Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Czech Republic

The present CR encompasses two historical lands, Bohemia in the west and Moravia in the east. In the 17th century these were forcibly annexed to Austria, as a result of which a strong German – and especially Austrian – influence prevailed until the early 20th century. This influence remained strong after the creation of the new state of Czechoslovakia in 1918, and many of the most important fantasists who have lived and worked in what is now the CR – such as Franz Kafka and Gustav Meyrink – actually wrote in German. This entry deals only with writers from the historical Czech lands who wrote in Czech: German-language writers are dealt with either in the entry on Austria or in their own separate entries, or both.

Czech literature has never been short of writers producing work containing elements of the fantastic. However, Czech fantasy has always tended in the direction of Occultism and what might be termed literary fantasy, rather than Heroic Fantasy or Mythology. In part this may be because the Czech folk tradition lacks convincingly heroic Legends, but more significant historical influences are, first, the romantic tradition of Prague at the time of Rudolf II (1552-1612) and, second, the city's strong Jewish tradition, most famously expressed in the legend of the Golem.

The first Czech to produce works that are recognizably fantastic in the modern sense was Václav Rodomil Kramerius (1792-1861). He wrote at least 97 popular chapbooks, including Folktales, fantasies and "true-crime" stories. Most of these were retellings of stories from other writers or oral Folktales; only a few are original. Among them are a retelling of the Faust legend – Život, činy a uvržení do pekelné ["The Life, Deeds and Casting into the Abyss of Hell of Dr Jan Faust"] (1862) – and a version of the adventures of Baron MunchhausenZnamenité a podivné příhody pana Prášílka ["The Remarkable and Strange Adventures of Little Mr Munchhausen"] (circa 1855).

The first full-length fantastic novel by a Czech was probably Pekla splozenci ["The Brood of Hell"] (1862) by Josef Jiří Kolár (1812-1896), a well known actor and playwright, also responsible for translations of Goethe and Shakespeare. Set in the era of Rudolf II, the plot revolves around Alchemy and the attempt to create an immortal being (> Immortality).

Fantastic elements can be found also in the works of Jakub Arbes (1840-1914), especially in his short novels – to describe which a new critical term was invented: romaneto, a term still occasionally used of some modern Czech literature. (One of Arbes's romanetos was translated into English by Jiří Král as "Newton's Brain" in Clever Tales [anth 1897 US] ed Charlotte E Porter and Helen A Clarke.) Although the fantasy elements are often marginal, the mysterious atmosphere these works evoke and the characteristic way they describe Prague have been very influential, and resurface among many later writers – including, it has been argued, Kafka. Another influential figure of the 19th century was Julius Zeyer (1841-1901), whose long romantic stories are frequently set in distant countries and have something of the feel of myth or legend – many are in fact based on real legends borrowed from a wide variety of sources. His use of pseudo-medieval legend has sometimes led to comparisons with William Morris and the Preraphaelites. A useful book on Zeyer is Julius Zeyer: The Path to Decadence (1973) by Robert B Pynsent. This earliest period of Czech literary fantasy is encapsulated in Tajemné příběhy v české krásné próze 19. století ["Mysterious Stories in Czech 19th-Century Literature"] (anth 1976) ed Ivan Slavík, which contains representative stories plus an excellent historical introduction.

Two of the most important Czech fantasists of the early part of the 20th century were Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic (1871-1951) and Emanuel Lešehrad (1877-1957) – the latter also wrote as Emanuel z Lešehradu. Karásek, the foremost representative of Czech Decadence, wrote a fantasy trilogy, Romány tří mágů ["Novels of the Three Mages"] (1907-1925), whose fragmented narrative describes the tormented wanderings of fey young men in the decaying cityscapes of Prague, Venice and Vienna, and their encounters with the occult (> Occult Fantasy). Although often discussed in the same context as his friend Karásek, Lešehrad was a far more sober author. His major contributions to the genre were his numerous short stories of fantasy and the irrational, a good representative collection of which is Záhadné životy ["Mysterious Lives"] (coll 1919). The contents range from gentle stories on the inevitability of Fate to almost Lovecraftian tales of supernatural terror (>>> H P Lovecraft).

