Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

The scientific study of humankind. The founders of the science, including Edward Tylor (1832-1917) and Sir James Frazer, made the dubious assumption that, by studying the diversity of contemporary societies and describing a hierarchy extending from the most "primitive" to the most "highly developed", they could discover a single evolutionary pattern. Frazer described this imagined pattern very elaborately in the various editions of The Golden Bough (1890; rev 1900; exp rev 1911-1915), which contends that the beliefs on which culture is founded inevitably evolve from the proto-theories of "sympathetic Magic" and animistic Religion through a series of more complex religious ideologies – beginning with Fertility cults and climaxing in monotheism – to the development of scientific understanding. This Scholarly Fantasy was parent to many others far wilder – including the notorious contentions of Margaret A Murray (1863-1963) concerning Witchcraft and The White Goddess (1947 US) by Robert Graves – and thus became the direct or indirect inspiration of a great deal of literary fantasy.

Scholarly fantasies of this evolutionistic stripe appeal to writers of Prehistoric-Fantasy and Lost-Race stories because they provide useful schematics assisting the design of hypothetical primitive societies. Other unorthodox theories of a quasi-anthropological nature have exported materials into modern fantasy which have become imaginative staples of the genre, their origins obscured by endless repetition; Ignatius Donnelly's attempts to locate Atlantis within the theories of the "cultural diffusionists" have been a prolific inspiration (see SFE), and Lewis Spence's speculative reconstruction of The Mysteries of Britain (1928) has made a substantial contribution to the ideological background of Celtic Fantasy. The endeavours of anthropological folklorists have, of course, provided modern fantasy with a veritable treasury of themes.

Frazer produced only one brief work of fiction, but his contemporary Andrew Lang used his own anthropological expertise to good effect in In the Wrong Paradise and Other Stories (coll 1886) and his collaboration with H Rider Haggard, The World's Desire (1890). Grant Allen also wrote a Frazerian fantasy, The Great Taboo (1890), and brought an anthropologist from the future to study tribalism and Taboos in Victorian society in The British Barbarians (1895). 19th-century UK literary depictions of primitive or ancient society are, however, distinctly pedestrian when placed beside contemporaneous French works, where anthropological data were copiously imported into a framework of ideas owing much to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's notion of the "noble savage". A fascination with primitive and exotic societies – particularly the societies of the Orient – infects much French fiction from Chateaubriand's Atala (1801) through Judith Gautier's The Imperial Dragon (1868) to the Fin-de-Siècle works of Pierre Loti (1850-1923) and Claude Farrère (1876-1957) and the prehistoric fantasies of J H Rosny aîné (1856-1940).

US fiction of this period tended to demonize those indigenous tribal populations which had not yet been annihilated or pacified, and thus tended to avoid more objective anthropological perspectives – a fact which has persuaded many contemporary US writers to extravagant expressions of compensatory guilt. Modern UK writers occasionally indulge in similar guilt-trips regarding the Imperial past, but many writers from the one-time colonies feel this is an aspect of conscience that needs to be far more sharply pricked, and literary fantasy is one of the instruments sometimes employed to this end.

Any list of fantasies partly inspired and fuelled by anthropological theories and speculations is bound to be highly selective, but notable examples include: J Leslie Mitchell's (1901-1935) Rousseauesque Three Go Back (1932) and The Lost Trumpet (1932); Louis Herrman's late addition to the canon of Gulliveriana, In the Sealed Cave (1935); The Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding, which has twice been filmed (see Lord of the Flies); Henry Treece's historical fantasies, especially The Golden Strangers (1956) and The Green Man (1966); the romance of ancient exploration Eaters of the Dead (1976) by Michael Crichton (1942-2008); Jessica Amanda Salmonson's Japanese fantasies, including the trilogy begun with Tomoe Gozen (1981); Martin H Brice's prehistoric fantasy The Witch in the Cave (1986); Pat Murphy's Mayan romance The Falling Woman (1986); Michaela Roessner's account of the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime, Walkabout Woman (1988); Margaret Ball's Hindu Kush-set Flameweaver (1991); and Kenneth Morris's Toltec romance The Chalchiuhite Dragon (written circa 1930; 1992). An interesting set of stories set in a world where Frazer's supposed "laws of magic" (see Rationalized Fantasy) are real is Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series. [BS]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.