I don’t come to answer just yet but only to ask. What is fantasy? Let’s start with a simple, rather unhelpful definition: Fantasy is a genre. Great! Now, what is a genre? Amy J. Devitt classifies genres as “[rhetorical] actions rather than forms” (“Genre” 146), drawing from Carolyn Miller’s 1984 definition. By “rhetorical action,” we mean the very act of creating (writing, film design, painting, etc. However, in this discussion we’re primarily focused on writing). Authors write about similar situations, themes, etc. Soon enough, there are enough similarities between multiple authors’ works that “readers come to expect” them in other similar works (146). Thus, a genre is born.
Now, this explanation sounds pretty circular. A genre is a genre because multiple people wrote stories that ended up fitting in a certain genre. This brings up ideas formulated by Wittgenstein, namely family resemblance. One example I’ve encountered is asking the question, “What is a game?” and then simply listing out a variety of different games: from Hop-Scotch, to Super Mario Bros., to Baseball, to running around in the yard. In the end, you end up with a big list of games. Except now that you have your list, the question of what a game is becomes harder. Not every game resembles each other perfectly. It is more of a family resemblance: They share similarities between each other, but they don’t all share the same similarities.
In his book Cognitive Poetics, Peter Stockwell discusses genre as essentially different categories of things. In this sense, apples and oranges are different genres of fruit. In certain areas for many people, they would be prototypical examples of fruit. Similarly, if asked to randomly name 10 fantasy books/series, many people would probably list Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones (ASOIAF, if you will) among the first things mentioned. (I say “probably” because it’s simply my assumption. But feel free to try it with people you know.)
Stockwell discusses the idea of genre in different aspects, as previously mentioned: prototypes, categories, and cognitive models. This last point deals with how we socially, culturally, and individualistically understand categories of the world around us (Stockwell 33).
When really scrutinized, the idea of genre itself is difficult to nail down. For some, “genre” means romance, fantasy, horror, sci-fi, etc. For others, it might mean non-fiction, fiction, poetry, journal articles, etc. Regardless, I agree with Stockwell’s analysis that the concept of categorization fits within the concept of genre.
To re-cap. What is a genre? A genre is a way of categorizing something. Fantasy is a way of categorizing a particular type of story. Again: what is fantasy, though? I’m sure we’re all thinking, “It’s obvious!” However, is it? Different scholars provide different explanations. Matthias Stephan describes the genre as instilling a sense of wonder. He claims that fantasy is placed in a world “estranged” from our own and contain supernatural or “marvelous” elements of some sort (“Do You Believe in Magic?” abstract). He goes on to briefly discuss three different fantasy stories that share these elements yet break from the expected tradition: The Sword of Shannara, which defies the idea that fantasy need be set in a particular time; The Buried Giant, which defies the idea that fantasy is excluded from more ‘literary’ language; and finally Star Wars, which defies the idea that fantasy need be set in a particular place.
He also says that fantasy is distinguished from horror by its ultimate goal. Simply put, horror is meant to scare. Fantasy is not. One way he separates fantasy from science fiction is by drawing from Roberts, who says that the latter exists in a plausible reality in which certain supernatural or marvelous aspects are explained. Note that he doesn’t claim scenarios in science fiction are not impossible — only that explaining the impossible gives it reasonable plausibility.
However, this then springs the question: “Is a story like Mistborn science fiction? The series takes the real world idea metallurgy and makes it into something supernatural. It asks the question, “What if certain people could do supernatural things when given certain metals?” The science of it all is then explained in detail. We know how the metals work. We know it is impossible, yet through the explanations, we get a sense of plausibility. Therefore, by Roberts definition, Mistborn is science fiction. Would Stephan agree? Honestly, I’m not sure. The idea of metals interacting with certain individuals is treated as scientific, rather than magical. Stephan argues that fantasy is often sparked by “pure imagination” rather than being grounded in something more realistic (8). So does that answer the question? Personally, for me, it doesn’t. Sure, I’ll continue to classify Mistborn as fantasy, but why couldn’t it be science fiction? Or at the very least, a happy middle of science fantasy? Perhaps I’m simply drawing from what Stockwell describes as an “Idealised Cognitive Model” when I instinctively classify the series as fantasy (CP 33).
So you can see that while Stephan attempts to distinguish science fiction from fantasy (and does a good job, in my opinion), the line isn’t always clear. For other fuzzy examples, see things like Dune or Star Wars. He also mentions the idea that fantasy instills wonder. Brian Laetz and Joshua J. Johnston disagree with this aspect, as detailed in their article, “What is Fantasy?”.
For them, not everything classified as fantasy necessarily instills wonder. Some things fail to do so. Some authors do not want to instill a sense of wonder but instead a different sense. They agree that the primary goal of fantasy differs from other genres. Particularly, they also use examples from the horror genre, whose primary goal is to instill fear in the audience (“What is Fantasy?” 166, 168-169).
This primary goal also, for them (Stephan and Laetz & Johnston), separates fantasy from magical realism. In MR, such as A Picture of Dorian Gray or Metamorphosis, supernatural elements take place: the picture deteriorating or a man turned into a bug. While these are driving forces of the stories, they are not the primary foci. They are still magical, perhaps even fitting into the realm of the fantastic as Tzvetan Todorov would say. Simply using the aforementioned scholars’ ideas, MR then is not fantasy but is closely related to fantasy.
Finally, we come to Kelly Kramer’s article, “A Common Language of Desire,” in which she describes as a genre of desire. She does not say that these desires are necessarily good or bad. In fact, she draws heavily from Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy in comparison with C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. While similar to the idea of wonder, it does not exclude unhappy results. That being said, Kramer does exclude the notion of an entirely pessimistic ending in fantasy. She uses the example of The Magicians, which doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending but nevertheless rejects a “certainly unhappy one” (“A Common Language” 157). In this sense, things like grimdark fantasy still apply to the genre because they still have an ultimate sense of hope, even if the outcome isn’t all that great. Is this sense of desire or hope necessary, though?
So what is fantasy? Instinctively, we all know the answer. But in reality, it’s tougher to explain than one might initially think. I have not come here to offer my views, only to summarize what some of the literature has to say on the topic. I realize I am missing some good writings on the question, such as Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories.” I hope you can forgive me for that, but I did want to make this analysis relatively brief.
This post will be updated in the future once I have read “On Fairy-Stories” plus another article or two, perhaps.
- Devitt, Amy J. “Genre Pedagogies.” A Guide to Composition Pedagogies, edited by Gary Tate, et al, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 146-162.
- Laetz, B. & Johnston, J. J. “What is Fantasy?” Philosophy and Literature, vol. 32 no. 1, 2008, pp. 161-172.
- Kramer, Kelly. “A Common Language of Desire: The Magicians, Narnia, and Contemporary Fantasy.” Mythlore, vol. 35, no. 2, Spring/Summer2017, pp. 153-169.
- Stephan, Matthias. “Do You Believe in Magic? The Potency of the Fantasy Genre.” Coolabah, Iss 18, Pp 3-15 (2016), no. 18, 2016, p. 3-15.
- Stockwell, Peter. Cognitive poetics: An introduction. Routledge, 2005.
- Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical investigations. John Wiley & Sons, 2010.