In my previous column, I mentioned that I plan to table the discussions of France for a while in order to do some romping in the fields of the Pre-Modern Literary Fantastic. This is something I've wanted to do for a while, but it's also directly related to my recent reading in, and confusion about, contemporary fantastic writing. That is, as I asked in the last column: what exactly is the current relationship of so-called fantastic literature to the literary mainstream, and in what ways has that been changing lately?
I was very pleased with the response to that column, both in reader comments and in email I received about it. It seems that quite a lot of people are wondering about that question these days. I appreciate all the responses, pointers, and reading suggestions that people sent me, and I hope readers will continue debating the issues at hand—and letting me know about it. (This is also a good place to mention that I still owe emails to several of you who wrote me, and to excuse myself for my tardiness. I will get back to you, and I hope you will give me the benefit of the doubt and view me, as I prefer to view myself, not as a callous correspondent but simply as a very disorganized individual.)
At any rate, for better or worse, my project for the next few columns will involve little or no analysis of contemporary writing or writing trends. Instead, it'll involve one of my all-time favorite pastimes: reviewing the work of writers who aren't around any more to stand up for themselves. I don't mean that I'm going to be "reviewing" anyone for quality—that would be a little stupid, since I'm going to be looking at the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Homer, and people of that ilk. The mysterious mechanism we call "the canon" has already judged of their quality, and I'm not here to challenge it. Anyway, it was through studying their work in college that I learned to like these guys.
No, what I intend to do here is revisit some of my favorite pre-modern stories—mostly from the history of English literature, though not that alone—and spend some time zeroing in on what I have always thought makes them awesome, in the context of the fantastic. If this sounds to you like the kind of thing an SF-loving former English major would come up with, you're exactly right! But I hope that you'll enjoy it too. My goals, at their very loftiest, are to look at some of these classic texts from a perhaps unusual perspective. At their basest, my goals are just to get to ramble on about some of my favorite stories. And how many SF fans do you know who don't like to do that?
Before diving in, I should probably address a couple of questions: what do I mean by pre-modern texts, what do I mean by the fantastic, and what's the point of all this? The first two are quickly answered. By "pre-modern," I mean, loosely, pre-1800. As for what exactly "the fantastic" means in this context . . . well, we'll be addressing that very question as it comes up! The third question requires a somewhat more thoughtful answer, though, so with your indulgence, I'm going to tell you a little bit about my own background. Because it's actually relevant, believe it or not. (Unless I'm deluding myself. Which has been known to happen. But I'm clearly not the best judge of that question, so here we go!)
As I think I mentioned in passing in my last column, I grew up an SF fan. I didn't actually grow up in fandom, but I was a fan: the consequence of having one parent with fannish tendencies and another whom I think I called, at one time, "mundane." When my brother and I were young, our bedtime stories came from The Hobbit and Tove Jansson's Moomin fantasies. When we were a little older, my father engaged us in a years-long Dungeons and Dragons campaign—a genuine family affair, involving two players under ten, one DM, and a legion of NPCs. He also read us the entirety of The Lord of the Rings, singing all the songs and doing everyone in different voices. This experience, which made a profound impression and must have lasted at least a year, brought with it a certain number of dramatic vicissitudes; the Ents, for example, always spoke terribly slowly, even when something exciting was going on, and no matter how my brother and I implored, Treebeard would not be rushed. I wish I could say the experience taught us patience, or something as obviously character-building, but I don't think that would be true. I am pretty sure, though, that it did do something important, bringing the feeling of the fantastic into the playroom: the immediacy of storytelling, the shared experience of a far-off world drawn into the suburban bedroom by means of words, maps, voices—magic in a book.
All this didn't guarantee that I would grow up to read SF. As we all know, fantasy is presently considered an appropriate domain of children's literature even by those who think it unsuitable for adults. A childhood spent reading Narnia and the Lang Fairy Books does not imply that the reader's love of magic will extend through adolescence or adulthood. In my case, due to that one fannish parent, our house's bookshelves were well-supplied with SF paperbacks. As an adolescent, I went through quite a few of them—Asimov, Heinlein, Larry Niven—without finding what I needed. Then I stumbled upon Ray Bradbury and Ursula Le Guin, which for me were the right books at the right time, and my future as a reader of the fantastic was assured.
