The world can be ‘re-enchanted’ by learning to look at it in a different way

Jack Fennell introduces his anthology It Rose Up: A Selection of Lost Irish Fantasy Stories

Jack Fennell

Jack Fennell

 

It has been said (originally by the philologist Kuno Meyer) that Irish writers are a cohort to whom “the half-said thing is dearest”. That’s a lovely sentiment with a lot of truth in it, to be sure, but by the same token, magic and monsters and other not-so-subtle things are fairly close to those writers’ hearts as well. Given Ireland’s mythology, folklore and bardic heritage, it comes as no surprise that original fantasy fiction is a long-lived Irish tradition.

There are a number of “classical” fantasy works by Irish writers, obviously: Gulliver’s Travels, Cúirt An Mheán Oíche, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Séadna, for example; and if one isn’t too much of a genre-purist, there’s also Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, Stoker’s Dracula, and the short fiction of Rosa Mulholland, BM Croker, and scores of others well-known to aficionados of 19th-century gothic fiction.

Alongside these, there are a great many writers who are not as well known today as they would have been to their contemporaries, such as Edmund Downey, Frank Frankfort Moore or Louisa Greene. Therefore, it is possible to trace an unbroken line of Irish fantasy fiction, in the broadest sense, from at least the 18th century to the present day – something that can’t be as easily done with science fiction. That’s not to say, however, that Ireland has always been faithful to the fantastic. To many, there’s something uncomfortably whimsical and stage-Irishy about stories where the supernatural is taken seriously.

“Fantasy” is one of those nouns that is simultaneously “sheer” and “mere”, positioned like Schrödinger’s Cat in the overlap between two contradictory states – wild and vaguely threatening, and yet at the same time, ridiculous and inconsequential. “Sheer fantasy” abounds during election years, for example, when it becomes a shorthand for political programmes that might make a positive difference to citizens’ lives; when there’s no danger of losing one’s seat, while on the other hand, proposed reforms and changes can be safely dismissed as “mere fantasy”.

Similar attitudes pertain to fantasy literature – admittedly less often in the present day than in previous years – by critics who perceive genre fiction in general to be equivalent to junk food at best, and an undefinable moral threat at worst. If it doesn’t dull your appetite for “proper” literature, the implication goes, it’ll leave you intellectually and politically stunted. Frustratingly, from the 1960s onwards the latter extreme was sometimes given academic legitimacy by science fiction scholars, who argued for the importance of their field by distancing it from its closest sister genres: science fiction was liberating and radical, whereas “horror-fantasy” (note the hyphenation) was reactionary and authoritarian. Fantasy was the wrong kind of escapism, despite (or because of, depending on your point of view) its popularity with the reading public.

Through the 20th century, Irish fantasy was mostly confined to children’s literature, and implicitly positioned as something that readers were expected to grow out of, even as adults sought out fantasy novels by British and American authors. It was also sort-of tolerated in collections of folklore, myths and fairy-tales, which were, it seems, given token recognition for preserving traditional material in times of self-conscious modernisation.

Despite the waxing and waning tolerance for its existence, though, fantasy fiction has always been a fairly healthy genre, and it has enjoyed something of a boom in recent years, perhaps due to big-budget TV and film adaptations that briefly elevated it to office water-cooler respectability, and it seems as though there are more Irish creators working with the genre at the present moment than there have been at any other given moment in history. Clearly, there’s something about fantasy that people respond to on a deep, personal level. Here comes the part where I hazard a rambling guess at what that “something” is. Please bear with me.

Fantasy differs from science fiction in that while science fiction pretends to be history, by going to various lengths to rationalise its weirdness according to the rules of our world, fantasy doesn’t care much for history at all. “High Fantasy” might borrow the trappings of historical Earth (particularly mediaeval Europe, though the parameters are expanding, thanks to the efforts of writers outside the white, western demographic), but the closest it comes to accepted history is a version of our world – alternative histories of Earth plus magic, with all the knock-on effects that would entail. The majority of High Fantasy epics, however, are not set here at all, but in different worlds with their own geographies, cultures and so on. Given the degree to which a lot of fantasy foregrounds the separateness of its setting, it made sense to include pieces that do likewise, such as A Voyage to O’Brazeel by the pseudonymous Manus O’Donnel, which reinvents a long-standing utopian myth.

