Fantasy: Exploring the Imagination

The origins of literature exist in fantasy and fantasy writers include Homer, Euripides, Virgil, Milton, Spenser, Shakespeare, Dickens and James Joyce. Yet in literary terms fantasy is still somewhat marginalized by scholars and critics. Much of it is dismissed as pulp and regarded as science fiction, when sf is a genre of fantasy. Fantasy is also treated in a patronising way and labelled as children’s literature much as folklore has been
debased into moral bedtime stories. Others may view fantasy in the same way
they do religion: as an anachronism in our modern scientific world. Perhaps our
British culture has become too atheistic and logical to appreciate the power of
imagination, creativity and spirituality. Ever since the Enlightenment, Western
culture has placed more value on rational thinking, whilst symbolism and myth
have become regarded with suspicion and, today, fantasy suffers from the same
prejudice. So what exactly is fantasy and why is it important?

John Clute in his Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) begins with Brian Attebery’s vague concept of fantasy as a ‘fuzzy set’ where clear boundaries do not exist and where the best
definition is derived from exploring significant texts. Beyond this however,
Clute does contrive a most helpful definition: ‘a fantasy text is a self-coherent narrative which, when set in our reality, tells a story which is
impossible in the world as we perceive it; when set in an otherworld or secondary
world, that otherworld will be impossible, but stories set there will be
possible in that otherworld’s terms’. He also provides some more specific
definitions of sub-genres of fantasy, including Dark Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy,
Recursive Fantasy, Science Fantasy and Urban Fantasy, which demand further
exploration. The encyclopedia is a useful tool for the fantasy critic and may
well become the definitive reference book for the fantasy reader and scholar,
but what is missing is the depth of research into the critical theory of


Fantasy is the oldest form of storytelling and generations have relied
on legends, myths and fables as part of their cultural heritage and system of
socialization. Fantasy begins in the primeval depths of man’s mind creating
superstition about world and divine power. Ancient myths and religious belief
systems have created pantheons of gods, demons, heroes and monsters to
symbolise the origins of creation and explain the workings of the universe; to
personify good and evil; to help moralise and legitimise law and order, and
therefore power and punishment. Sir James Frazer in his study of magic and
ritual, The Golden Bough (1890), reminds us of the importance of
mythology and rituals, warning us not to dismiss them as primitive and
irrelevant. ‘To stigmatise these premises as ridiculous because we can easily
detect their falseness, would be ungrateful as well as unphilosophical’. The
same warning is pertinent to those who reject fantasy literature.

The psychiatrist, C.G. Jung believed that ‘primordial experiences rend
from top to bottom the curtain upon which is painted the picture of an ordered
world and allow a glimpse into the unfathomable abyss’. Fantasy allows us to
enter the spiritual realm of the ‘collective consciousness’ of humanity that
helps us to find our own individual identity and Jung applied psychological
models to fairy tales and romantic texts in his book, Modern Man In Search
of a Soul
(1933). The process Jung called ‘individuation’, of becoming
whole or enlightened, demands a symbolism of transcendence. We need to reclaim
the mythologies as represented by the ancient poets and modern fantasists in
order to gain a greater personal and spiritual hold on our own realities. Continuing
Jung’s theory, Michael Moorcock  explains how fabulous romance subconsciously symbolizes the inner landscape of the mind; ‘When we read a good fantasy we are being admitted into the subterranean worlds of our own souls’.

The hero-warrior, such as Hercules or Cuchulain, is an archetype which
exists in all cultures and Jung developed the idea by suggesting that ‘the
God-image does not coincide with the unconscious as such, but with a special
content of it, namely the archetype of the self’. Archetypes help us to create
symbols to express our deepest fears and emotions. Through these archetypes
fantasy forces us to confront those parts of our life that are inexplicable and
deeply personal. These stories have become an important part of our
understanding of self and society.

Medieval romantic poetry, such as the legend of St. Brendan from the tenth century and
the chivalric poems of the sixteenth century, like Palmerin of England, follow
these mythical patterns. Whilst the heroic epic represents tribal warfare, the
romance is concerned with quest and the mystery of the supernatural, employing
visionary themes, metaphysical imagery and baroque language. Since then fantasy
has been developed by literary movements and forms such as Gothic Romance,
Decadence, surrealism, horror, sf and postmodernism. These texts testify that
fears, hopes and dreams are best expressed through fantasy. Some of the
greatest novels written today are fantastic literature without much of the
general public or academic world realising.

Fantasy Theory

In literary theory, the fantastic is usually discussed as a contrast to the seemingly preferred realistic or mimetic literature. Tzvetan Todorov in his ground-breaking study, The Fantastic (1975), gives a structuralist analysis of stories by Edgar Allan Poe and E.T.A.
Hoffman. In summary he concludes: ‘the fantastic is based essentially on the
hesitation of the reader’ referring to a tension that exists between what is
real and not real and the purest example he offers of fantastic uncertainty is
Henry James’ ambiguous narrative The Turn of the Screw.

Todorov naively suggests that ‘psychoanalysis has replaced (and thereby has made useless) the literature of the fantastic’ as if people no longer rely on supernatural explanations (the
marvellous) because science gives us rational answers (the uncanny). This is
only because his definition of fantastic literature is so limited.  The problem with Todorov’s study is that he is not interested in textual interpretation, only in formalist criticism and the difficulty occurs because a classical discipline is used to analyse
romanticism. The wrong language is being applied.