I can only assume that many Strange Horizons readers could tell a similar version of this story. In fact, I would surprised if that weren't the case. I'm curious if, when you got to college, some of you may have experienced the same phenomena I did. I was an English major—yes, despite dire warnings of future unemployability, despite the intellectual stigma sometimes attached to that choice of field. It was a good major for me, and I was good for it, because I have a good ear for language and, of course, I love to read stories. Even learning history, a task I've always found tedious when framed in military or economic terms, turned out to be interesting when stories were attached.
We all approach books with our own filters. As I dug through the history of English writing, I found that my self-identification as an SF fan, and my ongoing love of the fantastic, worked as a filter for my reading in a couple of different ways. One was that I found it fascinating to read the works of people written so long ago that, though their language was like my own, their culture had been profoundly different. It made their stories impossible to interpret without help: their patterns of association, their assumptions, were as unfamiliar as I thought the poetry of another planet might be. Also—although this wasn't something I ever felt comfortable writing papers about or bringing up in discussion sections—exploring the literary canon of the English language also turned out to be a foraging into what, it seemed clear, were the roots of the fantastic stories I had known and loved as a child. Given what I had thought I knew about the relative novelty and low standing of SF, I was genuinely surprised to find, again and again, that our literary canon is a patchwork pageant of ghost stories, classical mythology, agricultural superstition, and hallucinatory dreams, all mixed with the bright images and terrible threats of medieval Christianity and left to simmer in an allegorical stew.
In my case, a required class on American literature (which I had dreaded would be dull) turned into a revealing exploration of Poe's dark fantasies, and the blatantly science-fictional extrapolations of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Studying early and medieval literature, I was amazed by how much magic there is in Chaucer; by how much mythology there is in Dante; by how matter-of-factly my classmates accepted that our significant surviving Old and Middle English texts tend to be about talking trees and axe-wielding green giants. I loved reading Beowulf, the single most important Old English epic. But I never felt comfortable acknowledging to the rest of my class that my greatest thrill had come, not while reading about the warrior's epic battles with the monster Grendel and his aquatic mother, but when, while reading a passage about how a great dragon ravaged the land, I suddenly said (and I think I actually said it aloud) "Oh my God! It's Smaug!" Because I had suddenly recognized that what I was seeing was the original source of those passages in the children's book that I had loved when I was growing up.
Of course, Beowulf really is the inspiration for parts of The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of Old English, and the epics and folklore of the British Isles were foundational in his own fantasy work. I remember how I felt, realizing that: being brought, in the course of what could have been dry study, back to the story-filled rooms of my childhood. Making the historical connection gave me a feeling of great happiness and fulfillment. I think I remember feeling, at that time, that everyone who loves the fantastic today really ought to have access to the knowledge of these stories' connections with the past. Less for the purpose of validating contemporary fantasy tales—as if they somehow could be validated, or needed to be—and more because I sort of feel as if SF lovers have a right to know that the "genre" stories we're so fond of, which are too often discussed in our time as if they had some inherent aesthetic deficiency, have visible roots in the most important and beautiful of the texts that underpin our entire literary tradition. And I also felt that I thought people ought to know what, I felt, I had learned almost as an aside in the course of majoring in English, which is this: in the grand scale of storytelling, even if you restrict your scope to the thousand or so years of literature in English, "realism" is a brand-new invention. The bulk of our best, our most important, stories are what you'd really have to call fantastic.
And that is pretty much as well as I can do when it comes to explaining the point of all this. Perhaps, like many things, it will become clearer with time. Without more ado, then, it's time to leap into the first chapter on the Early Fantastic tour. I give you your friend and mine:
William Shakespeare, a.k.a. "The Bard of Avon"!
What better place to start than Shakespeare? Nowhere, I think. It seems to me that for this project, Shakespeare has two great advantages as a starting point. The first is that I absolutely love Shakespeare; I think he was pretty good even on his off days (and Shakespeare did, like anyone, have off days; cf. Cymbeline). But when he was on, he could be just transcendent. That guy wrote some really wonderful lines.
