Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

1. Any narrative which tells or implies a sequence of events, in any order which can be followed by hearers or readers, and which generates a sense that its meaning is conveyed through the actual telling, may be called a Story. A Story, in short, is a narrative discourse which is told.

One of the most useful distinctions between the Fantastic as a whole and Fantasy, considered as one of the literatures of the fantastic, is that fantasy texts are most easily understood as the telling of Story in this sense; other categories of the fantastic – some, like Surrealism, of Modernist lineage – may well treat the telling of narrative as an act that warrants corrosive disparagement, deconstruction or dismantlement. Science Fiction, for instance, a genre of the Fantastic closely associated with fantasy, can certainly be treated in terms of Story but (to generalize wildly) may in fact be best understood through its presentation of themes, which can be analysed without regard to narrative sequence (that is, what is being described is primary, rather than how it is being told). An sf text can promulgate meaning through infodumps, striking examples, expositions of abstract arguments from science or history, arguments waged by talking heads in a vacuum, etc. A fantasy text almost invariably conveys its sense of things by conducting its protagonists (there are no significant fantasy texts without protagonists) to the end of their Quest through sequences which hearers or readers understand as consecutive and essential moments in the telling of the tale.

Fantasy texts, in this understanding, can be characterized as always moving towards the unveiling of an irreducible substratum of Story, an essence sometimes obscure but ultimately omnipresent; the key events of a fantasy text are bound to each other, to the narrative world, and ideally to the tale's theme in a way that permits endless retellings (see Twice-Told), endless permutations of the narrative's unbound Motifs, and a sense of ending. In its purest form, the fantasy story resembles Myth, which as C S Lewis has noted – in An Experiment in Criticism (1961) – retains its essential power despite the varying forms of its telling. The story of Orpheus, for instance, has survived endless permutations in literature, film, drama, and opera without substantial violation to its essential core.

It is partly this sense of familiarity – not only with a tale's possible earlier incarnations but with its relationship to the whole inherited body of taletelling – that produces the effect of resonance characteristic of so many fantasy stories, or narratives that are analogues of fantasy stories, like James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) and John Updike's The Centaur (1963), which retells the myth of Chiron. At the simplest level of language, such resonance is evoked by formulaic openings like the Fairytale's "once upon a time"; at more complex levels it may be achieved through the presence of Underlier figures (the Trickster, the wise woman) or ritual events. All these devices signal to the reader – or hearer – of the tale that the events and characters described belong to the world of Story rather than to the world of represented actions which is implied by the novel of manners. As Brian Wicker states in The Story-Shaped World (1975): "... we may say that the characters in fairy tales [and their fantasy descendants] are 'good to think with'. Because they deal in final causes they explain things which no amount of science based on 'association' can explain. 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. The answer cannot be translated into factual, that is non-narrative form, for the answer is the narrative form."

It might seem an elementary act of critical apprehension to notice this central role of Story in the world, and particularly in the literature of fantasy. But 20th-century criticism has not much concentrated on Story (any more than it has paid attention to Recognition, which may be defined as that narrative moment when Story knows itself), instead tending to devalue genres and individual works in any genre which are deemed to depend too deeply upon "primitive" devices such as storytelling. As Karl Kroeber (1926-2009) argues in Retelling/Rereading: The Fate of Storytelling in Modern Times (1992), this bias against narrative extends back before E M Forster; but Forster's remarks on Story, in Aspects of the Novel (1927), though otiose, are sufficiently famous to quote: "The more we look at the story ... the more we disentangle it from the finer growths that it supports, the less shall we find to admire. It runs like a backbone – or may I say a tape-worm, for its beginning and end are arbitrary. It is immensely old – goes back to neolithic times, perhaps to palaeolithic. Neanderthal man listened to stories, if one may judge by the shape of his skull ... Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story."

Forster's intellectual languor may be feigned, but the influence of this sort of thinking has generally been dire. Story is, after all, not only the most important mode, from time immemorial, chosen by humans for the conveyance of meaning, but is a primary technique (see Aesopian Fantasy) for the inculcation of lessons inimical to the Thought Control Police who proliferate in this (as well as every previous) century, and who notoriously fear the anarchic, freeing power of the raw tale. "True moral education takes place," Philip Pullman suggests in "The Moral's in the Story" (1996 Independent), "whenever anyone, of whatever age, encounters a story with an open mind."

The devaluation of Story can be seen, in this light, as a profound abdication of critical responsibility. Stories may be popular, but they are potent, and their subversive potential was recognized from the first (see Literary Fairytales; Wonder Tale) by the 18th-century writers who began to shape fantasy as a genre. Fantasy may be hard to pin down – in part because no Story can be exactly paraphrased – but the analysis of fantasy texts in terms of thematic content, by critics better suited to some other endeavour, has largely contributed to the paucity of fantasy criticism worth remarking upon.

