It’s quite a long journey from George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin novel to George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire; about 140 years of Fantasy literature in between spanning across enough sub-genres that R.R. Martin couldn’t behead fast enough.
When we consider fantasy, we generally think of fantastical lands, magic, dragons, princesses, wizards, swordsmen, goblins, orcs, hobbits and the like. But the genre is so much more than that. There’s dark mythological horrors (have you read Dark Things), there’s juvenile fantasy (Harry Potter, Narnia), there’s diesel punk (steampunk… kind of… it’s a long story), high fantasy (Lord of the Rings), urban fantasy (please don’t say Teen Wolf or Vampire Diaries – the series not… never mind), fairy tales and the list goes on.
“Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
So let’s start with the basics of fantasy in:
Whether you have stepped out of a wardrobe or ran through a wall on Platform 9 3/4, most stories in the fantasy genre occur in a world outside of our own; a land where almost anything is possible. Sure, some incorporate a more contemporary era, but it is a world that is still outside our own in terms of possibility. In fact, that word possibility is the key word of any fantasy setting. The possibility of a werewolf as a presidential candidate. The possibility of finding a book that contains real magic. The possibility of anything fantastical happening. What would that mean to the world around us?
“They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to Middle Earth. ”
― George R.R. Martin
Magic / Supernatural Elements
Some practice Allomancy, some are part of the legendary Istari, others are protégés among rêveurs in a moving circus; they wield otherworldly abilities that we can only dream of in the real world. Some are born with them, some invoke it into existence, others rely on relics, symbols, wards, wands and gestures, all in a bid to access some supernatural ability which we call magic. This idea of it being “supernatural” is what makes it fantastical, so otherworldly, that by simply saying a certain phrase of Latin origin, you can call forth a ball of fire or lightning from the sky.
Others have tried to use science to explain the phenomenon of magic. In The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, this is the dialog between Balthazar and Dave:
Balthazar: Which also explains why molecular physics comes so easily to you.
Dave : So, wait. Is sorcery science or magic?
Balthazar: Yes and yes.
Regardless of it’s origin, limitations, elemental attributes, invocation etc, the very idea of magic fuels the fantasy genre and adds a wonderful sense of fantasia.
Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that… there are many kinds of magic, after all.”
― Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
Monster book of monsters
Copyright blah blah blah. Of course if you’ve read Harry Potter you know all about the monster book of monsters (and the upcoming movie about it! Fantastic beasts and where to find them) which brings another element of the fantasy genre: creatures.
The origin of these creatures can be traced back through the ages, and I mean waaay back. They appear in Norse mythology, Celtic mythology, Classical mythology (Greco-Roman), ancient Semitic religion (Middle East and North Africa), Chinese folklore and Sumerian religion (3500 BC). They go beyond just goblins, orcs, elves, dwarves, fairies, harpies, dragons, werewolves, vampires, mermaids, chimeras, Gorgons, Dark Lords, leviathans and oh so much more. They are scattered across the world and appear in various forms, live in a myriad of landscapes, communities and holes. Not all are evil. Not all are good. And they definitely add a sense of wonder and fear into any fantastical tale.
“What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be like sleep without dreams.”
― Werner Herzog
What would a story be without its hero? Most of them in the fantasy genre fall into some sort of trope: the orphan, the weird sibling, the loner who turns out to be from a “special” lineage, the reluctant hero, the underdog; and all of them find some ability (or learn to control it) which they use to prevent an evil. They are guided by some older mentor (mostly of the bearded kind) who may or may not die along the way, killed by some Dark Lord, which motivates the hero even more to quell the evil.
Or a wandering warrior with a mysterious past they wish to never relive. They are approached by a mysterious figure and called to embrace their destiny. This involves fending off hordes of creatures, finding the great evil behind them and engaging in an epic battle that forces them to reconcile their past and move to a better future. Normally with some beauty in tow.
All of them are plagued by a tragic past or future.
Regardless of their origin, we love the hero and their journey, watching them finally embrace who they are and defeat the evil. We are moved by their story, the hardships they overcome and the choices they made with the power they have been burdened with.
“Heroes are made by the paths they choose, not the powers they are graced with.”
― Brodi Ashton, Everneath