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What is Fantasy?

Updated on March 21, 2014

Knights of old

Howard Pyle illustration from the 1903 edition of The Story of King Arthur and His Knights s
Howard Pyle illustration from the 1903 edition of The Story of King Arthur and His Knights s | Source

Where is the line between fantasy and fairytale?

Fantasy fiction, the term brings to mind images of armored knights, terrifying dragons, mighty sorcerers and wise elves. What separates the genre from fairy-tales and mythology? Is it merely the fact that fantasy was written by identifiable contemporary authors while fairy-tales and myth are so old that the original author is often unknown? What then of witches and ghosts that appear in Shakespeare? If the Bard is sufficiently old to escape classifying as fantasy, is Dickens? Although if Macbeth and A Christmas Carol aren't fantasy they certainly aren't classified as fairy-tales either. At the other extreme we find stories of psychic or similar abilities set in modern times or the far future. Often these abilities are indistinguishable from magic except in how they are labeled. Yet these stories are generally called science fiction or science fantasy. If the psychic abilities were placed next to sword wielding warriors instead of gun toting or ray gun carrying heroes wouldn't they be called fantasy? In what is commonly called urban fantasy, magic and mythic monsters coexist with our modern world without the need to label the powers psychic, thus making the dividing line even more murky. So what's the dividing line? Is there a hard and fast rule?

The original audience believed in magic

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble

Cooking Witches - Unknown Date Geschichte Österreichs
Cooking Witches - Unknown Date Geschichte Österreichs | Source

It comes down to audience belief

One significant difference between fantasy and fairy-tales, mythology or classic literature like Macbeth has to do with the beliefs of the audience. When Rick Riordian writes his Percy Jackson novels today he doesn't expect the audience to believe that demigods or monsters are real. When Shakespeare penned Macbeth, however, a large portion of his audience did believe witches and ghosts actually existed. Likewise when the fairy-tale Snow White was first told the idea of a witch cursing someone was considered quite plausible. When these classic stories were first created there was no need to have a separate fantasy category. What we call fantasy today was believed to be a part of everyday life back then. Even the most pragmatic members of the original audience believed in the supernatural enough to lend an air of the plausible to some of the more extreme story elements. The same holds true for psychic abilities today, though they are not as widely believed in as witches were in Shakespeare's day. Fantasy relies on elements that people used to believe in but we no longer think are true. In some ways it is the fiction of, what if the myths were true?

The relationship to religion

Because of it's relationship to mythology, fantasy often has religious overtones. What we call myth today was after all the religious fiction or even scripture of ancient times. By the same token to a non believer modern religious fiction might seem to belong in the fantasy category. In some cases the religious overtones in fantasy are part of a deliberate religious statement by the author. In other cases they are included as necessary background because religion was so much a part of the ancient cultures that are emulated in their stories. A frequent exception to this is the urban fantasy sub genre. Set in modern times, when religion is less of a cultural force, urban fantasy may mention the subject less. When urban fantasy does delve into religious territory it might be a deliberate crossover into religious fiction.

The audience here wasn't expected to believe in real dragons

Here be dragons

One who assumes that fantasy fiction is nothing more than escapism should be reminded of what G. K. Chesterton had to say on the subject of fairy-tales, “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon." In mythology and fairy-tales the dragon was often the symbol of primal natural forces. Indeed, when Smaug described himself in the Hobbit it is no accident that he used imagery of armies and hurricanes. Nor does Bilbo overstate in calling the dragon “...Chiefest and greatest of calamities...” For the dragon in ancient times was not simply a big flying lizard but the embodiment of every calamity natural and man made. We think ourselves too sophisticated to believe in dragons anymore but modern man is still at the mercy of earthquakes, tornadoes and tsunami that strike without warning. Are we any better off not believing that a mythic monster is behind them? Our rational view of the world has great benefits no doubt but, in some instances, excessive rationality may rob us of hope. Fantasy can help restore hope, by reminding us that adversity can be overcome. Even if we no longer believe that the monster embodying the adversity (whether it's a dragon or the creature in the horror movie) is real.

St. George and the Dragon

National Gallery of Art by Rogier van der Weyden
National Gallery of Art by Rogier van der Weyden | Source

The role of allegory

In addition to rekindling hope fantasy can be a breeding ground for allegory. Like science fiction, fantasy makes it easier to look at real world issues by changing their context. The Lord of the Rings is filed with allegory for mortality, the evils of unbridled technology and the corruption of power. The Sword of Shannarra deals with the threats of self deception. Unseen Acadmicals, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, addresses how people pull down those who try to excel. Even The Wizard of Oz slipped in some contemporary political allegory. Sometimes critics will even find allegory that the author did not intend, as when some have pointed out World War 2 parallels in the Lord of the Rings. If anything, that just proves that some allegory is timeless and may apply in many ways.

Shining light into todays darkness

So what is Fantasy? Modern tales of what if ancient myths were true? A secular source of hope that adversity may be overcome? A breeding ground for allegory about real issues both current and timeless? In many cases it is all of them at once. For it is often by being cast in mythic garb that allegory is made more palatable. Through allegory the light of hope may be shone on even the most hopeless situations. With all the troubles in the world today it is a wonder there is not more fantasy being written. Surely our world could use more perspective and more hope.

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    • brutishspoon profile image

      Amy 4 years ago from Darlington, England

      Fantasy like its close relative SF is a great way to escape realty for a time. It is great for children with their overactive imaginations as well as adults who still have theirs. I love Tolkien and C.S Lewis as well as Hans Christian Andersen and Grimm.

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