Given a blank slate and an even playing field, Stories shape the way the world is best understood. This may have something to do with remembered conventions, and with the inherent meaning-generating structure of the human brain; certainly it seems that, when humans are given the freedom to say anything they wish to say, they say Stories. And they embed these Stories in a Story-shaped world – a world which significantly does not resemble the "realistic" worlds enjoined by the mimetic tradition which dominated the writing of prose fiction in the Western world from the 18th century well into the 20th century. Arguably, at the end of the 20th century mimetic tradition increasingly fails to fulfil the most conservative expectations of how we can understand the nature of the world. More than perhaps ever before, human beings live (and perceive the meanings of their lives) in a maze of realities and illusions so multiplex and inchoate, that for many it is almost impossible to make sense of being alive. It could be that the late-century success of fantasy (and other genres of the fantastic) is partly due to these circumstances; and that we listen to stories at the fin de millennium in order to recuperate a sense that stories still exist. That we still can be told. [JC/GKW]

Mentions of Story in this Encyclopedia are frequent. Further references to the term may be found in the following entries (some have already been mentioned above); this list is not inclusive: Amnesia; Ancestral Memories; Arabian Fantasy; Arabian Nightmare; Bards; Bondage; Books; Cauldron of Story; Cinderella; Commedia dell'Arte; Cycles; Debasement; Duos; Edifice; Elder Races; Fabulation; Fairytale; Fantasy; Fantasy Art; Folktale; Frame Story; Goddess; Godgame; Good and Evil; Healing; Inns; Instauration Fantasy; Knight of the Doleful Countenance; Landscape; Learns Better; Literary Fairytales; Magic Realism; Masks; Matter; Metamorphosis; Motifs; Myths; Ocean of Story; Palimpsest; Parody; Perception; Plot Devices; Portals; Posthumous Fantasy; Quests; Recognition; Revel; Revisionist Fantasy; Rite of Passage; Romance; Saga; William Shakespeare; Slingshot Ending; Stemma; Templates; Theodicy; Theosophy; Thinning; Thresholds; Time; Time Abyss; J R R Tolkien; Topos; Twice-Told; Underliers; Wainscots; Wonder Tale; Wrongness.

2. Part of the definition of fantasy is that its protagonists tend to know they are in a Story of some sort, even if at first they do not know which one; at moments of Recognition they find out just which Story it is that has, in some sense, dictated them. It would of course be injudiciously restrictive to claim that all fantasy texts convey a sense that their protagonists are under the control of an already-existing Story, and that sooner or later they come to an awareness of the fact; it is, however, the case that many fantasy texts are clearly and explicitly constructed so as to reveal the controlling presence of an underlying Story, and that the protagonists of many fantasy texts are explicitly aware they are acting out a tale.

Story as its own explicit subject matter is central in Folklore and in the Fairytale, and may reflect the underlying oral source of much of this traditional material. Stories told aloud seem inherently to call for an emphasis upon their already-told, their infinitely retellable nature; it is a natural enough impulse for these tales to tend to incorporate protagonists who are themselves aware of – and consciously live out, consciously heal themselves through acting out – the Stories that are telling them. In Revisionist Fantasy, this awareness of dictation, and a simultaneous revolt against the intended outcome, is clearly central as well.

In 20th-century fantasy, a more conspicuously self-conscious attitude towards Story becomes evident. As it comes to a close, the heroes of E R Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros (1922) are at first dismayed that their Story may have ended (even though they have triumphed), and profoundly grateful when that Story begins again, on the last page of the book, and the Cycle, blessedly, recommences. Most of the many characters in Peter S Beagle's The Last Unicorn (1968) know very well they are in a "last unicorn" tale, and most of them know who they are in that tale – Hero, Magus, Knight of the Doleful Countenance, etc. – and the song which gives its name to Beagle's The Innkeeper' Song (1993) tells the Story inside, too. The stories told within John Gardner's In the Suicide Mountains (1977) tell the Story of the book that contains them. The protagonist of Michael Ende's The Neverending Story (1979) finds that the Fantastica he enters is a Story whose implications for his own Rite of Passage into responsibility he must understand, or he will never grow up. And the inhabitants of a small town in Jonathan Carroll's The Land of Laughs (1980) are possessed by a deadly Story.

Into the 1980s and later, self-referentiality becomes very common, as in John Crowley's Little, Big (1981), Russell Hoban's The Medusa Frequency (1987), Neil Gaiman's "Parliament of Books" (1992 Sandman 40; in Sandman: Fables and Reflections, coll 1993), Ursula Le Guin's "The Poacher" (1993), Charles de Lint's Memory and Dream (1994) and A S Byatt's "The Story of the Eldest Princess" (1992). There are countless other examples. [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.