By contrast, “Low Fantasy” ups the historical verisimilitude (and often the violence and nihilism too) by having very few supernatural elements, but the depicted world is still not our own (“Low” not meaning the same thing as “Zero”). In Dora Sigerson Shorter’s Transmigration, miracles are not amenable to human control and virtue is not always rewarded; similarly, the lurking malevolence in Charlotte McManus’s The Inhabitant in the Metal remains hidden throughout, even though it exerts a terrible influence on the main character, and TG Keller’s The Wizard treats magic as inherently threatening – far from being aspirational, a desire for occult knowledge is a red flag.

Urban Fantasy might make a good stab at pretending to be consonant with recorded history, but if it’s set in our world, where the non-existence of magic is taken for granted, the writer has to explain why nobody has ever noticed it; some fantasies in this vein bake an explanation into the magic itself, with the uninitiated masses failing to register anything that contradicts standard “common sense” – as in A Voyage to O’Brazeel, they “fail to see that which does not accord with their understanding of things”. More often, one finds a “magical realist” setting where the fantastic elements are accepted as part of the fabric of the everyday world and treated accordingly. It Rose Up boasts a number of pieces that might qualify as forerunners to Urban Fantasy in this vein, such as What Is a Ghoul?, a bizarre newspaper clipping from a different Ireland where ghouls are a rare, but not unheard-of menace, and PJ O’Connor Duffy’s Lanterns in the Twilight, wherein aggrieved deities manifest in order to avenge themselves in a small Irish village.

There are many other subgenres, but the point is that each variety of fantasy sidesteps, ignores or impugns history in its own way, and this is the key to its appeal: people read fantasy to temporarily break away from history altogether. This is an impulse common to all humanity – even the most resolute cynic has taken a few minutes out of a boring class, meeting or traffic jam to daydream about what they would be doing at that moment if things had turned out differently. And it must be noted that some people are in more urgent need than others of this kind of “escapism” – not from boredom or vague dissatisfaction, but from persecution and prejudice. Those who pour scorn on escapism as a concept tend to focus on the perceived indulgence and self-gratification of it all (eg, “What if I had magical powers and could do whatever I want?”) and not on its capacity to provide a refuge for thought, unhindered by historical determinism (“What if it was taken for granted that the lives of people like me do matter?”).

This is not to assign a universal political character to the genre – goodness knows there are practitioners and fans of every persuasion – but to argue that escapism is more nuanced than a simple denial of reality. What’s at issue is the contrast, or distance, between our world and the world of the story: the greater that distance, the greater the potential force that can be exerted on a world that seems intractable and seized-up. Whatever else it may be, fantasy is a lever.

The title of this anthology comes from a line in Sigerson Shorter’s Transmigration: “[I played] in the world until the dust of it rose up and clouded my eyes.”

The line describes a kind of sinful worldliness from which the narrator must be freed by an unidentified transcendental power. I would argue that fantasy does something similar (to much less gruesome effect) for readers locked into a world that insists upon a narrow and biased concept of what is, as rigid as a slaver’s statue in need of an unceremonious tumble off a short pier.

In the absence of literal, actual magic, the world can be “re-enchanted” by learning to look at it in a different way, similar to how Hugh A MacCartan’s narrator tunes into an alternative Stephen’s Green full of nymphs and dryads in The Park-Keeper. Another reason why this title appealed to me is the implication of an irresistible urge: these stories (all stories, in fact) exist because something rose up within their creators and demanded to be expressed. The past tense suggests the promise of a future recurrence: whatever “it” is, it rose up before, and it will rise up again.

It Rose Up: A Selection of Lost Irish Fantasy Stories is published by Tramp Press

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