Second, Shakespeare holds a comfortable place at the top of the English canon. He hasn't always sat there, and in the coming centuries the pendulum of critical opinion may swing him down again. But for the moment, at least, everyone can agree that Shakespeare was a wonderful writer of English: intelligent, creative, lyrical, brave. Given all this, it seems as if the themes that Shakespeare found interesting—the things he was interested in lyricizing and exploring—should similarly be considered canonically appropriate, don't you think? Or at least accorded a certain degree of respect.
That's why, for the next two columns, I'm going to be going on about a few of my favorite Shakespeare plays, which also happen to go heavy on the fantastic: two tragedies, a comedy, and a romance. This week I'll kick off with everyone's favorite mopey Scandinavian prince. Here we go!
1. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
Okay, my main point about Hamlet is that it starts off with a ghost. I suppose we all know that, but I really do find myself wondering why the play comes up so seldom in conversations about the origins of the gothic, or about the roots of the English fantastic. Admittedly, Hamlet is a strange and complex play, and, also admittedly, you can argue that most of it isn't really about the ghost. The ghost in question—who, as we'll remember, is Hamlet's murdered father, stalking the ramparts of Elsinore castle—is just the catalyst that gets things started.
But this doesn't diminish the fact that, in these initial scenes, the shade of Hamlet's father is really a most excellent and blood-curdling ghost. We're not talking about some thin slip of ectoplasm; this isn't swamp gas, it's not someone leaving a nightlight on. Nor is it some skinny, swoony specter of the Pre-Raphaelite type. No, what we've got here is a life-sized, fully-armored, sword-bearing, grizzled-beard-sporting, disappearing-at-cock's-crow ghost of the dead King of Denmark, stomping around the ramparts in the middle of the night and scaring the bejesus out of the night watch.
So what stops people from talking about Hamlet as a ghost story? Well, there are a couple of issues here. One is that among the play's major themes is the issue of madness, both feigned and real. As you may know if you've studied the play, one consequence is that modern interpretations have tended to focus on the piece's more inward, or psychological, aspects. Among the kinds of questions that get asked: What in the play can we be sure of, and what is just Hamlet's—or our—perception? What if our protagonist actually is going crazy, or is dreaming, or dead? Or what if we try reading all the secondary characters as projections of a single mind, Hamlet's fragmented personality?
These are extreme interpretations, but the reason I bring them up is because it's possible that, if you find yourself at a cocktail party discussing the pre-modern tradition of the fantastic and you bring up Hamlet's father's ghost, somebody may try to tell you that the ghost is only a metaphor. Or an allegory. Or a psychological reification of . . . honestly, I don't remember what it's been said to be a psychological reification of, and anyway I think the answer varies depending on whether you prefer Freud or Lacan.
This is a common stumbling block when talking about "classic" fantastic texts, and we'll be coming back to it again in later columns—especially the allegory thing, which can be a tricky business. In the case of Hamlet's father's ghost, however, it's not really an issue, and you should be able to wrap up the cocktail-party faceoff in fairly short order and emerge victorious. That is because, to put it plain terms, Hamlet's father is totally a ghosty ghost.
To put it a little more formally: if we take Hamlet in a straightforward sense—that is, if we assume the story the playwright's showing us is the real story, rather than interpreting everything as a symbolic fever dream—then the ghost of Hamlet's father is unquestionably "real." That is because Prince Hamlet, although admittedly not the most stable guy in Denmark, is not the only person to see the ghost. Instead—well, here's how Shakespeare sets it up:
In the very first scene, Bernardo and Marcellus—who are a pair of castle guardsmen on night rotation, they are basically just these two guys, as close to ordinary Joes as you get in this play—explain that they have been terrified for the past two nights running by the ghost of the dead King of Denmark, who appears at the stroke of one a.m., in full armor, and stalks around the ramparts scowling. (They were, they inform Horatio, "distilled almost to jelly with the act of fear." I'm not sure exactly how frightened that is, but it sounds bad.)
They're unwilling to approach Prince Hamlet himself with this story, so what they do is convince Hamlet's visiting college friend, Horatio, to come up to the roof on their rotation and have a look. Horatio is a rationalist skeptic—he is an academic from Wittenberg University. I like to think of him as a perpetual graduate student. As Marcellus explains to Bernardo, "Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy, / and will not let belief take hold of him / touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us." "Tush, tush," says Horatio, with the good-natured superiority of the born intellectual, "'twill not appear."
