Hungarian Rhapsodies: A Survey of the Alternate Histories of an Isolated Literary Corpus

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

On the Edge: The Fantastic in Hungarian Literature and Culture

Hungarian Rhapsodies: A Survey of the Alternate Histories of an Isolated Literary Corpus

Ádám Gerencsér


It is oft repeated that humankind is growing into a global village, and that seems certainly true for speculative fiction. We may pick up translated works from regions otherwise unfamiliar to us, but easily disregard their exotic origin, for the tropes of science fiction and fantasy therein will likely be of universal appeal. Science fiction, in particular, tends to be cosmopolitan in outlook and converge around contemporary or future-oriented concerns that are instantly recognizable to readers across the world. But what if a sub-genre were to buck this trend towards homogenisation and prove to be a wellspring of narrative diversity? Which brings us to the central premise of uchronia: “what if.” Alternat(iv)e history, as it is better known, remains much more closely tied to national psyche and historical memory, thus appealing to familiarity with a local body of knowledge within an ethno-cultural setting which the author presumably shares with the reader. Within this context, Hungarian alternate history provides an interesting case study into the speculative preoccupations of a relatively isolated cultural topography. Examining the uchronia dreamt up by practitioners of a linguistically insular body of literature may help to shed fresh light on paths less frequently trodden in the dominant English mainstream of the sub-genre.

Alternate History à la hongroise?

Hungarian attempts to define the nation’s identity in terms other than language made the search for its place in history a recurring theme in all literary genres. The second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are generally considered a golden age of Hungarian narrative literature, a period that gave rise to several masterworks of early SF and future history (e.g., by Frigyes Karinthy and Mór Jókai, respectively). Apart from a few tentative examples in short prose form, however, works of genuine alternate history did not emerge until the second half of the twentieth century. The sub-genre developed throughout the 1900s against a backdrop of a cultivated sense of insularity within the Magyar microcosm surrounded by unrelated languages and hostile political entities, and subsequently as part of speculative literature being one of the few available outlets of counter-culture seeking to skirt the censorship prevalent in Soviet-occupied Hungary. This led to uchronia arising as a form of patriotic literary introspection, enticing readers with visions of how history could (or ‘should’) have turned out for the better.

While the uchronic sub-genre itself is rarely the subject of academic discourse, the very existence of a Hungarian ethnocultural island in a sea of Indo-Europeans is at times perceived to be akin to the setting of an alternate history scenario. As historian Ferenc Glatz puts it in István Szakály’s 2001 documentary 1000 évről 100 percben [Across 1000 Years In 100 Minutes], Hungary lost every war over the past three centuries and yet it still exists: What is that if not an unlikely success story?

Historiography (the writing of history) is, among other things, also about claiming ownership over the historical narrative, particularly in societies where one’s interpretation of the past actively informs their political allegiances. Alternate history, then, certainly in a Hungarian context, is a means of challenging ‘mainstream’ (commonly accepted) historical narratives by imagining that familiar turning points could have had radically different outcomes or by committing cultural sacrilege through the injection of satirical melodrama into previously hallowed historiographic subjects. As János M. Rainer puts it in his essay Mi lehetett volna, ha…? [What could have been, if…?], the resilience of “communicative memory” is a reason for the ongoing popularity of alternate histories: history remains “the terrain onto which political forces seek to map their identities,” and use the debates of the present day to “offer historical closure for their voters in a manner they consider most beneficial to their respective cause” (Cserna-Szabó, 2016, 228). [1] Alternate history, in this sense, is therefore a form of applied hindsight, often tinted with a blend of melancholia and ideology.

The Dawn of Alternate Hungarys

The sub-genre itself may be further subdivided by themes, but also by the temporal mechanisms whereby the author introduces the alteration. Therefore, before addressing the historical themes themselves, it is interesting to note that according to the narrative taxonomy, almost all Hungarian alternate histories fall into either of the two categories of pure uchronia or time-travel alteration. [2] In the former, a past event unfolds differently from the reader’s historical continuum, but for the purposes of the fictional universe and its inhabitants, their timeline is the only real one (as opposed to multiverse fiction). In the latter, our consensus reality may be the baseline, but a significant change is introduced by means of time travel, and the story explores the branching paths thus established.

The earliest example in Hungarian literature that we can consider uchronia intimates no interference by time travellers, but features another form of alternate science: alchemy. Két Hajó [The Two Ships] by Frigyes Karinthy, published in 1915, describes the point of departure as follows: in 1492, Columbus agrees to a wager with the mystic Synesius, and instead of Christian missionaries, he takes alchemists on his voyage to the New World. In this proto-uchronia, however, while the voyage itself is narrated, the consequences are merely hinted at in passing. Incidentally, this early example was also odd in its cosmopolitan focus—with the tragic consequences of World War I and Hungary’s subsequent territorial division and economic impoverishment, the country’s writers soon turned inwards to past glories and missed opportunities closer to home. Thereafter, the main themes covered by the emerging corpus of Hungarian uchronia ranged from the arcana of medieval and religious history (including the Reformation and Islamic Conquest), to alternate outcomes of the 1848 Spring of Nations, the World Wars, and the Cold War.

During this process of accumulation, the Hungarian alternate history sub-genre accomplished its arguably most notable ‘achievement’: it brought forth the world’s earliest known example of a novel based on the premise of an Axis victory in World War II, which can be properly considered alternate history. [3] László Gáspár’s Mi, I. Adolf [We, Adolf the First] is undeservedly obscure. The novel fits into a long tradition whereby the amount of attention received by a work often stands in no direct relation to its literary merit. Previously unreviewed by Western philology, Éric B. Henriet estimated in 2004 that this was likely the earliest ‘Hitler wins’ story (205), though he was unable to quote it or provide a full reference. The novel is remarkable not only because of its genre pioneer status, but also for its stylistic choices. If one were pressed to draw parallels, Olaf Stapledon’s seminal masterpiece Starmaker (1937) would come to mind, but with a healthy dose of satire reminiscent of Karel Čapek’s Válka s Mloky [War with the Newts] (1936). Dialogues are secondary, and where they appear, take the form of transcripts of official proceedings, quotes attributed to famous personalities, or long, descriptive exposés. Thus, world-building (or, in this case, constructing the intricate political, geostrategic and technological details of this alternate timeline) takes centre stage. The novel itself follows the course of a much longer and even more devastating World War II which carries on with varying intensity (including an intermittent period of ‘Cold War,’ another first use of a trope which has since become commonplace in alternate history, c.f. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle) until March 1965, culminating in a thermonuclear exchange which destroys Berlin and indirectly leads to Adolf Hitler’s death. [4]

The original edition was published in November 1945, under forbiddingly challenging circumstances amidst the ruins of the Hungarian capital. Given the noticeable number of spelling mistakes (corrected in later print runs) and the author’s apparent familiarity with the effects of urban warfare (the 100-day Soviet siege of Budapest in the winter of 1944), and the atomic bombs, it is very likely that the manuscript was completed in the summer and autumn of 1945, and rushed to press as soon as printing capacity was available. It remains a mystery whether the author (or his publisher) was aware of the truly pioneering nature of his work.

The Threefold Path of Hungarian Uchronia

In the post-war decades, which we might call the Modern Era of Hungarian publishing, with large, state-owned (or state-sanctioned) printing houses and popular, annual book fairs providing a steady stream of new titles, alternate histories start to appear on a more regular basis. These take the form of both novels and short stories, the latter particularly in journals such as Galaktika, the leading Hungarian speculative magazine at the time. [5] Allowing for a measure of abstraction, uchronia of the Modern Era tend to follow one of the following three common narrative approaches:

‘Serious’ alternate history

At the ‘academic’ end of alternate history that still falls within the realm of fiction, works in this category explore the consequences of major historical departure points, not for satirical nor purely narrative reasons, but as an earnest thought experiment, with story or plot development, if any, being purely secondary. The most notable Hungarian-language example of ‘serious’ alternate history in epistolary form was a fictional essay written around the 1960s—in prison. Hungarian politician and academic István Bibó was held by the Socialist regime in the Vác penitentiary for political crimes, particularly his role in the 1956 Uprising. The memorandum in question, which was only published posthumously in 1990 after the abolition of Soviet censorship, purports to summarize a debate between the Canon of Vác and a bishop set in an alternate timeline wherein the Roman Catholic church managed to reconcile its internal differences in the sixteenth century and thus avoided the schism of the Reformation.

In a couple of brief pages, the essay then scales a dizzying landscape of historical, philosophical, and social ideas that shape a Central Europe radically different from (and, certainly from the author’s perspective, more liveable than) the reality of the 1960s. Brimming with delicious irony and duplicitous references (what today one would call ‘Easter eggs’), from the Communist Manifesto turning into a Papal Encyclical to a Hungarian constitutional monarchy ruled by a branch of the Polish Catholic dynasty, Bibó’s work even provides a sort of meta-definition of uchronia itself, before concluding with a (theologically) devastating twist.

National self-irony

Perhaps the most prevalent form by volume of publications, satirical alternative history attempts to draw attention to the vicissitudes of past or present circumstances while ‘taking the edge off’ through enveloping its message in an oft melancholy, yet ultimately ironic tone. This can often be seen as the least confrontational manner in which to engage critically with events in the more recent past, which may be inextricably linked to personal tragedies in the families of many readers. [6] A prime example of this gently ironic approach is Csaba Gábor Trenka’s Egyenlítői Magyar Afrika [Hungarian Equatorial Africa] published in 1988. Narrated in the form of a retrospective diary, the author recounts the narrator’s adolescence and adult career as a lowly government official raised and employed in a forlorn Central African colony allocated to Hungary by a German Reich victorious in World War II. Hungary, a landlocked state with little previous naval or colonial experience, is (at times comically) exposed as a half-hearted administrator of an overseas territory larger than its home provinces. Readers at the time were unlikely to miss the irony pervading the novel, as a thinly veiled criticism of the ostensibly benevolent, yet blatantly incompetent and counterproductive Socialist regime forced onto Hungary by its Soviet occupiers throughout the author’s life up to the publication of his novel.

Colonial literature is almost entirely absent in the Hungarian literary corpus, yet there is little evidence of the author ‘borrowing’ from Western European models. Rather, the distinct self-irony of Eastern European dissident voices from the era of the Iron Curtain is transplanted into an exotic, yet familiar environment, where one-party rule allocates favours and scarce resources on the basis of party loyalty as well as social and ethnic classes. It is interesting to note that the same author explores another fairly unusual historical scenario in a much more recent novel: Place Rimbaud (2013) embeds Hungary in a Europe where France is both politically and culturally dominant after its victory in the Napoleonic Wars. On account of its recourse to magic and somewhat implausible ‘deus ex machina’ elements, one could arguably include the novel with the earliest point of departure in this category as well: Ezüst félhold blues [Silver Crescent Blues] (1990) by András Gáspár (no relation to László Gáspár). In the first century BC, tectonic plate movements open up a permanent body of water between Africa and the Middle East. With the direct land connection between Egypt and the Holy Land thus removed, the direction of the main thrust of Islam’s early expansion takes a different direction and Muslim conquest arrives earlier in Eastern Europe than in our timeline. Long centuries of occupation and the successful assimilation of the Balkans lead to twentieth-century Hungary being a firmly integrated part of the Islamic world, with Buda-Pest as its Western-most outpost.

At the other end of the spectrum, stories and novels with the most recent point of departure are those where the Socialist regime never falls—and these inevitably tend to include ironic elements. One such endeavour at novel length is Zoltán László’s Hiperballada [Hyper Ballad] first published in 1998, and in reworked forms in 2005 and 2011, where the historical timeline follows real-world events until the 1960s, but thereafter imagines a Soviet Union which undertakes the necessary reforms to ensure its lead in the technological space race. Therefore, its satellites, such as the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, remain in power well into the twenty-first century.

Consolation literature

Although rarely played ‘straight,’ a third strand of uchronia attempts to offer comfort and compensation, at least in imaginary form, for perceived historical slights or calamities. Such stories, due to their tendency to entice and titillate readers with particularly strong patriotic leanings, often choose to eschew abstractions and opt for a relatively uncomplicated style with a straight-forward narrative. Among such works, the best-selling novel is Bence Pintér and Máté Pintér’s A szivarhajó utolsó útja [The Airship’s Last Journey] (2012). The novel conjures up a Golden Age of political prowess and economic might following Hungary’s counterfactual victory in its War of Independence (1848–49) to leave the Austrian Empire. The events of the book are set two generations later, in the “Danube Confederation,” a federal republic founded by Lajos Kossuth (the ill-fated leader of Hungary’s nineteenth-century revolution). The story itself employs the tropes of conventional spy thrillers, here centred around the pursuit of secret military plans for building a fleet of armed airships.

Aimed at a younger readership, the adventurous plot is nonetheless punctuated with fictional newspaper reports and quotes from in-universe history books to build an alternate geopolitical landscape consistently upbeat about Hungary’s prospects in this ‘better timeline.’ A map included in the print edition shows the territory of the Confederation stretching from Bavaria to the Black Sea, and one of the quotes in the book describes the state as having been richly endowed with resources and one of the fastest developing economies in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, strong enough to embark on an attempt to colonise Egypt. These clearly address many of the ‘pain-points’ of Hungarians who tend to be dissatisfied with the historical achievements of the country when compared to its Western European cousins.

Latest Development: Alternate History Moves into the Mainstream

In recent years, the most significant development in the sub-genre’s Hungarian field is the public success and critical acclaim garnered by two alternate history anthologies which had finally put this arcane creative niche firmly on the literary map. The first of the two was published in 2016 by Cser Kiadó under the title A Másik Forradalom – Alternatív Ötvenhat [The Other Revolution – Alternative ’56]. Its appearance was timed to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the 1956 Uprising against the socialist dictatorship imposed by the Soviet occupation of Hungary after World War II. While the anthology included a wide range of approaches and angles, and about half the stories therein would rather fall in the categories of secret histories, period parodies, magical realism, and time-travel tales, the themed volume nonetheless contained noteworthy contributions to the alternate history genre.

For instance, Tibor Bödőcs’s pastiche with the rather complex title of Márai Sándor: Napló – részletek – (Részlet) [Sándor Márai: Diary Excerpts – An excerpt], falls into the epistolary sub-genre. The famous emigré author Márai exercises his biting social critique not in self-imposed Italian and American exile, but in a Hungary ‘liberated’ by the Western Allies and inundated with the vicissitudes of Capitalist consumerism. In Foxtrott, György Dragomán imagines the victory of the 1956 Uprising ensured by the simultaneous rising of ‘forest brothers’ and criminal gangs hiding out in the Carpathian Mountains, whose insurrection hinders the counter-attack of the Soviet war machine. In a particularly interesting piece, Forradalmi Naptár [Revolutionary Calendar], Viktor Horváth offers a chronological account, broken down by calendar days, of the 1956 Uprising. While the revolution is ultimately defeated, it comes about through the Red Army mobilizing indentured people of colour against the indigenous Magyar population, thus the reader eventually pieces together that a major point of historical alteration must have occurred much earlier, since Hungarian society is portrayed as being stratified along class distinctions and racial lines reminiscent of nineteenth-century America—thus in effect constituting a work of demographic uchronia.

The publishing house timed its second anthology for the centenary of the Treaty of Trianon, which led to the loss of up to two-thirds of Hungary’s territory and population, and became the cornerstone of Hungarian historical grievances for a century. Including historical studies and uchronic fiction from the crème of Hungarian speculative authors, the 2020 anthology sets the tone with its title Nézzünk bizakodva a múltba! [Let Us Hope For A Better Past!]. The volume’s stories range from straight-forward consolation literature to metaphysically challenging pieces, like Sándor Szélesi’s A volt-kávéfolt [The Ex-coffee Stain], which uses the negotiation of the post-war order as the backdrop of its extrapolation of higher forces taking the reins of human history.

In Expanzió [Expansion] by László Csabai, the insurgents who declare a “Hungarian People’s Republic” in 1919 receive military support from Lenin’s nascent Soviet Union, which intervenes in the Carpathian basin despite still fighting its own civil war in Russia. The implied result hinted at in the story is an enduring radical socialist state in Central-Eastern Europe allied to the USSR, decades before the start of the Cold War in real history. By stark contrast, in Réka Mán-Várhegyi’s Szívek közönye [The Indifference of Hearts], the aging members of a Hungarian urban resistance group reluctantly continue a low-intensity insurrection against the governments of neighbouring countries amongst whom the entirety of Hungary’s territory was divided post-World War I. Yet positive alterations are far from absent. Szani tévedése [Szani’s Mistake] by László Imre Horváth is akin to uchronia wrapped within another ambiguous alternate history scenario, wherein Miklós Radnóti (a prominent poet murdered by National Socialists in the closing months of World War II) becomes prime minister and the persecution of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust haunts only the dreams of the eponymous character. Both levity as well as consolation are offered by III. Péter király szövegírója [King Peter III’s Speech Writer] by Zsolt Kácsor, one of the highlights of the anthology. The epistolary piece, heavily laden with historical irony, imagines Péter Eszterházy (a postmodern author of aristocratic lineage) as king of Hungary in the 1970s. The tale itself takes the form of the royal speech writer’s resignation letter, setting out the absurdity of King Péter’s intention to publish a piece of alternate history that would detail the timeline as it came to pass in reality, complete with the abolition of the monarchy and the country’s long Soviet occupation.

By gathering some of Hungary’s best-selling authors, the above two volumes have almost single-handedly propelled the alternate history genre into the limelight. The establishment of uchronic writing within the literary mainstream was confirmed by the prominent reception and even anticipation of the second anthology by the Hungarian literary press, from Élet és Irodalom to Magyar Hang, from Népszava to Magyar Narancs. [7] In this context, it is worth noting that ancillary sub-genres such as secret histories are thriving, too, a prime practitioner of which is Sándor Szélesi, one of the most widely read contemporary Hungarian SF authors. In his explicitly satirical 2016 novel co-authored with László Erdős, Sztálin aki egyszer megmentette a világot [Stalin Who Once Saved The World], the infamous Soviet leader survives into the 1980s and shapes the history of the Cold War from behind the scenes. Thus, the novel navigates the slipstream between alternate history proper and secret history, with the overt intention to keep the reader guessing which of the sprawling list of personae are historical and which are imaginary, along with the cultural references to places, events, even signature dishes of a restaurant most Hungarian readers would be familiar with (the Gundel in Budapest).

To Be Continued . . .

As we have seen, alternate history appears to meet different needs or demands in a relatively small, isolated literary corpus, as compared to large languages that have at some point played a dominant role on the world stage. In Hungarian literature, the uchronic niche serves a threefold purpose: (a) as a means for seriously exploring what might have been; (b) as a vehicle for satirical or melancholy introspection, and (c) as a source of bitter-sweet consolation. Surveys of the alternate histories of other rarely treated literary corpora might reveal similar tendencies, which are however tempered by different national circumstances. This is the case for Romania, for instance, whose territorial gains in the twentieth century’s two great wars left its literature with different issues to deal with as compared to Hungary’s experience of defeat and crippling losses of land, population and status. [8] Of similar interest would be cross-referencing the alternate histories of ‘dominant’ versus ‘isolated’ corpora with uchronia focussing on nations and states that aren’t merely diminished in importance, but have ceased to exist altogether as geopolitical entities, e.g., Byzantine or Native American alternate histories. Perhaps in an alternate timeline, this essay would have surveyed the rich tomes of Constantinople’s Eastern Roman National Library, searching for imaginary tales about a long-forgotten Finno-Ugric people who had once inhabited the Carpathian basin.

As my essay above demonstrates, however, these various approaches would arguably all lead to a rather counterintuitive conclusion. Uchronia, in their multitude of insular voices, often do not speak to a common cosmopolitan audience, but rather address the retrospective concerns and regrets of specific communities. Thus, it is precisely by virtue of its localised focus, and limited accessibility to those unfamiliar with the given cultural context, that the alternate history sub-genre makes a unique contribution to the diversity of speculative fiction.


[1] All translations from Hungarian works are my own.

[2] See Karen Hellekson’s taxonomy: (1) “the nexus story, which includes time-travel-timepolicing stories and battle stories”; (2) “the true alternate, which may include alternate histories that posit different physical laws”; and (3) “the parallel worlds story.” (2001, 5) in the Kádár era and its relation to it in SF, see Panka 342–48.

[3] This contrasts with speculative or future history, i.e., works about a theoretically possible National Socialist victory written while the war was still ongoing.

