Book Review: A Short History of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn & Edward James.
I finished this book last night- it’s great. It’s exactly what the title says, a short breeze through the history of fantasy. It explains almost everything you would wanted to know about fantasy, but didn’t, in just under 300 pages. The book runs through the origins of fantasy, starting with myth and fairy tale. Then it goes through the XXth century and all the way up to 2010 (it was written in 2009 so it’s futuristic in that way).
James & Mendlesohn put extra emphasis on the writers who they think have influenced the genre the most, like Tolkien, Lewis, Pullman, Rowling and Pratchett. This book lists, explains, expands and summarizes writers, books, short stories, films, animation, painting and literary criticism in the area of the fantastical.
Defying and Defining Fantasy
I generally have to make a conscious effort to get through academic books, but this comprehensive overview of the fantasy genre was hard to put down. What I enjoyed the most was their explanation of how other genres like science fiction, or historical fiction fit into fantasy, and why it is so difficult to tell them apart. Mostly, James & Mendlesohn say, it’s because “The most obvious construction of fantasy in literature and art is the presence of the impossible and the unexplainable.” However, I was a little bit disappointed that the authors shied away from giving any formal definition of fantasy.
For Whom Is This Book?
If you read a lot of fantasy, this book is for you. You might find someone you have not read in there, or even find out about the books, events or people who influenced your favourite authors.
If you don’t read fantasy, you’ll get the ins and outs of the fantasy. You might be convinced into picking up a book with dragons and sword wielding barbarian princes and princesses on a cover, on your next visit to the book-store. You might even be inspred into participating in a discussion with someone who loves the subject.
If you write, read, teach, or follow a course in fantasy, or are simply curious to know what all the fuss is about, this book is a must-have. But, if you are looking for a deep philosophical discussion on ‘what is fantasy?’ you might prefer Ursula K.LeGuin’s The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction or The Rhetorics of Fantasy (which was also written by Mendlesohn).