The OF Blog: What is fantasy?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What is fantasy?

Just another silly/profound (?) question that's been popping up more and more often in my mind while I'm reading certain books.  Instead of just trying to address it right now, I thought I'd just pose that simple 'lil question for the readers here, just to see what they would come up with as means of explanation.

I guess I should also note that this question last appeared while I was just finishing my reading of George MacDonald's Phantastes.  Interesting book, one that I shall re-read at some future point before reviewing it at length.


Anonymous said...

Here's George R. R. Martin's take: "Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller whe...n they finally come true?

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

They can keep their heaven. When I die, I'd sooner go to middle Earth."

That's actually one of my favorite quotes.

Karen Burnham said...

Larry - OK, you've given me the excuse to finally write something down that's been kicking around in my head for 5 or 6 years. Unfortunately, it turned out to be too long for your comment form, so I posted it to my blog instead. (If you just want the Spoiler version, Phantastes ends up being sf.) ;-)

Roland said...

Well, one of my favorite quotes is from the great Gene Wolfe:
"...magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish".
I'm sure you knew that though! :)

writtenwyrdd said...

For me, fantasy is pretty much the typical definition of old, that if it contains elements that are contrary to known science, such as magic that works, it is fantasy. If it deals in technology or science that is within the realm of possibility and purports to follow scientific laws, it's science fiction.

Of course, with the huge array of split-hair definitions out there for subgenre, that seems a bit too bland and overarching now.

Anonymous said...

I like Martin's fiction, but I think his definition made me throw up a little in my mouth it's so fucking overwritten. You know what fantasy is? Fantasy is everything he has in there, even the goddamn bits he thinks are just reality.

Daniel Ausema said...

Just in the few responses you've had here, you have definitions that define fantasy compared to reality, fantasy compared to science fiction, and fantasy compared to magical realism (though for a less facetious distinction for that last one, I remember a prof saying that, in the context of Latin American lit anyway, in a fantasy story the fantastical stuff is the source of the conflict while in a magical realist story the fantastical stuff just is a part of the accepted reality of the characters/setting, while the conflict comes from other, often political, sources--I've always found that a useful way to start a discussion, though not always a final definition). I think that fact proves what I was going to post, that it's not really useful to imagine an ideal definition that exists apart from anything else--it'll always depend on the context and what you're comparing it with.

Useful, to me, is the key starting point for any definition anyway. It doesn't matter if this definition really fits "fantasy" in all contexts, but if it's useful for a given discussion, then that's great.

So I've seen some definitions that science fiction posits a neutral universe, where readers might judge characters, but the cosmos doesn't; fantasy (at least high/epic fantasy) posits a just universe where the story rewards whatever principles the author considers "right"...or at least leaves a sense that when the story doesn't reward characters, that feels wrong; and horror/dark fantasy posits an unjust universe that punishes those who do right...or just anyone for the sake of it.

I don't find that the most accurate definition--I think you can easily find counter examples and blurring works--but sometimes I find it useful to look at something with that rubric in mind.

Another one that can be useful as a way of grouping things is that in science fiction the universe/multiverse/whatever is ultimately knowable, even if that knowledge would take hundreds of generations of study, whereas in fantasy there's something unknowable at the base, a mystery that no amount of study could ever fully explain. Again, not perfect, but useful at times.

Hal Duncan said...

My own take on it's up over at my blog. It's actually fairly easy to define, I'd say, but unfortunately an exercise in futility because the multiple answers are at odds with each other, and politicised beyond utility.

Eric M. Edwards said...

Wizards and talking wolves.

That's the answer. That's what makes fantasy. Simple. And anyone who says different is full of minotaur shit.

So if your books don't have wizards (or techowizards, or nanowizards, or cryastalwizards, or witchywizards, or totallymundanewizards, or nobodysawizards) or talking wolves (or talking dragons, or talking gnomes, or talking squirrels, or talking robots, or talking aliens, or talking women) then your books aren't fantasy - plain and simple.

You can end the discuss now. Someone tell Hal Duncan and his Modality Squad that it's over.



S Johnson said...

Fantasy is daydreams. By its nature, fantasy as a literary mode fulfills daydreams of escaping reality, which is why definitions like yours that incorporate the wishful thinking aspect have good reason to do so. However, most SF is daydreaming.

Still, fantasy can still take an honest look at wishful thinking, a kind of self examination, which by your definition would not be fantasy. Your defintion would lead to a paradox. The purpose of such definitions are to assist in understanding. The daydream aspect is a critical razor that cuts away far, far more than fantasy.

Fantasy is a literary mode in which a fantastic (impossible) element in the fiction or drama is not connected to our reality.

Like all definitions, there are difficulties in using it to analyze works, not least of which is the extraordinary levels of ignorance some writers display. .

On the more general level, the difficulty is the insistence that some sort of magic, usually God or in a few cases some apophatic mystical Godhead, really does exist in this reality. Star Wars and Dune are definitiely SF, albeit remarkably scientifically illiterate. (And despite formidable competition for the title.)

Eric M. Edwards said...


Paradoxes? Daydreams? Godheads!? You've wandered far off course, Mr. "S Johnson."

Wizards and talking wolves.

Really, I thought we'd already cleared this all up.


J m mcdermott said...

The definition of "fantasy" is made more difficult when one considers defining what is "reality".

In literature, especially, everything is a veil of words and artistry. What is the real? Can that even be defined?

Larry Nolen said...

Ideation. I think so many of the various definitions of fantasy revolve around ideations of various sorts. But that doesn't make for a sexy article posting, does it? :P

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