Paradise Lost: A History of Fantasy and the Otherworld
If primal fear forms one pole of the fantasy genre, paradise forms the other. But from the tales that built the genre to the writers who resurrected it after each of its deaths, the narrative that plays itself over and over across time and geography is one of paradise lost. To understand the history of fantasy literature’s origins, one must realize that it is a history of melancholy, of nostalgia, and of beauty that has passed out of the world.
In Japan, there is a story about a fisherman named Urashima Tarō who rescues a little turtle on the beach and sets it back in the water. The next day, a huge turtle arrives on the beach and speaks to him, inviting him to be a guest of the king of the ocean. He is taken down into the ocean, to a magnificent palace, where he meets the daughter of the king, a beautiful woman named Otohime. Smiling, she tells Urashima Tarō that she was the little turtle he saved. He stays with her for three days in this beautiful palace, surrounded by wonders, but eventually he asks Otohime if he can go back and see his family again. Reluctantly, she lets him go, but she gives him a little box, and warns him gravely never to open it.
Urashima rides the huge turtle back up to the beach, but he finds that his mother’s house is gone, that everyone is wearing strange clothes, and that his whole town has changed. No one seems to know him. He says his name is Urashima Tarō, and they tell him that was the name of a man who disappeared three hundred years ago, and Urashima realizes that each of the three wonderful days he spent in the palace was actually a hundred years. In despair, he opens the box. A white cloud comes up, and suddenly Urashima begins to wrinkle and age until he’s an old man. Just before he collapses into dust, he hears Otohime’s voice: “I told you not to open the box. It contained your old age.”
This story, not Milton’s saga, is the story of lost paradise woven into folklore across ages and continents. In fact, Urashima Tarō finds an almost perfect mirror six thousand miles away, across continents, seas, and another culture, in the Irish story of Oisín, the hero of the Fianna who followed his elven lover, Niamh, into the Irish otherworld, Annwfn. There, one could hear “all the music of the world.” The trees bore fruit and flowers at the same time, and death never came. After staying with her for years, he, too, grew restless and asked to return to the world for a while to see his comrades. When he arrived in Ireland, he too found that hundreds of years had passed since his departure, leaving his friends in dust and Oisín heartbroken and confused. And like Urashima Tarō, he broke his promise to his lover: he stepped down from the horse she had given him and set his foot on the ground, and time and old age descended upon him.
These stories are part of a whole slew of myths and legends from across the world that deal with the Otherworld, whether it exists under the ocean, under the earth, or hidden in the forests. Oisín’s story is part of a tradition of Irish tales called immrama, which are stories about heroes’ voyages into the otherworld—in each one, the hero falls back into the real world, but the return is not a return home; it is a return to the reality of the world, which is time, change, and death.
These stories give a critical insight into nearly all tales of the otherworld: the otherworld is a paradise, and contact with it opens to the door for longing, both for the characters in the story and for the reader, who cannot help but feel a small twinge of excitement at the prospect of crossing over into a land of wonder, and a sense of emptiness when the hero finds himself bereft of his elfland. The ultimate narrative is one of loss, with the otherworld standing in for Eden.
What is fascinating is that the loss of the otherworld escaped fiction and became a historical event in the collective memory of Europe. Following the spread of Christianity, a grand metanarrative began to develop to account for the diminishing prominence of the old gods and supernatural beings, usually centering around their “retreat” into the otherworld and the growing inability for humans to cross over into these hidden paradises.
The most explicit example is found in the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the pantheon of Ireland. Initially represented as a collection of gods with their own spheres of influence, descriptions of the Tuatha and their kind gradually diminished in power and stature as Christianity advanced in Ireland, until they were represented as small fairies who lived beneath the sidhe, the fairy mounds. Eventually, the sidhe were sealed off from humans altogether, forever closing the door to the Otherworld.