Two further writers whose works may be regarded as classics of Czech fantastic literature are Karel Čapek and Jan Weiss (1892-1972). Although today best-known for their contributions to the development of Czech sf, both produced works where the fantastic elements are left unrationalized. Examples might include, from Čapek's oeuvre, the mass-production of God in The Absolute at Large (1922), the Elixir of Immortality in The Macropulos Secret (1922), the Beast Fable of The Insect Play (1921) with Josef Čapek, and the metaphysical drama Adam the Creator (1927), also with Josef. Weiss was the author of a number of highly literary works which hover on the cusp between sf and fantasy; a good example is Spáč ve zvěrokruhu ["The Sleeper in the Zodiac"] (1937), a novel describing the life of a schoolteacher whose metabolism changes with the Seasons, as if he were a plant.

Two other authors of the interbellum made significant contributions to Czech fantasy: the extremely prolific Jan Havlasa (1883-1964) and Josef Šimánek (1883-?   ). Havlasa was a foremost Czech specialist on Asian culture; he wrote over 20 books containing fantastic elements, most set in exotic locations around the Pacific. Examples include Zahrada splněné touhy ["The Garden of Fulfilled Desire"] (coll 1918), Souostroví krásy ["The Archipelago of Beauty"] (1919) and Podivní milenci ["Strange Lovers"] (coll 1928). His work often concerns lost worlds (> Lost Races) or is Supernatural Fiction, but his most important contribution to Czech literature was probably that he introduced Far Eastern elements. An English-language selection of his stories is Four Japanese Tales (coll trans by the author 1919 Prague).

Among the works of Josef Šimánek was the effective novella "Háj satyrů" ["Glade of the Satyrs"] (1915), in which a young archaeologist discovers an ancient underground temple to the god Pan and, for his curiosity, is killed by the Satyrs guarding it. Šimánek also wrote a lost-world adventure in the style of H Rider Haggard, Bratrstvo smutného zálivu ["The Brotherhood of the Bay of Sadness"] (1918), the heroes of which travel across India searching for the seat of a sect that is trying to create a worldwide centre for the Spiritualism movement.

Other, more commercial, fantasy writers from these years were Felix de la Cámara (1897-1945), Karel Piskoř (1879-1945) and Bernard Kurka (1894-1944).

The Czech fantasy tradition was interrupted by the Communist coup of 1948: socialist Realism was the only form of fiction tolerated. Not until the 1960s did elements of the fantastic begin to creep back, usually as a tool of social or political Satire. Representative examples are the politician's Statue that comes to life in Joachym (1967) by Bohuslav Březovský (1912-1976) and the supernatural folktale figures who encounter modern Czech society in Bubáci pro všední ["Bogey Men for Every Day"] (coll 1961) by Karel Michal (1932-1984).

The cultural liberalization following the fall of Communism in 1989 had far-reaching consequences for the Czech publishing industry: in the succeeding five years more fantasy was published than in the preceding 40 years. Also, fantasy is beginning to divide into subgenres. Some authors are continuing in the Ghost-Story tradition, like Vladimír Medek in Krev na Maltézském náměstí ["Blood on Maltese Square"] (coll 1992). Others are beginning to work with forms new to Czech literature, like purely mystical, spiritually oriented stories – e.g., the fiction of Eduard Tomáš – and Dark Fantasy with Horror elements – represented by the stories in Jaroslav Šoupal's debut Satanova kobka ["The Cell of Satan"] (coll 1992).

