Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Taproot Texts

Only in the last decades of the 18th century, when (at least in the West) a Horizon of Expectations emerged among writers and readers, did a delimitable genre now called Fantasy appear. Before that there were writings which included the Fantastic – and such works can be described as taproot texts. To exemplify: The presence of Ariel and of Prospero's staff in William Shakespeare's The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623) do not make that play a fantasy, according to this criterion; The Tempest, however defined generically, may contain elements of the fantastic, but these elements did not govern its audience's sense of its generic nature: it was, first and foremost, a play. On the other hand, Goethe's Faust, Part One (1808) clearly reveals its author's consciousness that he is transforming a traditional story containing supernatural elements into a work mediated through – and in a telling sense defined by – those elements. For our purposes, The Tempest is best conceived as a TT and Faust as a fantasy.

The notion of the TT seems necessary – or at least desirable – for at least two reasons. The first is that a Water Margin of not easily definable intentions marks what we may now read as an irreversible impulse towards fantasy over the last decades of the 18th century, and it seems advisable to have a blanket term available to use in order to distinguish relevant texts composed or written before those we can legitimately call fantasy. The second is that, because almost any form of tale written before the rise of the mimetic novel could be retroactively conceived as ur- or proto-fantasy, it seems highly convenient to apply to works from this Ocean of Story a term – i.e., "taproot" – which emphasizes the heightened significance of the text mentioned. When we refer to a text as a TT, in other words, we describe one that contains a certain mix of ingredients and stands out for various reasons – not excepting quality.

The list of TTs, therefore, may be long, but it is by no means endless; and a clear degree of qualitative judgement will be apparent in any individual cataloguing. Beyond those already mentioned, some other texts seem to fit the taxonomical needs for which the term was devised.

Relevant texts from classical literature include Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (composed by the 8th century BC); Hesiod's Theogony (composed 8th century BC), Aesop's Fables (composed before 560BC) (> Aesopian Fantasy); certain works of the Greek playwrights, like Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound (produced before 456BC) and Sophocles' Oedipus Rex (produced before 406BC); Ovid's Metamorphoses (circa AD1), Lucius Apuleius's The Golden Ass (before AD155) and most of the surviving works of Lucian.

Relevant texts from the turn of the Renaissance onwards include Dante's The Divine Comedy (before 1321), Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (before 1353), the various Romances and epics that mass together around the Matters of Britain and France, including works like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (written circa 1370) (> Gawain) and Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur (1485) ed Thomas Caxton, some episodes of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (before 1400), Luigi Pulci's The Greater Morgante (1470; exp 1483), Orlando Innamorato (1487) by Matteo Maria Boiardo (1434-1494), Lodovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1516), François Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-1564), the Nights (1550-1553) of Gianfrancesco Straparola, Luis de Camoes's The Lusiads (1572), Torquato Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered (1581), Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590-1596), Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus (written circa 1588), A Midsummer Night's Dream (performed circa 1595; 1600) and other Shakespeare plays, Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote (1605-1615), the Pentamerone (1634-1636) of Giambattista Basile, John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678) (>>> Pilgrim's Progress), Charles Perrault's Tales of Mother Goose (coll 1697), the various versions of The Arabian Nights (> Arabian Fantasy), Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1714) and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726). The list could be considerably extended, but there is a distinction to be made: huge quantities of work can be treated as being of backdrop interest only; these titles cannot. [JC]

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.