In her book Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion (1981), Rosemary Jackson develops a cultural and psychological investigation into gothic romance and texts by Dickens, Tolkien, Kafka and Pynchon. She develops Todorov’s scheme by arguing that the fantastic
is not a genre at all, but ‘a mode, which then assumes different generic
forms’. In fact, fantasy subverts or breaks conventions by constantly reinventing
itself and by tackling taboo themes and issues. It is a dangerous and powerful
form of literature.

She argues that ‘Fantasy recombines and inverts the real, but it does
not escape it: it exists in a parasitical or symbiotic relation to the real’.
In this sense all literature has an element of both realism and fantasy, which
makes the term ‘fantastic realism’ a useful one. The symbiotic relationship
between fantasy and reality is the key to appreciating the importance of
fantasy as a mode, which interrogates the important human activities of
imagination and desire.

Jackson manages to widen the fantastic canon so as to include such notables as the Brontes, Hardy, Conrad, Flaubert and Eliot – mainstream novelists also employing non-realistic modes. Jackson argues that ‘Fantasy has not disappeared, as Todorov’s theory would claim, but it has assumed different forms’. The nature of fantasy is such that as soon as one scholar creates a definition or identifies rules, then they are bound to be subverted.

Kathryn Hume, in Fantasy and Mimesis (1984), takes the debate
further by insisting that fantasy is not a genre or even a mode. ‘It is truer
to literary practice to admit that fantasy is not a separate or indeed a
separable strain, but rather an impulse as significant as the mimetic impulse,
and to recognize that both are involved in the creation of most literature’.
She also states that ‘it is the fantastic elements which allow literature to
convey most of its varied sense of meaning’.

The dismissal of fantasy says more about the society and culture than about the
merits of individual fantasy texts and Hume goes back to classical philosophy
to uncover the origins of this suspicion towards fantasy. ‘Plato and Aristotle
between them tore a large and ragged hole in western consciousness. Ever since
their day, our critical perceptions have been marred by this blind spot, and
our views of literature curiously distorted. To both philosophers, literature
was mimetic, and they analyzed only its mimetic components’.

Hume’s thesis is a well-argued and timely call for a paradigm shift in
critical theory. Our postmodern world no longer depends on solely rational
thought, because the metanarratives have been deconstructed and science does
not provide all the answers. As Hume concludes – ‘The rediscovery of fantasy
should be a cause for optimism, and good reason to alter our critical
vocabulary’. Realism has failed to represent the whole of reality in its widest
sense and critical theory has also failed to explain the fantastic, so new
terms of reference are required.

Lucie Armitt, in Theorising the Fantastic (1996), suggests that fantasy is an
elusive and intangible paradox ‘beyond our grasp and beyond articulation, but
it continues to proffer glimpses of an enticing and forbidding unknown of which
we could otherwise only dream’. This remains an evocative definition. Armitt employs Freudian and feminist readings in her interpretation of fairy tales, gothic horror, nonsense and science fiction. Armitt demonstrates how fantasy is a powerful resource
available to every writer. ‘Now we can look at the fantastic as a form of
writing which is about opening up subversive spaces within the mainstream
rather than ghettoizing fantasy by encasing it within genres’

Structuralism, as a literary perspective, fails to enable readers to
understand a text, Armitt argues, because it is so often ‘Obsessed with
classifying’ leaving a text as an empty piece of data. This leaves fantasy
literature and literary theory in a dialectical tension. Armitt is paraphrasing
other critics when she writes, ‘If … fantasy is at its most subversive when
located on the margins of the canon, then surely there is much to be said for
it being likewise located on the margins of theory’.

Fantasy’s marginalisation has much to do with the Enlightenment notion
that art was separate from reason or that artistic expression is not concerned
with ‘reality’. This is a dangerous premise that belittles the power of the
symbol and of artistic imagination. Literary theory fails fantasy because
fantasy transcends reason and explicit meaning, so that scientific tools of
enquiry are inappropriate.

More explicitly, author J.G. Ballard expresses antipathy for all
literary theory. He believes ‘all schools of “English literature” should be
closed … fiction is meant to provoke, exhilarate, entertain, inform, amuse
and scandalise – not to be poked and prodded like a cadaver on an autopsy
table’. Ballard suggests that the danger of theory is that the theory becomes
more important than the text being studied: ‘the trouble with literary
criticism is that it tends to turn into a self-serving ideology, constantly
concerned to purify itself. Leavis’ notion that the novel is a moral criticism
of life being complete bunk – the imagination, thank God, transcends morality’.

The mistake made is in attempting to impose our own order upon fantasy,
thus rewriting the text. As readers, we could take the less comfortable option
of peering into the inchoate darkness to discover something far richer than our
impotent, material existence. Fantasy involves the reader, as long as they have
not lost their imaginations and the ability to dream.

Whether we call it romance, fable, the grotesque, non­-realism, fabulation, metafiction, postmodernism or slipstream, fantasy is not so much a genre or a mode, but it is a protean
element: a resource or tool that exists for any writer to use to add depth,
colour, richness, imagination and a greater sense of reality to their art. We
should celebrate the existence of fantasy in our lives and in our arts.

Fantasy is not a lower but a higher form of art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.

J.R.R. Tolkien