When Game of Thrones debuted on HBO in April 2011, critics united in a chorus of jeers. “A groggy slog,” said the Washington Post. “We are in the universe of dwarfs, armour, wenches, braids, loincloth,” began a New York Times. “Quasi-medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy crap,” said Slate.
The message was simple. Fantasy was not for serious people. It was for perpetual adolescents, basement-dwelling man-children, weirdos who could do with a shower and an introduction to proper literature - Tom Wolfe instead of Tom Bombadil, Joan Didion rather than Conan the Cimmerian.
A decade later, such prejudices have long since been chucked into a pop-culture Mount Doom. Fantasy is terribly voguish nowadays - in publishing but even more so on the small screen, where a scrum of franchises jostle to inherit the mantle of Game of Thrones as the television show to rule them all.
This year alone, Amazon Prime and Netflix have gone into battle with, respectively, The Wheel of Time and season two of Henry Cavill’s The Witcher, which arrived last weekend. Netflix has, in addition, had a surprise smash with Arcane, an animated steam-punk fantasy adapted from the video game League of Legends (which itself draws heavily on Dungeons & Dragons and the tabletop war-game Warhammer).
That’s just for starters. Galloping over the hill in 2022 will be Game of Thrones spin-off House of the Dragon, which focuses on the blond and bonkers Targaryen dynasty centuries before the era of Jon Snow and Headless Ned Stark. And then, sure to stomp all over the competition like a big, hairy, animated Monty Python foot, will be Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel, upon which House Bezos has lavished a reported $2 billion.
There will also be a Dungeons & Dragon movie – currently shooting in Belfast and starring Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez and, swapping rom-coms for dungeon crawls, Hugh Grant. And another season of His Dark Materials, adapted from the Philip Pullman fantasy trilogy where the "big bad" is not a Dark Lord Upon a Dark Throne but Christian morality (Pullman's revenge against his bete noire, Irishman CS Lewis).
Blood and ashes, that’s a lot of fantasy. How did a genre which, a mere 10 years ago, was a laughing stock among the chattering classes become so popular – and almost respectable?
“I’m putting it all down to the conjunction of Game of Thrones and the rise of services like Netflix and HBO,” says Peadar Ó Guilín, an Irish YA fantasy author who has won acclaim for novels such as The Call, which draws on Irish mythology.
“You need a lot of money on screen to make those dragons fly or to create magical cities that seem as alive as Dublin on a Friday night. But the other thing you must have is time: time to show how these strange places and cultures work.”
“Prestige TV” is, he feels, the perfect framing device for fantasy. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga spans 14 books (plus a prequel) – adding up to 10,000 pages or over four million words. No movie could encompass a story that vast (a Wheel of Time movie planned in the early 2000s was quickly abandoned as unmakeable).
However, an undertaking of that scale was perfect for Amazon Prime Video which, all going to plan, will relay this tale of simple farmhands plunged into a battle with an ancient evil across eight seasons.
“Peter Jackson needed 10 hours of screen time to do justice to Lord of the Rings,” says Ó Guilín. “These days, that’s just one season on any of the streaming services, and since there are several of them around, all fighting for that massive Game of Thrones audience with budgets the size of a small planet, well, that’s why we have ourselves a boom.”
Game of Thrones’ enduring achievement was perhaps to prove that fantasy didn’t have to be twee or silly. Fantasy readers have obviously long known this. The Lord of the Rings concludes with Frodo suffering PTSD; the Wheel of Time has scenes in which children are eaten alive by monstrous Trollocs. Yet many continue to perceive these books as cheese on a stick. It took Game of Thrones to demonstrate fantasy could be dark and brooding – and, hence, respectable.
“Both the book and the TV show have had huge impacts. Game of Thrones was not the first ‘gritty’ fantasy novel full of f-bombs and morally grey protagonists, but it is a brilliant book. Like The Decameron, or the works of Shakespeare, it seems to contain every human emotion and we can all see ourselves reflected in one or more of the characters,” Ó Guilín says.
