An Author’s Journey: What is Literary Epic Fantasy? (4) The Sources: #6-7 (Hebrew & Islamic Influences)
3.8.14 An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences, Part 4.9: What is Literary Epic Fantasy? (4) The Sources: #6-7 (Hebrew & Islamic Inspirations)
Good Afternoon, Everyone!
Still reviewing the many sources that can inform the writer of “epic fantasy” who wants to bring the genre into the 21st Century from its origins in the early- to mid-20th Century with J.R.R. Tolkien. Remember, I’m looking at peoples, traditions, and landscapes that cleave to my own definition of “settings” for epic fantasy:
Carlisle’s working definition: The majority of settings in “high fantasy/epic fantasy” must evoke a bygone age that reflect key aspects of lands and peoples (nobility, peasantry, merchants, clergy, etc) of the medieval period in Western Europe and the Mediterranean Basin (c. 500-1500 A.D.), & including the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, & the lands of the Middle Eastern littoral.
Hopefully, I’m making it pretty clear how exciting this new approach can be for revitalizing the high fantasy or epic fantasy genre. Here are Sources #6-7 (of 15) that an epic fantasy writer should feel free to draw upon when thinking about the lands of Europe & the Mediterranean basin:
(6) the Hebrew traditions and folklore that informed the peoples of medieval Europe and the Mediterranean worlds (e.g., Babylonian lore, Kabbalah beliefs, the Tanakh/Masoretic Text, Grec0-Egyptian magic, golems, etc.). New studies and attention to Jewish communities in and around the medieval Mediterranean world over the last forty years (e.g., Geniza documents in Cairo) has drastically changed our understanding of the history of Jews from Late Antiquity through the High Middle Ages.
Sources now reveal a diversity of Jewish economic occupations, cultural expressions, and regional communities that can greatly enrich an epic fantasy world with fully realized characters and stories (and not just serving a story as “window dressing” which some bloggers have observed). Indeed, Jacob and his mother, Rebecca — two of the main characters in my own book, The Codex Lacrimae — have a home as cloth merchants in Genoese Quarter of Constantinople, but the trade networks of which they’re a part stretch eastward to China along the Silk Road, and westward to the French countryside where medievalists know that Jews were working as market officials in the great fairs (St. Denis) from Carolingian times.
Jacob’s Byzantine master, Rabbi Mordecai, has a strong relationship with Al-Andalus Jewish communities in southern Spain that contributed much in the realms of philosophy, medicine, science, commerce, etc. On the supernatural side of things, debates about magic within the rabbinical literature (e.g., amulets, recipes, spells, golems, etc.) can contribute much in the epic-fantasy world-building process. Thankfully, we’re seeing a surge of interest in the potential of epic Jewish fantasy, but even that advent is not without detractors and commentators:
: for starting point of debate, see New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s 2010 evaluation of debate started by Michael Weingrad’s essay, “Why Are There No Jewish Fantasy Novelists?” http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/04/
Current authors & works that incorporate/analogize Hebrew sources (though, except for Yanai’s works, not what I’d call “epic fantasy”):
Lisa Goldstein, The Red Magician
Sharon Shinn, Samaria Series (Archangel / Jovah’s Angel / The Alleluia Files / Angelica
Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Golem
Hagar Yanai, The Leviathan of Babylon Trilogy (The Leviathan of Babylon / The Water Betwixt the Worlds)
(7) the Arabian & Islamic traditions and folklore that informed the peoples both adjacent to medieval Europe and living in the Mediterranean worlds (e.g., concepts of “white magic,” or as-sihr al-abyad; black magic, as-sihr al-aswad; djinns, etc.). As with many fields in medieval studies, the history of Islam has been transformed over the last half century since Tolkien’s time, with specialized attention given to areas that used to be little known or understood.
For the epic fantasist, the improved understanding of cultural and commercial exchanges during the Middle Ages can offer much in the way of inspiration; for the characters of my books (Khajen ibn-Khaldun, Fatima, Khalil, and Saladin), their 12th century world is one that includes reference to peoples and lands around the medieval Mediterranean Basin, including the plethora of influences that reflect the many religious facets of Islam (e.g., Sunni & Shi’ite), as well as story lines that can include these historical realities:
PASTORAL COMMUNITIES: the bedouin tribes of the Arabian peninsula, the Berbers of North Africa, and the Turkish peoples of Eurasia
URBAN AND DYNASTIC CIVILIZATIONS: the Islamic Conquest medieval worlds of the Ummayad Dynasty (634-750 A.D.) & Abbasid Dynasty (700-1258 A.D.), the Mongol and Mamluk conquests of the 13th century, Rise of the Ottoman Empire (post 1300-), etc.
More, the vast wealth of medieval Islamic translations (Ibn-Sina, or Avicenna), philosophers (Ibn-Rushd, or Averroës), medical knowledge (Al-Razi, or Rhazes), and architectural accomplishments (Mosque at Cordoba, the Alhambra Palace at Granada, etc.) offer sources and settings that can provide truly original story lines in a newly envisaged epic fantasy genre.
Current authors & works that incorporate/analogize Islamic sources :
Saladin Ahmed, Crescent Moon Kingdoms series (Throne of the Crescent Moon, Bk 1)
Elizabeth Bear, The Eternal Sky series (Range of Ghosts / Shattered Pillars / Steles of the Sky)
Howard Andrew Jones, The Desert of Souls
Guy Gavriel Kay, The Lions of Al-Rassan / The Sarantine Mosaic / The Last Night of the Sun
Including the variety of religions that made up the medieval Mediterranean Sea landscape (Jewish, Christian, Islamic) might pose a challenge for creators — primarily with the cultural encoding that accompany any discussions of religion — but I think that any “growing pains” are worth it because of the inclusionary possibilities across all lines of peoples and cultures.
As we become a smaller and more international global community, I believe that storytelling has to follow and create new mythologies that incorporate traditional and avant grade ways of engaging epic fantasy. For those (like me) who grew up on Tolkien & Lewis, that means not only opening oneself to the potentials inherent in a fully realized medieval world that incorporates the far reaches of northern Germanic & Scandinavian climes where those authors situated most of their storytelling, but also finding new stories, heroes, and villains in the ancient-world lands & peoples who inhabited the Mediterranean Basin.
Next time: Carlisle’s Redefining of Epic Fantasy Continues, Sources #8-9 (Influences from North Africa & the Silk Road!)