Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

In the Old Testament the Messiah is the saviour promised to the Jews by sacred Prophecy (>>> Jewish Religious Literature); the Christian mythos is founded on the proposition that Christ was the Messiah and will return someday to precipitate the Apocalypse. The term may be applied by analogy to any Sleeper Under the Hill. Folklore often attaches such promises to heroes like King Arthur and Frederick Barbarossa (circa 1123-1190), and Heroic Fantasy frequently deals with such figures; one of its favourite themes is the displacement of a human into a Secondary World where a quasi-messianic destiny is unexpectedly thrust upon her/him, often in an unkindly manner.

A Merritt's Dwellers in the Mirage (1932) was an important prototype of this formula and some of his imitators – including C L Moore – adapted it to Science Fantasy. In C S Lewis's Narnia tales the protagonists require the assistance of Aslan, and in Lewis's That Hideous Strength (1945) Merlin has to be drafted to help out the hero, but most such Heroes must do the job alone; Stephen R Donaldson's Thomas Covenant, who is direly hampered by his own lack of faith, provided a new and conspicuously modern archetype. Other notable quasi-messianic heroic fantasies include Draught of Eternity (1924) by Victor Rousseau, Three Hearts and Three Lions (1953; 1961) by Poul Anderson and – in a more subtle fashion – The Traveler in Black (coll of linked stories 1971) by John Brunner.

There is an interesting subspecies of messianic fantasies which deliberately flirts with heresy in featuring unorthodox redeemers whose "return" is frequently unappreciated. These include The Horned Shepherd (1904) by Edgar Jepson, The Man in the Tree (1983) by Damon Knight (1922-    ), Godbody (1986) by Theodore Sturgeon and Only Begotten Daughter (1990) by James Morrow. [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.