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Fantasy, Fey, and Forty-Seven: Wayback Wednesday

Illustration of Queen Lulea and her fairy court by Frederick Richardson
Queen Lulea and her fairy court (Frederick Richardson)

Two weeks ago, we started with an overview of what the blog would be about. Last week we looked at the historical cost of books. This week we’re going to discuss the history of the fantasy genre and the first two chapters of Queen Zixi of Ix.

Fantasy stories, as a name for a distinct macro genre in speculative fiction, is a more modern naming convention. While many early works of fiction contained fantastical elements, these were not originally thought to be unreal. They were simply fantastic because the people hearing the stories weren’t familiar with the creatures or places. A belief in working magic was a part of life for many of those people. That meant the workings of gods and witches in The Odyssey (Homer), the fearsome beast and dragon in Beowulf, and the travels to the Underworld and fighting the Bull of Heaven in Epic of Gilgamesh were all thought to be real creatures and far-off places, not fictional. One of the first stories to be explicit in their use of made-up fantastic elements was the stories collected in One Thousand and One Nights. In the book, Scheherazade admits the stories she is telling are fictional and doesn’t pretend otherwise.

Fairy tales, on the other hand, were considered to be fantasy. Some of these were stories made up to explain to children the surrounding dangers. Examples of the lessons included why not to trust strange men in forests as young women (Little Red Riding Hood) and the dangers of playing near bridges (The Billy Goats Gruff). Others were just expanded folk tales or other stories of whimsy. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, bookstores and publishers often termed works as either “romances” or “fairy tales”, not “fantasies”.

“Romance” was used to describe medieval European literary fantasies which took traditional adventure stories containing chivalrous knights and their battles and added fantastic elements. Some of these elements were based on folklore and fairy tales, though they would also add completely new elements. Perhaps the two best-known examples of this genre are Le Morte d’Arthur (Sir Thomas Malory, 1485) and Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes, 1605). Both are adventure stories with fantasy elements, from Merlin the wizard to the giants Don Quixote must vanquish.

However, The Faerie Queene (Edmund Spenser, 1596), is the most notable work of romance. An epic poem, it is notable not only as one of the longest poems in the English language at 36,000 lines in 4,000 stanzas, but it laid the groundwork for modern epic fantasy tropes. Firstly, the majority of the characters are elves, not humans, though there are smattering of humans. The elven knights not only duel each other but also battle giants and evil sorcerers. Additionally, the concept of the goblins and elves being at war with each other is first introduced in this poem.

Fairy tale was used to describe most other works that did not include knightly romance as a primary plot element. Because of the name, many of the fantasy works of the late 1800s were written with children in mind. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865), The Princess and the Goblin (George MacDonald, 1872), and The Jungle Book (Rudyard Kipling, 1894) were all marketed towards children. This continued into the early decades of the 1900s with works like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum, 1900), Peter and Wendy (J. M. Barrie, 1911), and even The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkien, 1937) being aimed at a youthful audience.

Starting in the 1930s, pulp writers like Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft began publishing adult tales with fantasy elements in them. These proved to be popular with the readers. An increasingly older audience became interested in fantasy stories and novels. The scope of the stories also grew. By the time the first successful epic fantasy, The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), was published, the term fantasy had replaced fairy tale in describing these works.

Queen Zixi of Ix; Or, The Story of the Magic Cloak is still more closely associated with our idea of a fairy tale than it is with modern fantasy. That said, there are several elements we find in modern fantasies that make their appearance in the book’s first pair of chapters.

Chapter I: The Weaving of the Magic Cloak

First is the connection between this book and works by Baum. We discover firstly that the story starts in the ancient Forest of Burzee. This is the same forest Santa Claus was raised in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (L. Frank Baum, 1902), which means it also has connections to the Oz books. This kind of shared world is common in modern fantasy, though not as much in early works with different main characters.