[4] For a detailed plot synopsis and a confirmation of Henriet’s hypothesis as to Gáspár’s being the earliest such known uchronic work, see my essay on Hungarian alternate history in Revista Hélice, vol. III, issue 6.

[5] Note, meanwhile, that to this day Hungarian cinema remains almost entirely untouched by alternate historyother is about the show having nothing to do with Lem’s work (no. 19, 4).

[6] Call to mind, for instance, the mass sexual violence and arbitrary deportation prevalent during the breakdown of society that ensued in the wake of Hungary’s Soviet invasion, which traumatized wide swathes of the population and would have informed readers’ attitudes during the following decades.

[7] For some of these reviews available online (in Hungarian), see:–alternativ-trianon

[8] For an overview of comparative developments in Romanian SF, see Rodríguez, “A Note on Romanian Science Fiction Literature from Past to Present”, in: Sci Phi Journal, 2019/3.


Bibó, István. Ha a zsinati mozgalom a 15. században győzőtt volna… Bibó István címzetes váci kanonok beszélgetései apósával, Ravazs László bíboros érsekkel a római katolikus egyház újkori történetéről, különös tekintettel a lutheránus és kálvinista kongregációkra. Egyház-, kultúr- és politikatörténeti uchrónia [If the conciliar movement had succeeded in the 15th century… Conversations of titular Canon of Vác, István Bibó, with his father-in-law, cardinal archbishop László Ravasz, on the modern history of the Roman Catholic Church, with special reference to the Lutheran and Calvinist holy orders. A ‘uchronia’ of church, cultural and political history] in: pp. 265-82. Bibó, István. Válogatott tanulmányok [Selected Studies], vol. 4. Budapest, Magvető, 1990. Also available online at:

Čapek, Karel. Válka s Mloky [War with the Newts]. Prague, Borový, 1936.

Cserna-Szabó, András & Renátó Fehér (eds.). Nézzünk bizakodva a múltba! [Let Us Hope For A Better Past!]. Budapest, Cser Kiadó, 2020.

Cserna-Szabó, András & Balázs Szálinger (eds.). A Másik Forradalom – Alternatív Ötvenhat [The Other Revolution – Alternative ‘56]. Budapest, Cser Kiadó, 2016.

Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle. New York, Putnam, 1962.

Gáspár, András. Ezüst félhold blues [Silver Crescent Blues]. Budapest, Zrínyi Nyomda, 1990.

Gáspár, László. Mi, I. Adolf [We, Adolf the First]. Budapest, Magyar Téka, 1945.

Gerencsér, Ádám. The first ‘Third Reich Triumphant’: The world’s earliest Hitler-wins scenario and other alternate histories in Hungarian literature. A complete survey from 1915 to 2015. pp. 13-30, Revista Hélice, vol. III, issue 6, 2016.

Hellekson, Karen. The Alternative History – Refiguring Historical Time. Kent (Ohio), Kent State University Press, 2001.

Henriet, Éric B. L’histoire revisitée – Panorama de l’uchronie sous toutes ses formes, [History revisited – A panorama of uchronia in all its forms]. Amiens, Encrage, 2004.

Karinthy, Frigyes. A két hajó [The Two Ships]. 1915. Translated by Ádám Gerencsér in: pp. 72-80, Revista Hélice, vol. II, issue 3, 2014.

László, Zoltán. Hiperballada [Hyperballad]. Budapest, Inomi, 1998/2005/2011.

Pintér, Bence & Máté Pintér. A szivarhajó utolsó útja [The Airship’s Last Journey]. Budapest, Agave, 2012.

Rainer, János M. “Mi lehetett volna, ha…?” [What could have been, if…?]. A Másik Forradalom – Alternatív Ötvenhat [The Other Revolution – Alternative ‘56], edited by András Cserna-Szabó & Balázs Szálinger, Budapest, Cser Kiadó, 2016.

Rodríguez, Mariano Martín. “A Note on Romanian Science Fiction Literature from Past to Present”. Sci Phi Journal, 2019/3,

Stapledon, Olaf. Starmaker. London, Methuen & Co., 1937.

Szakály, István (dir.). 1000 évről 100 percben [Across 1000 Years In 100 Minutes]. Budapest, Mokép, 2001.

Szélesi, Sándor & László Erdős, Sztálin aki egyszer megmentette a világot [Stalin Who Once Saved The World]. Budapest, SZS Kiadó, 2016.

Trenka, Csaba Gábor. Egyenlítői Magyar Afrika [Hungarian Equatorial Africa]. Budapest, Agave, 1988/1991.

—. Place Rimbaud. Budapest, Syllabux, 2013.

Ádám Gerencsér is co-editor of the Hugo Award-nominated Sci Phi Journal, a speculative fiction quarterly dedicated to the intersection of SFF and philosophy. In 2016, he published the first comprehensive survey of the Hungarian alternate history genre. In his official life, he roams the planet to uphold the European Union’s utopian policy ideals in international relations. He lives with his wife and children in Brussels, Belgium.

The Representation of Otherness in Contemporary Hungarian Urban Fantasy

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 2

On the Edge: The Fantastic in Hungarian Literature and Culture

The Representation of Otherness in Contemporary Hungarian Urban Fantasy

Eva Vancsó

After the regime change (1989), urban spaces gained ground in genre literature, and the city became a common imaginary environment mainly in post-apocalyptic/dystopian science fiction novels, such as in Kiálts Farkast (Cry Wolf, [1990]) by András Gáspár, Hiperballada (Hyperballad [2005]) by László Zoltán, Szintetikus álom (Synthetic Dream [2009]) by Tamás Csepregi, Feljövök érted a város alól (I am coming up to get you from under the city [2015]) by Zoltán Pék, and Acélszentek (Steel Saints [2016]) by Kristóf Szöllösy.  It should be noted here that none of the novels mentioned in my article is available in English; the titles, names, and quotations are my translations.

The field grew at an explosive rate from the early nineties onwards, but urban fantasy did not become widely read—or written. Among the earliest Hungarian examples of the genre are two anthologies, A Cetkoponyás ház (The House of the Whale Skull, edited by Lajos Hüse, Cherubion Könyvkiadó [2001]) and Erioni Regék (Tales of Erion, edited by András Gáspár, Valhalla Páholy [1998]). Those short stories are set in imaginary cities created initially for role-playing games (Hegedüs 94). The re-imagination of Budapest (or any other Hungarian city) in urban fantasy remained absent until Egyszervolt by Zoltán László (Onceupon [2013]) was published. In this traditional intrusive fantasy, inspired by Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, the protagonist becomes aware of a secret Budapest that lies under the surface and starts exploring this secondary world. More recently, Egyszervolt was followed by less traditional urban fantasy works, such as Pinky by László Sepsi (2016), where the nameless city, which might as well be Budapest or New York, has its hidden secrets and streets populated by elves, werewolves, or vampires. Csudapest (Wonderpest [2020]) by Fanni Sütő can also be considered as urban fantasy, consisting of short stories, blog entries, and poems with one common feature: they all describe Budapest as simultaneously familiar and magical.  

In my essay, I analyze two award-winning contemporary Hungarian urban fantasy novels, Irha és bőr (Fur and Skin) by Anita Moskát and Az ellopott troll (The Stolen Troll) by Sándor Szélesi, which were both published in 2019. The stories unfold in an alternative Budapest where non-humans live (or at least try to live) together with the humans, and my examination focuses on the intersection of the urban and fantasy milieus, which lends itself quite well to explore the problem of otherness through certain genre conventions and clichés. 

The Genre Tradition 

Fur and Skin talks about the new ‘creation’ when animals begin to turn into humans all around the world. The animals pupate, initiating a transition in which human limbs and organs replace the animal parts. When the transformation does not end in death, it results in hybrid creatures. Moskát’s novel revolves around these creatures’ fight for social and political acceptance. The Stolen Troll concerns a detective, Bercel Tóth, who is the only human at the Department of Magical Creatures at the Budapest Police Headquarters. The troll living at the foot of Margit Bridge goes missing—probably kidnapped—and through Bercel’s investigation the novel offers an insight into the daily life of the unusual world in which magical creatures make up about 20 percent of the city’s population. 

Both novels play extensively with the tradition of urban fantasy, and I highlight the generic features that contribute to exploring otherness. According to Irvine, “the element most common to all urban fantasy is a city where magical or supernatural events occur” (200). Kenneth Zahorski and Robert Boyer give a more restrictive definition of urban fantasy: a fantastical narrative that is “set in the conventional here and now” (56). Fur and Skin and The Stolen Troll are both placed in a contemporary urban environment, more specifically, in an existing city that has become magical because of its inhabitants. I use the term ‘magic’ or ‘magical’ in a broad sense to describe very different worlds, creatures, and phenomena that expand the limits of urban fantasy. 

In Fur and Skin, the magical or supernatural event is a metamorphosis of animals into humans without rational reason or explanation, so it can be considered magic. The transition process is incomplete in most of the cases, with animal parts remaining, the novel thus introduces creatures that are neither animal anymore nor fully human. Their very existence is supernatural/magical, or unnatural, and humans believe that the sudden appearance of the creatures challenges the natural and divine order. The Stolen Troll, in contrast, describes a fictional world in which the magical creatures of Hungarian folklore are integrated into our contemporary world and society. The text introduces both fictional, and widely (dragons, witches, and sorcerers) or lesser known (fairies, dwarfs) characters from Hungarian mythology whose names and attributes derive from the folktales. Moreover, the novel also builds on the narrative structures of the folktales, for example featuring an old king with three daughters or a magic whistle to call for help. These different folkloric elements pervade the quotidien and seem natural to both humans and magical creatures.

In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn grouped fantasy texts into four categories: portal-quest, intrusion, immersive and liminal fantasies. According to her taxonomy, both The Stolen Troll and Fur and Skin belong to the category of immersive fantasy, in which the characters (to varying degrees but) “take for granted the fantastic elements with which they are surrounded; they must exist as integrated with the magical (or fantastic) even if they themselves are not magical” (20). At the same time, the reader doesn’t have to discover this primary magical world because it is already familiar, the urban areas are identical to Budapest and Kistarcsa. Therefore, the novels continuously challenge our understanding of normal and not-normal, familiar and unfamiliar, or one could say, the other and the “not-other.” In addition, the sense of intrusion is present in both novels due to the urban fantasy setting, with the dragons flying over the famous bridges on the Danube or deerpeople running down the existing streets of Kistarcsa. In that case, real and fantastic do not collide within the text, but in the readers’ minds. This form of intrusion generates threats or problems that are not resolved in the text in a certain way but require the readers’ efforts to consider different possibilities, and to avoid (over)simplification.  

Otherness: Segregation or Integration 

The creatures of Fur and Skin are built on the literary tradition of the chimeras, being half-human like us, yet still animals. The denomination used in the novel, “fajzat,” reflects on the creatures’ liminal position, being a word used here in a new context to express that they are a non-human species, at the same time indicating disdain. Terms and names are central to the narrative as a form of speciesism, and the creatures fight for the name chimera, considering that it “Nincs negatív felhangja, nyoma sincs a gúnynak. Egzotikus, ősi, rejtélyes” [“It has no negative overtones, and there is no sign of mockery. Exotic, ancient, mysterious”] (Moskát 91). Interestingly, humans are called “sapiens” by the chimeras, suggesting the same disdain in reverse. 

By their nature, the chimeras of Fur and Skin embody the other and humans feel threatened: “A fajzatokhoz első asszociációként az összes felmérés szerint a félelem kötődött” [“According to all surveys, in connection with the creatures, the first association is fear”] (37). Chimeras are fearsome because they disrupt the duality of humans and animals; their birth is unnatural, as a character points out: “Az emberek születnek, van anyjuk, van apjuk. A fajzatok, mi, állatokból keletkezünk” [“People are born, they have a father and a mother, the creatures, we, come into being from an animal”] (65). Secondly, the transition is inexplicable and unpredictable; it can happen to a deer in the forest or to the family’s beloved pet. Moreover, the number of chimeras seems to grow, raising philosophical-theological questions about humanness and causing a series of socio-political problems. 

Chimeras call into question what people perceive to be human, yet Fur and Skin does not want to answer this—though the text inevitably proposes a solution. In the novel, human and animal are not mutually exclusive categories, their relationship is rather an axis that has two ends, the animal and the human. The chimeras are creatures in between; some are closer to humans, like one of the three protagonists, August, who is practically perceived to be human. Pilar, the badger-girl, and Kirill, the deer-man, possess more animal traits, and many of the chimeras are further to human on the above-mentioned axis. 

The duality is mirrored in the chimeras’ position in society and the humans’ attitude towards them. In the Hungary of the novel, chimeras, in a certain sense, are perceived as humans, more precisely disabled humans, as their remaining animal body parts are considered a disability that makes many creatures still unable to do ordinary human things, such as holding a mug, buttoning buttons, or tying up shoelaces. Their disabilities need to be remedied, therefore antlers and horns, for example, are muffled up in foam or an artificial finger, a fork and a hook is inserted into the hoofs. Besides the body modifications, chimeras are also expected to suppress their animalistic instincts and perform civilized human behavior. The “creation” itself is followed by a period in the Socialization Centre, which is responsible for integrating the chimeras into the world of humans, claiming that “Már nem vagytok állatok . . . Meg kell tanulnotok emberként élni” [“You are not animals anymore . . . You have to live as humans”] (Moskát 44). During this education—or I would call it forced anthropomorphization—the chimeras are required to be non-aggressive, learn to speak, wear clothes, and try to eat with cutlery. However, it is declared that “Nem minden állat válik civilizálttá” [“Not all the animals become civilized”] (47); some feel “városkór” [“citysickness”](49) and refuse (or are unable) to imitate the behavior of the humans. 

On the other hand, in Hungary—and this is a crucial point—chimeras are regarded as inferior to humans, even treated like animals. Their education does not result in their integration into society; they are segregated, lack human rights, and must have a legal guardian to leave the ghetto, which resembles a zoo where humans visit on safari buses to look around and take photos. Moreover, in the blog entries of Kirill, we read short stories about the brutal violence against chimeras that often results in their deaths.  

Pilar represents the concept of voluntary assimilation; to her, the goal is to become human, or at least be indistinguishable from them. To this end, “Minden állati maradvány csak hiba, amely a bebábozódáskor keletkezett. Itt az idő kijavítani őket” [“The animal remnants are mistakes that occurred during the pupation. It’s time to erase them”] (Moskát 72). In contrast, Kirill refuses assimilation, saying that “Kevés dolog megalázóbb, mint imitálni a sapienseket.” or “Nem kell utánoznunk őket. Nekünk is lehetnek saját fajzatdolgaink.” (“Only a few things are more humiliating than imitating the sapienses” or “we don’t have to imitated then. We can have our creature-things too”] (64). Other characters in the ghetto hold a more radical opinion on assimilation, namely that chimeras are not to conform to human norms and expectations as they are not disabled human beings. According to this opinion, otherness is a problem of majority and minority: “Matematika. Azért uralkodnak rajtunk, mert ők a többség, hétmilliárd a százmillió ellen” [“It’s mathematics. They rule us, because they are the majority, seven billion against seven hundred thousand”] (243). In this situation, the Other is, by definition, a minority and subordinate, thus cannot prescribe his own norms and is subject to the practices of the dominant group. This line of thought leads to the conclusion that the situation will only change “Ha mi lennénk többen . . . mi hoznánk a törvényeket, mi alakítanánk a kultúrát” [“if we were the majority . . . we would write the rules, we would shape the culture”] (244). In other words, they determine what is normal and other, and then “a hétmilliárd sapiensből rácsok mögött mutogatott látványosság lenne” [“the seven billion sapienses would be a spectacle behind bars”] ( 244).

The third character, August, is approaching the problem of otherness from a human standpoint, having been regarded as human all his life. He intends to secure human rights for chimeras, as they have in other countries, where they have the right to elect their representatives. In his opinion, human rights are the first step towards an equality that takes the differences into account; as he points out in his political statement “Egy vagyok közületek [emberek közül]” [“I am one of yours [humans]”] (40), but unlike Pilar, he doesn’t deny the differences: “ember és fajzat közt a különbséget a külső jelenti” [“The only difference between human and creature is in their appearance”] (40).  

Nevertheless, the novel raises no false hopes that the chimeras will be accepted as normal in the foreseeable future. Regardless of her efforts, Pilar is rejected and laughed at for imitating a human. After she is re-created by a team of hairdressers, make-up artists, and stylists, her transition seems to be accepted, but when she stands in front of people under different circumstances, the audience sees a creature on the stage, mocking and humiliating Pilar in public. Should the chimeras become the majority, it would only reverse the roles and would not provide a real solution; as we learn from the examples of other countries, despite the human rights and the liquidation of ghettos, chimeras remain marginalized in society. They cannot change humans’ attitude, and apparently, as a conclusion, the novel suggests that there is no place for the other with biological differences in society, as protagonists end up in prison or choose self-imposed exile.  

In The Stolen Troll, we find different “others” and a more positive attitude towards otherness. Magicians and magical creatures are a common trope of fantasy that embodies the other among humans and the attitude towards their otherness varies from dread or disdain to admiration. Szélesi’s novel describes an alternative Hungary populated by humans and a wide variety of magical creatures from Hungarian folklore, no less than fifteen different magical species live together. In this exceptionally diverse world, the other is considered a normal member of society; the coexistence is even if not unproblematic but based on acceptance. Ordinary humans represent the majority of the population, followed by humans born with magical abilities, like shamans (“sámán,” who is connected to the spiritual world and able to use magic of nature), magicians (“mágus,” who possess magical objects and is able to use different forms of magic), witches (“szépasszony,” whose magic also derives from nature but they are only able to cast smaller spells) and sorcerers (the figure of the “táltos” is unique to Hungarian mythology; their power derives from a direct connection to God). In addition to humans and different magicians, magical creatures like trolls, siegbarstes, giants, werewolves, fairies account for about ten percent of the society. 

We can distinguish between visible and invisible otherness. Contrary to Fur and Skin, where the chimeras are visibly different from humans in most cases, the magicians and witches do not differ from humans in their appearance, yet they are associated with the magical other. This duality is mirrored in the attitude towards them, as on the one hand they are not perceived as fundamentally different. Answering the question “Hogyan viszonyulsz a varázslényekhez?” [“How do you feel about magical creatures?”], Bercel replies that “Nincs veletek gondom” [“I don’t have a problem with you”] (Szélesi 20). Contrary to Fur and Skin, in Szélesi’s novel, integration is present in every aspect of life, including education (mixed nurseries and schools) and jobs (the protagonist works together with a werewolf, a shaman, a magician, and other creatures), in the private sphere, “inter-species” relationships and families are accepted, though uncommon. Certain magical creatures live apart from humans, but that is usually a consequence of the different body sizes; giants prefer to live on the top of the beanstalk, and tiny fairies (called “pilinkó” in Hungarian folklore) tend to hide in the forests. 

The novel does not give a detailed description of the society’s structure but the investigation of Bercel Tóth leads to higher and higher places, revealing the hierarchy of the fictional world. In the novel, Hungary is a kingdom, the king is a human, and the parliament is the highest legislative authority, made up of the Upper House and the Lower House. The members of parliament, and most importantly, the aristocracy, are equally composed of humans and magical creatures, yet, the highest positions, like the Home Secretary, the Minister of Human and Magical Resources, the Minister of Security, are held by highly qualified magicians. Apparently, magical abilities are not a basis of discrimination or an obstacle to overcome, but rather an advantage in public or political life. 

Various forms of otherness are acknowledged, accepted, and even appreciated in the novel, in both political and social terms. However, delving deeper into the text, we see the humans (and magical creatures) struggling with otherness in everyday life because invisible alterity is more fearsome than visible otherness. Examples can be found for distrust or fear of magic, or we could say distrust and fear of the magical other and their superhuman abilities. The protagonist, Bercel Tóth, wears an amulet to be protected from curses and spells and automatically assumes that his partner of magical abilities, Krisztina Hanga, is reading his mind or uses magic to bewitch him (Szélesi 79, 113). Bercel is not the only one who does not entirely trust magical creatures, the aversion of a “magicolist” is expressed in an outburst: “Egy boszorkányt hozott a házamba . . . Úristen!” [“You brought a witch to my house? Oh my God!”] (22). Krisztina Hanga articulates the problem from the opposite point of view, saying:

Integrált oktatás, hogyne. Minden varázstudó gyerek rémálma. A többiek félnek tőlünk, nem fogadnak be minket, kinéznek maguk közül. Az a varázstudó, aki nem védi meg magát, azt zaklatják. Ha megvédi, akkor beárulják, hogy agresszív és antiszociális.” 

