Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Much world literature has been described, at one time or another, as fantasy. "Fantasy" – certainly when conceived as being in contrast to Realism – is a most extraordinarily porous term, and has been used to mop up vast deposits of story which this culture or that – and this era or that – deems unrealistic. In the late 20th century, however, the term Fantastic has more and more frequently been substituted for "fantasy" when modes are being discussed. As a term of definition, "fantasy", though a term which continues to lack the specificity of Science Fiction, does designate a structure. Fantasy is not a form – like Horror – named solely after the affect it is intended to produce.

This encyclopedia's central focus is on fantasy, although many entries (like Afterlife, Allegory, Dark Fantasy, Fabulation, Fairytale, Folklore, Folktales, Horror, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Supernatural Fiction, Surrealism, Taproot Texts and Wonderlands) deal at some length with material within the broader realm of the fantastic. But fantasy's specific location in the spectrum of the fantastic is a matter of constant critical speculation; there is no rigorous critical consensus over the precise definition and "reach" and interrelation of any of the terms referred to above. As Brian Attebery has indicated through his description of fantasy as a "fuzzy set", it may be that fantasy is inherently best described and defined through prescriptive and exploratory example. That is why this encyclopedia includes entries on material which many critics and readers might not consider pure fantasy, and which the definition of fantasy suggested below makes no attempt to encompass.

Definition of Fantasy

A fantasy text is a self-coherent narrative. When set in this world, it tells a story which is impossible in the world as we perceive it (see Perception); when set in an otherworld, that otherworld will be impossible, though stories set there may be possible in its terms.

Some of the terms used here warrant explanation.

Text Any format in which a fantasy story can be told: the written word; Comics and Graphic Novels; Illustration and Fantasy Art; Cinema and Television; Music (notably Opera and Song).

Self-coherent Here a contrast between fantasy and other forms of the fantastic can perhaps be suggested. Certain kinds of narrative presentation of the unreal – like Dream tales, Surrealism and Postmodernism – manifestly decline to take on the nature of Story, though episodes of full stories may be part of their complex, challenging textures, their dismantling of the reader's sense that a coherent world is being presented through the text. Modernist and Postmodernist texts use elements of fantasy, but are not designed to be lived within in the way a fantasy text clearly invites its readers to co-inhabit the tale. It is not just that Modernism or Postmodernism question the nature of Story (much sophisticated fantasy does that); it is that they are profoundly subversive of the "naive" connective tissue that permits narrative consequences to follow on from narrative beginnings.

Because of its numerous fantasticated sequences, James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) might otherwise loosely qualify as a fantasy, as might Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (1924) or Franz Kafka's The Castle, almost any work by Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco or Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) (see Absurdist Fantasy) and almost any Fabulation by post-WWII writers like John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Georges Perec (1936-1982), Thomas Pynchon, etc. – or the entire works of Jorge Luis Borges, or indeed almost any Magic-Realism tale by Julio Cortázar or Carlo Fuentes or Gabriel García Márquez or a hundred others. Indeed, almost any 20th-century novel which stands aside from – or which puts to the question – the presumptions of the mimetic novel will almost certainly contain elements of the fantastic (and many 20th-century authors of this kind of work are given entries here). But clearly to call so much of 20th-century literature fantasy is radically to misunderstand the enterprises of Modernism and Postmodernism, and thereby to strip the term "fantasy" of any specific meaning.

Story Much that is said about "self-coherence" could be said here as well, because a Story is by definition a self-coherent narrative. Stories are traditionally transparent: they do not conceal the fact that something is being told, and then something else, and then we reach the end. This transparency of Story, which is typical of fantasy, creates what Brian Wicker describes in the title of his A Story-Shaped World (1975): "We may say that the characters in fairytales [to which it is possible to add characters in Fantasy] are 'good to think with' ... [and that] the job of the fairytale is to show that Why? questions cannot be answered except in one way: by telling stories. The story does not contain the answer, it is the answer."

Fantasy is a way to tell stories about the fantastic.

Perceive as impossible Before the beginning of the scientific revolution in Western Europe in the 16th century, most Western literature contained huge amounts of material 20th-century readers would think of as fantastical. It is, however, no simple matter to determine the degree to which various early writers distinguished, before the rise of science, between what we would call fantastical and what we would call realistic. Nor is it possible with any certainty to determine how much various early writers perceived stories which adhered to possible events and stories which did not as being different. There is no easy division between realism and the fantastical in writers before 1600 or so, and no genre of written literature, before about the early 19th century, seems to have been constituted so as deliberately to confront or contradict the "real". Though fantasy certainly existed for many centuries before, whenever stories were told which were understood by their authors (and readers) as being impossible, it is quite something else to suggest that the perceived impossibility of these stories was their point – that they stood as a counter-statement to a dominant worldview.

Science Fiction can be distinguished from fantasy on several grounds; but in our terms the most significant difference is that sf tales are written and read on the presumption that they are possible – if perhaps not yet.

