Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
World War I

1. Before WWI Western civilization had sustained itself, without fundamental collapse, through centuries of war and change; but the Great War, as it was called, marked – at least in the perception of its survivors – the beginning of the end. Later events, however terrible – like World War II – only seemed to confirm the terrible message of the moral exhaustion of a way of life which had dominated the world for several centuries.

This sense of Apocalypse and termination may have been exaggerated, but WWI was unquestionably thus perceived, even from before its actual (though widely predicted) outbreak. Kenneth Grahame, whose The Wind in the Willows (1908) has been read as a fully conscious retreat from the looming conflict, stopped writing entirely when WWI began. Edgar Rice Burroughs's creation in 1912 of the Planetary Romance may have been so irresistible to his many early readers because it offered an escapist venue (see Escapism). Gustav Meyrink, in The Green Face (1916), foresaw a world ravaged by "Spectres, monstrous yet without form and only discernible through the devastation they wrought ... But there was another phantom, still more horrible, that had long since caught the foul stench of a decaying civilization in its gaping nostrils and now raised its snake-wreathed countenance from the abyss where it had lain, to mock humanity with the realization that the juggernaut they had driven the last four years in the belief it would clear the world for a new generation of free men was a treadmill in which they were trapped for all time. [Trans Mike Mitchell 1992.]" And the narrator of "Lost in the Fog", from Nineteen Impressions (coll 1918) by J D Beresford (1873-1947), after going astray on the wrong Train, finds himself in a village which is a Microcosm of Europe, and in which WWI is raging interminably.

Introducing a 1987 reprint of John Buchan's These for Remembrance: Memoirs of Six Friends Killed in the Great War (1919 chap), Peter Vansittart suggests that WWI opened an abyss into "a great emptiness" for Buchan; that his old world, rich in the felt "roundness of being", had been transmogrified into a flattened, disrupted post-WWI world vulnerable to all sorts of barbarism, and that his late fiction is a series of tales of aftermath. As William Butler Yeats put it in "The Second Coming" (1921): "The centre cannot hold." Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (1924) (see Magic Mountain), which takes place over a seven-year period directly preceding WWI, can be seen as an intricate and massive monument to a civilization whose centre was about to collapse. Gerhart Hauptmann's Till Eulenspiegel (1928) features an aviator who, disillusioned with the post-WWI world, manages to escape it entirely. A late recension of some of these themes is "The Great Loves" by Dan Simmons, from LoveDeath (coll 1993).

For many of those who lived through WWI and became writers of fantasy, the long, golden Edwardian sunset seemed an Et in Arcadia Ego vision of a lost world, a kind of Polder which could be occupied in dream. Fantasy authors who began to write during WWI – many being in active service – include E R Eddison, Hugh Lofting, J R R Tolkien and E A Wyke-Smith. None of these authors, however, made direct use of WWI, not even in a fantasticated context: it may be that their refusal of its implications was too profound for their imaginations to pick at the wound. Nor was WWI itself of much use as a venue to fantasy writers like James Hilton who were born slightly later than those just cited. As with some of the protagonists of Buchan's later novels, Hilton's Heroes are hollowed-out dwellers in the aftermath; and their escape is to Shangri-La or to occult understandings or to Otherworlds. Similarly, the soldier protagonist of A Merritt's Three Lines of Old French (1919 All-Story; 1937 chap) seems to escape into something like a medieval paradise, though he awakes back in this world.

2. Most large wars are full of theoretical crux points which, in the hands of the writer of Alternate-World fantasies or sf, can generate different outcomes to the combat. In Contro-passato prossimo (1975; trans Hugh Shankland as Past Conditional: A Retrospective Hypothesis 1989 UK) by Guido Morselli (1912-1973) and The Carnival of Destruction (1994) by Brian Stableford Germany wins. In Ostrv Krym (1981; trans anon as The Island of Crimea 1984) by Vassily Aksyonov (1932-    ) the Bolshevik revolution fails. Biggles (1986) offers a Timeslip as explanation of why Germany lost. Generally, though, Time-Travel fantasies set partly in or around WWI, like Robert A Heinlein's Time Enough for Love (1973) and Jerry Yulsman's Elleander Morning (1984), tend to use the conflict as background, as a Story which cannot be changed. Alternate-world tales in which WWI never took place or is transmuted beyond recognition are rare: they include Michael Moorcock's Nomad of Time sequence and Kim Newman's The Bloody Red Baron (1995 US), the latter a Vampire tale which, if anything, darkens the reality.

Fantasies set in WWI are very much more numerous. The most famous probably remains Arthur Machen's "The Bowmen" (1914), in which he created the legend of the Angels of Mons; later stories in the same mode include The Broken Soldier and the Maid of France (1919 chap) by Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933). Machen himself, in The Terror (1917), created a fuller legend of the war, in which the animals – at first mistaken for Germans – revolt against humanity's corrupt and destructive rule. William Faulkner (1897-1962), in A Fable (1954), introduced an element of Christian Fantasy into the tale of a saintly rebel who engineers a brief armistice, and whose body magically disappears after his execution.

Ghost Stories set in WWI include: Achmed Abdullah's "To be Accounted For" and "Renunciation" (both 1920); "Secret Service" (1922) by F Britten Austin (1885-1941), one of several tales in which a German spy, either a literal ghost or an astral projection, is featured, Buchan's "Dr Lartius" from The Runagates Club (coll 1928) being another; several stories assembled in Lord Dunsany's Tales of War (coll 1918); "Kitchener at Archangel" (1935) by Stephen Graham (1884-1975); and "The Unbolted Door" (1931) by Marie Belloc Lowndes (1868-1947). Others titles of interest are: Living Alone (1919) by Stella Benson; The Wind Between the Worlds (1920) by Alice Brown (1857-1948); H Burgess Drake's The Remedy (1925); James Francis Dwyer's Evelyn: Something More than a Story (1929), whose eponymous frail widow communicates with the WWI dead, to her profit; "The Men of Avalon" (1935) by David H Keller, in which Merlin bucks up Lord Kitchener; Fly Away Peter (1982) by David Malouf (1934-    ); The Deer-Smellers of Haunted Mountain (1921) by John J Meyer (1873-1948), an unusual example of a WWI tale featuring a secret cadre of Germans still bent on world conquest; and The Bridge of Time (1919) by William Henry Warner, a Time-Travel tale in which an ancient Egyptian sorcerer sends a young prince forward in time to WWI, where he meets his long-lost love. [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.