Apr 19, 2010

A Short History of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James

A Short History of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James

(In case you’re wondering: yes, that lovely cover is indeed by Charles Vess.) A Short History of Fantasy is exactly what it sounds like: a concise history of the genre from its ancient origins to the present day. The book is divided in eleven chapters covering specific time periods, with the exception of authors so influential that they are given chapters of their own: there’s one on Tolkien and Lewis, and one covering the more recent impact of Philip Pulman, Terry Pratchett, and J.K. Rowling. Also, though the focus is mostly on fantasy literature, media like TV, cinema or comics are occasionally also covered.

A Short History of Fantasy is more historical than analytical, but then again, that’s what it’s meant to be. Mendlesohn and James write about fantasy’s many subgenres and their evolution with appreciation and respect – which isn’t to say, of course, that they do so uncritically. It’s perhaps silly to even point out that a book about fantasy treats its subject matter with seriousness, but I’m going to be silly and point it out anyway because this is still something that mildly surprises me.

As much as I enjoy books that make a case for fantasy literature (namely Ursula Le Guin’s or Michael Chabon’s excellent essays), I begin to see the merits of simply not bothering to do so – of assuming that your audience takes fantasy seriously, and that if it doesn’t, it’s not your business to change their minds. There’s something to be said about writing from the centre because you refuse to be placed in the margins. But if a post I’m currently drafting ever sees the light of day, you’ll see how much I still need to take my own advice.

Anyway. Saying that the focus of this book is mostly historical doesn’t mean there’s no critical analysis whatsoever, of course. There is, and though I may not agree with all of it (for example, that His Dark Materials is “uncomfortably misogynistic” – which isn’t the same as saying that gender roles in the trilogy are a hundred per centre perfect, of course), the criticism was all intelligent, informative, thought-provoking, and a pleasure to read.

A Short History of Fantasy is, obviously enough, a short book, but I still found it pretty comprehensive. It does what it set out to do and it does it perfectly. I think the only author I love who got no mention at all was Martin Millar. I won’t lie; this is a book that will mostly appeal to those who already have an interest in fantasy. If that’s you, and if you don’t mind coming out of it with a gigantic reading list, then I absolutely recommend it.

Here’s a list of the books I added to my wishlist:
  • Joan Aiken’s short stories
  • Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White
  • Gloriana by Michael Moorcock
  • Red Shift by Alan Garner
  • The Midnight Folk by John Masefield
  • The Box of Delights by John Masefield (Reminder.)
  • The Green Child by Herbert E. Read
  • The Ship That Flew by Hilda Lewis
  • The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge (Reminder.)
  • The Wonderful O by James Thurber (Also a reminder, as last year I read and adored The Thirteen Clocks)
  • The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope
  • A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley
  • The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban
  • The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively
  • Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner
  • Tea With the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy (Reminder, as I think I’ve seen Neil Gaiman praise this one before.)
  • The Warrior Who Carried Life by Geoff Ryman
  • The Fires of Bride by Ellen Galford
  • Fire’s Astonishment by Geraldine McCaughrean
  • The Rainbow Abyss and The Magicians of Night by Barbara Hambly
  • Was… by Geoff Ryman (Reminder.)
  • The Course of Heart by M. John Harrison
  • A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer
  • The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley
  • Galvenston by Sean Stewart
  • The Water of Possibility by Hiromi Goto
  • Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge
  • The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce
  • The Death of a Ghost by Charles Butler
Phew! As you can see, this is a very dangerous book. Have you read any of these? What did you think?

(Also, have you posted about this book? Let me know and I’ll add your link here.)


  1. it looks like you aren't going to give up reading for some time to come! lol with that list the book sounds like a time bomb!

  2. I am trying not to look to closely at your list as you are already bad for my TBR list. I read The Little White Horse earlier in the year and still love it, though it wasn't as good this time as it was when I was a child.

  3. That's your TBR adds from ONE BOOK? Wow, you're right, that IS dangerous! LOL. And I thought immediately on seeing that cover that it might be Vess. :D

  4. What a list. The Mouse and His Child is one of my all time favorites. It is the only children's book that I know of that includes a parody of Samuel Beckett.