[“Integrated education, of course. It is every magician’s worst nightmare. The others are afraid of us, do not accept us, even ostracize us. The ones who don’t defend themselves are bullied. And if you defend yourself, you are told to be aggressive and antisocial.”] (78)

Moreover, despite their human and political rights, some non-human magical creatures are still objectified in certain situations. The title, the “stolen troll” addresses the problem of objectification, and it derives from the law: “A lopás szót használom a rablás helyett, és nem rasszizmusból, hanem, mert a büntetőjogban a kőből álló varázslényekre még mindig így tekintenek” [“I use the word stolen instead of kidnapped, and it’s not racism, because according to criminal law, magical creatures made of stone are regarded as objects”] (7). In other situations, magical creatures despise humans for the lack of magical abilities, such as a goblin (called “pörtmandli” in Hungarian folklore, a magical creature unable to lie and susceptible to magic) declares to the protagonist that “Maga csak egy ember” [“You are just a human”] (6). The novel’s antagonist, a magician, points out that humans are the same and worthless: “Az egyik emberizink olyan mint a másik . . . Tizenkettő egy tucat. . . . A szaporodáson kívül másra nem képesek!” [“One human is like the other . . . They are a dime a dozen. . . . They can only reproduce”] (192). His view, however, is not generally accepted and he is called an “abilist,” a word created by analogy with racist from ability. The term suggests a form of ableism according to which the lack of magical abilities is a disability from the magical creatures’ point of view. We can draw a connection between the two novels, as they both connect otherness to the concept of disability that limits the others’ opportunities in society.

Like Fur and Skin, names and denominations reflect on the attitude towards otherness, though it is only a question of political correctness in The Stolen Troll’s world. Following Bercel’s question to Krisztina: “Maga boszorkány?” [“Are you a witch?”] (11), the detective is reminded to be politically correct, at least concerning the terminology. But as the quotation in the previous paragraph reveals, not only the magical creatures are called insulting nicknames, but humans are mocked as “emberizink,” an archaic word, meaning little, both in body and abilities. The world and society described in The Stolen Troll reveals that the integration of the magical other into the society is not without conflicts and certain forms of distinction are still at play.

The world is designed for humans”

     The setting is central to the definition of urban fantasy, and fantasy scholars are taking different approaches to the characteristics of the city, predominantly based on its location in a primary or secondary world (Elkman 457). Irvine proposes the distinction (or rather an axis) of urban fantasy or fantasy urban, referring to texts in which “urban” is a descriptor applied to fantasy and those in which fantasy modifies the urban milieu (200). On the one hand, both Fur and Skin and The Stolen Troll belong to the category of urban fantasy, in which the city is recognizably taken from our contemporary world. However, as Irvine points out, this kind of narrative involves contact with some magical realm, and the story revolves around the magical coming into collision with the urban milieu (201). In the novels discussed, the fantastic does not come in contact with reality, but is intrinsically part of it from the first pages, being a component of the urban milieu. Talking about the urban environment, Kirill points out that “a világot sapiensekre tervezték” [“The world is designed for sapiens”] (Moskát 46). It is worth examining this remark in the light of accepting or rejecting otherness and to what extent the urban spaces are transformed because of their magical inhabitants. 

Despite the different attitudes towards otherness, both novels depict cities that mostly remain unchanged compared to our known reality, and the texts refer to real objects of the urban landscape. In Fur and Skin, the NFSZ (International Organization for Creatures) headquarters at Kálvin Square is in the modern glass tower with a view of Szabadság-bridge and Danube (Moskát 80), the visitors travel to the ghetto in Kistarcsa by the local railway (13). At the same time, the cohabitation of the other and the human in a common space is not a given. Concrete walls and barbed wire separate the spaces of the humans and that of the chimeras, and within the walls, we find a city in the city, more precisely another urban environment that mirrors the chimeras’ otherness in two ways. 

Firstly, it highlights the creatures’ physical differences from humans, expressed through their incompatibility with the urban environment. The city of the humans is a constant threat: “akárhányszor kimerészkedtek otthonról, az életükre tört” [“Whenever they dared to venture out, it tried to kill them”] (Moskát 13), being cold, silent, dirty, and full of glass and steel compared to nature where the chimeras’ partly belong. Contrary to the humans’ world, the ghetto is inhuman in two senses. The creatures live in an area that the humans abandoned; they occupy houses and multi-storey buildings that were family homes. The ghetto is characterized by decay without humans; the walls are ruined, the furniture is broken, the windows are covered with cardboard, and there are no public utilities. Among the houses, huge tents are set up. However, those also only provide inhumane refugee camp-type living conditions of shared camp beds, common facilities, and strict rules. The ghetto is the inferior, ruined version of the human urban spaces, mirroring the chimeras’ inferior position in society.

The Stolen Troll likewise describes a city almost identical to the real Budapest, and magic is not apparent in the construction of urban spaces. The narrator spends much time detailing the routes and places of Bercel’s investigation, mentioning dozens of reference points, including Margit Island, the bridges over the Danube, the building of the police headquarters at Teve Road, and Jégbüfé, a famous patisserie at the Square of the Franciscans. The only mentioned difference between the real Budapest and the fictional one lies in the name of Andrássy Avenue that bears the name Avenue of Equal Constitution and in the presence of a Broom Store that sells traditional Hungarian brooms to witches. Re-naming the avenue, the novel also reflects on the continuous change of the street names according to the political changes, throughout Hungarian history Andrássy Avenue also wore the name Avenue of People’s Republic (Népköztársaság útja). We could say that the difference between the real Budapest and the imaginary one is as invisible or subtle as the difference between magicians and humans, and the nonhumans are not represented at all in the cityscape. In short: magical creatures are integrated into the world, but the urban environment remains of and for humans. 

The parallels drawn between the two novels and the city landscapes reveal that Kirill’s comment is not only correct, but the same applies to The Stolen Troll despite the different attitude towards otherness. Irrespective of the level of integration, the use of urban spaces suggests a human-centered approach, in which the other can live in the humans’ world yet can’t remake it in their image. 


In his study, Ekman argues that urban fantasy is the genre of the unseen that offers the possibility to “discuss and discover” what we usually do not or do not want to see (466). I would add that the combination of the primary-world setting, the contemporary environment, and the immersive fantasy in Fur and Skin and The Stolen Troll can be called (sub-)genre of otherness. As we have seen, the novels display otherness in different ways, yet have one crucial common motif: the other is no longer something hidden in the dark, outside our world and our society but walks amongst us in the familiar streets. Therefore, this form of urban fantasy, on one hand, mirrors what we think about ourselves and our society, and at the same time, invites us to think about the situation of the other. The discussed novels explore the reactions of society to otherness, and, in this regard, they can be considered as steps of a process from rejection to almost complete acceptance of otherness. The characters focus on the differences between humans, chimeras and magicians, and the novels depict internal social tensions, raising the question whether complete acceptance is possible. Only one chimera, a nameless, ancillary character, addresses the problem from a different point of view: “Ugyanazt szeretnénk, mint minden élőlény a Földön: legyen biztonság, legyen meleg, legyen mit enni. És mellettünk legyenek azok, akik szeretnek” [“We all just want the same things as all the living things on Earth: to be safe, to keep warm, and have enough to eat. And we want the ones we love to be there for us”] (Moskát 153). The comment applies equally to humans, chimeras, and magicians, and suggests focusing on similarities rather than differences. In other words, not only others can be the unseen, but the differences that make them the other.


Szélesi, Sándor. Az ellopott troll. Metropolis Média, 2019. 

Ekman, Stefan. “Urban Fantasy: A Literature of the Unseen.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. vol. 27, no. 3, 2016,pp. 452-469.  

Hegedűs, Norbert. “Az urban fantasy klisérendszerei.” Partitúra Irodalomtudományi folyóirat, vol. 10, no. 1, 2015, pp. 93-102. 

Irvine, Alexander C. “Urban Fantasy.” The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp. 200-2 13.

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, Wesleyan University Press, 2008. 

Moskát, Anita. Írha és Bőr. Gabo, 2019. 

Sárdi, Margit. Magyarország- és Budapest-képek a két világháború között. Előadás a Magyar Írószövetség Sci-fi szakosztályában, 2011.–es-budapest-joevokepek-a-ket-vilaghaboru-koezoett?authuser=0.

Zahorski, Kenneth J. and Robert H. Boyer. “The Secondary Worlds of High Fantasy.” The Aesthetics of Fantasy Literature and Art, edited by Roger C. Schlobin. University of Notre Dame Press, 1982, pp. 56-81. 

Éva Vancsó is a Ph.D. student at Eötvös Lóránd University in the Modern English and American literature and culture program. Her main research area is utopian tradition in American science fiction television series, focusing on the representation of women in the imagined worlds. She has published articles on Hungarian utopian science fiction novels and short stories, exploring the characteristics of the utopian (mostly dystopian) societies. Alongside her research, Éva has translated sixteen SFF novels and short stories from English and Spanish; edited three fantasy anthologies. She is also the secretary of the Department of Speculative Fiction of the Hungarian Writers’ Association.

Copper, Silver and Gold: Metal Woods Set to a New Purpose in Hungarian Folk Fantasy

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

On the Edge: The Fantastic in Hungarian Literature and Culture

Copper, Silver and Gold: Metal Woods Set to a New Purpose in Hungarian Folk Fantasy

Mónika Rusvai


With its intricate mixture of  Central and Eastern European traditions, Hungarian folklore offers unique possibilities for modern fantasy authors. However, partly due to the socialist regime’s distrust of literary manifestations of the fantastic (with the scarce exception of certain science fiction), fantasy appeared relatively late on the Hungarian literary palette. Even the Hungarian translation of The Lord of the Rings (1954–55) came out only in 1981. As a consequence, the first boom of fantasy dates back to the 1990s. In this period, most authors stuck with imitating Anglo-American sword-and-sorcery narratives and wrote under foreign pseudonyms. András Gáspár (under pen names: Wayne Chapman, Damien Forrestal, Ed Fisher, Lampert Gordon) and Zsolt Kornya (pen name Raoul Renier) are prominent figures of this early period, and their work both in fiction and in the Hungarian RPG community remains within the heroic tradition. Thus, formula fantasy became the norm for the wider audience, and up to this day, there is a rather poor selection of more sophisticated Western fantasy fiction available in Hungarian. The situation appears to be especially dire regarding folk-mythic fantasy: the first Hungarian edition of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (1968) was published in 2004; Patricia A. McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (1974), the winner of the first World Fantasy Award in 1975, reached Hungarian readers in 2008; whilst Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood (1984) had its Hungarian debut in 2013, and only one of the later Mythago novels have been published since then (Lavondyss, 2015). As for Hungarian fantasy authors, readers had to wait until the 2010s for writers to gradually break down the limitations of formulaic storytelling and engage in more innovative structures and themes.

    This transformation towards a more creative understanding of fantasy enabled previously marginalised topics and motifs to gain more attention, thus Hungarian folklore slowly but surely found its way into critically acknowledged fantasy texts. Starting with the 2007 anthology of Hungarian folktale retellings, 77–Hetvenhét [Seventy-Seven] (edited by Csilla Kleinheincz and Csaba Járdán), a great variety of Hungarian fantasy fiction applies folklore as a core component. The better-known novels include a witty urban fantasy series by Ágnes Gaura [1] that is loosely based on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, yet applies a distinctly Hungarian setting and social satire; Emília Virág’s whimsical Hétvilág-trilógia [Sevenworlds trilogy]; [2] and Krisztina Timár’s first volume of a would-be trilogy, A látszat mesterei [Masters of Delusion] (2016), a unique attempt at mingling elements of Hungarian literary tradition with heroic fantasy. With regard to short fiction, Alfonz I. Fekete’s short story collection, A mosolygó zsonglőr [The Smiling Juggler] (2016) offers a New Wave fabulist take on lesser-known Hungarian folk creatures and beliefs. The year’s best speculative short fiction anthologies published by GABO (2018–) and edited by Csilla Kleinheincz and Gábor Roboz also include multiple folk fantasy texts both by well-known and debut authors. For instance, Attila Veres’s 2018 story, “Fekete talán” [Black Mayhap] adds a folk horror twist to visiting the Hungarian countryside, whilst László R. Palágyi’s “A róna gyermeke” [Child of the Plain] (2020) slightly resembles Sapkowski’s Witcher series in a Hungarian, pre-industrial setting. As Ursula K. Le Guin observes, “[w]hat fantasy generally does that the realistic novel generally cannot do is include the nonhuman as essential” (87). Fortunately, most of 2010s Hungarian folk fantasy texts follow these lines quite literally and seem to revel in the possibility of placing the nonhuman in the spotlight. Unsurprisingly though, most representations of the nonhuman remain either anthropomorphic or bestial, like the various depictions of the ‘táltos,’ the shaman figure of Hungarian folklore or the Hungarian folktale dragon that is able to switch between reptilian and human form. This paper ventures to lesser trodden paths and uncovers the vegetal other by comparing and contrasting two folk fantasies that include an interesting re-interpretation of plant imagery: Csilla Kleinheincz’s Ólomerdő [Leadenwood] trilogy (Ólomerdő [Leadenwood], 2007; Üveghegy [Glass Mountain], 2014; Ezüstkéz [Silverhand], 2019) and Ágnes Gaura’s single novel, Túlontúl [Beyondest] (2017). [3] Kleinheincz and Gaura offer an individual take on the metal woods of Hungarian folktales. The three woods (made of copper, silver and gold, respectively) are traditionally represented as the otherworldly dominions of anthropomorphic dragons and serve as mere backgrounds.  The Ólomerdő trilogy and Túlontúl populate the metal woods with sinister, human-sized fairies magically connected to their wooden realm.  The paper argues that these folk fantasy novels bring plants to the foreground and turn them into literal ties that link human and nonhuman communities through space and time. To this end, the analysis tracks down the roots of plant imagery in Hungarian folklore, then moves on to discuss the various representations of vegetal otherness in the primary texts, and finally, it reveals how otherness turns into oneness through trans-corporeality.

From Folklore to Fantasy

Historically speaking, there were two decisive periods that shaped present day Hungarian folk fantasy. First, as in most European countries, the cultural and political changes of the nineteenth century brought an increased interest in national folklore. In Hungary, this involved major attempts at recreating a mythic past. Hungarian folklore, however, is such an intricate mixture of Germanic, Slavic, and Turkish elements tied together by a Finno-Ugric language, that up to this day, scholars have failed to reconstruct the ‘original’ pantheon of mythic creatures. Nevertheless, even severely criticised nineteenth century works such as Arnold Ipolyi’s Magyar Mythologia [Hungarian Mythology] (1854) remain an important source for fantasy authors. For them, the lack of information is an invitation to fill the gaps and creatively explain what folklorists left unexplained. Csilla Kleinheincz, author of the Ólomerdő trilogy, also admits in an interview that Ipolyi’s work proved to be a “great help” in creating her story world (

The other important period in the shaping of contemporary Hungarian folk fantasy was the socialist era from 1949 to 1989.  On the one hand, the regime encouraged the documentation of working class life. Despite the aggressive industrialization, a large percentage of the population was employed in agricultural cooperatives—and this situation helped folklorists get away with collecting the old folk traditions and beliefs of the countryside. Among the most prominent names are Tekla Dömötör, Vilmos Voigt, Vilmos Diószegi, and Géza Róheim, whose descriptions of the Hungarian supernatural sphere have inspired many fantasy authors. On the other hand, however, an exclusive focus on the realistic (and socialist) representation of the world banished all manifestations of the fantastic from canonised literature of the time. The supernatural dimensions of folklore were not tolerated beyond the scope of children’s literature. These two factors lead to the dismissal of folk fantasy as children’s literature, even among critics who claim to have studied speculative fiction.

Documented literary history of the metal woods dates back to the nineteenth century. László Arany’s 1862 folktale collection, Eredeti népmesék [Original Folktales], already includes the best known folktale that presents the copper, silver, and golden woods: “Fehérlófia” [The Son of the White Mare]. The tale focuses on a human boy born of a white mare who goes on a quest to the underworld. Within the Aarne-Thompson-Uther typology, “Fehérlófia” is generally qualified as type 301B (“The Strong Man and his Companions”), and it exists in multiple varieties. Yet, each version includes the concept of vertically layered worlds, and the hero descends to the underworld realm of the three dragons to rescue three stolen princesses. The copper, silver, and golden woods are properties of these dragons who also own castles (and in some versions even pastures or meadows) made of the same metals. In addition to their value as precious metals, the choice of copper, silver, and gold might be justified by their association with the celestial bodies: copper refers to the Venus, silver denotes the moon, and gold is linked to the sun, suggesting that in their more ancient forms, the anthropomorphic dragons of “Fehérlófia” might have been gods of the upper world (Berze Nagy 91).

    Even though both Kleinheincz and Gaura rely on this tale in their fantasy novels, their depiction of the metal woods goes beyond picturing them as property or background. In the Ólomerdő trilogy, Kleinheincz raises the number of metal woods to seven (steel, silver, copper, iron, lead, gold, diamond) and they form a borderland between the horizontally positioned realms of humans and fairies. The human world is a realistic version of modern day Hungary, whereas fairyland features the pre-industrial setting of traditional folktales. The liminal space of Héterdő [Sevenwoods] is ruled by human-shaped dragons that are banished from both worlds. [4]

In her descriptions, Kleinheincz provides a vivid, sensory experience of the metal woods: trees emit a metallic odour, trunks are covered in rust, and you have to be careful not to cut yourself with the sharp metal leaves. The woods are corporeally linked to their owners through magic, and trees can serve as an extension of their lord’s or lady’s will. As opposed to Kleinheincz’s increasing the number of metal woods, Gaura places a single wood within Túlontúl’s fairy realm. This wood, however, is so closely related to its inhabitants that it changes its hue according to their mood: it turns copper when great sadness occurs, silver when fairies fall in love, and gold when the realm flourishes. There are no dragon rulers present, and the narrative focuses on the fairy realm’s historical parallels to Hungary (the land was broken into separate pieces similarly to what happened to Hungary following the Treaty of Trianon in 1920), whilst its spatial positioning in relation to the human world is undefined.

    Despite these attempts at highlighting the vegetal, both Kleinheincz and Gaura create a mostly anthropomorphic, yet not quite anthropocentric secondary world. This seems to be in accordance with folklorist Tekla Dömötör’s observation that the supernatural sphere of Hungarian folklore is dominated by anthropomorphic creatures (74). In addition to this, there is a limited number of magical forest dwellers described in folklore, and all of them are roughly human-shaped figures, such as the lichen-bearded tree man of Transylvanian folk belief that Géza Róheim describes (106). Following in these lines, Kleinheincz and Gaura do not include trees as central characters in their own right, yet within the hybrid bodies of the metal woods’ inhabitants the vegetal becomes a significant component. 

Facing Human-Vegetal Hybridity

With their parallel human and fairy realms that are linked through portals, Kleinheincz and Gaura follow classic fantasy tradition. Both the Ólomerdő trilogy and Túlontúl present a young, female protagonist (the teenage Emese [5] in the former, and early twenties Liliom [Lily] in the latter) who are expected to save the declining world of fairy. John Clute’s definition of “thinning” might be adapted word for word to these places: “the secondary world is almost constantly under some threat of lessening, a threat frequently accompanied by mourning . . . and/or a sense of wrongness” (942). Interestingly though, thinning in Hungarian fantasy is in many cases equally applicable to the primary world, as the Hungarian perception of the historical past is loaded with a persistent feeling of loss.

Ólomerdő and Túlontúl, however, complicate the relation of their two worlds even further. From the protagonists’ point of view, both stories can be defined as intrusive fantasies in which the metal woods are the intruding force. In her taxonomic system for fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn describes intrusion fantasy as a narrative in which “the world is ruptured by the intrusion, which disrupts normality and has to be negotiated with or defeated, sent back whence it came, or controlled” (115). This mirrors Ólomerdő’s protagonist, Emese’s, experience when she first sees the metal woods intruding into her everyday reality: “A törzsek között tisztán látszottak a HÉV sínei mögött álló emeletes házak lapos tetői, a lámpasorok füzérei. A megszokott éjszakai világ előtt azonban ott derengett az erdő” [Beyond the tree trunks the tracks of the suburban railway, the flat-roofed blocks and the lines of streetlights remained clearly visible. And yet, the wood was looming in front of the ordinary night view.] (46). In Túlontúl, the trespasser is a so-called “travelling-book,” a volume that is composed of leaves and smells like flowers. It was created by two pixie-like creatures with the intention to reunite the separated parts of the fairy realm.   

