The debate between magical realism and fantasy fiction is ongoing, and frequently, an emotional affair. The late British author Terry Pratchett, responsible for the meritorious Discworld series, captures the conflict: “(magical realism) is a polite way of saying you write fantasy and that is more acceptable to certain people.” Ever the advocate for fantasy, Pratchett rebuked attempts to label his novels as ‘magical realism.’ His sharp wit hints at opposition to ‘literary’ evaluations and the ongoing tendency to equate university education with storytelling superiority. Unafraid of meaty topics concerning class and snobbery, Pratchett goes into bold territory, proclaiming: “(When) people don’t like fantasy they say magical realism by someone I went to university with.”
This article questions the binary between magical realism and fantasy, while encouraging space and flexibility for writers who do not fit nicely into boxes. There’s also a specific focus on German movies, art and literature; a language, sadly excluded in many Anglo-centric discussions about either fantasy or magical realism despite the geographic, cultural and linguistic similarities with English.
The History of Magical Realism & Fantasy
To begin, we must compare the common definitions of fantasy and magical realism. The latter, often associated with Latin American and South Asian postcolonial literature, was coined by a critic in Weimar Germany. This historical period, jammed between WWI and the rise of National Socialism, saw artists such as George Grosz and Jeanne Mammen portray fantastical and symbolic elements with ‘realism.’ Similar art movements include New Objectivity. This involved Otto Dix, who was accused by the Nazis for violating ‘the moral sensibilities and subversion of the militant spirit of the German people.’
Naturally, the artist was a target for Nazi ridicle and parody. I’m mentioning this because the intellectual climate of the early 20th century in Europe is vital to understand. There were conflicting views on art, economy, nationhood, society and religion. Magical realism came from a period which never granted it monopoly. It was certainly odd and peculiar. Also, if magical realism has roots in Weimar criticism, then it’s far more modern, cosmopolitan and political than fantasy, which as I later describe, is ancient, populist, traditional and symbolic.
In addition, Germany has a rich history of fantasy. The most notable example is The Rings of Nibelung by Richard Wagner from the 19th century. Yet there’s more. Old and Middle High German resulted in numerous epics and romances with fantastical elements, including Parzival and Wolfdietrich. Germany’s geographic position allowed influences from England, Ancient Rome, Scandinavia and France, which developed a tradition of heroism, chivalry, drama, fantasy and Christianity. Because of this, the fantasy genre stretches thousands of years and is the result of certain pre modern traditions. This is a dramatic contrast to magical realism. Within the span of European history, magical realism is new. It came out of a specific political, cultural and technological context and spread globally due to the similar dynamics. There is no guarantee magical realism will exist in two hundred years time. Fantasy, of course, is different.
That said, magical realism is clearly interested in folklore, mythology and fables. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children uses the frame narrative of Arabian Nights to awesome effect.
Philosophies of Style
An author’s approach to magic within his or her novel will influence some reader’s perception whether it’s fantasy or magical realism. According to Emma Allman, writing for the Book Riot: “magical realism uses magical points to make a point about reality… there is a distortion effect in the fibre of the prose, that forces the reader to question what is real…”
I have two thoughts about this. First, fantasy does use magic to make points about reality. This is mostly done through allegory and symbolism. This is explicit in the Harry Potter series, where certain places and moments are treated as magical, whereas others are not. However, as Allman correctly alludes to, magical realism does have a disorienting effect, which traditional fantasy doesn’t have.This also explains the limited nature of magic in Wings of Desire, a German film from the 1980s. Beyond the angel, every narrative point is based in ‘reality.’ Gotham Writers argues this by citing Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Fantasy, ever opulent, never refuses the fantastic. Yet this isn’t a satisfying answer, either. Many magical realist narratives take a scattered approach, where magic is found among many narrative points. This is surely the reality of Haruki Marakmir’s odysseys into sex, Japan, adolescence and gore.
Rather, a meatier analysis awaits and it concerns priorities. Both magical realism and fantasy use a binary of ‘non-magical’ and ‘magical.’ Non-magical includes objects, settings and characters who exist without supernatural or fantastical powers. The magical, of course, is the reverse: characters, items and settings are magic.
An interesting example is Bran Stark from A Song of Ice And Fire. At the beginning of the series, he is just a boy. Yet he becomes a sophisticated magic-user. ASOIAF is full of prophecies, magical objects and weapons. Even if a character is not a magical user, like Sansa Stark, they still exist in a world where magic is aware of them. This curious blending of realism and magic is a crucial aspect of both fantasy and magical realism. No story, either magical realism or fantasy, is either ‘pure magic’ or ‘pure realism.’ There’s always a combination. Because of this, readers must note how the author uses magic in the story. Is it for symbolism? Dramatic effect? To move the plot forward? To raise stakes? All of these answers matter.
The ‘Ordinary’ matters in fantasy and magical realism, as previously indicated.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, the magic is surreal, inconsistent and even bland. That’s the point, of course. Márquez is not interested in using magic as a fantastic, engrossing device of splendour. The magic in Macondo doesn’t matter in the traditional sense, as non-magical characters and events constantly crush and shape it. There is nothing magical about either fate or choice.
This is because Márquez, like many Latin American writers of magical realism, saw the mundane as extraordinary or even magical. This switch of places adds to this ‘disorienting’ effect, but also provides commentary on 20th century themes of postcolonialism, socialism, mass violence, capital punishment and drugs.
Returning to fantasy. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke takes well-known places (York Minster, London, Napoleonic Europe) and makes them magical. This encourages the reader to see magic, and therefore the potential, in the ordinary. One explanation for the success of epic fantasy and long book series is the emotional catharsis offered. Our thoughts, our imaginations, our reactions undergo an incredible journey. Through this process, the reader acknowledges why some aspects of their life are deemed ‘magical’ whereas others are not.
Magical realism treats the magical as mundane, whereas fantasy treats the mundane as magical. We can also understand why magical realism, although incorrectly, is treated as more ‘serious’ than fantasy. Contemporary literary critics and academics are certainly sympathetic to the socialist and critical attitudes of magical realism. In opposition, fantasy is seen as childish and conservative, a hallmark to older times and eras. Of course – not all academics and critics share this view. I don’t, either.
It is a mistake to treat either magical realism or fantasy as sole categories. This is because both overlap in unexpected ways. Consider Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence. The historical references, blend of medieval magic with folklore, and political commentary suggest a story that’s both magical realism and fantasy. The novel fits both criteria! Personally, that’s a strength of magical realism and fantasy. Not every story has to fit into neat genre boxes, especially not art. Likewise, Patrick Suskind’s masterpiece Perfume: Story of a Murderer, a brilliant German novel, is both firmly magical realist and fantasy. It’s a strong argument to position all magical realist novels as fantasy. It’s just a different type! I don’t mean a subgenre, either. After all, ambiguity is a crucial aspect of art and literature. Readers and publishers should embrace this uncertainty and not shy away from it.
Addressing the stylish differences between magical realism and fantasy was simple. However, it’s harder to analyse and find solutions to genre snobbery, the publishing industry and long-standing tensions regarding education and money. These are controversial and emotional subjects. I cannot do them proper justice in this article.
There are excellent novels of both fantasy and magical realism. I adore Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum and the fable-like journeys of E.T.A Hoffman, such as The Nutcracker. Other wonders of German literature include Richard Wagner and the Grimm Brothers.
What are your thoughts on magical realism and fantasy? Please share!