Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

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Strangely, while France has been a wellspring of fantasy, the history of fantasy there is one of long and steady attrition. During the 12th century, Bards helped spread the oral tradition of Ireland to Wales, and then to the kingdom of the Plantagenets, where the political, religious and poetic context proved fertile. Thus was the roman (i.e., novel) born: the famous Matter of Britain should better be called the Matter of Brittany. This was not the first epic cycle devised about some charismatic sovereign; it was in fact a collaborative movement, as the poets working on it considered themselves caretakers of the material, rather than originators. The first, Marie de France, about whom little is known, not even whether she was a woman or a single writer, turned the material into verse in Les lais de Marie de France (circa 1170).

Then Chrétien de Troyes started circa 1180 what would be the first cycle of Arthurian novels. Through a wealth of fantastic episodes and courtly intrigues, they expressed the ideals of the Plantagenet regime, a feudal Golden Age as opposed to the Capetian centralism. Chrétien's Perceval (begun ?1182) was left unfinished, as was his Lancelot (?1177), prompting others to exercise their imagination, all through the 12th and 13th centuries, both inside and beyond the borders of the kingdom of France, right up to Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival (1225) and Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur (1485).

By the end of the 13th century, the Crusades had brought in Europe a consciousness of the wider world, and this led to the popularity of Travellers' Tales. The Voiage and Travayle of Syr John Maundeville, Knight (circa 1366) (see Mandeville), variously attributed to Jean d'Outremeuse or a real Jean de Mandeuille, is a plagiarization of sources such as Pliny the Elder's Historia Naturalis (AD77). By the 14th century, these literary hoaxes were ready to be satirized. François Rabelais obliged. In Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-1564) he used a family of Giants as the focus of a series of tales combining fantasy, political farce, philosophical musings and humour.

Quests were Arthurian legacies. In novels they had to some extent degenerated into romans galants (love novels) and romans pastorals (country idylls). These quests, often in imaginary countries, proved an enduring genre, from the Roman de la Rose (started by Guillaume de Lorris in the early 13th century and finished by Jean de Meung in the 14th) to such examples as L'Astrée (1607-1628) by Honoré d'Urfé (1568-1625). The end of this form more or less coincided with the vogue for Fairytales, which blossomed in the 18th century. Among the best-known practitioners were Madame d'Aulnoy and Madame Leprince de Beaumont. At about the same time, Charles Perrault chose to collect "naive fairytales" transmitted by oral tradition, setting the course for future endeavours, such as by the German Grimm Brothers.

The gathering of traditional Folktales by the Grimms hit a chord with German nationalism and was among the roots of the German Romantic movement. French Romanticism was heavily affected by the German movement, and the writing of fantasy continued through the 19th century, from Charles Nodier, George Sand (1804-1876), Victor Hugo (1802-1885), Gustave Flaubert and Alexandre Dumas to Théophile Gautier and Honoré de Balzac.

After this bright period, French fantasy has almost completely disappeared. The popularity of Jules Verne's and H G Wells's books and a proclivity to rational thinking have led French authors, both popular and "literary", towards scientific romance and sf. The Arthurian tradition still shows signs of vitality, with such writers as Xavier de Langlais – Le Roman du Roi Arthur (1965) – René Barjavel – L'Enchanteur (1984) – Hersart de la Ville-Marqué, Jacques Boulenger, Gilles Servat – Les Chroniques d'Arcturus (1986) – and Florence Trystam – Lancelot (1987). Otherwise, while there is a strong sf school in France, there is no comparable movement in fantasy. True fantasy from recent years is restricted to five works of importance: Khanaor (1983) by Francis Berthelot, Succubes (1983) by Jean-Marc Ligny, Célubée (1986) by Isabelle Hausser, Les Flammes de la Nuit (1986-1987) by Michel Pagel and La Grande Encyclopédie des Lutins (1992) by Pierre Dubois and Roland Sabatier. [PM/AFR]


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.