Next, we find out the members of the fairy court are bored. The queen mentions this is a problem for anyone who is long-lived. The idea of long-lived fey and the tedium of immortality has been explored in several books and stories, but this is one of the earliest mentions of it. The fey also talk about the problems associated with magic items and the mortals who receive them which is a common theme in folklore.

In a bit of a surprise twist, the fey are not anti-mortal but instead watch over one specific human for that person’s entire life. When the mortal dies, the Fairy Queen assigns the human-less fairy a newborn to watch over. This is quite different from other tales where the fey will steal children or play horrible tricks with time on humans. There is also the Man in the Moon, a benevolent spirit who potentially lives on the moon and acts as a sort of advisor to the Fairy Queen.

Chapter II: The Book of Laws

Here we are introduced to the kingdom of Noland. The king of Noland has just passed away without an heir and the king’s five high counselors are trying to determine what to do. Baum names the five in a particular manner. All the men have similar names, which are set as “T-llyd-b”, with the “-” mark being filled in with different vowels for each person. This might suggest Baum is satirizing the interchangeability and commonality of politicians. He further makes the men unlikable in that they refuse to allow the rest of the country to know of the king’s death. In another satire of self-important men, the king’s valet Jikki acts in a manner more fitting a toddler. He runs around almost incessantly with little direction and asks questions without waiting for an answer.

Part of the problem is the counselors the king’s will is law, and with the king dead, there is no one to tell them who the new king should be. The men finally determine there is a book of laws that “was meant to be used when the king was absent, or ill, or asleep.” In it, they find that the forty-seventh person to enter the city at dawn would be crowned the new king, no matter their age, sex, or station.

The use of a prime number is interesting here and in keeping with the use of such unusual numbers in folklore. Prime numbers seem to be used to evoke a feeling of unease and confusion, which certainly happens with the king’s counselors. Another common factor in fantasy is having magical or fantastic occurrences at dawn or dusk, as these are times when the distance between night and day is the least. In a way, it mirrors Baum’s usage of crafting the magic cloak under the light of a full moon.

What did you find interesting in the first two chapters of Queen Zixi of Ix? What areas of early 1900s speculative fiction are you interested in? Let us know in the comments.

Next week we will dive into a discussion of the serial format and the first two chapters of Pirates of Venus.

Chapter III


Nearly two days’ journey from the city of Nole, yet still within the borders of the great kingdom of Noland, was a little village lying at the edge of a broad river. It consisted of a cluster of houses of the humblest description, for the people of this village were all poor and lived in simple fashion. Yet one house appeared to be somewhat better than the others, for it stood on the river-bank and had been built by the ferryman whose business it was to carry all travelers across the river. And, as many traveled that way, the ferryman was able in time to erect a very comfortable cottage, and to buy good furniture for it, and to clothe warmly and neatly his two children.

One of these children was a little girl named Margaret, who was called “Meg” by the villagers and “Fluff” by the ferryman her father, because her hair was so soft and fluffy.

Her brother, who was two years younger, was named Timothy; but Margaret had always called him “Bud,” because she could not say “brother” more plainly when first she began to talk; so nearly every one who knew Timothy called him Bud, as little Meg did.

These children had lost their mother when very young, and the big ferryman had tried to be both mother and father to them, and had reared them very gently and lovingly. They were good children, and were liked by every one in the village.

But one day a terrible misfortune befell them. The ferryman tried to cross the river for a passenger one very stormy night; but he never reached the other shore. When the storm subsided and morning came they found his body lying on the river-bank, and the two children were left alone in the world.

The news was carried by travelers to the city of Nole, where the ferryman’s only sister lived; and a few days afterward the woman came to the village and took charge of her orphaned niece and nephew.

She was not a bad-hearted woman, this Aunt Rivette; but she had worked hard all her life, and had a stern face and a stern voice. She thought the only way to make children behave was to box their ears every now and then; so poor Meg, who had been well-nigh heart-broken at her dear father’s loss, had still more occasion for tears after Aunt Rivette came to the village.

