A Review of the Historical Dictionary of Fantasy Literature

Alexander Glass on a new reference book edited by Allen Stroud

The second edition of the Historical Dictionary of Fantasy Literature (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023) under the guiding hand of Allen Stroud, comes some eighteen years after Brian Stableford’s first edition in 2005. Although the current edition naturally builds upon the previous one, much has happened in the genre in between the two editions; and yet, in the context of the long history of fantasy – twenty-five centuries, in this book’s reckoning – eighteen years is a mere sliver of time.

A readers’ note on the scope of the dictionary says that the entries are – unsurprisingly – not intended to be exhaustive. Concision requires focus, and the making of difficult choices as to what to include and how much to say. The most numerous entries are for writers; and the writers have been chosen for being of historical significance, or – where they are contemporary writers – for stimulating the genre.

A more concise work than John Clute and John Grant’s gargantuan 1996 Encyclopedia of Fantasy, what distinguishes this book is its understanding of, and close attention to, the genre’s history and breadth.

The book opens with a fascinating chronology of fantasy, beginning with the Pyramid Texts of the 23rd century BCE, followed by the Epic of Gilgamesh two hundred years later. Both, as the subsequent introduction points out, may not have been fantasy at all in the modern sense: their now-nameless writers may have been describing – though dramatising – what they thought were real events.

As the chronology moves toward the present, we encounter more conscious, overt fantasy, but the history, appropriately, does not take an easy or obvious road. There are detours and diversions as apparently unrelated works begin to follow hard on one another’s heels. Goethe’s Faust (1808) contrasts interestingly with the Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales (1812). Do both inform the tales of E.T.A. Hoffman (1814)? Do all three inform Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)?

The expansion of fantasy literature later in the timeline gives rise to some interesting conjunctions. Some are merely coincidental: 1845 saw both Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Ugly Duckling’ and Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter. Others seem indicative of a common thread, or something notable in the prevailing culture: Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz both appeared in 1900.

Some are amusing in their contrast: 1908 saw G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, and William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. Others are oddly satisfying in their synchronicity: 1949 saw both Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces – a source for innumerable interminable fantasy trudges – and the first publication of The Magazine of Fantasy, soon to become The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction – a source of notable short fiction to this day. Even more interesting, 1954 saw not only J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring but also Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword – a noteworthy book in itself, but also one of the inspirations for Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga.

The dictionary proper includes authors, from Ben Aaronovitch to Zoran Žiković, but also concepts, themes and subgenres. Inevitably, with over a thousand entries across fewer than half as many pages, not every discussion can be equally detailed. Nor should it be – it is difficult to argue that Ursula Le Guin should not be afforded a more detailed entry than, say, George Sand. Nevertheless, individual taste will often mean that the reader disagrees with the content up to a point. Could more space have been devoted to Robert Holdstock? Should Barry Hughart and his comical Chinoiserie have been squeezed in somewhere (presumably between Tanya Huff and Monica Hughes)? Conversely, was there really a need for an entry on Dr. Seuss?

But these are minor quibbles. (There is no entry for ‘Quibbles,’ on which – I couldn’t resist checking – Clute and Grant include a detailed discussion. After all, how else is one to wriggle out of a magical contract?) The entries are intended to be points of departure and points for navigation, and here the book excels. A range and breadth of knowledge, not only temporally but thematically, informs the main body of the dictionary, and more indications for further reading are set out in a particularly detailed and useful bibliography.

To take one example, an entry on erotic fantasy takes up two pages, which at first glance might seem more than is strictly necessary; but only part of that relates to modern erotic fantasy. Beyond that we are presented with a discussion of Aphrodite, Salome, Don Giovanni and more. It is still a snapshot; it leaves you wanting more. But if you want more, you will have been shown where to look for it: works are listed in the entry; studies relevant to the subgenre can be found in the bibliography.

Developments since the first edition are treated with understandable circumspection – who knows whether, in another twenty-three centuries, or even in another eighteen years, the grimdark subgenre will merit more than a paragraph? Even so, the decision to include writers such as Fonda Lee, Tasha Suri and N.K. Jemisin seems appropriate (though the last in particular could have borne a slightly more detailed entry). And, inevitably and sometimes soberingly, developments occur beyond the point of publication; the entry on Rachel Pollack is headed, with terrible poignancy: ‘Pollack, Rachel (1945– )’. News of her death in April 2023 came too late for this edition.

As with all works of this type, much of the pleasure is from near-random revelations and connections. I had not known that Tove Jansson has illustrated translations both of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Hobbit. (Both sets of illustrations are wonderful, and easily found on line.) One’s attention is drawn back and forth in a kind of pinball effect. Following up on Alice leads one from Jansson to Lewis Carroll; from there one might be drawn, via Automated Alice, to Jeff Noon; or one might instead be distracted by neighbouring entries on Jonathan Carroll or Angela Carter.

The writing is accessible, erudite, sometimes amusingly understated. The chronology has this in its entry for 1865: ‘In response to George MacDonald’s suggestion that he, too, might produce something akin to The Water Babies, Lewis Carroll prepares Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for publication, achieving something quite different.’

The Historical Dictionary of Fantasy Literature is a valuable and timely update, but it has also, in paying attention to new developments in the context of the history, achieved something of its own. ∎

Alexander Glass is the pseudonym of an ex-lawyer (now law lecturer) and blues guitarist who is currently living somewhere on the outer fringes of London. He is not a brain in a jar, yet, but there’s still time. His stories have been published in Interzone, The Third Alternative, Black Static, Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. You can read his story ‘The Ghost in the Valley’ here on IZ Digital. and he has another, ‘Sfumato’, forthcoming in Interzone #296.

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