  5. I've read Kingdoms of Elfin- very good! and The Folk Keeper- just alright, although it's a J Fic book and those just don't appeal to me as much anymore. I have The Mouse and His Child on my list, but the rest here are unfamiliar to me. So you've just heaped onto my TBR as well!

  6. This sounds fantabulous. Although I must say I'm disturbed by the comment about HDM being uncomfortably misogynistic. I didn't get that at all. There were gender issues, so to speak, but there are always gender issues, and I didn't think HDM was bad at all.

    And I could really use a fantasy reading list. I clearly adore the genre, but don't do enough reading in it.

  7. Oh, this is going to bulk up my reading list for sure. When I inevitably read it. I've been on the prowl for new fantasy reads lately, and it'd be great to see what classics of the genre I've missed out.

    (The Little White Horse, by the way, did not impress me. There were sumptuous descriptions of food, but I got bored with the plot.)

  8. I've read quite a few of this list, and can't decide which to enthuse about - Red Shift is difficult and challenging, but worth reading. I've just given Fly by Night to my grown-up son. The Green Child is stange and magical. Masefield, Townsend Warner, Thurber and White are some of my most favourite authors, and I've carried The Little White Horse everywhere with me for nearly 50 years!

  9. This would be the perfect book for my husband! He is a fantasy nut. It's pretty much all he reads, and I think he would find a lot to love within these pages. Thanks for the wonderful gift idea, Nymeth! It looks like a great book. I also love the cover!

  10. Whoa. I did NOT need to see that list...! Joan Aiken is marvelous, btw.

  11. I love love love what you say about writing from the center and not the margins. I am really going to take that to heart.

    Looks like you found a few books to read! ;)

  12. Oh ny gosh! Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh!
    I have to read this book.
    Thanks for pointing it up!

  13. Oh, dear, too many books for the wish list! I have read the Stevermeyer book, A College of Magics. I don't think I remember liking it SO much. I think I have the same Fly By Night on my shelf to read, too!

  14. Hehe, that one really messed with yozr tbr list! :D
    Perhaps I should read this book because I don´t read a lot of fantasy and have this image of fighting fairies and goblins in my mind when I think of the genre. Obviously there has to be much more to it, would you recommend LeGuin as a good starting point?

  15. This sounds like a really great book. I want to read it, like, yesterday! It does seem scary though as I have none of those books you added to your wish list on my list nor have I read any of them. Yikes. But I still want to read this :)

  16. Think I'll have to wait for the summer before I pick this one up. And I haven't heard of any of the books on your to-read list - this scares me!

  17. What a neat book! Beautiful cover, too. I'm not a big fantasy reader, but I can see how I would find the history aspect very interesting.

  18. Wow, that is a dangerous book! I love books that do that to my tbr list. Of the ones in the list that I've read, I really enjoyed Stevermer's A College of Magics - as well as the epistolary novels she wrote with Patricia Wrede - Sorcery and Cecelia is the first. I've been meaning to reread those one of these days.

  19. 1. Beautiful cover!! Wow!!

    2. This sounds like exactly the book I need to ease me into the genre. Or at least tell me why I should love it :)

  20. Look at that list of books you added to your wish list -- a dangerous book indeed! :-) I really love the cover art.

  21. I'm newer to reading fantasy but I think I would enjoy this book too. I know for sure I will add a huge list to my TBR after I've read it. At least I can say I've read Tolkien so I am not a complete fantasy flunkie!

  22. I'm newer to reading fantasy but I think I would enjoy this book too. I know for sure I will add a huge list to my TBR after I've read it. At least I can say I've read Tolkien so I am not a complete fantasy flunkie!

  23. I just started exploring this fantasy genre, and it's because of you:) In the past I would have never picked up a fantasy book, but since you've mentioned these books so often, I wanted to try them and so far I must say that I like this genre. I am currently reading The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and I like it.