Otherworld In "The Fantastic Imagination" – in A Dish of Orts (coll 1893) – George MacDonald comes close to creating a full definition of the Otherworld or Secondary World: "The natural world has its laws, [which] themselves may suggest laws of other kinds, and man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws." In "Boiling Roses: Thoughts on Science Fantasy" – in Intersections: Fantasy and Science Fiction (anth 1987) ed George E Slusser and Eric S Rabkin – Robert Scholes (1929-2016) suggests that Macdonald's "invented world, with laws of other kinds" is the "key" to modern fantasy. If it is not the key, it certainly points towards the natural venue for the self-coherent impossible tale; i.e., an internally coherent impossible world in which that tale is possible. Almost all post-Tolkien fantasy inhabits this region.

Structure of Fantasy

The working definition of fantasy described above has shaped this encyclopedia, and is constructed so as to include within the remit of the book many texts which we call fantasy almost solely because the Otherworld in which they are set is itself, by definition, impossible. Many Genre Fantasies (a term which encompasses almost all Dynastic Fantasy and Heroic Fantasy) boast storylines which could – with almost no alteration – be transferred from Fantasyland to a mundane venue. We do not claim these texts are not fantasy, nor that they are inherently inferior to more ambitious attempts to exploit the freedoms and obligations of the genre. We do, however, suggest that the greatest fantasy writers – George MacDonald, William Morris, L Frank Baum, E Nesbit, Lord Dunsany, H P Lovecraft, Kenneth Morris, E R Eddison, Clark Ashton Smith, J R R Tolkien, L Sprague de Camp, Fritz Leiber, C S Lewis, Mervyn Peake, Ray Bradbury, Alan Garner, Peter S Beagle, Ursula K Le Guin, Stephen R Donaldson, John Crowley, Mark Helprin and others – almost invariably engage deeply with the transformative potentials of fantasy.

A fantasy text may be described as the story of an earned passage from Bondage – via a central Recognition of what has been revealed and of what is about to happen, and which may involve a profound Metamorphosis of protagonist or world (or both) – into the Eucatastrophe, where marriages may occur, just governance fertilize the barren Land, and there is a Healing.

The initial state of bondage, of Reality-distorting constriction, is normally signalled in fantasy by Wrongness, by a sense that the world as a whole has gone askew, that the story of things has been occluded. The Hobbits' first sight of the Nazgûl in J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) shockingly opens their eyes to darkness, almost tangibly informs them that any return to the world that has been fogged over may be profoundly taxing; that the world (and the stories that tell it) is about to undergo a dangerous and painful Thinning of texture, a fading away of beingness. This thinning may manifest itself through a loss of Magic, or the slow death of the Gods, or a transformation of the Land into desert, or a blockage of Metamorphosis (so that nothing can change or grow), or an Amnesia (the protagonist's, or the world's) about the true nature of the self or history or the Secondary World, or of any of the consequences of the rule of a Dark Lord, whose diktats almost inevitably represent an estranging Parody of just governance.

We use the term Recognition frequently to describe the moment at which – after penetrating the Labyrinths of story-gone-astray – the protagonist finally gazes upon the shrivelled heart of the thinned world and sees what to do. After this moment of transformative recognition comes the transition into what Tolkien calls "consolation" but which we (more secularly) call Healing, a transition often accomplished (though not in Tolkien's work) through literal Metamorphoses.

[Clarification, 2014: In post-1997 versions of the four-part model of fantasy Story which here comprises Wrongness, Thinning, Recognition and Healing, John Clute has renamed the final phase as Return.]

Story is central throughout. Fantasy can almost be defined as a genre whose protagonists reflect and embody the tale being told, and who lead the way through travails and reversals towards the completion of a happy ending. (Tragic fantasy exists, but is uncommon.) Genre Fantasy, which dominates the marketplace, is normally structured so as to defer completion indefinitely, to lead readers into sequel after sequel; and it is for this reason, too, that our working definition of fantasy must give lebensraum to texts which have so little fantasy in them. (At the same time it needs to be recognized that a great Sword-and-Sorcery author like Fritz Leiber gains many of his finest effects through a kind of parodic flirtation with "full" narratives, dodging their moves to closure.) This Story-driven urge to comedic completion also distinguishes full fantasy from its siblings, Supernatural Fictions and Horror, whose plots often terminate – shockingly – before any resolution can be achieved. This is deliberate, but the feel and the reality are different.

As the terms are used in this encyclopedia, Supernatural Fictions tend to focus on the experience of Wrongness in the world and Horror stories tend to focus on the experience of Thinning, when the body and the world are progressively violated, lessened, brought to despair. A supernatural fiction which passes through its natural habitat into the full rigours of thinning tends to be thought of as horror; supernatural fictions and horror stories which pass through their natural habitats into the transformed world of healing tend to be thought of as fantasies (or Dark Fantasies). When supernatural fictions or horror stories become fantasies, they become stories which can be completed. [JC]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.