But at present the most popular form of fantasy is Genre Fantasy, with strong adventurous plotlines; however, with this is often combined elements of other genres. Thus, when Jaroslav Jiran (1955-    ) won the Ikaros Award (presented annually by the readers of Ikarie magazine) for Živé meče Ooragu ["The Living Swords of Oorag"], it was for a novel that stands on the borderline between sf and fantasy. A similar mixture has been created by Vilma Kadlečková (1971-    ) in her series of novels begun with the Karel Čapek Award winner Na pomezí Eternaalu ["On the Borders of the Eternal"] (1990) and continued with Meče Lorgan ["The Swords of Lorgan"] (1993) and Stavitele veží ["The Tower-Builders"] (1994) – another Karel Čapek Award winner. A further representative of this trend is George P Walker (Jiří Procházka; 1959-    ), whose extremely popular Ken Wood a meč krále D'Sala ["Ken Wood and the Sword of King D'Sal"] (1992) has a US stuntman battling the forces of Evil on a planet where Magic really works. The feminist sf author Carola Biedermannová (1947-    ) combines fantasy and Steampunk in Ti, kteří létají ["Those Who Fly"] (1992), while Richard D Evans – a former house-name associated with the editors of Ikarie, now used exclusively by Vlado Ríša (1949-    ) – has written several adventure-fantasy books. The most popular fantasy of 1993, however, was undoubtedly Wetemaa (1993) by the previously unknown writer Adam Andres (Veronika Válková; 1970-    ); her promising debut, somewhat over-indebted to J R R Tolkien, won the Ikaros Award that same year.

At the other end of the literary spectrum, one of the most interesting figures in contemporary Czech literature is Michal Ajvaz (1949-    ), who has written two exceptional books of literary fantasy, Návrat starého varana ["The Return of the Old Monitor Lizard"] (coll 1991) and Druhé mšto ["The Other City"] (1993); the latter is an Alternate-Reality tale in which a mysterious "other" City begins to intertwine itself with the historic centre of the "real" city of Prague.

The 1990s have seen an enormous growth in the popularity of fantasy among Czech readers, in particular the young. This is in part due to the fact that fantasy, especially genre fantasy, was unavailable in Czech for so many years. Other contributory factors are undoubtedly the publication in 1990-1992 of the first Czech translations of the works of Robert E Howard and J R R Tolkien and the release, during the same period, of the first Czech role-playing Games. 1994 saw the appearance of Dech draka ["Dragon's Breath"], the first Czech semi-professional Magazine devoted to role-playing games and fantasy fiction, as well as numerous fanzines centred on role-playing games, plus the formation of Tolkien fan clubs.

Movies. Unlike the case in written fantasy, the use of fantasy motifs was fairly common in Czech movies during the 1960s and 1970s. For the most part these were comedies which made great play of the contrast between Fairytale characters and contemporary society. Among the best were Dívka na koštěti ["Girl on a Broomstick"] (1971), about a young Witch who finds friendship in the world of ordinary people; and Jak utopit doktora Mračka aneb Konec vodníkův Čechách ["How to Drown Dr Mraček, or The End of Water-Sprites in the Czech Lands"] (1974). Both were dir Václav Vorlíček (1930-    ). Another successful movie – with an extremely unusual, surreal atmosphere – was Valerie a týden divů (1970; vt Valerie and her Week of Wonders UK) dir Jaromil Jireš (1935-    ), based on a novel of the same title by the Surrealist poet Vítěslav Nezval (1900-1958), which deals with Vampires. Although rarely screened in its native country, it has enjoyed a cult reputation on the art-house circuit in the UK since its first release, and Angela Carter claimed to have been inspired by it when drafting her screenplay for The Company of Wolves (1984). The vampire turns up again in Technofantasy form in Upír z Feratu ["The Ferat Vampire"] (1982) dir Juraj Herz (1934-    ), a dark comedy about a bloodsucking Car, adapted from a story by Josef Nesvadba (1926-    ).

However, several fantasy movies date back to the very beginnings of Czech cinema. The most important was Příchozí z temnot ["He Came from Darkness"] (1921; vt Redivivus): a 17th-century man drinks an Elixir and is preserved in a state of suspended animation until awoken in the present day. [IA/CS]

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.