  24. Deslily: lol! I don't plan to, no :P

    Vivienne: Yeah, I worried The Little White Horse might be one of those books. I'd still like to read it, though.

    Amanda: The cover might be one of the reasons why I got it :P

    Amateur Reader: A parody of Beckett? I want it right now!

    Jeane: The Kingdoms of Elfin sounds excellent AND would fit the 1930's challenge...hmmm :P

    Trisha: They said it was because all the female characters in the series were either caregivers or proprs and had no agency - which I disagree with. I know some people regret the fact that as the series progressed Lyra moved into the background to make room for Will, which is a valid point - but I don't think she loses agency at all. Interestingly enough, they defend Narnia against accusations of sexism exactly because they think that women in the series are allowed to be human beings. I wouldn't make the comparison because it's just TOO easy, but they did :P

    Jenny: There were more of them I hadn't even heard of than I had imagined. Which was both exciting and dangerous :P

    GeraniumCat: I felt the same about Garner's The Owl Service - challenging but very much worth it - so I have right hopes for Red Shift. Plus, they said it's based on Tam Lin! I apparently need to read every book with a Tam Lin connection in existence :P

    Zibilee: I think he'd definitely really enjoy it :)

    Fredegonde: I've only read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which I enjoyed a lot. I need to read more of her stuff!

    Shellie, I hope you enjoy it :)

    Amy: If only I were better at taking my own advice :P

  25. Katherine Langrish: lol, I love your excitement :D

    Aarti: That's too bad about A College of Magics, as I really liked the sound of the premise!

    Bina: That's a common imagine, so don't feel too bad :P Le Guin is one of my favourite authors and I think she'd be an excellent introduction. But I'd recommend starting with The Tombs of Atuan instead of A Wizard of Earthsea. Or with Gifts, a more recent book which I found absolutely brilliant. It's the first in a series, but it's a series of stand-alone novels set in the same world. So you do get a full story.

    Amy: lol, it's worth it despite the TBR menace, yes :P

    Natalie: Not to scare you even more, but they have a reading list at the end that is PAGES long :P

    Emidy: I'm not sure if that would appeal too much to people who aren't fans of the genre, but the history IS interesting, yes :)

    Darla: Sorcery and Cecelia! So that's where I know her name from. I can't believe I've yet to read that book.

    Elise: It'll give you lots of reading ideas at the very least :P

    Stephanie: Charles Vess is just brilliant :)

    Kathleen: I haven't forgotten that I owe you an e-mail with fantasy recommendations! It's coming, I promise.

    Andreea: It makes me very VERY happy to hear that :D

  26. Great, thanks for the recommendations! I´ll look out for The Tombs of Atuan, saw that it even got a newbery medal :) I´m really curious about her style, I´ve heard a lot of good things about her works.

  27. Okay, you've got me sold on this book! :D

  28. I think I will be borrowing this list. :)

  29. Claire and Kelly, I think you'd both find this book very interesting :) And yes, feel free to borrow the list!

  30. This sounds so much like a book I would love, thank you for sharing it, only wish I had new about it when doing my dissertation!

  31. I'm surprised I didn't comment on this when you first posted it. A couple of my favorite books are here: The Folk Keeper and Limits of Enchantment. I think they would both be your style! And Geoff Ryman is one of my absolute favorite authors. Geraldine McGaughrean is, too, but I've never heard of Fire's Astonishment. I'll have to look for it.

    Joan Aiken's short stories are unlike anyone else's, except may (a teensy bit) Kelly Link's. I didn't care for Galveston or Mistress Masham's Repose too much, though T.H. White's The Goshawk (memoir that reads like fiction) and the Once And Future King cycle, again, are on my favorites list.

    You're right! This *is* a dangerous book! I'm going to save your list.

  32. Look at that list!!! Most of the authors, I've never heard of but now thanks to you, you've created an awareness. You're a very dangerous person. I love fantasy books!

  33. As a fantasy fan, I find that awesome that in this book, the author just assumes you like fantasy and take it seriously. I love that! It's cool when books cater to my PoV for once, instead of the mainstream.


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