The vegetal, being an intruding force into normality in these narratives, manifests human fears of the plant kingdom that the protagonists are required to face through a trajectory of learning and acceptance. “Plants lurk in our blindspot,”claims Dawn Keetley in her second thesis of plant horror (10), and what Kleinheincz and Gaura do in their novels is mobilizing plants and moving them first into peripheral, then full view. The see-through image of the metal wood that Emese glimpses over the night street appears to be dreamlike and harmless, yet a leaf cuts her finger when she ventures to touch it (47). Later on, we learn that these trees, though rooted, pose a major threat to unwanted visitors by whipping them with their metal branches. Similarly, in Túlontúl, plants initially lurk on the margins of the human world: Liliom works at a company with all office interiors full of plants, she buys a book that smells like flowers and she meets an awkward, young artist who exhibits a painting of a lush, copper-coloured wood. As Liliom gathers more information about the fairy realm, the plant imagery multiplies until it becomes literally overwhelming once she crosses the portal. “Plants menace with their wild, purposeless growth,” says Keetley’s third thesis of plant horror (13), and in line with this, both narratives present a trajectory towards an ever greater proliferation of the vegetal. At various points of the plots this proliferation reaches the level of posing immediate threat to the protagonist: in the first volume of the Ólomerdő trilogy Emese is attacked by the leaden wood that is magically manipulated by her step-grandmother, whilst Liliom is almost squeezed to death by an oak tree that grows around her in the climactic scene of Túlontúl.

Despite plants repeatedly being pictured as an antagonistic force, protagonists of Ólomerdő and Túlontúl eventually come to terms with what Keetley’s fourth thesis of plant horror encapsulates: “the human harbours the uncanny constitutive of the vegetal” (16). Kleinheincz and Gaura confront their readers with this corporeal hybridity on two levels. On the one hand, throughout the text, we are offered more and more details about this strange symbiosis of the metal woods and their inhabitants. For instance, here is what happens in Ólomerdő, when Emese’s half-dragon step aunt, Firene inherits the metal woods that belonged to her mother: “rátekeredtek az erdők hatalomforrásaihoz vezető fonalak” [she was intertwined into the strands that lead to the power of the woods] (345). Later on, Firene’s affection for her woods is made clear: “Halványan elmosolyodott, és megsimogatta erdeinek szívét. Nem volt teljesen egyedül” [She smiled faintly, and caressed the hearts of her woods. She was not completely alone.] (346). In Túlontúl, we learn that fairies are not immortal, yet when they die, their bodies do not decompose as an ordinary human body would, but immediately turn into a plant—as if the vegetal component was already hidden within, waiting for its time to come. On the other hand, both Emese and Liliom have to realize that the vegetal other they first perceived as an intruder into their everyday lives has been part of their being all along: both protagonists have fairy ancestors and in order to fulfil their quest they have to embrace their own inherent hybridity.

The dichotomy of self and other pervaded the 2010s social and political discourse of Hungary. Suppressed historical traumas, ongoing conflicts with religious and ethnic minorities, and the migration crisis all contributed to an increasing fear of the other—a phenomenon that has possibly contributed to the boom of Hungarian fantasy fiction in the same decade. Fantasy does not only offer alternatives to our world, but, as Rosemary Jackson highlights, it is able “to resist separation and difference” and helps us “to re-discover a unity of self and other” (30). Folk fantasy gives multiple possibilities for such a re-discovery, yet most times it represents the other either in human or in animal form. Despite their anthropomorphism, Kleinheincz’s and Gaura’s novels are honourable exceptions that include clear traces of tree wisdom.

Learning Tree Wisdom

The dichotomy of self and other pervaded the 2010s social and political discourse of Hungary. Suppressed historical traumas, ongoing conflicts with religious and ethnic minorities, and the migration crisis all contributed to an increasing fear of the other—a phenomenon that has possibly contributed to the boom of Hungarian fantasy fiction in the same decade. Fantasy does not only offer alternatives to our world, but, as Rosemary Jackson highlights, it is able “to resist separation and difference” and helps us “to re-discover a unity of self and other” (30). Folk fantasy gives multiple possibilities for such a re-discovery, yet most times it represents the other either in human or in animal form. Despite their anthropomorphism, Kleinheincz’s and Gaura’s novels are honourable exceptions that include clear traces of tree wisdom.

Secondly, both Ólomerdő and Túlontúl support the concept of rootedness. As plant philosopher Michael Marder observes, plants are linked to their immediate surroundings through an ontological dependency (106). Similarly, owners and inhabitants of the metal woods are existentially connected to their realm. For instance, in Túlontúl, as a consequence of an old curse, fairies are required to exchange some of their own children for human babies. These changelings remain unable to perfectly adjust to the human world and their life is burdened with a longing for their wooden realm. Similarly, Ólomerdő protagonist Emese realizes at the end of volume one, that even though she is able to move about in the human world after her return from the fairy realm, the uncanny image of the metal woods follows her wherever she goes (346). It is only among the trees of their respective wooden realms that these characters may feel interconnected with their natural environment.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the (half)human protagonists’ recognition of the other within the self serves as a moment of trans-corporeality, a realization that “the human is always intermeshed with the more-than-human world” and he “is ultimately inseparable from ‘the environment’” (Alaimo 2). The above-mentioned scene in Túlontúl when Liliom is nearly squeezed by the oak tree that rapidly grows around her body is particularly telling in this respect. The tree is clearly an antagonistic force and quite literally an intruder as it attempts to suck all moisture out of Liliom’s body. A traditional male hero would definitely cut himself loose from the aggressive tree, but Gaura follows a different track in Túlontúl. In place of “The Son of the White Mare” and other folktale heroes that possess overtly masculine traits, Gaura consciously creates a heroine who is a great observer and values wit and perseverance over physical strength. Initially, these characteristics make her appear rather passive and indecisive even in vital situations, but by the time she reaches this climactic encounter with the oak tree, the very traits that made her slightly awkward in everyday events, enable Liliom to initiate connection with the tree and convince it to cooperate with her against the curse that keeps the fairy realm in its hold. With Liliom’s guidance, the oak’s growth rate accelerates further and its great roots seam together the formerly separated parts of the kingdom. 


Csillas Kleinheincz Ólomerdő trilogy and Ágnes Gaura’s Túlontúl are prominent novels of the 2010s fantasy boom in Hungarian speculative fiction, and they are among the first narratives that creatively incorporate a large amount of folklore material. Both authors pay special attention to the representation of the nonhuman, but unlike other fantasy writers of the decade, they bring the vegetal other into focus by a reinterpretation of the ancient image of the three metal woods. Whilst in their main source text, the folktale “The Son of the White Mare,” the woods remain in the background, Kleinheincz and Gaura connect the woods’ magical inhabitants with their realm on multiple levels. Emese and Liliom, the human protagonists of the novels, engage in a trajectory of learning that leads them from seeing the woods as an ominous intruding force, through a discovery and understanding of their otherness, to the recognition that they themselves are corporeally connected to the trees.

    This arc of learning tree wisdom, however, is still a limited analysis of plant imagery in Ólomerdő and Túlontúl. Both narratives, but especially Túlontúl would enable a detailed inquiry into how the world tree concept of Hungarian myth is re-evoked, and in addition to the two protagonists, there are other characters in both stories whose relation to plants could raise interesting questions about human-nonhuman relationships. However, an analysis like this would highly benefit from an extensive history of Hungarian-language fantasy that identifies possible, pre- and post-Enlightenment taproot texts beyond folktales and regrettably, no such volume is available at the moment. Uncovering the roots of Hungarian fantasy fiction would be a great help to promising folk fantasy authors so that they may use mythic sources to their full potential. Nevertheless, Kleinheincz and Gaura have already made major steps in that direction by showing us that fantasy can offer a way to learn about and reconnect with the nonhuman others of the natural world.


[1] Volumes of the series as of 2021 in successive order: Vámpírok múzsája [Muse of the Vampires] (2012); Átkozott balszerencse [Cursed Misfortune] (2013); Lidércnyomás [Nightmare] (2013), Lángmarta örökség [Flame-Touched Inheritance] (2014); Attila koporsója [Attila’s Coffin] (2015).

[2] Sárkánycsalogató [Dragon-Baiter] (2016); Boszorkányszelídítő [Witch-Tamer] (2016) and Tündérfogó [Fairy-Catcher] (2018).

[3] As there is sadly no English translation of these texts, all primary source quotations in this paper were made by its author..

[4] Dragons of Kleinheincz’s secondary world are created, not born. When a dead person (either fairy or human) is revived with the magical herb of life and death, he returns to life as a dragon. Thus, the dragon is an undead creature that can appear both in human and bestial form, and he/she is destined to devour everybody he/she used to love in his/her previous life. As they bear the mark of death, dragons are banished from the fairy realm. Nevertheless, they are able to have children, if they manage to take a partner by force.

[5] Emese is a Hungarian name of mythic origin. Emese was the ancestress of the Hungarian royal house of Árpád, the dynasty that founded the Kingdom of Hungary. Before she gave birth to high prince Álmos [Dreamer], she had a dream in which a turul (the sacral bird of Hungarian mythology) impregnated her. Kleinheincz, however, does not refer back to this myth in her trilogy, but instead she utilizes the pun component of the name: the ‘mese’ part of Emese is homophone with the Hungarian word for ‘tale.’


Alaimo, Stacy. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self. Indiana University Press, 2010.

Berze Nagy János. Égigérő fa: Magyar mitológiai tanulmányok. Pécs: Tudományos Ismeretterjesztő Társulat Baranya Megyei Szervezete, 1961.

Clute, John, and John Grant, editors. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Orbit, 1997.

Dömötör, Tekla. A magyar nép hiedelemvilága. Budapest: Corvina, 1981.

Gagliano, Monica, John C. Ryan and Patricia Vieira, editors. The Language of Plants. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Gaura, Ágnes. Túlontúl. Delta Vision, 2017.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. Methuen, 1981.

Keetley, Dawn. Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film.     Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Kleinheincz, Csilla. Ólomerdő. GABO, 2014.

—. Üveghegy. GABO, 2014.

—. Ezüstkéz. GABO, 2019.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists.” The Wordsworth Circle, vol. 38, no. 1/2, 2007, pp. 83–87. JSTOR, Accessed 28 July 2021.

Marder, Michael. Plant Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. Columbia University Press, 2013.

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

Róheim, Géza. Magyar néphit és népszokások. Universum, 1990.

Uzseka, Norbert. “Interjú Kleinheincz Csillával.”, 10 Sept. 2007, Accessed 29 July 2021.

Mónika Rusvai is a PhD student at the University of Szeged, Hungary. She has been involved with the fantastic since her BA studies. During her MA she got acquainted with monster theory, and wrote her thesis on the cultural significance of various European dragons. Since then, her road turned to the enchanted forests of European fantasy: she currently focuses on Robert Holdstock’s Mythago novels, and intends to cast new light on the series through a combination of critical plant studies and fantasy theory. As a fantasy author herself, she eagerly advocates literary myth-making of all cultural backgrounds.

Lemon Juicers in Space: The Adventures of Pirx (1972–1973)

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

On the Edge: The Fantastic in Hungarian Literature and Culture

Lemon Juicers in Space: The Adventures of Pirx (1972–1973)

Daniel Panka

One critic jokingly describes it “[a]s if Ed Wood was on mushrooms and collaborated with Andy Warhol to remake 2001: A Space Odyssey for television” (Sepsi 61); another claims that “even mentioning its title elicits death screams” and hopes that “its copies are hiding under thick dust in a storage room” (Géczi 4). [1] Besides introducing what I believe to be an important part of Hungarian science fiction television history, I will also attempt to explain why The Adventures of Pirx failed to achieve the same appeal as similar SF works of its era. I argue that it works largely within the “cynical” sentiment, one that I previously examined in relation to another Hungarian animated series (Panka 341–62). Pirx translates certain cultural codes of Kádárian Hungary into a future in which Hungarians (or at least, Hungarian-speaking people) are a space-faring nation, and I argue that the peculiarity of the series lies not only in the way it clumsily incorporates Kádárian material culture into its visual code, but also in its exposure of the future as the present. Pirx unwittingly performs an oblique critique of the then-present and embodies the cynicism that images of the Future engendered in socialist Hungary—its failure is that it does so without any self-reflection and humor.

“Electronic poetry”: András Rajnai and the Blue Box Technique

The mastermind behind the technical aspects of Pirx was András Rajnai, a television director and entrepreneur who understood his cultural and political context especially well. As technical director Ferenc Ormos also notes in a documentary (Izing), the Hungarian audience was keen on SF, which is indicated by the popularity of TV shows such as the West-German Raumpatrouille – Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion [Space Patrol – The Fantastic Adventures of the Spaceship Orion] (1966) and the Hungarian animated series Mézga család [The Mézga Family] (1970), as well as the success of Kozmosz Fantasztikus Könyvek [Cosmos Fantastic Books], a paperback series dedicated to SF. However, censorship in Kádár’s Hungary did not allow for the subversive and provocative energies of SF to flourish—as Schreiber notes, “only the spectacle could stay” (40). [2] Rajnai recognized the opportunity and seized it—his efforts to popularize SF in Hungary are commendable and indisputable (Németh 13, Vecsernyés 82–83), but he also worked diligently to make his name synonymous with special effects technology (chiefly chroma keying, more commonly known as “green screen”) and to monopolize the movement that he called “electronic art” (or even “electronic poetry”) under his guidance. He created the “Electronic Research Group” in 1974 and later the “Video Innovation Editorial Office” in 1982 at the state-owned MTV (Magyar Televízió, ‘Hungarian Television’), the only television company at the time (Vecsernyés 82). In his quasi-autobiography Sugarakból teremtett világ [World created by rays], alluding to cathodic rays, Rajnai chronicles the “press campaign” he started in 1969, the numerous replies to his essays, and the “incomprehension” that his “theory” had to face (13–14).

Another, more practical advantage is of a financial nature: Rajnai claims that “spectacular” results can be achieved with the help of chroma keying for a fraction of the budget of Hollywood blockbusters (13). Accordingly, the originally estimated 96 million HUF (approximately 21 million USD today) budget of Pirx was countered by Rajnai with a 4 million HUF (876 thousand USD today) budget (Garai 19). [3] After these introductory remarks and a chronology of his works, Rajnai goes on to explain his theory of “electronics” with examples and ideas taken from evolutionary biology, ornithology, behavioral psychology, Buddhism, Christianity, and Western philosophy. Not surprisingly, this eclectic mixture fails to cohere into a unified theory of his art that would go beyond the central tenet that “electronics” opens the way to a new form of artistic expression. An illustrative example of Rajnai’s long list of debates is his bout with Bernáth on the pages of the magazine Filmvilág [The World of Film] from 1982: Bernáth accuses Rajnai of being somewhat of a con artist who continually manages to secure funding for his ill-conceived ideas (56–58) which Rajnai counters in a response by saying that Bernáth and his cohort simply do not understand him and the possibilities of “electronics” (58–59).

It is worth mentioning the Hungarian origin of the central technique of Rajnai’s “electronics,” namely chroma keying. Evidence is scarce about Hungarian inventor Theodot Vrabély, who Rajnai also identifies as the “tragic-fated inventor” of the principles behind chroma keying technology (8). To my knowledge, Vrabély is virtually unknown in the English-language literature on chroma keying, which is not surprising if one considers the scant evidence available about his life. A contemporary article from 1934 in the newspaper 8 Órai Ujság [8 O’clock News] reports that the thirty-two-year-old lawyer, who is also interested in physics as a hobby, won the “city’s prize” and the “gold medal” in Marseille at the competition of the “International Association of Inventors” (B. Gy. 4). [4] His two inventions are improvements upon “far-viewing technology” (a then-used Hungarian expression for television)—one of them grants a sharper image, and the other “enables us to use any moving or static image as a background for footage shot within four empty walls” (B. Gy. 4). According to Vrabély himself, he invented the fundamentals of “far-viewing technology” already in 1929 but did not have the money to make it ready for patenting. Vrabély eventually patented his invention in England but later lost the patent because he could not pay certain fees (“Vigyázzunk” 5); other sources claim that Vrabély eventually secured the patent in the UK through the Marconi Company in 1934, but he received no recognition at all for his work and died unknown as a clerk for the state-owned chain of pawnbrokers in 1970 (Vajda 32). Vrabély supposedly had other inventions as well which were destroyed by his older sister after his death (Potoczky 43).

The reason Vrabély’s story is interesting here—besides my wish to record his name for an international audience—is that the tragic narrative might have fueled Rajnai’s missionary spirit. In a 1990 interview, Rajnai claims to have learnt about the “tragedy” and “genius invention” (Szibilla 12) after Vrabély’s death from one of the inventor’s friends. I do not wish to speculate as to Rajnai’s intentions and his mindset, but it is possible that the Hungarian origins of chroma keying might have helped sell his agenda. To his credit, Rajnai mentions the inventor in his autobiography as well and seems to be striving to reinstate Vrbély’s pedigree whenever he has a chance to do so.

Contemporary and Later Reactions

The final aired version of The Adventures of Pirx has five one-hour episodes, each of them a self-contained story with the same characters. The mini-series revolves around Pirx, who is freshly out of the academy in the first episode and becomes a more seasoned pilot throughout. Other recurring characters include his love interest Glória, his classmates and later colleagues, and various authority figures of the Space Military and its corollary agencies. The episodes are loosely based on Stanisław Lem’s short stories collected in Tales of Pirx the Pilot (first Polish publication in 1968).

The main space station that houses the Space Academy—ingredients include lemon juicers and plastic breadbaskets.

Huge interest was generated around Pirx in Hungarian magazines before its premiere, but the first reviews were generally not favorable. [5] Bence Inkei and Csaba Kalmár deftly collected contemporary reactions in retrospective articles in 2019, citing criticism mostly aimed at the technical inadequacies of the show and its treatment of the source material (Inkei, Kalmár). Inkei wonders whether Bernáth’s vitriolic essay from 1982 might have contributed to Rajnai’s virtual disappearance and cites passages from Bernáth that also target the clumsy special effects. Rather than revisit the same writings that the two journalists found, I would like to highlight two noteworthy points from contemporary criticism: the show’s lack of humor and its non-reflective vision of the future appeared as shortcomings in reviews as early as 1973.

István Gáll notes that the show “made Lem serious which does not become him” (27), but his bigger problem with the show is its “view of the future fashioned to teenage fantasy” (27). In this future, one does not have to study a lot, machinery is easy to operate, robots are there to be fought, and “girls do not understand a thing” (27). Women in Pirx, according to Gáll, are “concerned with their clothes[,] . . . they gossip, argue, and try to be important” (27). Pirx rehearses all the worst 1970s Hungarian stereotypes about women and projects those attitudes and power structures into the future as well.

István Pálffy argues that while excitement in Western SF like The Invaders (1967–1968) and Doctor Who (1963–) is derived from fear and by extension these nations are occupied by such feelings, Hungarians “are not afraid of the unknowns of the next century” (94). This is in line with official party ideology and completely wrong; Schreiber convincingly shows that Eastern Bloc-socialist SF was teeming with fear and paranoia (40–2). Nevertheless, Pálffy laments that Pirx fails to generate any kind of excitement, not just the Western type, and it also fails to supplant excitement with other things, for example humor. He cites The Mézga Family as a counterexample, an SF show that is humorous and overall well-made (94).

The Mézga Family is a good example not only due to the use of comical elements, but also because it is technically not very advanced. One might say that it is easier to forgive technological inadequacies for an animated series, but the backgrounds of early episodes of that show do look rather empty, not to mention the changing appearance of the principal characters. If Bernáth can liken Pirx to the first Star Wars film, then one only needs to draw a comparison between The Mézga Family and any Disney production and see the gaping technological chasm. Not that such a comparison would be fair, since political, economic, and cultural factors all contribute to such differences—but the bafflement and subsequent hatred that Pirx received cannot be explained solely by technological inadequacies, even more so because the reception of chroma keying was not unanimously negative. As György Sas argued in 1975, Rajnai’s “method is viable” and “especially suited” for SF, “even if Pirx did not succeed” (27), though he does not go into detail about the reasons for its failure. Péter Kuczka, doyen of Hungarian SF in the Kádár era, wrote in 1976 that he “had and still has no problem with [chroma keying], even when others were making fun of [it]” (30).

