Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Apocalyptic literature was produced in abundance 200BC-AD200 as the Jews responded to political persecution and cultural upheaval, describing in calculatedly enigmatic terms a world-ending intervention of God on behalf of His chosen people. Parts of this tradition were taken up by the Christian Mythos, entering the New Testament in Revelation, whose imagery has (within the Western tradition) become perforce definitive. The term is nowadays employed more broadly to refer to any abrupt End of the World.

The modern subgenre of apocalyptic fiction belongs more to sf than to fantasy, although the imagery of Revelation resounds continually within it. There was a brief fashion for such works in the UK at the beginning of the 19th century, sparked off by the anonymous The Last Man, or Omegarus and Syderia: A Romance in Futurity (1806; actually a trans from the French of Jean Cousin de Grainville's Le Dernier Homme [1805]), and apocalyptic imagery is also very evident in the paintings of John Martin. Edgar Quinet's Ahasvérus (1833) redesigns the Christian apocalypse according to a new allegorical logic. A second wave of apocalyptic fantasies followed around the end of the century, but those which were religiously inspired – including several novels by Sydney Watson – are mostly devoid of literary interest, and such sarcastic fantasies as H G Wells's "A Vision of Judgment" (1899) treat the notion with contempt. In modern fantasy Revelation's imagery is frequently invoked in a metaphorical fashion; particularly prolific use has been made of the enigmatic Great Beast and the Four Horsemen. The horsemen appear in person in a number of comedies and ironic fantasies, sometimes in light disguise, as in "The Big Flash" (1969) by Norman Spinrad (1940-    ), but also in more serious works like Sheri S Tepper's Technofantasy A Plague of Angels (1993). A sweeping comic version of Revelation can be found in Good Omens (1990) by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. A distinctively modern version of Revelation is given rather fragmentary literal expression in the movie The Rapture (1991), but by far the most effective 20th-century account of a literal apocalypse solidly based in the Judeo-Christian Mythos is James Blish's Black Easter (1968) and The Day After Judgment (1972).

The Secondary Worlds of Genre Fantasy are very often threatened with apocalyptic termination, but the formulaic plots of such works almost invariably require that disaster be averted in the nick of time. In Instauration Fantasies, however, such reprieves are not always granted, and in nongenre works the urge to wrathful destruction may be given free expression, as in Gustav Meyrink's Das grüne Gesicht (1916; trans as The Green Face 1992 UK). [BS]

see also: Antichrist.

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.