If you’re like me, you have probably starved for an original fantasy novel. So many novels and short stories rely too heavily on The Lord of the Rings and the epic fantasy genre that spawned from it. Are there any original fantasy works that use impossible situations without having elves, orcs, and dragons run across the page? Oh, and I don’t have that much time to read.
The answer? Peter S. Beagle’s anthology of short stories The Secret History of Fantasy.
True, it has a dragon on the cover. But it is half-concealed, placed against a minimalist white page. If we were to judge a book by its cover, we might guess there is a literary sensibility that went into these selections. You’ll find big-name authors like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Yann Martel, Gregory Maguire, and Ursula K. Le Guin on the cover, as well as other authors with whom you may be unfamiliar, but will remember once you’ve tasted their stories.
This anthology represents the top fantasists of the field. Each story has its own original flavour of the fantastic. Who could forget the remarkably compelling mythagos of Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood?” What is a mythago, you ask? It is a “myth-imago” or “myth-image,” basically a mythic archetype that runs amok in Britain’s oldest forest in Holdstock’s classic novel–here cut to the length of a short novella.
This anthology is filled with other wainscots. For example, there is Stephen King’s tale of Mrs. Todd, a lady who is obsessed with uncovering the shortest shortcuts from place to place, and ends up driving her car into another world. Jeffrey Ford’s “The Empire of Ice Cream” is a tale of a boy who is forbidden from eating ice cream due to his medication and forms a relationship with a girl he sees during one of this synesthetic trips.
Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked, which is perhaps the most famous reworking of the classic novel The Wizard of Oz, returns with a story about the Scarecrow. Steven Millhauser’s description-heavy story of the P.T. Barnum Museum is also remarkable in how it is nothing at all like a fantasy adventure–more of a reflection on a setting’s affect on the people who visit and work there. The museum ends up becoming a metaphor for how we all encounter the fantastic, the wondrous, the inexplicable, and how we all remember our childhoods. Yann Martel, the Canadian author of Life of Pi, adopts an even more alternate route and writes an experimental poem in “The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company.”
Another brilliant feature of this anthology are the supplementary materials. Peter S. Beagle is serious about fantasy and he lets readers become serious about the genre with him. Ursula K. Le Guin, author of A Wizard of Earthsea, and David G. Hartwell, also a fantasy anthology editor, each write essays which Beagle includes in an appendix. Le Guin’s essay “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists” describes the critical reception of fantasy up to the present day and how perceptions that fantasy should be dismissed because it is childlike and escapist have improved over the years. The roadmap to fantasy, she argues, is more inexplicable than the simplicity of Tolkien-derived drivel would suggest.
Hartwell in “The Making of the American Fantasy Genre” gives the history of how Del Rey capitalized on the Tolkien phenomenon in the late 70s and published The Sword of Shannara, the first of many Tolkien homages that sold like hotcakes. Terry Brooks’ first novel thus helped make epic fantasy the repetitive form it eventually became. Both essays provide you with a historical perspective on the development of a genre you love to read.
Peter S. Beagle uses this anthology to propose that fantasy has become stilted due to the staleness of epic fantasy. The market tends to favour a 2,000-page, derivative, Tolkienesque trilogy over more experimental but well thought-out fantasy novels. He attempts to show readers the diversity of fantasy–which may be the broadest genre in the world in terms of narrative possibility. If you ask me, it is impossible not to love this anthology. I would say fantasy is more diverse today than it was 40 years ago. But I would have to agree with Beagle that it is difficult, at least for new writers, to escape the stranglehold of genre.
If it is time for a renewal in fantasy, then it will be through short stories and novels like the ones Beagle has published in The Secret History of Fantasy. There are infinite angles to a fantasy story and Secret History attempts to show us some of those doors. But, like the myriad rooms and passages located inside and underneath the Barnum Museum, you can always count on the fantasy genre being bigger and more expansive than your even imagination can acknowledge.