Ireland, in particular, holds special significance because it serves as the essential model for the pattern of Christian conversion outside of the Roman Empire: the conversion methods implemented among the Gaels were used among the majority of Northern European territories, which were primarily rural and decentralized. Similar stories of diminution can be found among the Sami of Scandinavia, where the appearances of the magical, elf-like ulddat became more illusory and rare as they retreated into the caves and underground places of Sapmi.
The narrative of “the retreat” was systematic, but the Christianization and adaptation of European folklore led to the emergence of a new genre in the High Middle Ages: the chivalric romance. Replacing older heroes with courtly knights, the romances reflected the hybrid stories created throughout Europe in the conversion process:
“Drawing their material from a broad range of sources that included oral folktales, vernacular epics and saints’ lives, courtly lyrics, classical Latin literature and contemporary chronicles, romance authors self-consciously blended ancient and contemporary stories into new shapes, created characters who appealed to the sentimental, moral, and political concerns of their audiences, and drew attention to their art as they did so.”
This blending of old legends with a new genre and religion actually served to preserve and recycle many of the elements of the older stories, leading to cross-pollinations that yielded one of the most enduring groups of stories in the history of fantasy: the Matter of Britain, which pertains to King Arthur and the fall of Camelot.
The Knights of the Round Table are the crossroads of fantasy’s history. The knight errant is a new iteration of the traveling hero, the Beowulf or Finn MacCumal of the past, and their adventures into the fairy realms carry on the fascination with the otherworld’s unearthly beauty. These old threads are modified to fit the themes of Christianity and the ideals of the day: the old quests for the hand of a beautiful maiden, such as Sigurd’s winning of Brynhild, are made into chaste stories of courtly love and service of the lady, and the service of God is added to the glory of battle as the chief motivator for the campaigns. These kinds of changes allowed the old stories to survive and carry on through history. But the most remarkable element of the Arthurian stories is the melancholy and loss that permeates its final act, the fall of Camelot.
The most influential collection of the Arthurian legends is arguably Thomas Malory’s Le Morte de Arthur, published in the 15th century. Drawing on earlier poems and versions of the stories, Malory compiled an eight-part work whose stories stretched from the rise of Arthur in the first portion to his fall at the hands of Mordred in the eighth. The final part, which recounts the eponymous death of the King, bears a strong thematic weight: up to this point in the chronicle, the stories have had almost universally happy endings, even containing light-hearted adventures among the knights. All of it is brought down in the cataclysm of the fall of Camelot, which Wilfred Guerin describes as a culmination of a grand tragedy:
“All the previous ‘happy endings,’ the ‘japes’ of Dinadan and Kay, the pleasant disguises of Gareth and Lancelot, serve to emphasize not only the later deaths of everyone of note, but more poignantly the lacerated hearts and minds of Arthur, Lancelot, Guenevere, and Gawain. The great society of the Round Table resolves into nothingness, and the few survivors can only think, ‘it might have been.’”
As Arthur dies on the field of battle, the specter of the otherworld fades into view: a barge appears at the shores of the ocean to take the King away to the paradise of Avalon. So the reign of Camelot ends with the kingdom in ruins, the Round Table broken, with the King being carried out of the world, leaving his knights to wander, forlorn, in the ruins of their paradise. The dream has died.
The chivalric romance tradition gained tremendous popularity among all quarters of society, but the arrival of the Renaissance would signal its death. Influenced by the rediscovery of classic Latin and Greek texts, Renaissance thinkers like Petrarch created a restructured view of history, anointing the “classical” antiquity of the Greeks and Romans as a golden age of knowledge and culture, the medieval era as the “Dark Ages,” an age of degenerate culture, and the new era as the modern one, in which the art, philosophy, and learning of the past would flourish again. The death stroke was delivered by Miguel Cervantes in his renowned novel Don Quixote, which mocked the famous works Amadis de Gaul and Orlando Furioso in particular, and paired with emergence of the picaresque, the chivalric romance began to lose favor.
