Fantasy scholarship concentrates so much on works in the English language you’d think that William Morris and Lord Dunsany were the only ones writing this sort of thing in the 19th century, and everything that came later sprouted from English influence. You’d also be wrong. Independent fantasy literary traditions have developed outside of the English-speaking world with little in the way of influence from the west; or, if so, drawing on local literature to give them a unique flair. We’re missing out on a great deal of it because, while English fantasy novels often get translated into many languages, fantasy novels in other languages aren’t often translated into English.
My own limited experience lies in the Polish fantastic tradition. The influence of Slavic myth and folklore played a huge part in earlier Polish vernacular works. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries found new twists on the Gothic that often focused on Slavic ideas of monstrosity, Jan Potocki’s The Saragossa Manuscript (1815) the most famous among them. England might have Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), but Poland had Wladyslaw Reymont’s Wampir (1911). Of course, the supernatural seemed close to breaking down walls into reality in Eastern Europe—the mashing together of Polish national identity and the Catholic Church also played beside Sarmatism—a movement that included, in part, a hankering for a mythic past. Whilst Shakespeare and Edmund Spencer had already tamed fairies in England by the sixteenth century, the more sinister demonic demeanour of half-remembered Slavic gods and supernatural beings still hung heavy over Eastern Europe well into the nineteenth.
From then onwards, the fantastic was something “serious” Polish writers dabbled in instead of snorting at. The Dedalus Book of Polish Fantasy is one of the few works in English available displaying the wide range of Polish writing from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that touched on the supernatural. Stefan Grabinski continued the half-mad variety of Slavic Gothic. While Lovecraft and western horror writers focused on ancient horrors from beyond, Grabinski saw terror in modernity: trains feature prominently and instruments of insanity in his work, and other marks of a swiftly changing world. That isn’t to say Grabinski’s work wasn’t also rooted in the past—it was, as various tales featuring shape-changers and ghosts signify. Unlike Lovecraft, sexuality often drips from Grabinski’s tales, never as a gratuitous attempt at titillating the audience in some throwaway scene but as the heart of stories where desire leads to self-destruction. The only time I have actually felt uncomfortable at a horror story was when I read Grabinski; his fabulous “weird tales” put the actual stories grouped under that term to shame. They strike me close to home, but their obvious Slavic bent seems to seal them from a wider audience. Of yet, only twelve of Grabinski’s stories have been translated into English over eighty years after his death (collected in the volume The Dark Domain). Ah, well.
Bereft of Morris or Dunsany, Polish fantasy still picked up steam. It didn’t need a breakout like The Lord of the Rings to continue on its own. For a brief veer into science fiction, I note that Stanislaw Lem hated most of the science fiction coming out of the west, the kind championing scientific positivism as found in Amazing Stories or Astounding Science Fiction. His own works drew more on previous Polish fantastic literature than on Asimov, and had a very deep focus on character and society. He inspired the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin and other New Wave writers to try and make something more weighty out of science fiction, but Lem wasn’t really doing much new for Polish fantastyka. Writers were already taking speculative fiction with due gravity for long beforehand, and Lem even went on to pen some pure fantasy tales of his own.
The above is only the beginnings of the kind of stuff going on in imaginative literature in Poland. Most Polish fantastyka hasn’t made it into print in the English-speaking world. Even more modern works that meld western and Slavic influences, such as Sapkowski’s Witcher series, have mostly eluded translation or else received poor treatment from English publishers. Poland isn’t a large country. There’s a similar tradition in Russia that’s mostly gone ignored by English-speaking scholars, and, I’m sure, a great many other countries have completely escaped notice. I know it’s unfair (how many languages is scholar supposed to learn?), but I often wish English fantasy scholars weren’t quite so Anglo centric, and discussions of fantasy even less so: there’s a whole realm of the stuff out there that just never gets considered.