Almost never am I tempted to put a book down before I finish it, even if it is not my favorite book, but I was tempted here. I’m not sure which was more off-putting: the story itself, or the barely coherent language in which the story is written. Either way, this book became at times almost painful to get through, not helped by the fact that it is not the sort of story I would usually choose to read. Why, then, did I choose to read it? That is a very good question.
The Castle of Otranto is a mid-eighteenth century translation of what is suspected to be an ancient Italian folktale. It is also, by many accounts, considered one of the earliest works of speculative fiction, and that is how it came to be added to my reading list. However, to be more specific, it is one of the earliest works of Gothic horror, more a precursor to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein than it is to The Lord of the Rings. That is not a genre that I tend to favor, but the idea of reading an early work of speculative fiction was intriguing to allow me to look past that element.
I’ve always wondered how speculative fiction came to be, at least in its modern sense. Yes, there is an argument to be made that it evolved from mythic storytelling, like the Homeric epics, or what we would today call fairy tales, or legends like The Story of Burnt Njal, but those arguments are to me unsatisfying. To a modern audience tales of Odin and Zeus may seem like fantasy, but when trying to understand the origins or speculative fiction writing we must keep in mind that to the people who created those tales, they were not fiction at all, speculative or otherwise. They believed, perhaps in a way that it is difficult for the modern person to understand, in what happened in those stories, so whatever impulse eventually led someone to sit down and write a story that they knew was outlandish and perhaps impossible would not apply.
Walpole’s piece in question, then, would constitute that something different, something fantastical written with the full knowledge of its falsity. While many paleoanthropologists suspect that humans have long been storytellers, and consider it one of the species’ distinctive traits, those stories would have begun as a practical matter, a way of conveying information about what berries not to eat because they’re poisonous, and how best to escape from a pursuing panther. They evolved into a matter of culture, communicating more and more complex ideas about identity and morality. People would have eventually found that they could tell a story that was convincing but was not true, and this could be how fiction developed. Speculative fiction, though, is different, because in almost all cases it contains at least one element that could not possibly happen in the real, present world, at least as readers would understand it. Whether that speculative element is a magic sword or a faster-than-light engine, it is something that the receiver of the story knows cannot happen in their own world, but is prepared to accept in the story’s world.
Which brings us back to Otranto’s dark and gloomy corridors, wherein all matter of impossible things take place. Yes, it is true that people then believed in many supernatural elements, perhaps more so than today (although we have our own share of arguably supernatural beliefs in the modern time, they just don’t seem “supernatural” to us, because we live with them and accept them as a part of our reality), but not in the way reflected in Walpole’s story. How, then, did it come to be, and why do people find it interesting? Why do people today read, write, watch, and play stories full of fantastical elements that they know could never come to pass and perhaps have minimal bearing on the real world? We can come up with all kinds of reasons – exploration of the human condition, emotionally hacking the brain, the power of narrative – but no matter how true those ideas might be, they do not answer the origin question, how it started, how it came to be an accepted, common, and desirable part of human culture around the world.
It’s a topic that I should perhaps explore more thoroughly and coherently in its own Tuesday post, but The Castle of Otranto did not get me any closer to the answers I sought. More than the story, which was decidedly “meh,” I found the language very off-putting. Maybe it was a problem of the particular version I was reading, or maybe language has really changed that much in three hundred years (although I have not had nearly this kind of difficulty in deciphering other works of literature from similar or even earlier periods), but it was often difficult even to understand a given sentence, much less the events of the story as a whole. So while the reason I picked up this book in the first place is still valid, I cannot recommend that you read The Castle of Otranto.