Fantasy Literature: 4000 Years of Written Wonders (LIT2560.01)

Maria Dahvana Headley

The earliest known pictorial record of storytelling is a cave painting found in Sulawesi, Indonesia. It’s a scene of eight hunters taking on a wild pig and some water buffalo – but the hunters themselves are therianthropes, combination human-animal creatures. This ancestor of contemporary fantastical graphic novels and comic books is about 45,000 years old. History has always been built as much of imagination as actuality, and storytellers, wherever and whenever they’ve existed, have consistently depicted the world as a place of wonder and weirdness. There’s magic everywhere, is the lesson here, and this class is a gleeful leap and bound (maybe with antlers on) through 4000 years of fantastical written storytelling from all over the world.

This class was originally conceived by Paul La Farge, and I’ve expanded on his topic, which was to be Fantasy Literature from 1190-1900. Our goals will be similar – to learn about traditions of fantastical literature, while familiarizing ourselves with a variety of texts, some well-known, some less frequently read. We’ll read source texts up to the 20th Century, leaving the more modern versions for another class, dipping into a variety of translations and contemporary riffs to give context for the past. Most recent writers of fantasy fiction – Okorafor, Gaiman, Le Guin, Tolkien, Martin, and many more – draw on folklore, fairy tales, epics and myths – and this class will be built on the same ingredients. We’ll work on our own definitions of Fantasy, beginning with excerpts from the earliest written and signed texts by Enheduanna, a Sumerian priestess who lived in the 23rd century BCE, followed by the Middle Kingdom Egyptian Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor. From there to excerpts from Gilgamesh, the Mahabarata, the Panchatantra1001 Nights, Beowulf, the 10th century Japanese monogatari The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, Gawain & The Green Knight, the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, and more, making our way through history and all the way to 1900, connecting thematic and imaginative dots. We’ll also be reading some fantasy theory, from more recent thinkers such as Marina Warner, Maria Tatar, Rushdie, and Le Guin.

This is a reading and discussion class, but we’ll also be doing creative exercises, redefining notions of fantasy, theorizing reasons for the existence of fantastical literature, watching films, reading theatrical adaptations aloud. The history of fantasy is a history of abundance, and this class is going to be a lot of fun.

Learning Outcomes:
-- To learn something about the tradition of fantasy literature, and to read a decent amount of medieval and Renaissance literature in the process.
-- To familiarize ourselves with the language of these literatures, and their ways of storytelling, and to see what we can learn from them as writers.
-- To talk about the place of fantasy in the cosmos of literature generally.
-- To write critically and creatively in relation to the texts on our syllabus.

Delivery Method: Fully in-person
Course Level: 2000-level
Credits: 4
T/F 2:10PM - 4:00PM (Full-term)
Maximum Enrollment: 40
Course Frequency: One time only

Categories: 2000 , All courses , Four Credit , Fully In-Person , Literature , Updates
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