I was sitting in a bar tonight reading Mary Renault’s novel, The King Must Die. It’s a pretty fun book, and while it’s a mundane, magic-free novel about Ancient Greece, its characters clearly believe they inhabit a “magical” world animated by gods and spirits. Theseus and his fellows believe in the whole Greek pantheon with greater conviction than one normally encounters in contemporary mainstream fantasy.
It got me thinking. A lot of fantasy seems to take its cues from the pulps. But I wonder if there’s a shadow history of epic fantasy that thrived in historical fiction and sidestepped the pulps.
Off the top of my head I’d place Renault, Mitchison, Flaubert, Dumas, Sabatini, Graves, and even Bashevis Singer (his novel King of the Fields in particular) in this shadow history. It’d certainly be a more amorphous tradition, one with more narrative complexity and more “Grandmothers and Godmothers” in it. It would likely lack a fandom trading the original magazines in mylar baggies. Maybe it’s the simplicity the pulps offered—the hero battling his way through insurmountable odds for a bit of wealth and/or maiden skin, all that sense of wonder and escapist derring-do, but I really wonder if this is just a narrative we’ve all been fed and swallowed. A heap of lies that says THIS IS THE GENRE’S HISTORY when really the genre’s true history is a lot more crusty and weird.