Rajnai later disowned the series, claiming that his co-director István Kazán was responsible for removing the philosophical material from the show and replacing them with jokes and gags; Rajnai finished working on the technical aspects of the show because of legal obligations to the channel (16–17). János Papp, who plays the protagonist Pirx, claims in a 2007 documentary that he was against simplifying Lem’s material from the beginning (Izing). In the same documentary, technical director Ferenc Ormos remembers that the crew were making fun of the show as they shot it, and model creator Béla Bognár complains that he only had a month before shooting to fabricate all the special effect models (Izing). It seems that the cast and crew did not harbor delusions of grandeur and knew perfectly what they were doing—but instead of creating jovial conspiratorial rapport with the audience (as it happened in the case of The Mézga Family), the creators only managed to annoy and Pirx left a bitter aftertaste.

The Future that Looks like 1970

I have already indicated two elements that I believe are responsible for Pirx’s failure: its lack of both humor and self-reflection. The thoughtless incorporation of Kádárian material reality into the show exacerbates these problems, though in and of itself it might have been an endearing factor. Various objects repurposed in the show include a breadbasket and a lemon juicer (combined to create a space station), a coffee maker (spaceship), a toy car in a sandbox (moon rover), car tail lights (emergency warning light), and as Bognár says, “all kinds of junk” (Izing)—the main obstacle to the suspension of disbelief is that these everyday objects remain instantly recognizable. [6] Papp argues that the “show could have had charm and humor if [co-director Kazán] had ten ideas for every model to make them come alive” (Izing). Indeed, nothing is left in the final version of the show that would indicate the kind of self-awareness that the creators themselves seemingly possessed. In the second episode (“A Galilei-állomás rejtélye” [The mystery of the Galilei station]), Pirx has to solve a locked-room murder mystery on a moon base, and the solution to the conundrum turns out to be a faulty electric skillet that fatally tricks the base’s life support system. [7] This is not the only time when technology fails the protagonist: one way or another, malfunctioning equipment is central to four out of five episodes. The animated series I referred to earlier, The Mézga Family, also features futuristic gadgets, but the source of calamities is quite different from the one found in Pirx. The Mézgas are not ready to use thirtieth-century technology and that causes their downfall; in contrast, Pirx is perfectly capable of using his material environment, but it fails him constantly. In the former case, the future is advanced and awe-inspiring but not understood, while in the latter case it is almost exactly like the present.

Pirx and Gloria in a video call. The screen is housed in a plastic lampshade.

The future in Pirx, be that material environment or societal and political structure, is not entirely congruent with the official dogma of perpetual progress in 1970s socialist Hungary. The future being fundamentally similar except for a few technological innovations means one of two things. Either 1970s Hungary is almost perfect, therefore there is no need for fundamental adjustments, which would clash with people’s everyday experience; or the promise of incessant progress failed miserably, which would go against official ideology. These two interpretations, however, can work simultaneously and create the “cynical” attitude that Alexei Yurchak identifies as the primary mode of experience in the late-stage Soviet Union. Yurchak argues that “the late socialist subject experienced official ideological representation of social reality as largely false and at the same time as immutable and omnipresent” and that “[i]n such conditions it became irrelevant for subjects whether they believed official ideological messages or not” (162). Yurchak claims that the among the main vehicles for “intricate strategies of simulated support and . . . ‘nonofficial’ practices” (162) were political jokes and humorous stories that exposed the reality behind the façade and shed light on the absurdity of official ideology, while at the same time condemning the subjects and tellers of the jokes themselves for following it. As Yurchak explains: “[The jokes’] hidden message was: ‘we recognize the official lie but find enough reasons to act as if we do not and to avoid even thinking about it’” (178). As I understand it, this mental attitude acts as the catalyst for the “cynical” mode, in which every seemingly appropriate ideological statement is doubly layered and contains its own refutation. Pirx comes close to cynicism, but it fails to fully exploit the possibilities of the attitude. Bearing in mind that at least some of the creators involved were perfectly aware of the comical potentials of the show, it is difficult to ascertain where the process has gone astray.

Consider the example of the faulty skillet mentioned earlier: it seems indeed absurd that the hyper-advanced life support system on a Moon base would be paralyzed by such a device or that the engineers of the base would not plan for such a contingency in the first place. The mystery is solved, and no one seems to notice the farcical nature of the entire affair. To be fair, two weak jokes are aimed at Pirx’s behavior—he prepares the eggs as “if the maker is turned on anyway” and proceeds to eat the omelet, to which one of his friends (wrongly) says that he “ate his evidence.” Between the two jokes, however, is a lengthy summation scene in which the whole mystery is laid out to TV viewers by a serene man (this scene does appear in the original text, see note 7). The fact that an electric skillet causes the death of three people in this manner is ridiculous, and the creators deliberately employ this element to make fun of the official version of 1970s Hungary in which no equipment breaks, everyone works diligently, and technological progress is inevitable. On the other hand, the lack of self-reflexive humor arrests the cynical process and prevents it from complete realization: the serious plot and tone of the episode (a triple fatal accident, the creepy isolation of the base, the tense atmosphere, etc.) do not generate the mischievous rapport with the audience. This type of cynicism only works if both the sender and the receiver are on the same page and are able to laugh at each other. Without that element of humor, Pirx only gives its audience a serious version of the future which exposes many aspects of their present as unpleasant but offers no comic relief.

Pirx and Gloria in a Mars resort. The robot armchair offers Pirx some refreshments—in the background, the Martian landscape.

To return to the visuality of the series, I think part of the reaction to the models and the obviously fake environments could also be explained by the imperfect operation of the cynical attitude. According to Ormos, the crew “had a good laugh” about the visuals—the problem, it seems, is that director Kazán failed to transfer this atmosphere to the show itself (as mentioned above, actor János Papp notes his lack of ideas in the documentary). If the show in any way indicated that it was not taking itself seriously, the cynical mode would have been properly established. As Bernáth notes in his article, Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope masks the reality behind its illusions so perfectly that the original objects are not instantly recognizable (Bernáth 58)—a viable alternative for Pirx would have been to self-consciously establish these objects as both the fictional and the real, alluding to the cynical attitude towards socialist make-believe ideology. Of the better examples are the robot butlers that Pirx and Gloria encounter in their hotel suite on Mars: these are actors dressed up as United States-style lounge chairs, with the actor’s hands readily recognizable as armrests. When Pirx and Glória sit down, the chairs start caressing them and they have to dissuade the chairs’ friendly attempts. There are several layers of irony at work here: first, future access to comfortable “Western-style” furniture is tainted by the fact that said furniture is slightly dysfunctional. Second, the way the robots are portrayed also alludes to the tendency of Soviet-style production and engineering to use manpower over automation. These factors combine into the cynical sensibility towards the idea of the socialist automated household: the supposedly advanced devices require human oversight and often laborious manual operation, but the Western comfort level will be achieved eventually—no reason for complaints, and everyone carries on. [8] Unfortunately, these gags are not common in the show because generally the audience is expected to accept drinking glasses as glass corridors and toilet brushes as antennae.

Good Intentions, Bad Reactions

Analysing Pirx and putting it into context will not bring about appreciation or widespread critical re-evaluation. All in all, the show is difficult to watch and its biggest problem, contrary to popular belief, is not in the visual effects department. The models and chroma key backgrounds are ridiculous for sure—but far worse is the show’s slow script and its visible effort to take itself seriously. Most of the furor surrounding the series stems from the fact that it tries to pass off a clumsy 1970s imitation of the future as a genuine Hungarian future while remaining within the socialist party’s ideological coordinates. Cynicism about the regime and its visions of the future permeated contemporary Hungarian society, and very little of this sentiment made it into the show.

The Adventures of Pirx is an interesting product of 1970s Hungarian popular culture and the era’s imaginations of the future. Its creation and its reception are bound to András Rajnai’s name, even though the creator disowned the show subsequently. Rajnai’s persistence and belief in his method (however misguided that may be) are worthy of respect, but the failure of his first widely known project [9] haunted his career for the rest of his life. Critics did not react well to a version of the future that reminded them too closely of their present and that did nothing to comment on the irony of that situation. Pirx did garner a small cult following in the general audience, chiefly among its then-young members who were hooked on anything science fictional and think back on the show with nostalgia, but it is safe to say that it does not attract new fans and it has not been rediscovered as a hidden gem.

Looking at the reception of The Mézga Family side by side with that of Pirx, an important observation to be made is that a humorous and cynical attitude towards the future resonated better with Hungarian audiences. Though far from being applicable as a general statement about the 1970s Hungarian science fiction scene (or then-contemporary Hungarian concepts of the future, for that matter), it is certainly curious that before the 1989 change of regime the comical or satirical vein in audiovisual Hungarian SF seems more successful than “serious” SF. Not only were The Mézga Family (1968–1980), Mikrobi [Mikrobi] (1975–1976), and Macskafogó [Cat City] (1986) all well-received, but they are still fondly remembered. Another aspect that ties these works together is that they are all animated—again, a simple explanation would be that imagined worlds and futuristic environments are easier and cheaper to render in animation, but animation is generally more conducive to humor and satire, too. The Adventures of Pirx is a product of a period in which the expression of a radically different future was disallowed, and a too familiar future rejected. Nevertheless, it still serves as a reminder of its creators’ ingenuity in low-budget set design and their wish to depict a future in which scientific research and exploration is spearheaded by their country.


[1] These and the following quotations are my translations.

[2] For more on censorship in the Kádár era and its relation to it in SF, see Panka 342–48.

[3] Calculations based on the HUF/USD exchange rate on 24 June 2021 and on the historical price-adjusting calculator created by Pál Danyi at

[4] Short reports of Vrabély’s success also appeared in other newspapers such as Magyarság [Hungarians], Nemzeti Ujság [National Newspaper], and Dunántúl [Transdanubia].

[5] It is telling that Ludas Matyi humor magazine (roughly equivalent to the United States-based MAD) referenced Pirx twice already in 1973. One joke is about “advanced technology” (no. 16, 13), and the other is about the show having nothing to do with Lem’s work (no. 19, 4).

[6] Another example of the thin “futuristic” glaze is that the only remotely Hungarian name is Glória, all the others have international names—but they all speak Hungarian and there is no indication that they are using a translation device.

[7] The main ideas for the episodes are taken from Lem’s writings, in this case “The Conditioned Reflex.” While the short story also features an electric skillet, its role is significantly smaller than in the TV adaptation. Simply put, the malfunctions in the short stories are not necessarily pivotal elements, unlike in the series.

[8] Though the belief that Eastern Bloc engineering is much worse than its Western counterpart is not entirely true, there is a lot of evidence that the public imagination did indeed perceive it so. In a collection of political humor edited by János Homa, there are countless jokes that make fun of Hungarian and Soviet technology as compared to the Western (mostly, American) one.

[9] Rajnai produced another experimental film in 1970 using chroma key technology, but Ének a Galaktikáról [Song about Galactica] was not as well-known as Pirx.


“Vigyázzunk a magyar találmányokra!” Műszaki élet, vol. 12, no. 24, 1957, p. 5. Arcanum Digitális Tudománytár, Accessed 29 July 2021.

B. Gy. “Magyar fiatalember nyerte a Feltalálók Nemzetközi Szövetségének aranyérmét.” 8 Órai Ujság, 17 Oct 1934, p. 4. Arcanum Digitális Tudománytár, Accessed 29 July 2021.

Bernáth, László. “Gombok az asztal lapja alatt, avagy a Rajnai-jelenség.” Filmvilág, vol. 25, no. 6, 1982, pp. 56–58.

Gáll, István. “Pirx, a bádogos.” Film Színház Muzsika, vol. 17, no. 14, 1973, p. 27. Arcanum Digitális Tudománytár, Accessed 29 July 2021.

Garai, Tamás. “PIRX pilóta kalandjai.” Tükör, vol. 10, no. 6, 1973, p. 19. Arcanum Digitális Tudománytár, Accessed 29 July 2021.

Géczi, Zoltán. “Dialógusok az elektronikus lélekvándorlásról.” Filmvilág, vol. 49, no. 6, 2006, pp. 4–7.

Homa, János. Ez már a kommunizmus, vagy lesz ennél rosszabb is? Hal(l)hatatlan politikai viccek. Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár, Accessed 29 July 2021.

Inkei, Bence. “Nem értették a nézők a magyar kenyérkosár-úrhajót.”, 19 May 2019. Accessed 29 July 2021.

Izing, Róbert. “Rendezte: Kazán István. Pirx pilóta visszatér magyar riportfilm, 2007.” YouTube, uploaded by Kazan István Kamaraszínház, 21 Feb 2021. Accessed 29 July 2021.

Kalmár, Csaba. “Óriásit bukott az űrben kalandozó Pirx kapitány.” Origo, 7 Aug 2019, Accessed 29 July 2021.

Kuczka, Péter. “Dráma vagy varázslat.” Filmvilág, vol. 19, no. 21, 1976, pp. 30–31. Arcanum Digitális Tudománytár, Accessed 29 July 2021.

Ludas Matyi, vol. 29, no. 16, 1973. Arcanum Digitális Tudománytár, Accessed 29 July 2021.

, vol. 29, no. 19, 1973. Arcanum Digitális Tudománytár, Accessed 29 July 2021.

Németh, Attila. “Mondjam vagy mutassam?” Filmvilág, vol. 52, no. 10, 2009, pp. 12–14.

Pálffy, István. “Márciusi televízió.” Alföld, vol. 24, no. 5, 1973, pp. 94–95. Arcanum Digitális Tudománytár, Accessed 29 July 2021.

Panka, Daniel. “‘Mystic and a little utopistic’: The Mézga Family as cynical utopia.” Science Fiction Film and Television, vol. 13, no. 3, 2020, pp. 341–62.

Potoczky, Júlia. “Túl a lehetetlenen.” Magyarország, vol. 15, no. 50, 1978, p. 43. Arcanum Digitális Tudománytár, Accessed 29 July 2021.

Rajnai, András. “Az elektronikus jelenség.” Filmvilág, vol. 25. no. 8, 1982, pp. 58–59.

—. Sugarakból teremtett világ. Magyar Televízió Rt., 1998.

Sas, György. “Illúzionista játék.” Magyarország, vol. 47, no. 1, 1975, p. 27. Arcanum Digitális Tudománytár, Accessed 29 July 2021.

Schreiber, András. “Para-univerzum.” Filmvilág, vol. 48, no. 11, 2005, 40–42.

Sepsi, László. “Pirx kalandjai.” Filmvilág, vol. 52, no 12, 2009, p. 61.

Szibilla [pseudonym]. “‘Magyar átok’ a tévétalálmányon?” Kurír reggeli kiadás, vol. 1, no. 141, 1990, p. 12. Arcanum Digitális Tudománytár, Accessed 29 July 2021.

Vajda, Pál. “A tévé új technikai lehetőségei.” Új Tükör, vol. 13, no. 32, 1976, p 32. Arcanum Digitális Tudománytár, Accessed 29 July 2021.

Vecsernyés, Gábor. “Kávéfőzőből űrhajó.” Átjáró, vol. 3, no. 2, 2004, pp. 82–83.

Yurchak, Alexei. “The Cynical Reason of Late Socialism: Power, Pretense, and the Anekdot.” Public Culture, vol. 9, no. 2, 1997, pp. 161–88.

Daniel Panka is assistant lecturer at the Department of English Studies at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. His interests include science fiction, popular culture, genre theory, and surveillance studies; his dissertation focuses on privacy, surveillance, and transparency in SF. He has published in Science Fiction Studies, Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, and Science Fiction Film and Television. From January 2020 he was a Fulbright scholarship grantee as a Visiting Student Researcher at the University of California, Riverside.

Undead Culture in the East: The Hungarian Vampire Negotiating the National Past in Comrade Drakulich

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

On the Edge: The Fantastic in Hungarian Literature and Culture

Undead Culture in the East: The Hungarian Vampire Negotiating the National Past in Comrade Drakulich

Sándor Szélesi
Translated by Gergely Kamper

Western culture’s undead renaissance has a spectacular effect on European culture, and it has brought about nation-specific variations in Hungary. But while in the past two decades the West has been more invested in the vampire lover than in the political vampire (who may be as much of a seducer as the revenant in the supernatural romances), Hungary has rediscovered the political potentials of the bloodsucking undead. This phenomenon is almost self-explanatory: firstly, the figure of the vampire—the hybrid creature that is both living and dead—is a genuinely apt signifier of the haunting past that needs to be confronted and settled; and secondly, Hungary has its own historical connections to the literary vampire, as Transylvania, homeland of Dracula, used to be part of Hungary but was lost with the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Therefore, spinning narratives with the vampire appears as a most natural Hungarian method to re-create fictive, alternative pasts to travel back and forth and thereby “harass” the present (Miklósvölgyi and Nemes). Nemes explains that practicing “a type of spectral retrofuturism, a returning which is not quite a repetition” (qtd. in Harrison, “Eastern Europe’s” n.p.) is what Hungarofuturism aims to do in order to oppose the Hungarian government’s essentializing view of what it means to be Hungarian (Harrison, “How a Futurist” n.p.) and to offer a new perspective on Hungarianness.

Such literary endeavors include Noémi Szécsi’s parodistic novel Finnugor vámpír (2002) [The Finno-Ugrian Vampire, 2012) and Szabolcs Benedek’s Vérgróf [Blood Count] trilogy (2012–2013), [1] both working with historical settings and the character of the vampire to radically re-imagine history, as well as Ágnes Gaura’s ongoing Borbála Borbíró series (2012–), [2] set in a contemporary, alternative Hungary and regularly using vampire characters to reminisce and comment about the past and thus remythologize both the national identity and the present. Among these works, Benedek’s lacks an ironical stance, while both Szécsi and Gaura use heavy irony as a tool to dismantle enforced, essentializing concepts about Hungarianness; [3] yet, independently of the authors’ artistic techniques (and the date of their publication), they qualify as Hungarofuturist works inasmuch as they contribute to “an identity-poetic experiment in radical imagination, through which an emergent minority identity can feed into a strategy of post-ironic overidentification” (Nemes, qtd. in Harrison, “Eastern Europe’s” n.p.). The same applies for the subject matter of the present study, the satirical vampire movie Comrade Drakulich, released in 2019 but set in 1972, which works to recreate a fictional past by connecting the protagonist vampire to the communist-socialist so-called Kádár era. While this film clearly aims at providing a critical view on a much debated, dark era of Hungarian history, I argue that its effort to utilize the motif of the undead comments equally on the Hungarian “official,” that is, the government-propagated attitude to its national past and this way defies the hegemonic, nationalist discourse about a normative, prescribed Hungarianness that stems from an interpretation of tradition and thus history.

As follows from the above, in order to put the film into context, it is necessary to provide a little insight into how the Kádár era and the present Orbán-regime relate to each other. Hungary’s current political situation is defined by Prime Minister Victor Orbán, who started out as a young, reform politician (just like János Kádár—a fact that will be of importance later in this study). His political speech in 1989 played an important role in liberating Hungary from the Soviet military presence in 1989. However, now he is frequently criticized for having abandoned the values he fought for and seen as an illiberal, [4] far right politician, whose populist politics relies on Hungarian nationalism. [5] Having an absolute majority in the parliament, he neglected any consultation with the opposition and civil organizations when he passed the new Fundamental Law on January 1, 2012, with which he “set out the vision of a Christian-conservative political community, while also laying the groundwork for political centralization” (Bíró-Nagy), and he is the only European Union leader who has been identified as a “press freedom predator” on the list compiled by Reporters Without Borders (Sugue).

Based on his anti-democratic political maneuvers to monopolize power, Orbán is often compared to János Kádár, the symbolic figure of the dictatorial one-party regime of socialism; therefore, when a satire on the Kádár-regime is created, such as in the film Comrade Drakulich, several issues have very strong resonances to the contemporary audience—even to those young movie-goers who were not yet born when the one-party system was the only system imaginable in Hungary. Such accentuated issues are a strong attachment to the East and a strong criticism of western liberalism and capitalism. Hungary used to be under Soviet political-military influence after the Second World War, and the first steps towards an independent Hungary were made after 1989 when the Russian soldiers were sent home and Hungary sought political alliance with the West. However, this political opening towards the West has been slowly undone by Orbán since 2010. His rhetoric stresses an irresolvable conflict between Hungary and the West, always blaming Western forces, more notably the European Union or George Soros, as powers aiming at weakening the national identity and Hungary’s national power.

