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A Short History of Fantasy
Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James
Middlesex University Press, 285 pages

A Short History of Fantasy
Farah Mendlesohn
Farah Mendlesohn teaches at Middlesex University, London. She has been the editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction for six years and is the author of Diana Wynne Jones and the Children's fantastical Tradition (2005) and co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2006), winner of a Hugo Award. She is the program director for the World Science Fiction Convention in Montreal in 2009.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: On Joanna Russ
SF Site Review: Rhetorics of Fantasy

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jason Erik Lundberg

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It is an ambitious task to lay out the entire history of the fantastic, as fantasy is perhaps the oldest literary genre in the world, going back thousands of years with ancient myths of the gods of various pantheons. Such an examination could easily fill a number of 500-page volumes, and still not tell the entire story. Which is why Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James take an alternate approach in A Short History of Fantasy, that of a précis to hit the high points (the word "short" in the title is key) and to allow an entry point into a more scholastic approach to the genre.

The book is organized by time periods: ancient myths to the year 1900 takes one chapter, 1900-1950 fills another, and then each decade from 1950 to 2010 merits its own chapter. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis warrant a chapter on their own, as their influence on the field with The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books extends (through imitation and emulation) to the present day; Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, and Terry Pratchett also command their own chapter, as their revitalizing influence has shaped the current landscape of fantastic literature and its popularity.

Mendlesohn and James are good at noting trends in subgenres popular in each decade, and examining the motivations and anxieties present in the writers of such children's, young adult, and adult fiction. Specific titles are not discussed in depth but instead are given as a jumping-off point for further research, and their placement within the overall context of fantasy is a handy way for interested parties to not have to dig through various sources in order to get the big picture.

My only complaint is that this short history feels, at times, too short. Though other academic titles exist which give a more comprehensive look at particular subgenres or periods of literary history, I would have liked a bit... more here. It's also, at times, unclear why Mendlesohn and James chose to include some works and not others; forming a literary canon is difficult in even an expansive book like John Clute's Encyclopedia of Fantasy, let alone such a slim book as this. However, A Short History of Fantasy accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do in the book's introduction: provide a quick contextual summary of the fantasy genre. And the authors do provide useful appendices listing a "Chronology of Important Works and People" and "Critical Works: Further Reading" for those wishing to look deeper into specific sections of the fantastic.

A Short History of Fantasy is a good introduction for someone wishing to take a more scholastic approach to fantastic fiction, and Mendlesohn and James do the field a service in creating it. Were I still a university student taking a survey course on the fantasy genre, this book would be an apt and useful companion text.

Copyright © 2010 Jason Erik Lundberg

Jason Erik Lundberg is a writer of fantastical fiction, and an American expatriate living in Singapore. His work has appeared (or will soon) in over forty venues in five countries. He runs Two Cranes Press with Janet Chui. Visit his web site.


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