Questioning Fantasy: A guest post by Matt Kent

Matt Kent is studying English Education and Creative Writing at Southern Oregon University.

Fantasy is a type of book that its reader does not often think deeply about, they read it for pure entertainment; therefore, it just is. The stories of dragons—as villains, companions, characters in their own right, myth, war machines—capture the reader’s imagination and whisk them away to a whole new world. The idea of magic sparks the reader’s interest, from sorcerers to alchemists, modern day magicians and wizards. These are powerful ideas that are spread to millions of people. For example, the Harry Potter series sold over 400 million copies as of 2008, according to a BBC article, “Rowling ‘makes £5 Every Second;” 400 million books, several hundred million readers of this iconic fantasy text. But what is this thing called a “Fantasy genre?” Does Harry Potter fall into it? What exactly is “Fantasy?” Where did it come from?

What is a Genre? The word is thrown around casually by anyone who can navigate a Barnes and Noble, but in actuality, this word is loaded with so much meaning, controversy and misunderstanding, that if our casual bookstore navigator was truly aware of the complexity of this, they would be crushed by the sheer weight this simple, five-letter word carries, and they would be much happier turning on the television and ignoring this messy genre business. However, the idea of genre must be at least somewhat explored if there is to be an understanding of the concept of a “fantasy genre.” At one point in time, the idea of literary genres applied to different forms of text: poem, prose, drama, etc, but that does not allow the common reader or writer for much space.

Briefly skating over the oceans of turmoil that is genre theory, genre “… is widely used in rhetoric, literary theory, media theory, and more recently linguistics, to refer to a distinctive type of ‘text’” (Chandler 1). This is the definition that most philistines function with, and these philistines are very happy; however, a genre theorist would not fine this definition adequate; Daniel Chandler explains, in his “An Introduction to Genre Theory,” that genres “[are]’fuzzy’ categories which cannot be defined by necessary and sufficient conditions.” (Chandler 3). Genres can therefore be accepted as imperfect categorizations for a group of texts. So does a fantasy genre exist? And if so, what constitutes that genre?

The second task, then, is to determine the existence of a fantasy genre. Returning to the confident consumer who is easily able to navigate Barnes and Noble, a fantasy genre is recognized by zer. Ze knows that the fantasy books can be found before the craft books, but after the literary fiction, in the aisle by the Starbucks. has no problem establishing fantasy as a genre, albeit as attached to what many think of as a distinctly different type of book. The Science Fiction and Fantasy section features the popular novels like A Game of Thrones and Ender’s Game, and this section is located amidst the thirty other categorizations sees as its decided genres. But just because makes it so, does this mean it truly exists? This asks the question, what is fantasy? What sets it apart?

No agreed-upon definition of “fantasy” as a genre exists. Many genre-theorists and fantasy writers have worked to create a definition; however, this simply leads to the creation of many different definitions of the fantasy genre, and furthermore, definitions—more often than not—in opposition to each other. Svein Angelskår explains in “Policing Fantasy: The Problems of Genre in Fantasy Literature” that what we see as “Fantasy literature” makes use of a great many elements that belong to a great many other genres: “the epic, myth, romance, satire, historical novel, utopian/dystopian tale, fairy tale, and fable” (Angelskår 16). This leads to a massive amount of confusion when one tries to answer the question, “What is fantasy literature?”

A working definition, found on states that fantasy literature is:
Imaginative fiction dependent for effect on strangeness of setting (such as other worlds or times) and of characters (such as supernatural or unnatural beings)… Science fiction can be seen as a form of fantasy, but the terms are not interchangeable, as science fiction usually is set in the future and is based on some aspect of science or technology, while fantasy is set in an imaginary world and features the magic of mythical beings.

This provides an okay explanation of the genre, but still presents several problems. Commonly accepted “Fantasy novels” do not feature strange settings, such as Cinda Williams Chima’s The Dragon Heir which is primary set in a Lake Erie town in Ohio. It is the presence of magic in this story that sets it apart as a “fantasy novel.” In her critical essay on fantasy, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” Ursula K LeGuin attempts to answer the complex question of “What is fantasy?” She argues that fantasy is “a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence” (LeGuin, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” 145). In addition, LeGuin argues for more specific categorizations of the fantasy genre. She would not agree with the basic qualifier “magic is present.” In fact, she laments that fantasy literature has become diluted with stories that have no features, beyond magic, that distinguish them from a non-fantasy story.

