Edited by Peter S. Beagle, with short stories by some of your favourite fantasy authors!
The Secret History of Fantasy is an anthology of short stories by some of the best fantasy writers in the business, including Stephen King, Gregory Maguire, Yann Martel, Ursula K. Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, and Beagle himself.
In his introduction, Beagle presents this anthology as a light in the dark, dull void that the fantasy genre has become. He references Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings numerous times, commenting “Despite the decades-long deluge of imitations of his work that I’m always grateful Tolkien didn’t live to see, there are still representatives of an older, eclectic fantasy tradition to be found within reach”.
While I hesitate to disagree with such a venerable expert on the subject, I do have to say that I think there is other good fantasy out there not in this anthology or written by its authors. I found Beagle’s quick dismissal of “sword-and-sorcery fiction” to be rather snobby and elitist, not to mention condescending. And while he doesn’t go so far as to dismiss all quest novels as unimaginative drivel, he does explicitly state his preference for “tales that require neither High Elves, nor Dark Lords, nor endpaper maps, king’s genealogies, and programmed sequels.”
While Tolkien did pave the way for a lot of the fantasy currently in circulation (surely G.R.R. Martin owes him much of his own success) I think it’s a little presumptuous to imply that any fantasy story with elves or maps or genealogies is a LotR rip off. Beagle himself lists many writers who found success in the fantasy genre before Tolkien ever came along. Certainly elves were prevalent in literature before LotR, and it was Chaucer, not Tolkien, who was the pioneer of the quest novel.
However, my issues with the introduction aside, this is an anthology filled with extraordinary talent, absolutely stuffed to the brim with stories any fantasy fan will fall in love with. Beagle has the right of it there: this is indeed an awesome assemblage of fantasy writers, and their stories offer something for every fantasy fan. Just not those who like sword and sorcery fiction.
The Secret History of Fantasy only merits a 3/5 for me. This is partly due to Beagle’s rather condescending introduction, which sort of alienates the fantasy reader before she has even begun to read, but also because, and this is hard to admit, I’ve just never been a fan of short stories. I need a good 400 pages to really get invested in a character. This is probably why Gregory Maguire’s story in this anthology was my favourite. “Scarecrow” tells the story of a character we already know and love from his novel Wicked, simply from a different perspective, and proved to be a delightful visit to a world of which I have fond memories.
But my tastes might not be yours, so for any of you who’ve read this anthology or some of its stories before, what did you think? Were you as offended by Beagle’s introduction as I was? Which story did you like best?