and beautifully written work about the influences of fairyland on our mundane world explores themes of death, consciousness, and the meaning of life without being didactic.
In 1932, the great British novelist, Aldous Huxley, published a now famous and highly praised dystopic novel, Brave New World. This is science fiction at its best, but it was not originally thought of as a part of the genre (probably because of the low reputation of SF at that time and the high reputation of its author).
One of the greatest (and least known) fantasists of the 20th century, Evangeline Walton published her first book, The Virgin and the Swine (later reprinted as The Island of the Mighty), in 1936. This was the first book of a retelling of the stories from the Welsh Mabinogion. Wonderfully retold, this book and the three that follow are essentials in the library of any fantasy lover.
There is little that can be said about J. R. R. Tolkien that hasn’t been said already. If you haven’t read The Hobbit published in 1937 or The Lord of the Rings trilogy (published from 1954 to 1955) start reading NOW. The wonderful films based on these books are not a substitute but an addition to the works. Tolkien was and still is the strongest influence ever to touch the field of fantasy and will probably remain so in the foreseeable future. None of the many imitations of this work even come close.
The Arthurian Legend underwent a revival in 1938 with T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. This first book of a tetralogy, The Once and Future King, brought Arthur back to life for many modern readers. It’s still one of the best retellings of the legend and it inspired many other 20th century fantasists to try their hand at relating a new version of the Arthurian story.
Many new sub-genres of fantasy appeared in the last half of the century. Unfortunately, many of the popular works that appeared were merely imitations of earlier great works. We’ll explore these topics in our next chapter.
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