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
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.
of the major events in Spenser's life is available on-line. You can also
access the complete (incomplete)
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
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
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
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
Home Page, a nice-looking, scholarly site with links to other
Milton-related pages and to various e-text versions of
Lost as well as to
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
There’s not much on John Bunyan on-line, but there is
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
Progress is available, the first book in HTML format,
and both the first and second books in plain-text, as well as his whole