[This essay of mine appeared, slightly edited, in the Deccan Herald a couple of weeks back. In case you clicked on that link, the essay is in the second half of the page]
Frodo is still around
In the 60s, a strange bit of graffiti began appearing on walls in the US. “Frodo Lives!” it said. Frodo was Frodo Baggins, the diminutive hero of The Lord of the Rings, a fantasy novel by J.R.R. Tolkien, which had only just become available in a paperback edition, and so was beginning to reach millions of readers. The characters, the story, and the setting of the novel rapidly won over the hearts of the reading population, and brought Fantasy back into the mainstream. Rings had became a symbol of the times, sometimes identified with the hippie movement and sometimes interpreted as a pro-establishment story.
Rings also gave birth to a whole new subgenre: Tolkienesque Fantasy, with its wizards, elves, dragons, muscular heroes and medieval setting. More properly called Medievalist Fantasy, this has been the most common avatar of Fantasy until recently. Some of the most iconic Medievalist Fantasy books are: The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, the lesser known but much richer Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake, and the Conan the Barbarian stories by Robert E. Howard. Go to the Fantasy section of your favourite bookstore, and the Medievalist Fantasy titles are easily identified by their fantastic (pardon the pun) covers.
In 1997, the dominance of Medieval Fantasy was seriously challenged by a new book about a schoolboy who finds out he’s a wizard. The Harry Potter books, by J.K. Rowling, were set in London and around, and in a time period that was close to the current day, breaking the expectations from Fantasy books. There have been other such books before – the books of Charles de Lint come to mind – but the Harry Potter books have a magic all their own. They’re an endearing combination of kids’ school stories, adventure, and magic. Harry is neither superhuman, nor extraordinarily intelligent – in fact, some of his friends are smarter and stronger than him – but he’s braver and more determined than the rest. And, Rowling seems to say, that is what really make you a hero. The Harry Potter books were made into hit movies and video games as well, and even today, two years after the series ended, its popularity shows no signs of waning.
The success of the Potter books brought the focus back on two subgenres of Fantasy – Urban Fantasy, which is set in cities and towns similar to the ones we live in, and Coming-of-Age Fantasy, where the protagonists are young folks. There have since been dozens of books in these genres, more so in the latter. The Artemis Fowl series, a more action-oriented series with magical elements, is a good example.
Besides prose fiction, comics and movies have had their own high points in the Fantasy genre. Neil Gaiman, now better known as a prose writer, hit the big time with his comic series, Sandman, which was about the King of Dreams and his dark, quirky, world populated by beings from mythology and overlapping with our own. Unlike most other comics, this series had a proper beginning and end, and the characters were better etched than in most novels. In Hollywood movies, most fantasy films are based on books or existing concepts – The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings being good examples. But Japanese cinema, and especially Anime, has had a long tradition of original fantasy films, with Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, both by Hayao Miyazaki, being well known examples. Indian movies have had their own share of Fantasy, with movies ranging from Hatim Tai and Ali Baba aur Chalis Chor, to Ajooba and Jajantaram Mamantaram.
In India, the development of Fantasy writing as a genre has taken a different path, with different milestones. The first recognized prose work in modern Hindi, Chandrakanta, by Babu Devkinandan Khatri, was a fantasy. It was written in short chapters, called bayaan, which were published individually and distributed to waiting fans. Such was its influence that people learnt Hindi just to be able to read this book. After completing Chandrakanta, Khatri wrote several sequels, starting with the multi-volume Chandrakanta Santati.
Chandrakanta was set in a world of kings and princesses, and featured concepts that were borrowed both from Indian tales and Persian folklore. For example, it talked of a magical spell called Tilism, which was a kind of trap door world. Once it is entered, there is no exit until a puzzle or trick is solved, or else, until a specific person comes into the Tilism. Interestingly, one of the most popular Urdu fantasy books is the Tilism-e-Hoshruba, which was a sprawling multi-volume opus originally written by Muhammad Husain ‘Jah’ and Ahmed Husain Qamar in the late 1870s and 1880s.
Of late, there have been several writers in India writing in the Fantasy tradition. Samit Basu, with his Gameworld Trilogy, is probably the best known. But there are many others too, such as Appupen, who’s ready to release a fantasy graphic novel named Moonward in next month. Writers who are reinterpreting mythical tales, such as Devdutt Pattanaik, with his The Pregnant King, could also be said to be using Fantasy tropes, although in India, this is a thin distinction.
In many forms, in many media, Fantasy has been with us for a long time. Going by the way it has always reinvented itself to remain fresh, it probably will remain with us in the future as well.
Five must-read Fantasy series:
1. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. What, you haven’t read it yet?
2. The Harry Potter series, by J. K. Rowling. The series that brought children to books again.
3. The Sandman series, by Neil Gaiman. They’re graphic novels, sure. But the depth of Gaiman’s writing makes this one of the richest fantasy worlds ever.
4. Chandrakanta and its sequels, by Babu Devkinandan Khatri. It isn’t just one book, there are three multi-volume sequels as well. Ignore the soap-operatic Doordarshan serial, and read this amazing series in the original Hindi.
5. Discworld, by Terry Pratchett. A twenty-plus volume comic fantasy series set on a flat world that’s mounted on the back of a turtle. Oh, and Death himself is a major character in this series– he rides a horse named Binkie.