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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, December 21, 2013


An adequate history of what I have called "the superhero idiom"-- and which *might* be loosely conflated with "heroic fantasy-adventure" in colloquial terms-- has not yet been written.  For that matter, there isn't even a broad history of adventure as such.  I have heard of an ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ADVENTURE FICTION but I have not sampled it as yet.

If one were to speak of "adventure" in the largest possible sense, such a history would have to begin with the earliest form of human literature: that of mythology.  Not all myths are relevant to the concept of adventure-fiction, but many myth-tales were transformed into epic literature-- the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and Odyssey-- and so these stories are at least morphologically relevant.

In the Hellenistic world at least, the epic influenced the related genre called "the romance."  However, most of these are no longer extant, and readers today know best the forms taken by both epic and romance in Western Europe during the medieval and Renaissance periods: the Song of Roland, the cycle of King Arthur stories, and the Norse epics whose roots extended back to the pre-Christian era.  The Wikipedia essay on "chivralric romance" comments that this form lasted until the Renaissance era, where it manifested in famous literary works like Malory's MORTE D'ARTHUR and Ariosto's ORLANDO FURIOSO, but that "by c.1600 [such works] were out of fashion."  From what I can discern, the subject matter of fantasy continued to appear in poetic epic-like forms following 1600 AD, but little of it followed the models of heroic adventure.  Perhaps fittingly, Edmund Spenser's ultraviolent FAERIE QUEENE appears near the end of the 16th century, while the best-known "epic poem" of the 17th-- going by this list-- is indisputably Milton's PARADISE LOST, which deals with many fantastic beings but no "heroic adventure" as such.  In my opinion the most prominent example of a "heroic adventure" poem following 1600 would be Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1855 HIAWATHA.

In these eras plays and prose literature were generally frowned upon in Europe as lesser arts in comparison to poetry.  But while one could find fantasy in many works of the 18th and early 19th centuries, little fantasy seems to appear in stories with a heroic theme.  Examples of such naturalistic adventures include Defoe's 1720 novel CAPTAIN SINGLETON, Walter Scott's breakthrough 1814 historical epic WAVERLEY and Schiller's 1781 play THE ROBBERS.  Even some poets began to emulate these more or less naturalistic "swashbuckling" themes, discernible in some of Byron's long poems of the early 19th century, like CHILDE HAROLD (1812) and THE CORSAIR (1814).  And undoubtedly there were many forgotten novels that trod the same basic territory, particularly the anonymously written "highwayman stories" popular in the 1700s. 

In contrast, fantasy-content did appear in the 18th century and the first half of the 19th, but mostly in satires (Swift's 1726 GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, Voltaire's 1752 MICROMEGAS) and in such newly minted traditions as "the Gothic" (Walpole's 1765 CASTLE OF OTRANTO) or the "modern fairy tale" (Beckford's 1786 VATHEK, Hoffman's 1814 THE GOLDEN POT).  But as I move into the 19th century I still find little that combines the content of fantasy with that of heroic adventure.  The best known adventure-stories of the 19th century's first half tend to be naturalistic, as with Cooper's Leatherstocking saga (beginning in 1823), or Alexandre Dumas' best known works, THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1844) and COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO (1845).  I might make a modest exception in the case of Dumas' CORSICAN BROTHERS, since it deals with twins who feel one another's sensations, but it doesn't seem to have sparked much in the way of imitators.

In the second half of the 19th century, one begins to see an increase in heroes who have at least some loose "uncanny" aspects, as with the 1866 novel LE DERNIER MOT DE ROCAMBOLE, in which the titular character-- not always a "hero" in every sense of the word-- encounters a cult of Thuggee.  But it would seem that the success of Jules Verne's "scientific romances" had the greatest effect in terms of combining the elements of fantasy and adventure, though one may argue as to how much "heroism" appears in novels like 1864's JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. 

In Peter Coogan's critical work SUPERHERO: THE SECRET ORIGIN OF A GENRE, Coogan sees the strongest precursor to the superhero in the fictionalized adventures of so-called "real monster," Spring-Heeled Jack.  Not all of Jack's fictional appearances were in a heroic mold, however. 

My own nomination for the greatest influence on "heroic fantasy adventure" in the medium of prose would be the so-called "edisonade," a genre associated with heroic young boys using new technological weapons in their adventures-- and of which the earliest example is 1868's THE STEAM MAN OF THE PLAINS. I confess I have not read this dime novel, but here's a section from the Project Gutenberg transcription, in which the titular Steam Man is used to disperse a horde of hostile Native Americans menacing the heroes:

'When it blows up, run!' was the admonition of the boy.

The steam man was turned directly toward the wall, and a full head of
steam let on. It started away with a bound, instantly reaching a speed
of forty miles an hour.

The next moment it struck the bowlders with a terrific crash, shot on
over its face, leaving the splintered wagon behind, and at the instant
of touching ground upon the opposite side directly among the
thunderstruck Indians, it exploded its boiler!

The shock of the explosion was terrible. It was like the bursting of
an immense bomb-shell, the steam man being blown into thousands of
fragments, that scattered death and destruction in every direction.
Falling in the very center of the crouching Indians, it could but make
a terrible destruction of life, while those who escaped unharmed, were
beside themselves with consternation.

This was the very thing upon which young Brainerd had counted, and for
which he made his calculations. When he saw it leap toward the wall in
such a furious manner, he knew the inevitable consequence, and gave
the word to his friends to take to their legs.

All three dashed up the bank, and reaching the surface of the prairie,
Baldy Bicknell took the lead, exclaiming:

'Now fur the wood yonder!'

As they reached the grove, one or two of the number glanced back, but
saw nothing of the pursuing Indians. They had not yet recovered from
their terror.

Not a moment was to be lost. The experienced eye of the trapper lost
no time in selecting the very best Indian horses, and a moment later
all four rode out from the grove at a full gallop, and headed toward
the Missouri.

In this scene I see an interesting parallel to the superhuman character of Talus, a sort of magical "iron man" who appears in Book Five of Spenser's FAERIE QUEENE and slays adversaries right and left.  But STEAM MAN is even more suggestive as an anticipation of the thrill later readers would gain from fantasy-stories portraying similar scenes of heroic chaos--  Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1912 PRINCESS OF MARS with its superhuman hero, the space operas of the science fiction magazines in the 1920s and 1930s, and of course Siegel and Shuster's SUPERMAN.

This is not to say that I'm defining all "heroic fantasy-adventure" with scenes of marvelous technology, given that I've included both THE CORSICAN BROTHERS and ROCAMBOLE as relevant figures as well.  Other relevant-but-not-marvelous figures of the 19th century would also include  1885's Allen Quatermain, 1886's Nick Carter, and 1887's Sherlock Holmes.  But I've covered my rationale for these inclusions in other writings upon the topic of "the metaphonomenal" and won't repeat myself here.

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