“The first season of the TVshow did exactly the same thing and it did so by preserving the spirit of George RR Martin’s original vision. By the time it was ending, it sometimes cost up to $15 million to make an episode. That’s the kind of money you need to do epic fantasy right, but it’s also the sort of spending that causes media executives to break out in a cold sweat. However, the viewing figures showed it was well worth doing.”
Irish fantasy is on the up, too. Ireland can claim a special space in the history of the genre. Early 20th century Anglo-Irish writer Edward Plunkett, the 18th Lord Dunsany, is acknowledged as a pioneering chronicler of the fantastic with novels such as The Gods of Pegana (1905) and The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924).
He influenced both Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien and "weird fantasy" writer HP Lovecraft, who attended a lecture by Dunsany on the Irishman's speaking tour of the United States. He was also an acquaintance of WB Yeats, who, in 1909, persuaded him to write a play, Glittering Gate, for the Abbey Theatre (at one point Dunsany had five plays running concurrently on Broadway). Plunkett never received his due in Ireland (perhaps because of his Anglo-Irishness).
Fantasy in Ireland is now roaring back. Cork author Gareth Hanrahan, also a respected writer in role-playing publishing, this year published The Broken God, the third volume in his wonderful Black Iron Legacy series. It is set in an otherworldly reimagining of Cork (named Guerdon) which, with snaking hills and hodgepodge architecture, serves as a rich backdrop for noir fantasy with Lovecraftian influences.
That was followed by It Rose Up: A Selection of Lost Irish Fantasy Stories compiled by academic and editor Jack Fennell. Described by publisher Tramp Press as “a collection of lesser-known works of classic Irish fantasy”, the collection – a companion piece to Fennell’s 2018 science fiction anthology A Brilliant Void – connects the dots between Celtic folklore and Irish fantasy.
“The stories in this collection all have different ideas at their core, but one recurring theme you can definitely see is that there are ‘worlds within worlds’: there’s a sense modernity didn’t push magic out of the world completely, and that there are secluded places where it survives unnoticed,” says Fennell. “There’s a sense magic is something to be wary of, and it’s more likely to mess you up than grant your heart’s desire.”
He feels fantasy in Ireland is healthy – if hiding in a plain sight, to a degree. In that, we are by no means unique. “The fantasy scene is similar all over the world, in that it has a large, passionate fanbase, but remains ‘invisible’ because it’s still regarded as a niche interest. We have scores of phenomenal fantasy writers in Ireland, and readers hungry for all the fantasy works they can get their hands on.
“But from the outside, the scene is a subculture; the most that mass media focused on current affairs can do with that is observe it occasionally – ‘Oh look, that’s a thing that exists.’ If you’re tuned in to it, though, you’re keenly aware of its presence, its key players, the up-and-comers, and any changes in the lay of the land, until it sometimes seems to be all-consuming in scope. I suppose something similar could be said about the Irish country music scene.”
The fantasy renaissance intersects with a growing awareness of the impact of humanity on the environment. The genre has always been attuned to the relationship between man and nature. This goes all the way back to Tolkien who, having fought in the mechanised hell of the Somme, considered mass industrialisation a terrible menace.
A century on, George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice and Fire can likewise be regarded as eco-fable, the monstrous White Walkers sweeping down from the North a metaphor for the perils of global warming and melting ice caps.
“Environmentalism is definitely present as a theme in lots of fantasy, not least because in the familiar pre-modern fantasy setting, the forests are full of elves who won’t take kindly to people chopping down their trees,” says Jack Fennell.
"Other varieties of fantasy exist that are less explicitly tuned in to nature [i.e. urban fantasy such as Jim Butcher's Dresden Files], but as environmental issues become harder to ignore, they show up in genre works as pressing themes. Fantasy, sci-fi and horror stories are products of their time as much as anything else; you don't normally have to dig too deeply into them to find traces of what's worrying us."
It Rose Up: A Selection of Lost Irish Fantasy Stories is published by Tramp Press. The Witcher season two comes to Netflix December 17.