As for Bud, he was so impudent and ill-mannered to the old lady that she felt obliged to switch him; and afterward the boy became surly and silent, and neither wept nor answered his aunt a single word. It hurt Margaret dreadfully to see her little brother whipped, and she soon became so unhappy at the sorrowful circumstances in which she and her brother found themselves that she sobbed from morning till night and knew no comfort.

Aunt Rivette, who was a laundress in the city of Nole, decided she would take Meg and Bud back home with her.

“The boy can carry water for my tubs, and the girl can help me with the ironing,” she said.

So she sold all the heavier articles of furniture that the cottage contained, as well as the cottage itself; and all the remainder of her dead brother’s belongings she loaded upon the back of the little donkey she had ridden on her journey from Nole. It made such a pile of packages that the load seemed bigger than the donkey himself; but he was a strong little animal, and made no complaint of his burden.

All this being accomplished, they set out one morning for Nole, Aunt Rivette leading the donkey by the bridle with one hand and little Bud with the other, while Margaret followed behind, weeping anew at this sad parting with her old home and all she had so long loved.

It was a hard journey. The old woman soon became cross and fretful, and scolded the little ones at almost every step. When Bud stumbled, as he often did, for he was unused to walking very far, Aunt Rivette would box his ears or shake him violently by the arm or tell him he was “a good-for-nothing little beggar.” And Bud would turn upon her with a revengeful look in his big eyes, but say not a word. The woman paid no attention to Meg, who continued to follow the donkey with tearful eyes and drooping head.

The first night they obtained shelter at a farm-house. But in the morning it was found that the boy’s feet were so swollen and sore from the long walk of the day before that he could not stand upon them. So Aunt Rivette, scolding fretfully at his weakness, perched Bud among the bundles atop the donkey’s back, and in this way they journeyed the second day, the woman walking ahead and leading the donkey, and Margaret following behind.

The laundress had hoped to reach the city of Nole at the close of this day; but the overburdened donkey would not walk very fast, so nightfall found them still a two-hours’ journey from the city gates, and they were forced to stop at a small inn.

But this inn was already overflowing with travelers, and the landlord could give them no beds, nor even a room.

“You can sleep in the stable if you like,” said he. “There is plenty of hay to lie down upon.”

So they were obliged to content themselves with this poor accommodation.

The old woman aroused them at the first streaks of daybreak the next morning, and while she fastened the packages to the donkey’s back Margaret stood in the stable yard and shivered in the cold morning air.

The little girl felt that she had never been more unhappy than at that moment, and when she thought of her kind father and the happy home she had once known, her sobs broke out afresh, and she leaned against the stable door and wept as if her little heart would break.

Suddenly some one touched her arm, and she looked up to see a tall and handsome youth standing before her. It was none other than Ereol the fairy, who had assumed this form for her appearance among mortals; and over the youth’s arm lay folded the magic cloak that had been woven the evening before in the fairy circle of Burzee.

“Are you very unhappy, my dear?” asked Ereol, in kindly tones.

“I am the most unhappy person in all the world!” replied the girl, beginning to sob afresh.

“Then,” said Ereol, “I will present you with this magic cloak, which has been woven by the fairies. And while you wear it you may have your first wish granted; and if you give it freely to any other mortal, that person may also have one wish granted. So use the cloak wisely, and guard it as a great treasure.”

Saying this the fairy messenger spread the folds of the cloak and threw the brilliant-hued garment over the shoulders of the girl.

Just then Aunt Rivette led the donkey from the stable, and seeing the beautiful cloak which the child wore, she stopped short and demanded:

“Where did you get that?”

“This stranger gave it to me,” answered Meg, pointing to the youth.

“Take it off! Take it off this minute and give it me—or I will whip you soundly!” cried the woman.

“Stop!” said Ereol, sternly. “The cloak belongs to this child alone, and if you dare take it from her I will punish you severely.”

