Thursday, September 09, 2010

Who wrote the first fantasy story set in an other world?

Over at Black Gate, Matthew Surridge explores this question in a couple of posts.  It's an interesting question, but before it's asked, the first question is "What's meant as an other world?"  Matthew lays out four requirements:
  • The world has a distinct logic (the existence of magic fulfills this)
  • The world is not meant to be perceived as part of this world (many mainstream fiction stories create countries or cities that do not actually exist, but are meant to be accepted as existing in this world)
  • It has its own history
  • It has its own geography
Matthew points out that many fantasy stories fulfill three of these, and he considers three (specifically 1, 3, and 4) to be sufficient to constitute an other world.  Why skip two?  Because many of the early fantasies were set in a mythic time in our world, but the time is sufficiently different that it still counts.  Before getting into the question of who the first author to write in another world is, he asks:
Before naming that writer, though, I’d like to tackle a related question. And that is: why did it take so long for somebody to come up with the idea?

Consider: Morris’ The Wood Beyond the World was published in 1894. Even if the first otherworld fantasy was in fact a few decades earlier, then people were still telling tales for thousands of years before coming up with the idea of an independent world (it would be interesting to see when the term ‘world’ began being used in criticism, as in ‘the world of Dickens’ or ‘Shakespeare’s green world’). Why the long delay?

It’s not because people were less imaginative. Rather, it seems to me, looking at older stories containing fantastic material — stories close to being high fantasy — that certain structural devices keep recurring, which in retrospect prevented the need for the development of the idea of an otherworld independent of the ‘real world’. These devices were ways for a story to contain strong fantasy elements while also situating them in this world. You can find stories from before 1800 in which a setting seems to fit three or even four of the characteristics I listed in my first post; but, rather than be established as its own world, the setting is, one way or another, given a relation to conventional reality.
It may be more accurate, though, to turn my phrasing around. Rather than talking about frames or links to this world, we could say that there are a number of techniques by which fantasists displaced their fantasy, putting it beyond the bounds of the world of everyday life. The idea of the otherworld, then, is just one of the most recent displacement strategies to be developed. You could even say it’s the most sophisticated, because it most thoroughly embraces the idea of fiction as fiction, of a story as a self-contained creation that does not need to be justified by a precise placement in relation to the real world.
So who was the first one?  Matthew hasn't told us yet, but he's promised to get back to us next week.

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