The Big Book of Classic Fantasy
Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
“A banquet such as this could be said to be the dilemma of any anthologist, but especially ours when compiling The Big Book of Classic Fantasy,” write Ann and Jeff VanderMeer in their Introduction to this latest big Vintage paperback, which is a fairly standard gambit for editors of big anthologies, a gambit including both the de rigueur comparison to a banquet and the special pleading, which the VanderMeers slather on with a trowel:
Defining “classic,” as from the early 1800s to World War II - from the start of a nascent idea of “fantasy” as opposed to “folktale” to the moment before the rise of a commercial category of “fantasy” - one is still left with more than a century of fantastical stories. A feast almost beyond measure! But how to gorge oneself without getting sick? (Even with a larder as large as this book, there are limits.) How to sample as much as one can without feeling slightly dissatisfied at not getting bigger bites of particular favorites? What to bring back, then, for readers, that isn’t just the editors glutting themselves on their own particular tastes? How to be representative? Not everyone wants a steady diet of Turkish delight, even if it is accompanied by talking animals and a magical closet.
There is indeed a banquet in these pages, with selections ranging broadly across time and languages: a dozen works-in-translation jostle next to instantly recognizable names like Jules Verne, E. M. Forster, and Mary Shelley. Our editors have made efforts, slightly strained efforts, to provide a hyper-inclusive Table of Contents; there are names here that even die-hard fantasy fans will find odd or rare, and there are other inclusions that seem designed to be unpredictable.
Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” is here, as is Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and bits from Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Some long-time readers of this kind of anthology will find familiar names like Lord Dunsany and Fritz Leiber but maybe wish for different story-choices, or wish that stand-alone stories had been substituted for the excerpts that are included here from Through the Looking-Glass or, more bizarrely, The Gods of Mars.
Providing this kind of banquet inevitably provokes these kinds of quibbles; if the book is good - and this book is good - the quibbles are part of the fun. The Big Book of Classic Fantasy isn’t perfect, of course; the VanderMeers push the advent of “classic” back too far in time to keep many of the distinctions of “fantasy” usefully defined. But even this slightly amorphous scheme has payoffs, since it leads to a series of surprising reading combinations. This Vintage “Big Book” makes a fine companion to the VanderMeer’s “Big Book of Science Fiction.”
--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.