While the elements of folklore found new life in children’s literature, the concept of fantastic literature for adults remained dormant until the early 1800s, when a new movement swept Europe. It was a reaction to industrialization, capitalism, the dominance of science and rationality, and the zeitgeist of the Enlightenment, which were seen as hollowing and destructive to the human soul. According to Henry Remak, among the movement’s key traits were imagination, human emotions, an interest in nature, mythology, and folklore, but most importantly, the desire to return to the medieval. This was Romanticism, the modern revival of dreams, myths, and fantasy.
It’s hard to overemphasize how deeply this tradition immersed itself in the idea of a lost paradise. Michael Lowy and Robert Sayre express it this way:
“The soul ardently desires to go home again, to return to its homeland, in the spiritual sense, and this nostalgia is at the heart of the Romantic attitude . . . the past that is the object of nostalgia may be entirely mythological or legendary, as in the reference to Eden, to the Golden Age, or to the lost Atlantis . . . [t]he Romantic vision selects a moment from the actual past in which the harmful characteristics of modernity did not yet exist . . . ”
These sentiments manifested themselves in two ways: the increased influence of the fantastic and the supernatural in art and the development of a new world outlook that attempted to infuse everyday life with the traits of utopia. A profound exhibit of this is William Morris, the founder of the Kelmscott Press and the driving force behind that company’s renowned work, the Kelmscott Chaucer. Morris set up his Press with the intent to create books in the style of the medieval, using methods and equipment that resembled the ancient printing apparatuses as closely as possible. Morris’ prose romances, especially The Well at World’s End and The Wood Beyond the World, follow the format and character of the chivalric romance and unite them with what Tolkien would later call a “secondary world”: a setting that is almost completely fictional, with its own regions, inhabitants, and metaphysical rules. This is a tremendously important development, because Morris’ romances take place in an otherworld that is completely divorced from this one. It seems that the culmination of Morris’ fascination with the medieval story was the decision to move his settings out of reach of time and reality; in carving out this niche, he was free to build the paradise that he envisioned.
The writer George MacDonald offers a different sort of literature. Though famous as an author of children’s fairy tales, such as The Golden Key and The Princess and the Goblin, the motifs and ideas contained in MacDonald’s work transcend its audience and place him alongside Morris as one of the founders of modern fantasy. And like Morris, his work is inextricably linked to the specter of the otherworld. According to Roderick McGillis:
“The idea of two worlds co-existing in time and space, superimposed upon one another, and yet—except for the occasional mysterious, “doorway”—totally invisible to one another is one most persistent themes of George MacDonald’s fantasy writing.”
Romanticism, in its avatars Morris and McDonald, signal a shift in the status of ‘paradise lost’ in fantasy: the writing of the stories themselves becomes an expression of the desire for the golden age. The narratives can end with the fulfillment of all the heroes’ wishes. In Morris’ Well at the End of the World, the protagonists eventually gain access to the Well, which grants them immortality, a boon normally associated with the realms of the Elves. This seems to fit, since the stories have become set in a sort of otherworld: whereas the heroes of myths were grounded in the geography and history of this world, the new heroes of fantasy can be natives of worlds where magic and wonder are part of the fabric of life. In this way, the world has undergone an inversion: the longing for paradise has escaped the legends and become our day-to-day reality, but the otherworld has departed from ours and found new life in fiction.
A hundred years after William Morris and the Romantics began the revival of fantasy literature, the 1973 introduction to The Lord of the Rings, written by Peter S. Beagle, still evokes the same longing for a lost golden age:
“I’ve never thought it an accident that Tolkien’s works waited more than ten years to explode into popularity . . . The Sixties were no fouler a decade than the Fifties . . . but they were the years when millions of people grew aware that the industrial society had become paradoxically unlivable, incalculably immoral, and ultimately deadly . . . [Tolkien] is a great enough magician to tap our most common nightmares, daydreams, and twilight fancies, but he never invented them either; he found them a place to live, a green alternative each day’s madness here in a poisoned world.”
A vantage point on heaven is a priceless thing. The history of fantasy is defined by loss and nostalgia, but the image of paradise lost carries on through the ages, its image burned into the literature and the zeitgeist. It’s one of the last haven of dreams, and the unique power of dreams is their ability to illuminate.