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Christian Fantasy

I use the term “proto-fantasists” to refer to authors who wrote before fantasy was conceived of as a genre, but whose work shares many of the same characteristics and employs many of the same principles as are characteristic of and employed in modern fantasy. Indeed, I would argue that our modern concept of fantasy literature has largely been shaped by the main works of the proto-fantasists listed below.

Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

By far Edmund Spenser’s most significant work (fantasy or otherwise) is his half-finished The Faerie Queene. He conceived of it as an allegory, and probably also as a romantic epic, in “heroical verse”, divided into twelve books about the twelve moral virtues. There is also a good deal of historical allegory in the poem, with Queen Elizabeth figuring as the “Faerie Queene”. With all its dragons and giants and fair maidens and knights out on quests, replete as it is with multiple levels of meaning, I can’t help but think this is proto-fantasy at its most obvious. Nor does The Faerie Queene’s incompleteness hamper the story all that much: episodic as it is, with each book a semi-detached story, it’s more like a half-finished series than an unfinished tale.

A brief chronology of the major events in Spenser's life is available on-line. You can also access the complete (incomplete) Faerie Queene through The Edmund Spenser Home Page, the most complete source of on-line resources relating to Edmund Spenser (that I’ve found, at least). Set up by Richard Bear of the University of Oregon, The Edmund Spenser Home Page provides briefly annotated links to the major works of Spenser on-line, as well as to other Spenser and Spenser-related sites.

John Milton (1608-1674)

I’m really not entirely certain whether or not I should include Milton here as a Christian “proto-fantasist”. As an Arian, fictionalizing what he (and I) would consider Biblical history, it’s hard to justify classifying him as either a Christian or a proto- fantasist. But it’s also hard not to include him.

For despite Milton’s aberrant theology, his most important work, Paradise Lost, “was accepted as orthodox by many generations of acute readers well grounded in theology”, as we are told by no less Christian a scholar than C.S. Lewis. He goes on, in his Preface to Paradise Lost, to note that “we should not ... from any passage in the whole poem, have discovered the poet’s Arianism without the aid of external evidence.” Lewis concludes this lecture on “The Theology of Paradise Lost” with the comment that, “as far as doctrine goes, the poem is overwhelmingly Christian.”

And it was such a hugely influential poem, too. In fact it’s largely on the strength of this influence, plus Milton’s use of myths, angelologies, and cosmologies of previous ages (as well as those of his own) that I include him here as a “proto-fantasist”.

A number of biographies of Milton are available on line: the two I'm aware of at this point are an early, anonymous one, probably by a friend or acquaintance of his, and a very short one, from an Italian museum.

There seem to be a fair number of Milton-related sites on-line, but a fair number of these seem to be inaccessible most of the time. The best one that I managed to get through to was The Milton-L Home Page, a nice-looking, scholarly site with links to other Milton-related pages and to various e-text versions of Paradise Lost as well as to other major works of Milton, including Comus and Paradise Regained.

John Bunyan (1628-1688)

I can’t think of anyone who would deny Bunyan the position of preeminent Christian proto-fantasist, except maybe Catholics and anti-allegorists, and I think even Catholics might be kindly- disposed towards Bunyan these days. (There’s no hope for a rabid anti-allegorist, however!)

There’s not much on John Bunyan on-line, but there is a short biography of him by his home town of Bedford. The Home Page of the International John Bunyan Society is on-line, but there's not much available on it unless you like subscribing to newsletters or going to conferences. The complete text of John Bunyan's classic Pilgrim’s Progress is available, the first book in HTML format, and both the first and second books in plain-text, as well as his whole Holy War (in plain-text).

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