Talking about Fantasy

June 24, 2008

Just recently read The Arrival and started re-reading The Orphan’s Tales, which got me to thinking about fantasy as a genre.

There’s something powerful about being able to write stories which are cut away from our historical associations. The ability to distill ideas and symbols without having to navigate the loaded complexities of history and culture but instead write the story on your own terms. (Which is not to say that fantasy, or any genre can exist completely outside of the context of our world, there is the matter of the writer and the interpretation by readers, but you get the idea.)

Of course, this is where we see fantasy’s big split.

What passes for fantasy these days, is mostly action-adventure stories dressed up with swords and dragons. There is no symbolism- the history of the world, the gods, the monsters, the magic, all of it is explained for you. It is all literal and has a single definition, problems are understood and so is how you solve them. Even if the heroes are in danger, you’re completely safe in knowing what’s going on with the story. (The publishers also get to feel safe too, but for different reasons…)

Classic fantasy, like myths, like fairytales, like the books I linked above? Those aren’t safe. They’re about things we don’t understand, with fuzzy interpretations and while some kinds of evil are easy to identify, what you do to deal with it is not. It’s about violating boundaries- you come home and you find a wolf in a bloody nightgown trying to impersonate your grandmother.

It’s about dealing with the unknown and because it’s unknown, the mind grasps at straws for associations, interpretations, anything to get a bead on it. No wonder fantasy is aimed at children- navigating the unknown, dealing with the irrationality of human nature, these are the cliff notes kids need.

The genre’s ability to speak deeply on human nature and life is also why there’s a lot of violent protest over who gets to define what fantasy is, and who it serves. You’d imagine that something even more fictional than typical fiction would have more room for more people, but, as I said to begin with- even fantasy doesn’t get to exist outside of real world context.


  1. Come to think of it, I would like to see more mythic games…

    I don’t think of fantasy that way anymore, sadly. I use words like modern folktale and myth and the like. Fantasy, to me, is the schlock; entertaining, awesome, wickedly cool… Schlock.

  2. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks this way.

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