But when he sees the ghost for himself, even Horatio has to concede that maybe there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of by the academy. Here's how the scene goes:
Peace, break thee off; look, where it comes again!
In the same figure, like the king that's dead. . . . Looks it not like the king? mark it, Horatio.
Most like: it harrows me with fear and wonder.
It would be spoke to.
Question it, Horatio.
The ghost, however, refuses to talk to them. After it disappears, we get the inevitable I-told-you-so from the soldiers:
How now, Horatio! you tremble and look pale:
Is not this something more than fantasy?
What think you on't?
Before my God, I might not this believe
Without the sensible and true avouch
Of mine own eyes.
Poor Horatio is too freaked out even to banter back. He's convinced, and in the next scene will convince Hamlet in turn to come see the ghost. Ever the scholar, Horatio immediately starts pondering the meaning of the apparition. He remembers having heard that ghosts need to return to their graves at daybreak, and also reminds us that just before the assassination of Julius Caesar,
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.
The obvious hypothesis is that walking ghosts portend political trouble. This, Horatio insightfully notes, might explain why Denmark has also recently been experiencing "stars with trains of fire," "dews of blood," and "disasters in the sun." (At which point we may ask: does Horatio really believe in signs and portents? Did Shakespeare? Did his audiences? And, if Shakespeare did, how could he have—being an intelligent and, it seems, an educated man? To which the best answer is: it's hard to know, because this was written in the sixteenth century. The state of science and of superstition, the things that an educated man would "know to be true," were different then. These people lived in a different culture: a world like our own, but yet just different enough to undermine our assumptions and leave us estranged. It was the past, and that's like another planet.)
At any rate, this is how Horatio—the modern, educated skeptic—is led to believe in the restless spirit of the former King. Now he's happy enough to go with the guards to find Hamlet, where they persuade him to come up the next night and have a look. Not until the final scene of Act I does Hamlet finally get some alone time with the dead. At that point, the ghost tells him about his uncle's treachery—incidentally, in the act, giving Hamlet true information that only the dead man could have had—and swears him to revenge. All the while, his three friends wait trembling on the ramparts, afraid that the ghost will turn out to be a satanic apparition, frightened that it might lead Hamlet right off a castle wall, and "harrowed," as Horatio has put it, with fear and wonder.
This is the end of the point when the ghost's appearances are really important in the play. But from what we have so far, it all seems pretty darn ghosty. The spectre in question is seen by multiple witnesses, all of whom attest to its resemblance to Hamlet's father, to its severe scariness, and to its tendency to do alarming ghost-like things like disappearing at the crack of dawn. The eyewitness evidence convinces even a skeptical academic—who, once convinced, reminds us all that at one time the dead also walked in Rome.
Those who favor psychological interpretations of the play point out that Hamlet is the only one who ever hears the ghost's voice; and that, in a later scene, he will see it when the one other person present, his frightened mother, cannot. This is all true enough, and, given that at some point Hamlet decides to start faking insanity, his mental stability certainly raises interesting questions. Still, given the way it's presented throughout the first act, is there any real reason for us not to consider Hamlet's dead dad a rather awesome example of the fantastic irrupting in a "canonical" pre-modern text?
No, there really isn't. Especially given that the understanding of the real and unreal—the sacred and the superstitious—was so fluid in the surrounding cultural context that we see even our representative skeptic dismisses the ghost as "fantasy" one moment, only to start talking the next moment about gibbering corpses and ill-starred comets. At a time when the boundaries between the imagined and the real were set in different places than they are today, how should we ever expect the "fantastic" to be fully barred from narrative? The expectation itself doesn't really make sense. And that's one of many contributing reasons why Hamlet offers us one of the coolest examples of supernatural creepiness in all of early modern literature. The take-away lesson, and the one everyone can use when debating dull-minded realists at stuffy parties: the so-called greatest work of English literature kicks off with a ghost, and it is one hard-core, serious phantom.
That'll be all for today. Thank you for sticking with me! Next time: another Shakespeare play or three. And then on to some medieval tale-telling, obscene gods, and Anglo-Saxon monsters. It'll be awesome. See you then!
 The dead don't roar or even wail, they "squeak." How much more disturbing—and memorable—is that? This is why Shakespeare is awesome.