Myths & Leg­ends: The ori­gins of fan­tasy

From be­lief in gods and mon­sters to tap­ping into our ba­sic emo­tions, artists have long plun­dered the rich tales handed down the gen­er­a­tions

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Made from a mix­ture of ochre, min­er­als and veg­etable dyes, the rich reds, blues, greens, yel­lows and blacks are still vivid on the walls of The House of the Vet­tii. In the doomed town of Pom­peii, frozen in time by the erup­tion of Mount Ve­su­vius in AD 79, the colourful mytho­log­i­cal paint­ings live on: sym­bolic tales of a fight­ing Her­a­cles, Pen­theus torn asun­der by his mother Agave, the pun­ish­ment of the kin-killer Ix­ion turn­ing for­ever on a fiery wheel. evok­ing crea­tures and el­e­ments,” says il­lus­tra­tor John Howe. “Now we take them for granted. They’re used, abused, ma­nip­u­lated, com­mer­cialised, bought and sold like other com­modi­ties. We as­so­ciate them with im­ma­tu­rity. We be­lieve se­ri­ous im­agery deals with life, not with imag­ined things. But fan­tasy art is the in­her­i­tor of that orig­i­nal magic, lan­guage and truth. Fan­tasy is now the realm of archetype.”

Fan­tasy’s rich her­itage is of­ten over­looked. Cana­dian artist, writer and art

I think im­ages were once magic, were lan­guage, the ear­li­est letters evok­ing crea­tures and el­e­ments

The two wealthy mer­chant broth­ers who lived in the house were not the first to find in­trigue and com­fort in myths and leg­ends. Bronze Age Sume­ri­ans put down their cre­ation myth in The Epic of Gil­gamesh some 2,000 years ear­lier. People have been mak­ing sense out of life’s mys­ter­ies through won­drous sto­ries and beau­ti­ful im­ages ever since. These tall tales are noth­ing less than people’s first at­tempts at re­li­gion, phi­los­o­phy and com­pre­hend­ing hu­man na­ture. They are also the ori­gin of mod­ern-day fan­tasy.

“I like to think that im­ages were once magic, were lan­guage, the ear­li­est letters his­to­rian Charles Mof­fat has a pretty good idea why. “Fan­tasy is seen as low­brow be­cause people treat the sub­ject mat­ter as a me­ter for what they con­sider to be qual­ity art,” he says, “even though its broad spec­trum in­cludes mythol­ogy.” For Charles, fan­tasy’s Year Zero can be traced back to a pop­u­lar screen-print­ing patent in 1907, spell­ing out fu­ture in­ex­pen­sive re­pro­duc­tion of im­ages and text. But there’s al­ways more to a leg­end than a sin­gle point of view.

Cer­nun­nos John Howe may be best known for his Mid­dle-earth art, but he has an equal pas­sion for Celtic myth,

in­clud­ing this antlered god.

An­dromeda In 1869 Ed­ward Poyn­ter

painted the beau­ti­ful An­dromeda, just be­fore she’s res­cued by Perseus.

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