Last time we discussed the different workings of Speculative Fiction as far as its categories and some of how it works. Today we are going to take a more in-depth look and try to discern some of the history of this massive genre. Full disclosure on this one, this is going to be far more of an opinion piece as there is no real discernible point of origin. I have my own ideas, and after all my research, I have my own conclusions. Let’s discuss:
Speculative Fiction - Where it all started
I mentioned this some articles back, but I had the opportunity to intern for a university working with a professor in a literature course where we discussed the fantasy genre. During that time, I did a lot of research and reading from different sources to try and determine the origin. In that time, there was no conclusive answer as to where it all started, so I decided to make my own conclusion that was outside of religion.
Many people take it back to Greek mythology. I disagree with this stance. While I do not doubt that in our modern view that these stories appeal to us in a very playful way, I can’t speak for the people who lived during the time. My knowledge of Greek myth is not perfect, but I’m going out on a limb to say that Greek mythology was more religious than fiction. Therefore, it has no place in the realm of fiction in this period.
More people place the genre in a much more modern era and point to Tolkien as the origin of the genre at large. However, I disagree with this. While I do not doubt that Tolkien has had a monumental influence on the genre as a whole and into the modern-day, I don’t believe he was the beginning. In fact, there are multitudes of stories out there that fit all the requirements of being Speculative Fiction that predate Tolkien by a long stretch.
So I took the stance somewhere in the middle, and will even make a compromise on one particular period perhaps (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). But I make my assertion that we can go back to the Epic to determine the origin. Now, like the Greek myth, “The Epic of Gilgamesh” may loosely be based in religion, so that too is off the table. For that reason, I have to make my case for “Beowulf” as the proper origin of Speculative Fiction.
So why, Beowulf? Because it holds as one of the oldest surviving epics that does not have an origin in religion but is most purely a story about a hero and his story.
So Beowulf has everything that we need to identify it as a Speculative Fiction piece because it fits the elements of fantasy before either of those genres were a thing. It takes place in our world, for the most part, but relies on magic and magical creatures as one of its central focal points to the plot.
The manuscript dates back to somewhere between 975-1010 AD. While the story takes place just years before these dates, I would argue it is one of the most essential pieces of Old English writing that we have. The crazy part is that the author continues to be unknown to this day. The story itself is part of a larger codex, known as the Nowell Codex, which is the second part of the larger Cotton Vitellius A.xv. The codex contains three prose pieces, a life of Saint Christopher, Wonders of the East, and a Letter of Alexander to Aristotle. Beowulf follows these and is the majority of the second codex.
So, there we have it, my theory as to the origin of the Speculative Fiction genre. Next time, we will go into the story of Beowulf, or we discuss a more modern history of Speculative Fiction. We will see what the future holds for us.