Comrade Drakulich should be watched and understood in this context, as it adapts well-known Dracula-motifs, such as the East-West opposition and the threat of colonization to a specifically Hungarian situation. The movie is set in 1972, when Hungary was still under direct Soviet political influence, and János Kádár was General Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party. Kádár was appointed to lead Hungary after the 1956 revolution that failed to succeed in getting rid of the Soviet occupation. The Kádár era is characterized by Hungary’s isolation from the West; it is an era when everything that comes from the West was deemed suspicious and potentially dangerous; that is, the West is successfully demonized and monsterized by a monstrous communist leadership—the very idea that the film is rooted in. However, while the first phase of the Kádár era is a clear case of ruthless dictatorship, due to Kádár’s transition into what may be termed as a “liberal communist,” people tend to remember his longer, second phase of his thirty-two-year-long term; therefore, a lot of people look back on the more liberal communist years of the 1970s and 80s with nostalgia.

This nostalgic sentiment and the parallels between Kádár’s and Orbán’s attitudes to the West and the East are components that allow one to see Comrade Drakulich as an entertaining satire about Hungary’s past and present, at which one is allowed to laugh. The East-West tension is dramatized by the vampire character, called Béla Fábián in the movie. The name Béla evokes Béla Lugosi, who had to leave Hungary in 1919 due to his former communist political activities and became well known for his repeated portrayal of Dracula in Hollywood. “Comrade Drakulich,” whose name provides the title, surprisingly, is never uttered in the movie. Yet it informs the audience of what they may expect: “comrade” references the communist past, and “Drakulich” hints at the Dracula-motif, as well as the Russian influence with the characteristic Slavic name ending. The name suggests the party’s hope that Fábián will prove to be a good comrade and will share the secret of his longevity with the Soviets. It also ironically questions what it means to be a good comrade in such a political situation, since Béla Fábián, just like Béla Lugosi, is a Hungarian communist and an ex-patriate. He used to be friends with all those old politicians who are now, in the diegetic present, in power. Once it became evident that the revolution in 1956 would not receive Western military support and was thus doomed to fail, they quickly gave up their political and moral principles and proved themselves to be good comrades for the Soviets, who again tightened their grasp on Hungary. Fábián, however, stayed true to his political beliefs and left the country in 1956 to flee to anti-Soviet Cuba, which sympathized with the Hungarian revolution and was reluctant to officially acknowledge the new Hungarian government (Horváth 64). The film does not explain when and why exactly Fábián moved to America from Cuba after 1959, but his obscure biography supports the image of the ideologically consistent comrade: as the political tension between Cuba and the United States gradually grew in the early 1960s and Cuba opened towards Muscovite power (Horváth 56–61), the only logical move for Fábián was to migrate from Cuba to the United States, the greatest Western power opposing the Soviet Union.

The English language film poster. Note the Dracula-motif as a shadow in the background.

The plot revolves around the identity of Fábián, who returns to Hungary to organize a nationwide blood drive for the Vietnamese (who fight against the Americans at that time, which makes the Vietnam War subtly part of the East-West conflict). While Fábián’s proclaimed goal to help the Vietnamese comrades is a truly communist one, the Hungarian secret police is given the task to follow him and figure out if he is a Western spy. The agents quickly note the surprising youth and the strange behavior of the old Western comrade, so the color red—the color of communism—shifts to represent vampirism, thanks to Fábián’s habit of always drinking blood (camouflaged as some red soft drink) and driving his red Mustang representing Western freedom, a threat to the communist regime. To complete the symbolism, the agents give him the code name “Veres” (which means “deep red”6 and is a common Hungarian family name) even before he could be identified as a vampire.

Image from the movie, the blood drive setting.

The surveillance operation mostly relies on the work of two people, whose names are, again, of importance. Trusted to lead the operation is László Kun, evoking Hungarian history in various ways. László is the Hungarian version for Ladislaus, while Kun means Cuman. These two names together reference the historical figure Ladislaus the Cuman, a thirteenth-century King of Hungary, who allied with the pagan Cumans in Christian Hungary—a relationship that Kun’s serving the communists in a once religious country may subtly allude to. Yet Kun has become a wide-spread surname in Hungary, and another historical figure who may be relevant in the film’s context bore this name: Béla Kun, leader of the Council Republic of Hungary in 1919, who in the Kádár era was considered a true communist hero and a martyr (as he had been ordered executed by Stalin in 1938). The other secret service agent in the surveillance operation is Kun’s life partner, Mária Magyar, whose name references the whole of Hungary: “Magyar” means “Hungarian,” and it is, again, a common family name. Mária is the Hungarian version of Mary; moreover, Hungary is also called Mária’s country (Regnum Marianum in old Latin texts)—an allusion to the tradition which holds that before his death, Hungary’s first king, Stephen I, dedicated the country to the Virgin Mary, as he had no heir of his own. This may be important to note because the communist regime after World War II did not tolerate religions, persecuted the churches, and discarded the idea that Hungary was under the Virgin Mary’s protection so much so that it even tore down the Regnum Marianum Church in Budapest in 1951. Even though Magyar and Kun are a couple, their names reveal the conflict in how they relate to their mission: motivated partly by jealousy, Kun wants to serve the state effectively and capture Fábián as quickly as possible, while Magyar, under Fábián’s seductive effect, ends up questioning the motivations behind her instructions and starts working on saving the vampire. Her resistance to serve the state faithfully demonstrates deviance from what is normative Hungarian behaviour in the Kádár era.

The power dynamics between Fábián and Mária are demonstrated both via their private life—most importantly, their sex scenes—as well as by focusing on Magyar’s agency in a dominantly male working environment, where men are her superiors, and women can only work in various subordinate positions. László is shown as dominant in all areas: as lover—on top during sex—and as a senior agent who later also becomes Mária’s superior during the secret police operation in which Mária is a bait for the suspicious Western visitor. Magyar’s emphatic lack of agency as an agent in the first half of the film is also a nod towards Orbán’s misogynistic politics that systematically undercuts women’s equality in Hungary. [7] The open male chauvinism directed against Magyar from her boss, Comrade Cserkó, does not refrain from extensive body-shaming and objectification, which embarrasses the also-present Kun only because another man gets to look at his lover’s legs—the act is seen by him as a violation of his property, not as a gesture that somehow insults Magyar as a person. Other than that, the whole scene when Magyar’s body is measured up for the task of seducing is presented as normalized: Cserkó’s female secretary does not appear to find the scene in any sense awkward. Magyar does feel embarrassed but has learnt to obey the instructions coming from her (male) superiors. Accordingly, when she is given the task of escorting Fábián and then seducing him, making sure they exchange kisses, she does not question the orders and tries to do her best in achieving the expected results.

Magyar’s behavior, however, radically changes after she has spent some time with Fábián: she demonstrates her agency in various walks of life. Instead of following instructions blindly, she has her own initiative and takes control of the operation, which is neatly contrasted with Kun’s incompetence, emphasized in conjunction with his jealousy. Béla’s vampirism does not even need a kiss to transform the female agent, Magyar’s feelings towards her partner. Kun famously underperforms in bed, as even the neighbors are aware, whereas the vampire’s erotic vibes are irresistible, so this inevitably creates tension in the agents’ love relationship—and a clear shift in their sexual life. In their brief sex scene at the beginning of the film, Magyar is a sexual object who does not receive much enjoyment from the intercourse that brings a quick orgasm for the man. Later, however, when Kun has become obsessed by the idea of his lover enjoying her task of seducing Fábián, Magyar uses sex as a tool to reach her aim: she takes advantage of Kun’s utter jealousy and sexual arousal when she withholds satisfying Fábián until she gets his needed approval to work the way she wants to.

While including a number of sex scenes seems to serve mostly a comic purpose, it highlights the role of the vampire both as a sexual threat [8] and as a colonizing power [9]—two anxieties that Dracula, whose character helps Kun identify Fábián as a revenant, embodies. While Dracula attacks from the East, Fábián is a Western incarnation, but the terror he represents is of similar nature: his Western “spirit” (if one may use this term for a vampire at all) infiltrates communist Hungary and disrupts order. It poses a threat especially to the women, whom Drakulich—just as his literary predecessor—can easily seduce. In Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire’s power to transform modest Victorian women into sexual beings and monstrous predators who lack the instinct to become (not good comrades but) good wives and mothers shakes the foundations of Victorian society. In Comrade Drakulich, Fábián manages to turn Magyar into a person who is able to resist the homogenizing power of the communists. In alliance with Fábián, she disturbs the order of the world that seemed unshakeable.

Magyar’s transformation into a revolutionary has various stages and manifestations and it goes hand in hand with her liberation as a woman. Not only does her more active role in sex support her evolution in this respect but also her growing agency in her work; and when she realizes that she does not want to be an attachment to Kun’s life to prove the male agent’s masculinity, she can finally be her true, authentic self. The climax of this process comes when she gets to drive Fábián’s symbolic red Mustang, as cars are recurring components of constructing and deconstructing gender stereotypes in the film. Magyar’s extensive knowledge of the Volvo’s mechanical system mocks stereotypical gender conceptions and is funnily contrasted with the scene in which Kun is forced to run after his own car in a surveillance situation, because he forgot to pull the handbrake. Yet despite her intellectual ability and her competence, Magyar’s job is to play the role of a stereotypical woman, the seducer, relying mostly on her body and not on her mind. However, we soon learn that she is quick to think and act well even in unexpected situations (unlike Kun, who tends to make absurd decisions) and thus driving the car representing western freedom symbolically highlights her final liberation, her competence in a men’s world and her act of rebellion against the communist state and the sexist world. The scene also foreshadows her transformation into a vampire: as an independently thinking woman with agency, she is a monster who embodies the transgressions the communist state does not tolerate. [10]

Beyond its function as a source of humor and a tool to elicit a critical reaction from both Magyar and the spectators to the patriarchal system (of not only the Kádár era but also of the cultural moment that produced Fábián as a monster, that is, the Orbán era), the emphasis on the sexist milieu as inseparable from the state apparatus symbolically suggests the impotence of the political system. The male agents’ misogyny seems to result from the need to compensate for the overall inefficiency that these men serving this unproductive system display. The lack of competence displayed by the secret police is linked to a problematic masculinity, a discrepancy between image and action. Kun’s weak performance in bed parallels his weak performance as an agent, and his weak performance as a “bodybuilder” to get into shape: one of the highlights of the movie are those few seconds in which Kun’s training offers a fine parody of Rocky Balboa’s iconic training scene in Rocky IV. [11] Early in the film another male agent also demonstrates his unprofessional attitude to his job when he misses Fábián’s early arrival because of a blow job that he enjoys during the secret operation. All these are symptoms whose symbolic significance is summed up by comrade Kádár himself after he has been strongly kicked in the loins several times, but his body shows no reaction to the painful attack. His penis is numb, but he “can still fuck,” as he assures—an old joke implied here about what politicians have been doing to the Hungarian nation and what state Hungary is in after all this activity. From this respective it is of particular importance that in the film women are not shown enjoying sex and their role is to only provide pleasure for the men—the notable exception being when Fábian has sex with the Vietnamese agent and everyone is listening to the woman’s elongated orgasm.

Fábián disrupts order both on the private and on the societal level. His incompatibility with the communist Hungarian world manifests in his garlic intolerance: he is simply unable to coexist with a country in which people tend to oversaturate everything with garlic. Yet, he still offers his cooperation, contingent on Kádár’s apology for the events after the revolution of 1956—a personal trauma for Fábián and a historical trauma for Hungary, plunging the country into communist terror.

A more stylized Hungarian poster creates alliance by the use of black clothes among Magyar, Fábián, and Dracula and creates a contrast between this group of characters and Kun, dressed in white.

His offered cooperation, of course, is about longevity. It turns out that the all-knowing Soviet spy system has been aware of Béla’s vampirism for some time, and they want a vampire to be sent over to them to assure the Soviet Union’s leader Comrade Brezhnev’s immortality, as his health has been on the decline. The real monster, it seems, then, is Soviet communism, which longs for immortality and attempts at monopolizing the color blood red. In this context “the constant sucking of the blood of the Western working class by the bourgeois class” (Neocleous 668) that Marx highlights is subverted: the Western vampire drinks hospital blood, has a liberating effect on the female agent, and turns Magyar into a vampire only to save her from death and offer her a new, even more liberated life; [12] in contrast, Brezhnev’s attempt at becoming an everlasting vampire threatens the constant sucking of the blood of the Eastern working class by the Eastern political elite. This perspective is supported by Kádár’s delusional confession at the end of the film, in which he explains that he does not want the vampire’s bite for he always was, is and will be everlasting—a speech that allows us to see the political present of Hungary as still being controlled by a reincarnation of the past’s monstrous power.

As a satire, this movie ridicules the communist regime that the Soviets so much tried to preserve even when its failure had been evident for a long time. It mocks communists’ naïve belief in the sustainability—a kind of immortality—of communism and it criticizes the impotent political system of the 1970s that seemed to freeze time in Hungary while the Western world produced spectacular social and economic developments. It otherizes and mocks the disturbing past—and offers a relief from the present by indirectly mocking Hungary’s monstrous present with a comedy on the past reflecting on up-to-date political issues. Fábián as a vampire accentuates the paradoxical relation between contemporary Hungarian society and its devouring past. Consumption is at the center in the narrative: Comrade Drakulich aims at coming to terms with the traumatic past by turning it into an absurd comedy in which hardly anyone smiles or laughs (especially not when a political joke is told, so the spectators are given fair warning about the seriousness that underlies the comic treatment) and making it “consumable” by introducing the monster that consumes—radically reimagining the past with the help of the fantastic. The film underscores the predatory, oppressive aspects of communism that have been softened by the nostalgic sentiment; but by means of othering what is about to be lost to the national collective, the undead monster familiarizes and stabilizes the troublesome past that Hungarians should understand and come to terms with.


[1] A vérgróf [The Blood Count] (Libri, 2012); A vérgrófnő [The Blood Countess] (Libri, 2012); A vértanú [The Martyr] (Libri, 2013).

[2] Vámpírok múzsája [Muse of the Vampires] (Delta Vision, 2012); Átkozott balszerencse [Cursed Misfortune] (Delta Vision, 2013); Lidércnyomás [Nightmare] (Delta Vision, 2013), Lángmarta örökség [Flame-Touched Inheritance] (Delta Vision, 2014); Attila koporsója [Attila’s Coffin]  (Delta Vision, 2015).

[3] C.f. the brief summary about the novel on Publishing Hungary, arguing that “through the character of the cosmopolitan vampire-grandmother it deconstructs the concepts of nation and homeland” (“Finnugor vámpír,” my translation).

[4] Orbán himself coined the term “illiberal democracy” in 2014 to define his political practice, and he clarified what he means by this in 2019, saying that “The essence of illiberal democracy is Christian liberty and the protection of Christian liberty” (qtd. in Kovács, n.p.).

[5] For a more detailed picture, see Bíró-Nagy’s article.

[6] The most common and neutral word for red in Hungarian is “piros,” whereas “Veres” is a variant of “vörös”, which is the type of red Hungarians use in compounds that relate to the symbolism of communism, such as the red star (“vöröscsillag”) or the Red Army (Vörös Hadsereg) or red flag, (“vörös lobogó,” in contrast with the red in the Hungarian flag, which is always “piros”) as well as for the color blood-red (“vérvörös”). “Veres”, on top of all, differs only slightly in spelling from “véres,” which specifically means “bloody” in English.

[7] Besides his regular patronizing and misogynistic comments on women in his various media performances, Orbán is infamous, among other reasons, for banning Gender Studies in Hungary in 2018 (for details, see Oppenheim) and making it clear that, as his minister responsible for families explained in a notorious video, “women should relish their roles as child bearers and caregivers [… and] that Hungarian women shouldn’t give up their ‘privileges over some misguided fight for emancipation’” (Gall).

[8] The vampire fangs’ penetration into the body has been read as a metaphorical representation of sexual intercourse since Christopher Bentley’s 1972 article on Dracula. For more detail, see Limpár 17.

[9] For details on Dracula as a colonizer, see Arata’s “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization,” Bundrick’s “ʻCovered in Blood and Dirtʼ: Industrial, Capital and Cultural Crisis in Red Rock and Dracula,” and McKee’s “Racialization, Capitalism, and Aesthetics in Stoker’s Dracula.”

[10] On the monster’s transgressive roles, see Cohen in more detail.

[11] It adds to the humor that the scene is an anachronistic parody, as even the first part of the Rocky film series was made four years after the diegetic present of Comrade Drakulich. Kun’s training, however, directly alludes to Rocky IV (1985), where Rocky’s opponent is from the USSR. The differences in training circumstances are the highlighted part of the film: the Russian boxer trains in an advanced training facility and uses steroids to boost his strength, while Rocky trains in nature in Siberia; therefore, Kun’s parodical moves evoke the West-East conflict and the “natural” method of his training becomes not the presentation of the perseverance and the noble fairness of his play, as for Rocky Balboa in Rocky IV, but a representation of communist Hungary’s lack of fitness culture and Kun’s failure to ever reach Rocky’s representative masculine features.

[12] That is to say, to let “Birdy,” (which is the code name Magyar receives from the secret police) out of her cage.


Arata, Stephen D. “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization.” Victorian Studies, vol. 33, no.4, Summer 1990, pp. 621–45, 

Bentley, Christopher. “The Monster in the Bedroom: Sexual Symbolism in Bram Stokerʼs Dracula.” Dracula: The Vampire and the Critics. Edited by Margaret L. Carter, UMI Research Press, 1988, pp. 25–34.

Bíró-Nagy, András. “Illiberal Democracy in Hungary: The Social Background and Practical Steps of Building an Illiberal State.” Barcelone Centre for International Affairs, Jan. 2017,

Bundrick, Christopher. “‘Covered in Blood and Dirt’: Industrial, Capital and Cultural Crisis in Red Rock and Dracula.” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 47, no.1, Fall 2014, pp. 21–34, doi: 10.1353/slj.2014.0023. 

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture. (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, University of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp. 3–25.

Comrade Drakulich, directed by Márk Bodzsár, Filmkontroll, 2019.

“Finnugor vámpír.” Publishing Hungary, Petőfi irodalmi Múzeum,

Gall, Lydia. “Hungary’s Family Minister Undermines Equality for Women.” Human Rights Watch. 17 Dec. 2020,

Harrison, Mia Imani. “Eastern Europe’s New Liberation Movement: Hungarofuturism and its Parallels with Afrofuturism.” Interview with Zsolt Miklósvölgyi, Márió Z. Nemes, Orsolya Bajusz, and Dominika Trapp. C&, 12 Aug. 2020,

—. “How a Futurist Hungarian Arts Movement Offers New Means of Autonomy.” Hypoallergic, 30 Oct. 2020,

Horváth, Emőke. “A magyar–kubai diplomáciai kapcsolatok létrejöttének sajátos fordulatai: 1959–1961.” AETAS, vol. 33. no. 1, 2018, pp. 50–68.

Kovács, Zoltán. “PM Orbán at Tusványos: ‘The essence of illiberal democracy is the protection of Christian libertyʼ.” About Hungary. 27 July 2019,

Limpár, Ildikó. The Truths of Monsters: Coming of Age with Fantastic Media. McFarland, 2021.

McKee, Patricia. “Racialization, Capitalism, and Aesthetics in Stoker’s Dracula”. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 36, no.1, Autumn 2002, pp. 42–60.

Miklósvölgyi, Zsolt and Márió Z. Nemes. “Hungarofuturista Kiáltvány.” [Hungarofuturist Manifesto.] Litera, 10 Jan. 2018,

Neocleous, Mark. “The Political Economy of The Dead: Marx’s Vampires.” History of Political Thought, vol. 24, no. 4, Winter 2003, pp. 668–684,

Oppenheim, Maya. “Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban Bans Gender Studies Programmes.” Independent, 25 Oct. 2018,

Rocky IV, directed by Sylverster Stallone, United Artists, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Chartoff-Winkler Productions, 1985.

