It’s a ‘fantastic’ story

Dibyajyoti Sarma
Saturday, 7 October 2017

Fantasy fiction is a legitimate genre, especially with the massive success of the TV series Game of Thrones. In India, the genre is still fledgling, without any breakout names except Amish, who in fact started the trend

Blame it on Game of Thrones. Fantasy fiction is popular than ever. But then, when fantasy fiction was not popular? Before George RR Martin made it big, it was J K Rowling and a certain boy wizard. Before that, you had The Lord of the Rings. 

These three book series managed to break all popular records, but since 1950s, modern fantasy fiction has always been a popular genre — JRR Tolkien’s books being one of the early examples. 

This is discounting children’s literature and folk tales, which also involve fantasy; but they are different genres. We are also not considering comic book superheroes, Superman, et al, despite the fact that they have massively influenced the growth and popularity of fantasy fiction. 

In the West, fantasy fiction started with high fantasy. It refers to a world completely different from the real world, populated by beings, which don’t exist in our world. So Tolkien created Middle Earth, populated by elves, hobbits and orcs and dragons and magic rings. Tolkien built the world from scratch, and added everything —  the landscape, the culture of the people, the language. It remains the blue print of how you write high fantasy. 

Middle Earth was followed by C S Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea, Laura and Tracy Hickman’s Krynn; Eric Rücker Eddison’s Zimiamvia; Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Terry Pratchett’s Discword. There are many, many more names. 

In the 1970s-80s, influenced by the popularity of science fiction and superhero comic books, fantasy fiction started to collide with the real world. The plot is deceptively simple. An unsuspecting young man or woman discovers a mythical/ magical world just beyond the real world. This perhaps explains the popularity of the Harry Potter series. The story of Harry, an abused orphan, begins in the real world, until one day he is told that he is a wizard and he must go to a Hogwart School to study. Slowly, Harry begins to learn about the existence of the magical world, taking his readers along.

Before Harry broke all records of popularity, there were authors like Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman who laid the groundwork for this ‘real meets fantasy’ trope. In Gaiman’s American Gods, the gods of the old live in working class America, while in Neverwhere, a man discovers a completely bizarre world beneath the modern day London. In Pullman’s Subtle Knife, the second book of his His Dark Materials Trilogy, a young boy in London finds a hole in the air, steps into it and travels into a different world. 

In India, fantasy fiction started late. Perhaps there was no urgent need, as mythologies are a constant presence in Indian storytelling culture. The first major Indian fantasy novel was perhaps Sumit Basu’s The Simoqin Prophecies published in 2004, the first novel in the Gameworld trilogy, the other two being, The Manticore’s Secret and The Unwaba Revelations. Using the basic archetype of good versus evil, the high fantasy series incorporated a number of Indian myths, using ‘rakshasas’ instead of ‘demons’ for example.

However, the credit for establishing fantasy as a viable genre in India must go to Amish and his Shiva Trilogy. The author’s struggle to publish the first book, The Immortals of Meluha and his eventual success is the stuff of literary myths. Beyond all criticism, Amish must be credited for making publishers take notice of the potential of the home-grown fantasy fiction. 

Since then we have seen a large number of novels hit the market, none of them reaching the level of Shiva Trilogy. There are books like Realm of the Goddess by Sabina Khan, Tantrics of Old by Krishnarjun Bhattacharya, The Devourers by Indra Das and The Cult of Chaos by Shweta Taneja. There are more names. 

A large portion of these novels remains derivative, and the world building less than original. But then, this is just the beginning. We still have time for our own Harry Potter or our own Game of Thrones.

- Dibyajyoti Sarma

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