LeGuin believes that there must be a “style” employed to truly make a work into a work of fantasy, not simply the presence of “its equipment of heroes and wizards” (LeGuin 146). She illustrates this by taking a passage from Katherine Kurtz’s fantasy novel Deryni Rising and replacing four words to turn it from the political intrigue of a magician-swordsman facing against a corrupt council of lords to the political intrigue of a congressman on capitol hill. This, she argues is not fantasy because it lacks the style of fantasy. She then takes a paragraph from Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring and explains that through its diction and subject matter, it falls within the undefinable style of fantasy. In “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” LeGuin leaves the reader with no answers as to what fantasy is, but she leaves zer with definite notions of what it is not.

However, in his essay “Fantasy as Mode, Genre, Formula,” Brian Attebury attempts to take on the onerous task of defining fantasy. He explains that “[i]n fantasy, characters can do anything: fly, live forever, talk to the animals, metamorphose into cockroaches or gods.” He argues that it is a freedom of form and style, which what truly creates Fantasy and sets it apart in the field of genres. Some might find this too broad, but in the aforementioned Cinda Williams Chima novel, The Dragon Heir, the characters are endowed with supernatural elements, or elements of the unreal. Chima operates within the unreal when creating characters with magical qualities. After synthesizing many different opinions of various writers and theoreticians, the inquisitive reader is left with the idea that fantasy literature is basically a style that relies on aspects of the supernatural or unreal as necessary to the advancement of plot.

Michael Moorcock, in Wizards and Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy , goes through the origins of the epic fantasy (J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series is an example epic fantasy) as we know it today. He cites the gothic romance as the parent of modern fantasy, and furthermore, he states that the chivalric romance birthed the gothic romance (Moorcock 23). The chivalric romance is the time-worn “knight rescues fair, virtuous maiden” story that constitutes the stereotypical fairy-tale; an example of this would be Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. However, its successor, the gothic romance—though sharing many similar characteristics—could be seen as a form of response to the chivalric romance. Gothic romance, which is another word for a gothic story, is a style of literature in which:

    [the author would] set their stories in the medieval period, often in a gloomy castle replete with dungeons, subterranean passages, and sliding panels, and made plentiful use of ghosts, mysterious disappearances, and other sensational and supernatural occurrences; their principal aim was to evoke chilling terror by exploiting mystery, cruelty, and a variety of horrors (Abrams and Harpham 117-118)

One of gothic romance’s primary purposes is to expose aberrant conditions of humans, rather than showing a man undergoing trials to become the perfect man to win the hand of the perfect woman. As Moorcock explains, modern fantasy literature is the evolution of the Gothic romance.

As mentioned earlier, Svein Angelskår cites the fairy tale as one of the many founts from which the fantasy genre springs. The publishing industry—albeit the early publishing industry—had an important role in the creation of the British fairy tale.

Elizabeth Harris discusses in Twice Upon a Time: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale how, in response to a wave of nostalgia, the 18th century publishing industry of Britain fabricated collections of fairy tales. This came about because the English had lost their oral tradition through Puritanical suppression of stories that could ever be seen as in opposition to Christianity. In the 18th century, there was expressed a regret for the loss of this oral tradition, so English publishers created one. Harris shows how the classic “Jack the Giant Killer” appeared suddenly in 18th century compendiums of fairy tales. She goes on to explain that fairy tales were fabricated with specific morals or lessons in mind (78-79). These formed the basis for a form of rebellion in gothic romance which appeared in the latter half of the 18th century; according to The English gothic novel began with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story in 1765 (“The Gothic Experience”). This would be just slightly after the rise in English fairy tale publishing. The reader is able to draw conclusions about the connection between the English fairy tale and the gothic romance, both important forerunners to the fantasy genre.

Fantasy literature is caught in a troubling position; many potential readers have avoided it because it is considered, by these readers, to be for children. LeGuin, in “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” argues that the “over-thirty American male” does not see profit in and even disdains the fantasy genre, seeing it as “childish” (“Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons” 40). Emily Brittain laments this in “The Larger Project within Fantasy Literature.” Here, she states that “Fantasy writing dominates bookshelves, cinema screens and television schedules, yet retains a stigma which is only increased when the fantasy becomes part of ‘children’s literature’” (Brittain 49).