Sugue, Merlin. “Reporters Without Borders lists Viktor Orbán as ‘press freedom predator’.” Politico, 5 July 2021,

Ildikó Limpár, senior lecturer of English at Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Budapest, holds a PhD in English and an MA in Egyptology and works in the field of Monster Studies. Her monograph entitled The Truths of Monsters: Coming of Age with Fantastic Media was published by McFarland in 2021 and focuses on the use of monsters as literary tools addressing life challenges in coming-of-age fantasy and science fiction. She is editor of Displacing the Anxieties of Our World: Spaces of the Imagination (published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in 2017) and Rémesen népszerű: Szörnyek a populáris kultúrában, an anthology of essays in Monster Studies written in Hungarian and published by Athenaeum in 2021.

The Hungarian Way of Science Fiction

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 2

On the Edge: The Fantastic in Hungarian Literature and Culture

The Hungarian Way of Science Fiction

Sándor Szélesi
Translated by Gergely Kamper

As early as forty years ago, those meddling in the world of speculative fiction in Hungary often joked that defining science fiction is a favoured indoor sport among their ranks. It seemed like a nice joke, and it was at least as true as it was funny, although in those days few really grasped this.

Science fiction is a genre of British and American origins which was shaped by the scientific and social changes as much as by literary trends of the twentieth century. Defining it would not be easy even if it could be described by formal or content-related criteria like other genres, but the fact that these have been changing along the way makes the task even more difficult.

In the 1970s attempts at forming a definition originated from three different sources: academic literary studies, commercial book and magazine publishing, and communities of practice. That decade is the period when the first theoretical works appeared, and although it was a formalistic approach that first found a way to a definition, a new theory also surfaced emphasizing a historical aspect in the system of genres. Partly motivated by this paradigm shift, SF, still in its infancy, started to seek out its literary antecedents.

Nevertheless, this approach—like the formalistic one—did not result in an unequivocal definition. As a matter of fact, neither answered the question of what science fiction really was. In Hungary not only theoretical research—similar to what was going on in the United Kingdom or the United States—was lacking at the time but there was no de facto SF publishing, either. The authors of  sporadic speculative works were either practitioners of young adult literature—Péter Tőke, Miklós Rónaszegi, Péter Bogáti—or came from ‘high literature’ and only took a short trip to the genre—Péter Lengyel, Dezső Tandori, Gyula Hernádi. Every now and then a scientist—like astronomer György Kulin or biologist Tibor Dévényi—signed on, but their works never received the SF label. They also did not relate to the then-canonized British and American science fiction (not to the current topics let alone the institutions of publishing) or the works of the contemporary authors coming from a world of class struggles and positivistic technology—although educational policies explicitly required the transmission of socialist ideals for the coming generation. (Examples are Földrengések szigete (1957) by Klára Fehér or Endre László’s series Szírusz kapitány, which first found its way to audiences in the form of a radio drama.)

It was high time that a new collection of books labelled as SF came to life. It finally got the go-ahead in 1969 and interestingly enough is associated with the poet Péter Kuczka. The well-connected and pragmatic Kuczka found a market gap he could fill in Hungarian literature. He was fortunate, not only because he got the backing of the socialist cultural leadership, but also because communities of practice similar to those in the United States had not been formed yet, and literary science found SF unworthy to deal with, which meant that Kuczka did not have these two to comply with.

Three years later Kuczka raised the bar attached to the books and created a more extensive project: an SF anthology, Galaktika. At first, to gain proper intellectual and financial backing, they intended to present the roots of the genre, thus proving the literary legitimacy of science fiction (academics remained silent on the issue). The definition was imported from overseas. The formalistic approach of Serbian-Canadian Darko Suvin was adopted. He defined SF as “the genre of cognitive estrangement, a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment” (8-9).

Helikon, a periodical dealing with world literature, devoted a whole issue to SF. Besides Kuczka and Suvin, contributors included Stanislaw Lem, Yuly Kagarlitsky, and Philip K. Dick, thus giving international legitimacy to the genre. The above definition presented to socialist cultural leadership imported a formalistic view and later, a historical approach was added to that. This combination allowed the community to search for the first work that could be labelled as SF in the distant past. That leads to some theories calling the Epic of Gilgamesh the first example of science fiction in the world. Going back to ancient times for the roots of SF was no more than an absurd interlude; still, it persevered amongst devotees of the genre. Indeed, it was also accepted by Hungarian persona publica just to legitimise it. With this 1972 definition, Péter Kuczka, who supervised SF publishing, raised a wall around the genre. He let in works that were supposed to improve the literary standing of science fiction (e.g., The Circular Ruins by Borges), at the same time filtering out many of the American works with a basis in popular culture.

Kuczka’s concept also meant the seclusion of the newly defined genre, which included shutting out all domestic works that were not regarded as high literature. Hungarian authors could only publish in Galaktika or appear in the series “Kozmosz Fantasztikus Könyvek” if they were specifically invited by the editor. Nevertheless, they were not seen as science fiction writers—all they had was knowledge of previous works in the genre. Checking out domestic authors besides the heavily screened British and American writers we find the same categories. Literary giants like Mór Jókai, Frigyes Karinthy, Géza Laczkó; poets or belletrists like Endre Darázs, Lajos Mesterházy, Gyula Fekete, Péter Szentmihályi Szabó, György Gera; or authors of young adult literature like Zoltán Csernai. The esoteric writing of Mária Szepes is a peculiar addition, although her presence strengthens rather than weakens tendencies. Interestingly enough, none of the domestic publishers thought of contributing to the education of SF writers or editors. The literary training in the SF Division of the Hungarian Writers’ Association was more like a PR project than anything more.

During its eighteen years of existence, Móra Publishing House’s “Kozmosz Fantasztikus Könyvek” series published seven books a year on average. This meant seven SF books a year plus five Galaktika anthologies (also published by Móra), that was all. When British and American science fiction was well into its second golden age—the new wave—and the genre started to carve itself a growing slice of cinema, in Hungary these were the only two places where science fiction par excellence could come out.

But why would anyone have wanted to expand the definition of the genre in a country or a language area where science fiction literature meant the stories in Galaktika magazine or the novels in the attached book series and nothing else? Considering the then-status of the genre, we could simply say that SF was whatever appeared in the anthology and in the series of books. Who needed a new, different definition?

By the end of the seventies, a new participant of the ‘institutional network’—well-known from overseas—appeared: the community aiming at playing an active role in the shaping of SF. Dozens of clubs were established in Budapest and other cities which then contacted one another. These communities of various sizes, while exploring their own identities, expanded the notion of science fiction and started to push the boundaries with their periodical fanzines. These fanzines (Kvark, Metamorf, Supernova, etc.) published one hundred, maybe five hundred, copies by these scattered clubs with the permission of the local city councils and provided several amateur writers an opportunity to appear in print.

Though it remained unsaid, their presence and new approaches threatened the official position. Should SF acquire a different definition, it might be able to separate from the official position, which neither the cultural establishment nor Péter Kuczka, who was very particular about his status, were willing to allow. Ironically, the very existence of Galaktika was speeding up this process, but the publisher did not support any of these communities (even though many of the clubs were actually named after the anthology). The underlying reason was probably the fact that Kuczka saw the power of these organizations. He had written in Helikon recalling the golden age in America: “As early as with the first magazines, so-called ‘fanzines’ appeared created by volunteering fans. In these small mags so proud of their independence, marketing angles were cast aside, and theoretical work began, as serious aestheticians, literary historians or critics had not acknowledged the existence of science fiction for decades—not even as part of popular culture.” In spite of this, Galaktika dissociated itself from the clubs even though its monopoly (along with Kozmosz Fantasztikus Könyvek) in publishing was not threatened at the least in those days.

So the change—just like in the United States much earlier—came from the fans in Hungary, too. Véga, Hungarian SF Society’s publication of works by amateur authors, was the first to penetrate the impenetrable looking political force field around Galaktika. These publications did not only reach readers on HungaroCon, a nationwide convention held from 1980, or via mail but were also distributed in book shops. Véga attempted to lift the amateurs in the clubs from the periphery to the high waters of publishing.

Galaktika then went on the counteroffensive and started its annual convention, Gagarin SF Days—hosted by the House of Soviet Culture and Science—and organised its own community, Galaktika Friends. The former hardly survived a few years and the latter basically operated as a book club during its eight years of existence. Starting the periodical Robur for the youth did not help, either, as only sixteen issues were ever printed. Galaktika was turned into a monthly, which brought along a conversion of format—more graphical elements appeared at the expense of the written content.

In the end, this battle of David and Goliath had no real winner, as in the eighties a third combatant emerged which subdued both the gigantic Galaktika and the feeble, dying Véga. Popular culture was beginning to gain ground and as the socialist era was coming to an end and the party-state was losing its grip, it was easier to publish light literature that could be sold in greater numbers. And there was a demand for science fiction, which Népszava Publishing House attempted to fulfil with the novels of István Nemere.

By the end of the decade, the public recognized three authors whose work was mostly in the field of science fiction: the independent István Nemere, and László L. Lőrincz and Péter Zsoldos under the wings of Galaktika. Nemere and Lőrincz were the first representatives of popular culture who started to tear down the wall of socialist cultural policy from the inside. After the change in the political system had brought along market economy in the book industry, though, there was a higher demand for novels in other genres, and both pushed science fiction to the background. Today, István Nemere is the most prolific Hungarian writer with his eight hundred books (a negligible percentage of which is science-fiction), and László L. Lőrincz built a reputation primarily with his crime novels.

Péter Zsoldos is a different story, though; in this context he is the exception that proves the rule. Zsoldos’s first science fiction novel came out in 1963 with Móra, the last one in 1988 with Háttér Publishing House. After the political changes, he never published again. He did not come from literature but from a different segment of culture: he worked as a music editor at the radio. With his exceptional and high-standard oeuvre, he raised SF to the level of high literature, although he did not even think of himself as an author. He was unique in the history of Hungarian science fiction. His intellectual impact and legacy is indisputable; nevertheless, he never had a chance to make an impact on a practical level during the decades when he contributed to literature.

So after the political changes, Nemere and Lőrincz headed in different directions, whereas Péter Zsoldos stopped writing altogether with no one to follow in his tracks. At the same time, the spreading of popular culture and the free market had a murderous impact on Galaktika, whose prevalent position on the market had already faltered. What Kuczka had been afraid of transpired. Suvin’s cognitive estrangement as the grounding notion of publishing was lost without a trace in the melting pot of the domestic market, which now encompassed everything that could go down as speculative fiction in the wildest possible sense: from ufology to esoterica to heroic fantasy books. Finally, Galaktika was discontinued in 1995, along with Móra’s SF book series and Galaktika Friends. In the mid-nineties, everything around Hungarian science fiction literature had to be rebuilt from scratch.

To recall the (re-)birth of independent Hungarian science fiction we have to check back to clubs of the early eighties, the times before Véga. Like glowing embers beneath the ash, amateur authors survived after the changes, alone and with no opportunities—the age of fanzines declined with the death of the clubs. Several initiatives were launched in the field of science fiction magazines (Vénusz, Birodalom, Nexus and X-Magazin with its record fifteen issues) but these were all discontinued after only a few releases. The most (in)famous publisher with domestic authors on its roster, Walhalla, later Valhalla Lodge, was more of a fortune hunter than a diligent engineer on the book market. Other than the ‘unofficial’ Star Wars and Alien vs. Predator series written by Hungarian authors under Anglophone pen names, it is linked to the role-playing game M.A.G.U.S. and the connected fantasy book series. The latter still runs today, but during its two and a half decades of existence heavy with legal disputes and lawsuits, a special circle of authors have worked within its bounds and they hardly touch on science fiction.

Finally, a one-time Debrecen clubber and his Cherubion genre publisher played a major role in rounding up Hungarian science fiction writers (something similar had happened sixty years earlier in the United States). István Nemes and the authors around him had known each other from these earlier communities. This Cherubion team of writers operated as a kind of incubator for amateur writers, although science fiction only complemented fantasy, which gained ground lightning fast in the nineties. Authors only wrote sci-fi to supplement their portfolio.

In the end, influenced by the market, the genre produced its first authors; nevertheless, they came up with a practical approach: anthologies and novels were mostly adventure stories where the scientific background was only part of the setting. All that mattered was the publisher’s angle on what was going on in popular culture, therefore the Cherubion team never even thought of attempting to define sci-fi. Their main task was to set the genre apart from fantasy and to do that they conveyed a simple rule of thumb for readers: “sci-fi has spaceships, fantasy has magic.”

The transition to the next phase was instigated by a group from outside publishing circles: in 1997 Avana Hungarian SF Society established the Zsoldos Award, which in spite of the ongoing debates gave a huge boost to domestic science fiction. Avana, though, did not consider training Hungarian SF authors as one of its tasks. Defining science fiction was not really an issue during the formative years of the prize. That is the reason why the genre (and sometimes the quality) of some of the winners is questionable. The shift in attitude, which prioritised the definition in the process of evaluation, was first instigated by Margit S. Sárdi in 2005.

This was a lucky break as academic literary theory met the intentions of a science fiction community. The only definition since 1972 is ascribed to ELTE Institute of Hungarian Literature and Cultural Studies, namely a seminar led by Sárdi (which, in turn, gave rise to Magyar Scifitörténeti Társaság). The concept follows Suvin and reads science fiction along formalistic lines while adopting an approach by Lem. As Sárdi writes in  “Műfaj-e a sci-fi?” [Is SF a Genre?]: “Science fiction is a branch of fiction which deals with as of now non-existent or non-recognised problems, offering sensible solutions; or the other way round, it deals with existing, recognised problems offering non-existent but sensible solutions.” However, this definition by the seminar at ELTE is far from flawless. It works fine in the sterile environment of a university (and for the purposes of the decision process for the Zsoldos Award) but it rules out plenty of writings (though still fewer than Darko Suvin’s definition) from the genre which are considered sci-fi by writers, publishers, distributors, readers, critics, and other members of the public.

And now we return to the third branch of science fiction’s institutional network. Almost fifteen years after the political change, SF publishing managed to recover. Finally, contemporary Hungarian writers had the opportunity to publish explicitly SF works. The first attempt at this was Átjáró SF&F Magazin. Átjáró attempted to fill the void after the discontinuation of Galaktika. Along with translated international works, it published short stories by Hungarian authors and reviews of their books. The editors used existing contacts to publish the writings of several Cherubion authors. Some of István Nemes’s writers found other publishers for their novels and at that moment in time it seemed that Hungarian science fiction as such would be a thing. 

A few publishers embraced the genre, up to the economic crisis quite resolutely, after that in a more restrained fashion. Nagual Publishing (later Metropolis Media) resurrected Galaktika in 2004, but Animus, Deltavision, and Tuan also published domestic SF. Around this time Avana took over the anthology Új Galaxis [New Galaxy], which was created by Kódex Press, and only deals with domestic authors, although it is only able to provide amateur authors with an opportunity to publish.

Having said that, in the 2010s Hungarian science fiction still had no established canon. Metagalaktika 11 by Metropolis Media summarised the history of Hungarian SF, but no serious theoretical work was conceived in the field. We can name a book, or an author or two, but the genre is not really better off than it was at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s. The debate is still going on about what should be considered science fiction while the old boundaries are long lost. Without a mutually agreed upon working definition the active participants of this segment of Hungarian popular culture are unable to communicate the genre of the works towards the market. During the past years, for publishers bringing out domestic SF—Ad Astra, Agave, Főnix, Gabó—it is a matter of vital importance how they position themselves for the readers. The latest attempts to influence the market concentrate on the trends in British and American mainstream SF, using their literary prizes (Hugo, Locus, Nebula, etc.) as reference points. There is no such standout reference point for Hungarian authors.

The more than twenty-year-old Zsoldos Award has been detached from Avana and now fantasy and weird novels can also be nominated. Avana’s recently established Monolit Prize is taking turns to find the best Hungarian SF short story and the best novel in alternating years. The few Hungarian anthologies attached to different teams of authors do not represent the diversity of domestic SF; thus all we have left are sporadic publications that are not defined as SF by familiar authors, like Tibor Fonyódi (Harrison Fawcett), Botond Markovics (Brandon Hackett), and Anita Moskát. New talents fostered by some publishers also appear, but often they don’t find their readers. Könyvmolyképző Publishing House invests a lot of energy to discover new talents, nevertheless, the novels of their first book authors are not published as sci-fi but as parts of a so-called ‘hard selection’ series. Even their resident author, Bea Varga (On Sai) writes her science fiction novels in ‘fine selection’ series marked with a red or gold dot. A perfect example of the disturbance in positioning is what happened to Imre Bartók’s three novels. Libri looking for high literature in SF or postmodern in high literature did not indicate the genre on book covers (what genre are they after all?), so hopeful readers ended up like Soviet soldiers in Hungary in 1956 when they tried to find the Suez Canal. It resulted in total confusion at the receiving end.

As of now, SF is dominated by selective traditions within (!) the genre and this could only be helped by the finding of a general introspective definition. The time has come to look beyond the unsuccessful attempts of SF communities and publishers, the sluggish stirrings of domestic literary science with which they turn to science fiction. Scholars still have an aversion to the genre. For instance, the seminar in ELTE’s Institute of Hungarian Literature and Cultural Studies never had the term “sci-fi” in its name but was advertised as a literary review seminar smuggling SF to the curriculum through the methodology. To come up with an up-to-date understanding of the genre we should step outside the traditional paradigm to approach science fiction through popular culture. We must also realise that science fiction is a uniquely interdisciplinary genre. In view of this fact, American scholars in the field have been trying to come up with a new approach. They consider science fiction (and other genres) “fluid and tenuous constructions made by the interaction of various claims and practices by writers, producers, distributors, marketers, readers, fans, critics and other discursive agents” (Rieder quotes Marc Bould and Sheryl Vint) If anything, this is definitely true about SF. The genre withstands structural and historical definitions, as these attempts are all static and there are no robes you can force on the corpus of science fiction. 

On the other hand, if we look upon the genre as the dynamic cooperation and connection of publishers, critics and communities with constantly changing boundaries sooner or later every participant may find their place within, even in Hungary. Should this happen, a circle might emerge which will not shy away from putting the SF tag on book covers and the different groups could come to an agreement, which in turn may lead to the establishment of a Hungarian SF canon with authors writing within its bounds.


Rieder, John. “On Defining a Genre or Not.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 2010, pp. 191-209. 

S. Sárdi, Margit. “Műfaj-e a sci-fi?” [Is sci-fi a genre?]. Szépirodalmi Figyelő, no. 1, 2013, pp. 28-36.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale University Press, 1979.

Sándor Szélesi (Anthony Sheenard) is a multi-award-winning Hungarian SFF and crime fiction writer, screenwriter, and editor, and the head of the Hungarian Writer’s Alliance’s SF Division since 2018. He is the author of over thirty novels and over a hundred short storie

The Austro-Hungarian Melting Pot: The Mythopoetics of Borgovia in The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

On the Edge: The Fantastic in Hungarian Literature and Culture

The Austro-Hungarian Melting Pot: The Mythopoetics of Borgovia in The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing1

Péter Kristóf Makai

Introduction: Enter the Vampire Hunter

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), written at the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was and still is a cultural touchstone, creating one of the most recognisable monsters of European culture. It touched a cultural nerve, expressing the anxieties of the British Empire and the many menaces on its borders in a manner similar to invasion literature. The initial novel was given a new lease on eternal life within every medium that was invented after the Count originally rose from the grave. Video games are no exception.

Riding on the renaissance of vampires in novels, fan fiction, film, television, and games, [2] Dracula’s foe, vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing, gained more prominence among Western audiences after Stephen Sommers’s 2004 movie, Van Helsing, put the son of the vampire hunter, Gabriel, played by Hugh Jackman, in the title role. Although the reimagined action hero version of the character proved to be a box office failure, it added swashbuckling action to the repertoire of a previously nerdish, scientist-type character, and inspired a slew of shock horror and comedy spoofs.

One unforeseen offshoot was Hungarian independent video game developer NeocoreGames’ The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, published between 2013 and 2015. This trilogy of action role-playing games (ARPGs) is set in the fictional Eastern European country of Borgovia, which was constructed with an eye towards the times and places of Bram Stoker’s original novel, but incorporating a judicious amount of magic and steampunk science to allow distinct forms of gameplay to emerge. [3]

In this paper, I highlight how the Hungarian developer infused the world of Borgovia with Central and Eastern European (CEE) influences to create The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing. Taking the Final Cut (2015) as Neocore’s definitive version and uniting the trilogy, I showcase how Transylvanian and Hungarian historical, mythic, literary, cinematic, and architectural influences have shaped the world of Borgovia. Drawing on Tolkienian mythopoesis, I specifically argue for a creation of a Central and Eastern European mythic space that arose from a mélange of cultural images propagated in late nineteenth-century Hungary and Britain as a source that has had a lasting impact in how even CEE game developers approach the region. Finally, I emphasise non-Slavic (Austria-) Hungary’s presence as a cultural mediator between East and West, packaging and romanticising the region for popular consumption.

