What is Fantasy?

by Hannah Rose Williams

There is no universally accepted definition for the fantasy genre. It can only be described as writing that is somehow "fantastic." Beyond mere escapism, fantasy often asks us questions about our worldview that might otherwise go unnoticed in our restricted reality, or it may take the reader back to his childhood. It has mysterious elements, but isn't necessarily illogical or absurd. Fantasy allows us to ask in revelry, "What if...?" In that sense, fantasy can even be true.

Fantasy was a reaction against the Enlightenment.

The fantasy genre is more than fairy tales. It first emerged in the Romantic period (1800-1850) and was heavily influenced by the Victorian era (1837-1901). Both drew from the medieval gothic. The artist William Morris (1834-1896), who believed we needed a return to the medieval, is probably the father of fantasy with his work The Wood Beyond the Worlds, and gothic themes are still popular in fantasy. George MacDonald (1824-1905) is another influential early fantasy author. Anyone familiar with Morris or MacDonald can see wanton borrowing in better-known authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

The Romantic and Victorian eras had inherited the pain of rationalism from the Enlightenment (1715-1789) -- and they wanted to rebel against it. Fantasy literature was one way for early hippies to transcend the mundane and meaningless. Today, this has nearly come full circle with writers like agnostic Philip Pullman and atheist Ursula K. Le Guin, but neither are as vehemently anti-religion as Enlightenment thinkers were.

Speculative Fiction

Fantasy, science fiction, and horror can all be called speculative fiction or speculative literature. They may take place in a culture that never existed, a world we know nothing about, or an unknown age in planet earth's history. They certainly involve a quest, but sometimes the quest is only internal.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle blurs the line between fantasy and science fiction. Her work is heavily influenced by both science and religion. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, often mistaken for allegory (a story full of symbols with multiple interpretations), is actually speculative fiction. It asks, "Suppose Jesus took other forms in other worlds. What might that be like?"

Common Motifs in Fantasy

You can find the same themes in fantasy that you might find in ancient folktales such as The Epic of Gilgamesh. These themes often include:

  • coming-of-age or self-discovery

  • nature or return to the primitive

  • a sense of wonder

  • epiphany or eucatastrophe (but hopefully not deus ex machina)

  • mythological/magical creatures

  • worlds not aligned with our reality

  • events that are improbable or impossible

  • Most Fantasy has this basic plot.

    The protagonist (often a young male) leaves his home town (often against his will). Unless he is bored in peacetime, he is the sort of character who usually follows the Ten Commandments and may even be an ugly duckling hero like King Arthur or Strider/Aragorn.

    The antagonist is usually pure evil, though he is sometimes merely misunderstood. The adventure is rife with themes of friendship and tragic partings by death. There is often a mysterious woman, perhaps shrouded by magic, whose identity is never fully explored. It is not uncommon for the story to be told on a psychological level.

    In pop culture, we compare works like FernGully (1992) with Avatar (2009) or the the original Star Wars (1977) with the 2009 Star Trek and laugh at how similar they are. These comparisons are easy because most stories have the same archetypes and fantasy themes are common themes.

    Fantasy has a bad reputation.

    Scholars disagree as to whether fantasy is a respectable literary genre. This dichotomy is known as the fantastical-prophetic axis. The critic E.M. Forster (1879-1970) felt that fantasy often lacked a unified philosophy, an outlook that made its supernatural content relevant.

    In reality, there are two types of fantasy: low fantasy (shallow stories that only appeal to our basest passions, like the Deathstalker films) and high fantasy (stories with dynamic characters and a metanarrative, like The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle).

    Forster was most likely looking down on popular "Sword & Sorcery" fantasy like that by Edward Plunkett (1878-1957) who wrote hundreds of crude stories in his lifetime. On the other hand, Forster would refer to Tolkien's high fantasy as prophecy literature, a work that creates opportunities for the author to address the hard questions of mysticism. Prophecy is any revelation of truth. However, while fantasy can be prophecy literature, prophecy literature is not always fantasy (for example, Dostoevsky is prophecy literature).

    Metanarrative is Fantasy's saving grace.

    A metanarrative is the overarching principle by which the author interprets reality. It is his worldview coming through in the text. A strong metanarrative helps transform low fantasy into high fantasy -- from epistemophilia (the love of simply seeing a story unfold) to didacticism (teaching a moral lesson). When you know what the protagonist has learned, you'll know the metanarrative.

    Thanks to these deeper messages, the early fantasy of George MacDonald is most certainly prophecy literature. MacDonald argued that the best way to show absolute truth was not through reason, as God cannot be apprehended through reason, but through the imagination. He believed that the most important things in life were invisible, but that truth finds us on our personal journey. He illustrated his perception of the divine through characters like Grandmother in The Princess and the Goblin. MacDonald's divinity is rational, but not too rational -- numinous.

    Madeleine L'Engle (1945-2007) drew heavily from MacDonald's theology. Her universalism, like MacDonald's, resulted in condemnation from Christian leaders, while her religious didacticism put off secular critics. This just one reason why her work stands out as unique and memorable.

    On the other hand, many critics would also call both MacDonald and L'Engle too heavy-handed. Because the message is so strong, the stories lack the subtlety and open-endedness preferred by postmodern readers. Often we are satisfied if a story merely stirs sehnsucht, profound longing, within us. High fantasy accentuates the struggle between good and evil.