In a study done by Rosemary Hopper across several middle and high school classrooms in the United Kingdom, it was shown that the most read genre was fantasy, which was represented mainly by the works of J.K. Rowling, Phillip Pullman, and J.R.R. Tolkien (Hopper 116). This shows that Fantasy is one of the most-read genres, yet it is also considered a genre for children only; the most-read fantasy books, at the time of this study, were intended for children: The Harry Potter series, The His Dark Materials series, and The Hobbit. The eleven books that comprise this reading list are all critically acclaimed, incredibly well-read by audiences more than children; yet they are considered representative of a genre believed to be solely for children. One might consider that since these books were indeed intended for children, and they are the most read pieces of fantasy literature that all fantasy literature is intended solely for children. At the time Hopper’s study was published, no fantasy novel that specifically targets adults had reached any similar readership to The Hobbit or Harry Potter.

But this information was gathered before George R.R. Martin’s The Song of Fire and Ice gained a massive following with the mainstream readers—due in part to the HBO adaptation. ranks this book series as the #4 on their list of best-selling books ( Specifically for adults, The Song of Fire and Ice has put fantasy in the hands of the reader that might not necessary seek out fantasy literature. No studies have yet been done on the impact of George R.R. Martin’s impact on the fantasy genre as far as increased readership goes, but it presents an example of completely adult-themed literature that is stylistically representative of the fantasy genre. One could conclude that there would be a shift in the common man’s perception of fantasy—from childish to potentially for all ages.

Fantasy is best described as a fuzzy genre that blurs the lines between a great many other genres while staying noticeably separate from these other genres. It is difficult to define; however, by attempting to define it, the reader may come to a better understanding of the genre as a whole, and furthermore the liminality of the concept of genre. The origins of our modern day fantasy are quite diverse, but gothic romance and fairy tale have the greatest impact. The publishing industry has had a unique role in the fabrication of the genre in that it actually helped to create one of fantasy’s major influences—the fairy tale, but in recent times, it has been seen as another form of children’s literature, but one can hope that will change in the coming years. One thing that has not been touched upon is the purpose of fantasy. However, this is much easier to grasp than it is to define. LeGuin sums up the purpose, the reason of fantasy elegantly by stating: “The use of imaginative fiction is to deepen your understanding of your world, and your fellow men, and your own feelings, and your destiny” (“Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” 43).

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 8th ed. Boston, MA: Thomson, Wadsworth, 2005. Print.

Angelskår, Svein. “Policing Fantasy : Problems of Genre in Fantasy Literature.” Thesis. University of Oslo, 2005. 28 Oct. 2005. Web. 5 June 2013.

Attebury, Brian. “Fantasy as a Mode, Genre, Formula.” Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader. Ed. David Sandner. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004. 293-96. Print.

Brittain, Emily. “The Larger Project within Fantasy Literature: The Lewis/Pullman Divide.” English in Education 37.1 (2003): 113-20. Wiley Online Library. Wiley-Blackwell, 28 June 2008. Web. 10 June 2013.

“Fantasy literature.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.. 05 Jun. 2013. .

“The Gothic Experience.” A Brief Historical Overview. Brooklyn College, 26 Aug. 2008. Web. 09 June 2013.

Harries, Elizabeth Wanning. Twice upon a Time: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2001. Print.

Hopper, Rosemary. “What Are Teenagers Reading? Adolescent Fiction Reading Habits and Reading Choices.” Literacy 39.3 (2005): 113-20. Wiley Online Library. Wiley-Blackwell, 26 Oct. 2005. Web. 9 June 2013.

LeGuin, Ursula K. “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.” 1973. Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader. Ed. David Sandner. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004. 144-55. Print.

LeGuin, Ursula K. “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed. Susan Wood. New York: Putnam, 1979. 39-45. Print.

Moorcock, Michael. Wizardry and Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy. London: Gollancz, 1987. Print.

“Rowling ‘makes £5 Every Second'” BBC News. BBC, 10 Mar. 2008. Web. 07 June 2013
“A Song of Fire and Ice, Books 1-4” Web. 08 June 2013

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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