Fantasy is more than a genre: it’s a literary movement, one with commentary and always in dialogue with the past. Whereas most discussions on fantasy focus on ‘literary merit’ and the nature of escapism, this only covers a small aspect of fantasy literature.
In this article, I aim to capture the dynamic nature of fantasy. Whereas publishers and some writing communities treat fantasy as a set of conventions and as a static genre, I’ll opt for a different path: fantasy, like Art Nouveau or the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, emphasises a particular worldview through aesthetics and narrative. This vision of reality has political, theological and cultural ramifications.
The Nature of Art Discussions
A mistake when analysing contemporary literature and art is classifying all post-WWII stories as ‘postmodern.’ Authors such as Thomas Pychon and Kurt Vonngeut capture the hectic, disorganised realities of postmodern life through experimental prose. Andy Warhol’s Pop Art blurs the lines between commercialism, celebrity and art, with his prints concerning Marilyn Monroe and tomato soup.
Yet postmodernism is not without critics. Two notable ones are Camille Paglia, an academic who is firmly critical of contemporary art and the corporatism of the universities. In a fiery interview with psychologist Jordan Peterson, Paglia finds fault in the ‘snide’ state of literary criticism.
David Foster Wallace’s criticism differs. The Infinite Jest author calls for ‘sincerity’ in literature, desiring an end to the superficiality present in television and US culture. From this, we see problems in the postmodern classification: there’s significant dissent against it, and it’s not the only possible art movement existing in our contemporary era. This is a vital point. So often, postmodernism is treated as the only option for philosophy and art. Fortunately, fantasy demonstrates an alternative.
Like numerous literary movements such as New Wave science fiction and confessional poetry, fantasy came from certain historical events: specifically, both World Wars and the Industrial Revolution. This occurred alongside art movements such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It’s truly incredible to consider the contemporary appeal of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire: these stories, although modern, offer an escape into past folklore and societies.
You cannot have an art movement without ongoing historical events. Fantasy is no exception to this. An interesting metaphor comes from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Lucy, one of the four Pevensie children, takes refuge in a country house while the Blitz destroys much of her country. Here, she discovers a wardrobe. Narnia looms ahead: a land of magic, snow and order.
C.S Lewis’s portrayal of magic as an escape from contemporary realities is a hallmark of fantasy.
What Is Fantasy?
Defining fantasy brings many challenges. This is because every year, so many novels and comics are published, thus making the category of ‘fantasy’ complex. However, this task is not impossible. We can begin by narrowing the definition of fantasy. This article defines fantasy as a literary style which fuses magic, adventure and wonder. Some examples include the Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling, but also His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, the Narnia series by C.S Lewis and for a recent example, Christelle Dabos’ quartet The Mirror Visitor.
Beyond Lord of the Rings for adults, we can consider American Gods by Neil Gaiman, The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and, as a personal favourite, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. These novels also offer insight into what eras and authors deem ‘magical’ and what is considered ‘not-magical.’
The clearest example comes from Harry Potter. The Dursley family are not magical. Their comfortable, suburban lives do not interest J.K Rowling’s view of magic. However, the rural and eccentric Weasley family do. The wizarding community is also surprisingly scant: a vast number of the British population are Muggles and therefore, the magic is rare, found in castles and mountains, whisked away from the average suburban life of 10 year old Harry.
In addition to this, many fantasy works are concerned with ‘dying’ magic, where the world is undergoing change and modernisation, which forces the desire for preservation. An explicit example is Tolkien. His commentary on the Industrial Revolution and the ongoing mechanisation of England is seen in the Ents and in Sauroman’s schemes for the Orcs. This certainly adds weight to my ongoing thesis: fantasy is a literary movement, concerned with politics, history and economics, and in response, uses literature and aesthetics to respond to it.
Fantasy evolves. This is true for all artistic movements due to the everchanging and turbulent nature of the present. There are particular trends gripping trade publishing: female protagonists, complex magic systems, African and Asian mythology as well as a celebration of youth. I do not necessarily like all of these. However, this is a continuation of the fantasy style. We cannot discuss Tolkien without mentioning the reception of him. This is a recurring theme in art history, too. It’s also difficult to predict the future directions of fantasy. I believe the style will adapt with the times and take different forms. Those who spend time in political circles will notice the concerns and prophecies many have towards the future. It would certainly interest many to see literature reflect these ideas. An artistic movement, after all, is shaped by politics, culture, history, the environment, war and relationships.
A curious development within fantasy literature is its relationship with ‘literary’ fiction. Whether fantasy is deemed ‘proper literature’ is a clear concern of many writers. Perhaps time is changing. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell won a spot on the Booker longlist. Her latest adventure, Piranesi, won prestigious prizes. David Mitchell has also voiced his appreciation for fantasy and science fiction. The short stories of Ted Chiang and Kelly Link are met with acclaim. Likewise, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is accepted as both ‘literary’ and ‘fantasy.’ Publishing genres are ever-changing and dynamic. Fantasy can tell remarkable, life-changing stories, ones with heart, thought and emotion. I look forward to more being written and published.
A Culture of Devotion
Interestingly, fantasy inspires a culture of devotion. This is shown in the numerous examples of fan art. I explored this in a recent article about the creativity of the Harry Potter fandom. Whether we discuss ASMRs, fanfiction, art or the many activities available to fans, it is difficult to ignore the interest and dedication many fans have towards certain fantastical universes. There’s a reason why Game of Thrones tours were beloved by many in Northern Ireland (I did one!). The opportunity to connect with other readers, to share your appreciation and love, as well as speculate about fan theories and characters is spellbinding. By doing this, readers bring the magic from the pages into their own lives. That’s always been a key aspect of fantasy: discovering wonder and awe in our modern realities.
Also, the internet offers special forums for fans to gather and discuss these stories. You cannot discuss contemporary fantasy without the aspects of community. That’s something you see in historical art movements, too. I’ve previously cited the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood yet they were not the only ones. Consider Sturm Und Drang or the Nazarenes from Germany. Literary and artistic movements will always require community. From this, we can determine fantasy’s reliance on community for much of its success. This isn’t a sufficient argument on its own but is certainly a crucial point to remember.
On a personal note: I love fantasy communities. These provide exciting opportunities to share ideas and to chat with like-minded individuals. Much of my output on Snowy Fictions and within my YouTube channel relates to fantasy literature and why it resonates with contemporary audiences. This is mostly because readers desire magic in their own lives, too. My goal is to help them discover it!
Authors, of course, should embrace their own perspectives on literature and broader society. Artistic movements are rarely a list of concrete rules and diversion, even if opposed by others, is expected. Readers and historians can also use fantasy literature as sources in understanding our contemporary era. This offers many opportunities to understand individuals, groups and events.
The magic in Tolkien isn’t just relevant to Middle-Earth; it is also commentary on our modern history.