“What! Punish me! Punish me, you rascally fellow! We’ll see about that.”

“We will, indeed,” returned Ereol, more calmly. “The cloak is a gift from the fairies; and you dare not anger them, for your punishment would be swift and terrible.”

Now no one feared to provoke the mysterious fairies more than Aunt Rivette; but she suspected the youth was not telling her the truth, so she rushed upon Ereol and struck at him with her upraised cane. But, to her amazement, the form of the youth vanished quickly into air, and then, indeed, she knew it was a fairy that had spoken to her.

“You may keep your cloak,” she said to Margaret, with a little shiver of fear. “I would not touch it for the world!”

The girl was very proud of her glittering garment, and when Bud was perched upon the donkey’s back and the old woman began trudging along the road to the city, Meg followed after with much lighter steps than before.

Presently the sun rose over the horizon, and its splendid rays shone upon the cloak and made it glisten gorgeously.

“Ah, me!” sighed the little girl, half aloud. “I wish I could be happy again!”

Then her childish heart gave a bound of delight, and she laughed aloud and brushed from her eyes the last tear she was destined to shed for many a day. For, though she spoke thoughtlessly, the magic cloak quickly granted to its first wearer the fulfilment of her wish.

Aunt Rivette turned upon her in surprise.

“What’s the matter with you?” she asked suspiciously, for she had not heard the girl laugh since her father’s death.

“Why, the sun is shining,” answered Meg, laughing again. “And the air is sweet and fresh, and the trees are green and beautiful, and the whole world is very pleasant and delightful.” And then she danced lightly along the dusty road and broke into a verse of a pretty song she had learned at her father’s knee.

The old woman scowled and trudged on again; Bud looked down at his merry sister and grinned from pure sympathy with her high spirits; and the donkey stopped and turned his head to look solemnly at the laughing girl behind him.

“Come along!” cried the laundress, jerking at the bridle; “every one is passing us upon the road, and we must hurry to get home before noon.”

It was true. A good many travelers, some on horseback and some on foot, had passed them by since the sun rose; and although the east gate of the city of Nole was now in sight, they were obliged to take their places in the long line that sought entrance at the gate.

Chapter IV


The five high counselors of the kingdom of Noland were both eager and anxious upon this important morning. Long before sunrise Tollydob, the lord high general, had assembled his army at the east gate of the city; and the soldiers stood in two long lines beside the entrance, looking very impressive in their uniforms. And all the people, noting this unusual display, gathered around at the gate to see what was going to happen.

Of course no one knew what was going to happen; not even the chief counselor nor his brother counselors. They could only obey the law and abide by the results.

Finally the sun arose and the east gate of the city was thrown open. There were a few people waiting outside, and they promptly entered.

“One, two, three, four, five, six!” counted the chief counselor, in a loud voice.

The people were much surprised at hearing this, and began to question one another with perplexed looks. Even the soldiers were mystified.

“Seven, eight, nine!” continued the chief counselor, still counting those who came in.

A breathless hush fell upon the assemblage.

Something very important and mysterious was going on; that was evident. But what?

They could only wait and find out.

“Ten, eleven!” counted Tullydub, and then heaved a deep sigh. For a famous nobleman had just entered the gate, and the chief counselor could not help wishing he had been number forty-seven.

So the counting went on, and the people became more and more interested and excited.

When the number had reached thirty-one a strange thing happened. A loud “boom!” sounded through the stillness, and then another, and another. Some one was tolling the great bell in the palace bell-tower, and people began saying to one another in awed whispers that the old king must be dead.

The five high counselors, filled with furious anger but absolutely helpless, as they could not leave the gate, lifted up their five chubby fists and shook them violently in the direction of the bell-tower.

Poor Jikki, finding himself left alone in the palace, could no longer resist the temptation to toll the bell; and it continued to peal out its dull, solemn tones while the chief counselor stood by the gate and shouted:

“Thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four!”

Only the mystery of this action could have kept the people quiet when they learned from the bell that their old king was dead.