Locating The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing in the Action Role-playing Game Genre

Emerging as a distinct form of computer gameplay, the ARPG is a subgenre of computer role-playing games (CRPGs) that—in its prototypical format, epitomised by Diablo (1997), Titan Quest (2006), Torchlight (2009), and their sequels [4]—feature an isometric, top-down view; real-time combat; one player character (PC) with quantified combat statistics; an experience point system and stratified character progression; a selection of eligible character classes with different strengths and weaknesses; a class-specific skill tree system; RPG-style inventory and equipment management; an extensive, level-based world, often randomly generated, with distinct level tilesets; a throng of (relatively) weak enemies, outnumbering the player; boss battles at the end of levels; and a loot-and-vendor system, with monsters dropping rarity-based equipable and consumable items that provide numerical bonuses to combat skills and abilities (Barton and Stacks 357–82). Unlike party-based and story-focused CRPGs, which often feature extensive dialogue trees and voluminous written exposition, the main drive of the ARPG comes from the feeling of overwhelming power as the player mows down hordes of monsters (non-player characters or NPCs) with the use of their ever-improving skills and equipment, collecting their loot and selling it for cash on the quest to face more challenging enemies. ARPGs, especially at higher difficulties, require deep familiarity with skill synergies, lightning reflexes, a careful crowd control of NPCs, and a healthy dose of luck for finding rare items that provide massive gameplay advantages.

Neocore’s The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing: The Final Cut (2015, henceforth Van Helsing) is a mature example of the genre, published a full eighteen years after the groundbreaking Diablo, playing straight with the conventions of ARPGs, adopting the standards of its predecessors and deliberately staying close to their commitment to visceral, fast-paced gameplay. [5] The player is put into the role of a descendant of the legendary Abraham van Helsing, who, like their forefather, is a grim monster hunter dedicated to their task of ridding the war-torn land of Borgovia from any eldritch creature or mechanical abomination to bring peace to the lands once again. Most of the monsters are drawn from Slavic mythology: from lesoviks to vilas, or from vodyanoys to rusalkas, they bank on the popularity of Slavic fantasy in the wake of the success of books like Sapkowski’s Witcher series or the works of Naomi Novik.

Left: Dreadknechts attacking Lady Katarina. Right: A frog-like vodyanoy approaches

On the other hand, some enemy types are distinctly of a steampunk persuasion; some are massive, sentient machines, and of particular interest to us are the mechanised infantry known as the “Dreadknecht,” which menace Van Helsing when they are not in the clutches of mythic foes. The Dreadknecht’s name is inspired by the German Landsknecht, while their dialogue and diction are reminiscent of Judge Dredd, and their dress and appearance are more akin to toy soldiers or Austro-Hungarian hussars—this enemy already embodies the melting pot-like nature of the mythopoetics of Neocore’s vision. [6]

Van Helsing is aided by Lady Katarina, an untraceably Eastern European-accented ghost of a noblewoman bound to the Van Helsing family, which in practice means that she serves as an NPC companion that soaks up damage, supports the player’s attacks and holds items to be carried to vendors in town in exchange for cash. Much of the charm of the game stems from the verbal sparring of the two protagonists, and their acerbic commentary on the characters and events they meet as they explore Borgovia. Indeed, the world of Van Helsing is a character of its own, as the land is a distillation of cultural imagery associated with the clichés of horror fiction and nods to other media franchises. The rest of this essay is dedicated to teasing apart the dense web of allusions, inspirations, adaptations and pop cultural references that mark the gameworld as a uniquely Hungarian instance of mythopoetics.

Literary Skeletons in the Closet

The figure of Abraham van Helsing in Stoker’s Dracula is a peculiar one: a Dutch doctor and vampire hunter with strong Catholic convictions, a notable foreign accent, his speech peppered with Germanisms—a forerunner to the eccentric German scientist trope that will come into full swing around the time of World War II. His main feat in the novel is slaying the vampires in Dracula’s castle while the Count is fleeing, chased down by Mina and Jonathan Harker and their entourage through the gateway to Dracula’s realm, the Borgo Pass (Pasul Bârgău in Romanian and Borgói-hágó in Hungarian). In the Sommers movie, Gabriel van Helsing retains his ties to Christianity, as he is on a mission from the Vatican, but has become a more general monster hunter (not unlike Slavic fantasy’s beloved Witcher, Geralt of Rivia), who faces Mr. Hyde, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, and werewolves. On his way to Transylvania, he even travels through Hungary and is attacked by the brides of Dracula.

The Hungarian connection is meaningful, not just in terms of geographical necessity, but because Stoker himself refers to a colleague of Abraham, a certain “Arminius of Buda-Pesth University” (Stoker 282) for ethnographic advice. It is speculated, but has never been proven, that Stoker met said-Arminius, a Hungarian scientist and spy for the English, Ármin Vámbéry, personally (Norton-Taylor, Péli). Stoker was also familiar with Hungarian folktales, and used them as inspiration for his short stories, too (Heiniger 1 n3). Besides Castle Bran, the models for Dracula’s castle include the castle of Vécs, Criş, the fortress of Déva, and Hunyadi Castle (Crisan), the latter of whose elements were imaginatively reshuffled by Ignác Alpár to create “Vajdahunyadvára,” an assemblage of buildings in Budapest’s Városliget—a titbit that will become important soon.

At any rate, the sources distilled to create Dracula are numerous, and Stoker’s own mythmaking served up a potent brew. Count Dracula is based on Vlad Tepes III but yet is a creature of myth himself, and the vision of Transylvania conjured for Stoker’s novel is a far cry from the realities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a rival to the British. As a Dracula scholar notes, 

Images of Transylvania as a realm of horror, haunted by the ghosts of the past, the land beyond the civilized world where all the superstitions have gathered, are not accidental. They represent the evolution of constructs based upon stereotypes and clichés created during the centuries by our British visitors. They wouldn’t have taken the apocalyptical dimensions in Bram Stoker’s novel had it not been for a certain frame of mind in the West: the need of projecting one’s own anguish on a neutral, harmless and conveniently distant territory. (Andras 2)

Such chauvinistic mythopoeia of the British Empire came at a time when Austria-Hungary was on the rise following the Compromise of 1867 and the 1873 unification of Pest, Buda and Óbuda into the booming metropolis of Budapest. The year prior to the publication of Dracula saw the 1896 Millennial Celebrations of Budapest, a universal exposition-style event marking the thousandth year of the establishment of Hungary. As with any world’s fair worth its salt, massive constructions reshaped the face of Budapest, with the opening of the first continental underground railway line in Europe (after London), the Budapest Hall of Art (Műcsarnok) on Heroes’ Square, and the first version of the above-mentioned Vajdahunyadvára. Counter-mythmaking was definitely the order of the day.

None understood the importance of mythmaking more than J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote his essay “On Fairy-Stories” to explain his ars mythopoeia, and coin the important term, “sub-creation” (eds. Flieger and Anderson, 42) for the art of enchantment that brings the inner consistency of reality to the fictional universes created by writers (Wolf). As I argued elsewhere, the essay invents a fictional art form, the Faërian Drama, which is imagined as an interactive drama that enchants its spectators to the point where they believe it to be real. Such illusionistic realism was not possible in Tolkien’s time, but we may recognise it today as a form of virtual reality, whose interactivity seems to foreshadow computer games (Makai, “Faërian Cyberdrama” 43). In fact, table-top RPGs are overwhelmingly inspired by Tolkienesque fantasy, and the nascent genre of CRPGs themselves drew on the pen-and-paper tradition, but they also brought a discrete, interactivity visuospatial representation to the storyworlds of fantasy (Makai, “Games: Playable Arda”). Tolkien’s meticulous world-building is one of the prime reasons why “our current virtual worlds in video games . . . are massively dependent on fantasy conventions brought alive by Tolkien” (Makai, “Games and Gaming” 532).

In the case of Van Helsing, the intellectual genealogy of Tolkien is highlighted both in the several cultural references to the Professor’s oeuvre as well as by the meticulous worldbuilding of Borgovia. On the way to Markovna, Van Helsing meets a mysterious Halfling, Domovoy Baggins, upon whose death the player may pick up “A Certain Magical Ring”; likewise, he may later come across the Grey Wizard in some caverns. The tabletop tradition’s fondness for statistical uncertainty and its simulationist roots are palpable in the ARPG’s combat system that values randomness in calculating hit chances, damage, and the mitigation of damage by separate resistances, not to mention the gameplay focus on constantly upgrading equipment with higher statistical bonuses. Like Game Masters of a tabletop session, the game prides itself on creating a fully realised and believable fantasy realm with its own geography, history, and architecture, complete with rivalling political factions and religious rituals, which the player partakes in on their own quest of heroic derring-do.

Thus, we have a conflux of real, literary, and virtual world-making at the heart of Van Helsing: Stoker creates an orientalised Transylvania to mitigate the economic boom of Austria-Hungary, which itself builds on nationalistic mythologies of the emerging Hungarian intelligentsia, whose tales reach the ears of Stoker. The resulting creation becomes a popular myth of its own right, to be endlessly refigured by every medium it touched, and it was inevitable that it would be picked up by a medium destined for fantastic and mythopoetic world-building. The malleability of the computer game’s virtual world, as designed by animators and programmers, are the natural habitat of fantasy. And when Neocore picks up the slack to create their own version of the Dracula myth, they choose the RPGs genre as the logical form of their mythicisation of Van Helsing’s descendant.

A World Built on Hungarian Soil

Van Helsing is remarkable for the range of cultural and architectural allusions that weave Hungary into the tapestry of the Dracula myth. Early on in the first game, Van Helsing enters a grim, Gothic backwater town called Markovna, a town full of stone-walled buildings with wooden-slatted roofs and tall, ornamental wooden gates peculiar to the Székely (Szekler) people of Transylvania. Curiously, the names of the townsfolk and nobles are clearly of Slavic origin (e.g., Boris, King Borislav, Grigori); however, people familiar with Hungarian animation might notice that the Romany camp outside of town is led by Gaspar and the charming Saffi. Their appearance is modelled on the characters of Szaffi (1985), itself an animated adaptation of Mór Jókai’s novel, A cigánybáró (1885), set in the Banat, a border region of Transylvania. Besides the geographical proximity (and the pop cultural reference), the inclusion of the characters must also have been motivated by the Jókai text predating Stoker’s work.

The Romany Camp in the Croakwood, with “Saffi” (rightmost) and “Gaspar” (exclamation mark)

As the player proceeds towards the city of Borgova, Borgovia’s imperial center, the architectural references move from Transylvania to Budapest. Borgova is indicated to lie at the conflux of the Borgov and the Lugosi rivers, the latter being a nod to Dracula’s most famous portrayal by Hungarian-American actor, Béla Lugosi, whose bust graces the aforementioned Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest. After a series of encounters in the industrial port, we move to the Old Town level, a district described by the game as “a neighbourhood of wide avenues and magnificent palaces with wrought-iron gates.” However, anyone with a passing familiarity with the main sights of Budapest will immediately recognise several important landmarks that are stripped of their real-world historical detail, but they still retain their main architectural features, if one can see past the piles of enemy cadavers gracing the landscape.

A loading screen of The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing showing the first area of the game, including the Lugosi River.

The wide avenue that serves as an umbilical cord to the central plaza bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Andrássy út, a Budapest avenue widened for the turn of the millennium, guarded by rows of stately homes of nobles which today mainly serve as embassies. The parallels are soon reinforced by a cursory glance at the plaza, which features a massive, symmetrical colonnade forming a half-circle, the columns interspersed with winged statues and equestrian monuments. The absolute centre indicated by the two quarter circles is occupied by a bronze statue of King Borislav. Beheld as an architectural unity, the plaza is recognisably a riff on Heroes’ Square at the heart of Budapest, with the Millennium Monument at its centre. And if there were any doubts as to the inspiration for the level, the plaza is flanked by two massive, Neoclassical buildings of uncertain function, which mimic the placement of the Szépművészeti Múzeum (Museum of Fine Arts) and the Műcsarnok (Hall of Art), which—as indicated above—were major landmarks of fin-de-siècle Budapest.

The Old Town of Borgova. Note the spatial arrangement of the colonnade and the Neoclassical buildings on both sides. 

As the player slaughters their way beyond the old town plaza, they soon find themselves in a more arborescent, park-like landscape, a vast pentagon that features a great lake with boat jetties, bisected by the continuation of the avenue. Left of the lake, we find a fountain of epic proportions, large enough for twenty people to bathe in, whereas the right side of the lake is dominated by a white boathouse and a castle with lion statues as gatekeepers. Indeed, this portion of the map is an imaginative recreation of Budapest’s City Park, with its Széchenyi Thermal Baths and a Vajdahunyad Castle stand-in located at precisely the spot where it would be in real life. Granted, it is far from an exact replica, as the art style is consistent with the steampunk trappings of the rest of the game, but the layout follows that of the real-life castle, and the facades of the buildings lining the square evoke Habsburg-era bourgeois villas.

Minimap view of the Old Town (credit: GameBanshee) and Google Map image of the Városliget in Budapest.

Finally, the last open-world portion of the game, The Gables, takes players to another reconstruction of Budapest’s must-see sights: the Castle District on the Buda side. The level design is careful to lift many elements from the area most visited by tourists in Budapest: they include a massive bird statue not unlike the Turul bird featured atop a column overlooking the Pest side of the city; a triple-arched gate adorned by several decorative reliefs to match that of Buda Castle’s Lions Court; and an easily identifiable copper dome identical to that atop the National Gallery. The final confrontation takes place in what is called The Palace of Machines in-game, but its domed arena, the floor’s decoration and the interior design evokes that of St. Stephen’s Basilica, resting on the Pest side of the Danube.

The Gables in-game and the Turul statue in Buda’s Castle District.

The entire level design process for Borgova and the world of Van Helsing in general begs the question: Are these stylistic choices not just a whimsy of a Hungarian developer, a mere in-joke for Budapest’s citizens, whose passing smile is soon replaced by gleefully murderous intent? I would argue that there is a deeper meaning at the core of this process, a sustained effort of bringing Dracula ‘home,’ so to speak. What the developers engage in is an active process of mythopoeia. As Alexander Vari suggests, the decades of the Dual Monarchy were a time in Hungarian history where, in particular, the reburying of Lajos Batthyány in 1870 and of Ferenc Rákóczi in 1906, as well as the burial of Lajos Kossuth in 1894 served as prominent rites of Hungarian mythmaking:

Nationalism . . . became inserted in a modern urban context while the technological and urban modernity of Budapest allowed patriotic mythmaking to gain more traction. Past and present melded together on these occasions, with the nation becoming a mediatic presence in the city. (Vari 225)

Similarly, through the revival of the Dracula myth and placing it in pseudo-Slavic steampunk environment, with a sustained effort to locate it in a fantastic Austria-Hungary, Van Helsing creates a Central Eastern European mythopoetic space that arose from a mélange of cultural images propagated in late nineteenth century, at a time when cultural and literary ties were close between the United Kingdom and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as evidenced by the use of Hungarian folklore in Bram Stoker’s work. After pop culture westernised Dracula, Neocore Games’ reimagination can be read as an allegory of competing visions for a contested territory, that of Dracula’s “mythic Transylvania,” and the inscription of “Magyarising”7 popular culture onto that landscape, mirroring real-world historical processes. In the primary world, Magyarisation was an act of Hungarian nationalism that promoted an exclusively Hungarian identity among citizens of different or mixed ancestry in Austria-Hungary. This was coupled with the kind of mythmaking documented by Vari, which has consistently served a political purpose in the history of Hungary, enabling the nation to position itself vis-à-vis the Slavic and Germanic populations with whom they have shared a country for hundreds of years.

This is not to say that the developers and narrative designers have viciously removed elements of Austro-Hungarian history with the intent of giving a false vision of Hungarian or Transylvanian culture. On the whole, the Van Helsing games are written in a snarky, tongue-in-cheek style, overwrought with pop cultural references to Western media, and they very clearly steer away from making connections with real-world history. Borgovia, as a creation, feeds on vampire lore and contemporary mediascapes far more than on any historical signifiers. However, the narrative of the games, the architectural setting, combined with the mechanics of the ARPG, present a uniquely Hungarian perspective on the Central Eastern European region and the Dracula myth. It is by this act of re-burying the undead that Neocore’s mythopoetics of Borgovia come full circle, and lay the foundations for games like Zen Studios’ Operencia: The Stolen Sun (2020), another Hungarian contribution to the RPG genre that explicitly draws on and adapts Hungarian folk-lore and legends to construct a fantastic world. It is to be devoutly wished that such trailblazers actually pave the way for future titles that would put Hungary on the world fantasy and science fiction maps once again.


[1] The paper is an extended version of a talk given at the 2018 Central and Eastern European Games Studies conference, held in Kraków, Poland, as part of the Slavic Fantasy workshop. The author would like to thank the generous support he received from the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut of Essen during the course of 2021 that enabled the writing of the article.

[2] The popularity of Dracula as a subject of horror fiction is best epitomised by the extensive, if not exhaustive, list of media products enumerated in the entry “Count Dracula in popular culture” (Wikipedia 2021). For twentieth century film adaptations, see Holte 1997; for the effect of vampires on live-action role-playing culture, see Milspaw and Evans 2010.

[3] Although the influence of the Sommers movie on the game would appear prima facie obvious, lead narrative designer Viktor Juhász confided that the 2004 movie had little influence on the world of Borgovia, and in fact proved to be misleading when gaming journalists promoted the game with posters of the film (personal communication).

[4] Of particular note here is that Diablo’s arrival on the scene created a seismic shift in terminology. As one games journalist observed, “prior to 1996 . . . the term ‘action RPG’ described a number of other games and styles, foremost of which was The Legend of Zelda. Such has been the impact of Diablo that the Zelda series has been entirely recategorized as ‘action adventure’” (Parish 2012).

[5] A notable innovation is the inclusion of tower defence mechanics at key points in the story, which was made optional by the time The Final Cut came out, to preserve the flow of gameplay for people who thought it an unwelcome distraction. Nonetheless, the tower defence segments seem to have had staying power within the studio, prompting the release of a game exclusively devoted to the mechanic in Deathtrap (2015).

[6] An earlier draft of the paper drew a direct connection between the Warhammer 40,000 universe’s Dreadknights and the game’s Dreadknechts. However, Viktor Juhász, narrative designer of the series indicated that no references to WH40K property were intended at the time (personal communication). This did not prevent Neocore to later go on to design a WH40K action-RPG, Warhammer 40,000 Inquisitor – Martyr (2018).

[7] The Hungarian demonym for the Hungarian people is “Magyar,” and the name of the country is “Magyarország.” Magyarisation, therefore, denotes the cultural imperial tactic of suppressing other ethnic identities in favour of the dominant Magyar culture and language.


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Barton, Matt, and Shane Stacks. Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games 2e. A K Press/CRC PRess, 2019,

Crisan, Marius. “The Models for Castle Dracula in Stoker’s Sources on Transylvania.” Journal of Dracula Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, 2008, n.p.

Deathtrap, Steam version, NeocoreGames, 2015.

Diablo, Windows version, Blizzard North, Blizzard Entertainment, 1997.

Heiniger, Abigail. “Undead Blond Hair in the Victorian Imagination: The Hungarian Roots of Bram Stoker’s ‘The Secret of the Growing Gold.’” Hungarian Cultural Studies, vol. 4, no. 0, University Library System, University of Pittsburgh, Jan. 2011, pp. 10–21, doi:10.5195/ahea.2011.28.

Holte, James Craig. Dracula in the Dark: The Dracula Film Adaptations. Greenwood Press, 1997.

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Péter Kristóf Makai recently finished his Crafoord Postdoctoral Fellowship in Intermedial and Multimodal Studies at Linnaeus University in Växjö, Sweden. He is set to join the University of Duisburg-Essen’s Cultural Studies Institute as an International Visiting Fellow to study how theme parks are transmediated into digital and board games. He got his English Literature PhD from the University of Szeged. He has published work on Tolkien, games and worldbuilding in Reconstructing ArdaTolkien Studies, and in Postmodern Reinterpretations of Fairy Tales. He is a member of COST Action 18230, Interactive Narrative Design for Complexity Representations.