Fantasy is not a genre of literature: it is an expression of the imagination and a response to reality. It is an impulse of equal merit to realism. The best literature is that which combines both fantasy and realism – hence fantastic realism becomes an important term for critics – or more recently, the useful ‘Slipstream’. The fact that we have to differentiate fantasy from realism and then attempt to justify it or even apologise for it is evidence of the unjust marginalisation of fantastic literature. It has been left to genre critics to argue the case for fantasy and science fiction although development in theory and criticism is slow. Science fiction is way ahead in these terms, possibly because fantasy is so hard to define, whilst sf has a more specific focus.
In basic terms, fantasy is a huge term that encapsulates many forms and genres, including myths, fairy tales, heroic romance, Gothic, horror, science fiction and magic realism.
What has happened is that definitions and appellations have become mistakenly confused. So a shop will have a section entitled Science Fiction and in it will be found fantasy and horror. Many genre magazines prefer the name science fiction and yet also review and discuss fantasy texts. For them sf includes fantasy, but this makes very little real sense. Why do they prefer the label sf to that of fantasy?
Fantasy has become misrepresented as anything copying Tolkien or plagiarising the Conan mythos. This has led to different attitudes. Firstly, a patronising one that views fantasy as jolly fairy-tale bedtime stories for children, as shown by the popularity of Harry Potter (It’s okay for adults to read but we know that it is really for the kiddies – bless ‘em) and the way folk-tales of yore have become moralising Disney fables with happy endings. Secondly, fantasy is seen as badly written pulp read by anoraks obsessed with role playing games, seeking adolescent wish fulfilment, on a par with pornography. Thirdly, fantasy does not fit in with our rational, materialistic culture, which continues to deny anything spiritual or supernatural, so who wants to read unrealistic stories about magic, other worlds, talking animals or mythical creatures? Some will accept certain fantasy texts because there is clear symbolism or allegory thus giving it direct meaning for our real world. But even then this is denying the whole concept of fantasy. Finally, some are frightened that fantasy only offers an unfeasible method of escape from our real world, thus putting fantasy literature on the same and dangerous level as hard drugs. But why is escape such a bad thing?
Let’s face it even the word ‘fantasy’ immediately creates suspicion; implying sexual desire and perversion. (As a test, type ‘fantasy’ into a search engine – but only if you’re over 18!) Our western culture equates fantasy with something capricious or preposterous. To fantasize suggests that you are unhappy or unsatisfied.
However, the Collins Concise Dictionary defines fantasy as ‘imagination unrestricted by reality’ and this gives us a useful and positive focus. Fantasy is potent exactly because it is free and unrestrained, which also makes it dangerous and subversive, which are good things to be. This freedom means that fantasy is an elusive and protean element that breaks down traditions and boundaries, which is exactly what good literature should do. The dictionary definition reminds us that whilst reality cannot limit it, fantasy is still grounded in and related to reality. I think it is important to remember that the imagination, dreams, desires and spirituality are essential elements of reality and that we ignore them at our own peril. On a related note, I also like the way that the word ‘fantastic’ has come to be used as an informal way of expressing admiration for something on a par with ‘amazing’ or ‘excellent’. This can only encourage people to become less suspicious towards fantasy literature.
To understand fantasy it is helpful to be aware of some of its permutations, which we could call genres for the sake of argument. Different critics prefer particular terms, but the following covers most of what can be considered fantasy.
Myths, legends, fables and folklore: These source texts contain stories, characters, symbolism, locations and tropes that are plundered by fantasy authors. Greek, Roman, Norse, Hindu, Pacific, African, Icelandic, Arabian and British myths and legends continue to feed into contemporary fantasy. What John Clute calls ‘taproot texts’ also include seminal works such as The Canterbury Tales, The Faerie Queene, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Don Quixote, The Pilgrim’s Progress and even Gulliver’s Travels. The anthropomorphic Wind in the Willows and Watership Down are direct descendents of fables whilst E.T.A. Hoffman’s stories are dark fairy tales.