But now they began to guess that the scene at the east gate promised more of interest than anything they might learn at the palace; so they stood very quiet, and Jikki’s disobedience of orders did no great harm to the plans of the five high counselors.

When Tullydub had counted up to forty the excitement redoubled, for every one could see big drops of perspiration standing upon the chief counselor’s brow, and all the other high counselors, who stood just behind him, were trembling violently with nervousness.

A ragged, limping peddler entered the gate.

“Forty-five!” shouted Tullydub.

Then came Aunt Rivette, dragging at the bridle of the donkey.

“Forty-six!” screamed Tullydub.

And now Bud rode through the gate, perched among the bundles on the donkey’s back and looking composedly upon the throng of anxious faces that greeted him.

Forty-seven!” cried the chief counselor; and then in his loudest voice he continued:

“Long live the new King of Noland!”

All the high counselors prostrated themselves in the dusty road before the donkey. The old woman was thrust back in the crowd by a soldier, where she stood staring in amazement, and Margaret, clothed in her beautiful cloak, stepped to the donkey’s side and looked first at her brother and then at the group of periwigged men, who bobbed their heads in the dust before him and shouted:

“Long live the king!”

Then, while the crowd still wondered, the lord high counselor arose and took from a soldier a golden crown set with brilliants, a jeweled scepter, and a robe of ermine. Advancing to Bud, he placed the crown upon the boy’s head and the scepter in his hand, while over his shoulders he threw the ermine robe.

The crown fell over Bud’s ears, but he pushed it back upon his head, so it would stay there; and as the kingly robe spread over all the bundles on the donkey’s back and quite covered them, the boy really presented a very imposing appearance.

The people quickly rose to the spirit of the occasion. What mattered it if the old king was dead, now that a new king was already before them? They broke into a sudden cheer, and, joyously waving their hats and bonnets above their heads, joined eagerly in the cry:

“Long live the King of Noland!”

Aunt Rivette was fairly stupefied. Such a thing was too wonderful to be believed. A man in the crowd snatched the bonnet from the old woman’s head, and said to her brusquely:

“Why don’t you greet the new king? Are you a traitor to your country?”

So she also waved her bonnet and screamed: “Long live the king!” But she hardly knew what she was doing or why she did it.

Meantime the high counselors had risen from their knees and now stood around the donkey.

“May it please your Serene Majesty to condescend to tell us who this young lady is?” asked Tullydub, bowing respectfully.

“That’s my sister Fluff,” said Bud, who was enjoying his new position very much. All the counselors, at this, bowed low to Margaret.

“A horse for the Princess Fluff!” cried the lord high general; and the next moment she was mounted upon a handsome white palfrey, where, with her fluffy golden hair and smiling face and the magnificent cloak flowing from her shoulders, she looked every inch a princess. The people cheered her, too; for it was long since any girl or woman had occupied the palace of the King of Noland, and she was so pretty and sweet that every one loved her immediately.

And now the king’s chariot drove up, with its six prancing steeds, and Bud was lifted from the back of the donkey and placed in the high seat of the chariot.

Again the people shouted joyful greetings; the band struck up a gay march tune, and then the royal procession started for the palace.

First came Tollydob and the officers; then the king’s chariot, surrounded by soldiers; then the four high counselors upon black horses, riding two on each side of Princess Fluff; and, finally, the band of musicians and the remainder of the royal army.

It was an imposing sight, and the people followed after with cheers and rejoicings, while the lord high purse-bearer tossed silver coins from his pouch for any one to catch who could.

A message had been sent to warn Jikki that the new king was coming, so he stopped tolling the death knell, and instead rang out a glorious chime of welcome.

As for old Rivette finding herself and the donkey alike deserted, she once more seized the bridle and led the patient beast to her humble dwelling; and it was just as she reached her door that King Bud of Noland, amid the cheers and shouts of thousands, entered for the first time the royal palace of Nole.

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