Romance: Chivalric or medieval romance is best exemplified by the Arthurian cycle of legends and poetry, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. This form of heroic romance with its themes of quest and battles between good and evil is the template for classic modern fantasy as practised by William Morris, Lord Dunsany, George MacDonald, JRR Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock and Stephen Donaldson that has been much copied since and is often referred to as ‘sword and sorcery’. Sword and sorcery is a descriptive name, but ‘heroic romance’ is to be preferred. ‘Science fantasy’ on the other hand is a misnomer.
Gothic Romance: In 18th and 19th century Europe, Romanticism was an artistic movement in opposition to the ‘Classicism’ of science and reason, drawing on supernatural and mythological imagery. Leading Romantic philosophers and writers include Rousseau, Goethe, Blake, Keats et al. This movement led to the Gothic novel. The first acknowledged gothic fantasy is The Castle of Ortranto by Horace Walpole; other Gothic authors include Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis and William Beckford; the two best examples are Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Gothic elements can be found in novels by Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens, Daphne Du Maurier, Mervyn Peake and Tanith Lee.
Horror: Horror comes directly from the Gothic Romance of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales, R.L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Some horror relies on supernatural elements, which are more fantastic, whilst other texts are humanistic, in that the violence and mystery can be explained rationally. The master of modern horror is of course H.P. Lovecraft who along with Clarke Ashton Smith wrote some of the classics of supernatural or ‘dark fantasy’. Not to be forgotten are Arthur Machen, Sheriden Le Fanu, Guy de Maupassant as well as contemporary best-selling authors such as Stephen King and Clive Barker.
Science Fiction: As a genre of fantasy, sf typically employs themes of space travel and technology in a futuristic setting. The term ‘hard sf’ signifies a form of explicit scientific realism. Established by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, sf famously went through a ‘golden age’, through the years of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, to the ‘New Wave’ instigated by Moorcock, which was more concerned with ‘inner space’ and psychology, thus opening up the limited boundaries of sf. Cyberpunk is the latest and most important recent subgenre. Utopian fantasies and alternate realities are also often considered sf. ‘Science fantasy’ is a confusing term that Judith Merril suggested to show that sf is an aspect of fantasy.
Magic Realism: Related to surrealism, magic realism interprets reality through dream imagery and abstract symbolism and the term was quite specifically linked with Latin American writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Borges tends to employ intertextual references and create labyrinthine versions of reality. The term can also apply to writers such as Angela Carter and Salman Rushdie who play postmodern games with their readers.
Fabulation: Writers of fabulation tend to break generic boundaries and their mainstream books use fantasy to subvert reality – e.g. Anthony Burgess, William Burroughs, Ital Calvino, Umberto Eco, Franz Kafka and Michael Moorcock. Robert Scholes came up with ‘structural fabulation’ in an attempt to embrace novelists such as William Golding and Doris Lessing who write mainstream and fantasy novels.
Slipstream: A term devised by Bruce Stirling to categorise postmodern writers who react against reality without their books being explicitly fantasy or sf, such as Peter Ackroyd and J.G. Ballard. As the name suggests, slipstream is a reaction to and divergence from the mainstream. Some authors have stories grounded in a recognisable world but are not limited by the strictures of ‘realism’. Slipstream reminds us that reality is not simple, logical or only materialistic, but also consists of dreams, memories, creativity, emotions and spiritual reality.
Clearly, some fantasy just cannot be pigeon-holed, nor should it have to be. This is not the fault of the text, but merely points to the fact that the system of labelling and structuring literature is too limited and narrow. Fantasy continues to subvert not only existing genres and forms, but also subverts the very process of understanding and analysis, showing up literary theory as a futile and finite gesture of those obsessed with categories and labels. However, some labels are useful as a language for reference, but the critical vocabulary needs to widen further.
Fantasy should not be sidelined as the poor relation of realism; something that has to be explained. Fantasy is a potent and enriching resource that is available to any writer who wants to extend the imagination of their readers, explore our world more fully, and to challenge, subvert, shock, amaze and inspire.