What qualifies as fantasy, in the modern genre sense?
Therese Neilsen, “Fact or Fiction” card art from Magic: The Gathering
It’s hard to define precisely. Perhaps we can look for elves, dwarves, knights, ghosts, the supernatural, monsters, gods, and magic. But not only do those things come up in other genres–ghosts, for example, are in everything from Hamlet to Beloved–but they do not entirely define the genre. There’s been plenty of argument about the minutiae of genre boundaries: science fiction vs fantasy vs science fantasy vs magical realism vs horror vs dark fantasy vs …
Scholar Michael Trout defines a division between science fiction and fantasy: Fantasy “could’ve happened, but didn’t” in an “imaginary past”; science fiction “hasn’t happened yet but could” (usually) in an “imaginary future.” Even these boundaries are fuzzy as all heck.
The modern fantasy genre has its roots in fairy tales; fairy tales have roots inexorably entwined with myth. J.R.R. Tolkien, arguably the father of the modern fantasy genre, thought a lot about what defines the fantasy genre. He says that the main thing about fantasy creating a compelling “Secondary World,” a world in which the reader can be completely immersed, a world in which the reader can invest their belief fully. He says, in his essay “On Fairy Stories”:
If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it. But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp. To experience directly a Secondary World: the potion is too strong, and you give to it Primary Belief, however marvellous the events.
So how can I make a fantasy world?
Trolls by Brian Froud
Sometimes I see people use a few of the outer markers of the fantasy genre, that being a sort of generic Northern European medieval pastiche: knights, princesses, dragons, fairies. This irritates me. First off, it does a disservice to the genre as a whole, limiting it to a small portion of what it is an cutting away at its history. Secondly, it flaunts a stunning lack of research and world-building. Even if you do want to invoke Northern European medieval fantasy, like Tolkien did, you can do so with research and care or you can sort of rip off Tolkien. Goodness knows both happen and are published.
Let’s look at Tolkien’s world and do a bit of reverse-engineering. Tolkien based his world heavily off of Norse mythology. Middle-Earth echoes Midgard; the One Ring echoes the Ring Cycle; Eowyn echoes the Valkyrie Brunhilda. Gandalf resembles the form of Odin takes when he wanders the world of men. Tolkien straight-up ripped the names of most of his dwarves from the Norse Edda Völuspá. So Tolkein researched an sourced his Middle-Earth world off of Norse myth; a few smatterings of other things were thrown in there, not to mention Tolkien’s more unique spins on fantasy creatures like Hobbits and Uruk-Hai.
J.R.R. Tolkien, illustration for The Lord of the Rings
Other works of fantasy take off on other Northern European mythos: Lloyd Alexander’s stunning series The Chronicles of Prydain cherry-picks the most exciting bits out of the 9th-century Welsh epic The Mabinogion. Countless revamps of the King Arthur mythos from England have become classic, including T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.
Of course, there are plenty of fantasy books that break of out what Rachel Pollack refers to as the “interminable Celtic bullshit” model of fantasy. J.K. Rowling incorporates elements of not only Celtic, but also Greek and Eastern European creatures and tales into her Harry Potter universe. Nigerian tales about twins and doubles figure heavily into Helen Oyeyemi’s deliciously frightening novel The Icarus Girl. The Arabian Nights and its associated Islamic fantasy mythos has influenced everything from Disney’s Aladdin to G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen to Saladin Ahmed’s The Throne of the Crescent Moon. Thankfully anime and manga have become popular enough in the United States to expose Americans to Japanese fantasy, everything from ancient monsters (like Kappa and Oni) to classic fairy tale tropes (spirit possession, angry ghosts) to more modern tropes (Magical Girls).
cover art for Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon
My point here is that any fantasy setting likely has some kind of cultural backdrop that comes with it. Orcs are Norse: they’re Dark Elves re-skinned. (Yes, with extra bonus racism. Fantasy deals with race, Othering, and imperialism, from The Tempest onwards. Deal with it.) Dragons are delightfully universal and appear in many different cultures, albeit with different appearances and abilities depending on the myths surrounding them. When you are writing fantasy, and building your worlds, consider which bits of Earth you may or may not be invoking.
For example, you could invoke Frank Frazetta’s vision of Conan the Barbarian, and then I’d have to remind you to read hero epics like the Greek Hercules or the Irish Cu Chulainn, and then go off quietly vomiting into the night.
In the 1970s, Gary Gygax and others created Dungeons & Dragons–two images that efficiently invoke the fantasy genre. One thing the game’s creators sought to do was to make up some brand-new monsters that weren’t based on existing myths. Thus we have Gelatinous Cubes, Beholders, and Displacer Beasts, among others. But was the D&D world completely original? Of course not: there are plenty of culturally specific references, monsters, and language. I think having a fantasy world completely separate from our own is not only impossible but not a particularly compelling goal. To me, a good fantasy world takes what’s happening in our own world on a mythological level and spins it or provides a fresh and compelling Secondary World.
(It’s a Beholder, from the Monster Manual.)
Mostly what I’m challenging folks to do here is consider any fantasy worlds you’ve created, and do your own cultural math: What myths, fairy tales and/or ancient worlds are you using to build up your fantasy world? If you haven’t used any on purpose, I have a feeling something probably crept out subconsciously. Try and track it down and see what it is, and if that’s what you were going for. I’m not gonna say that world doesn’t need another Celtic-based fantasy novel. I love Celtic fantasy novels. Goodness knows I’m obsessed with Celtic changeling mythos and will for sure rewrite and polish my novel about that at some point. What I will say is that the world has a lot of damn interesting stories, and perhaps it would be worth your while to go forth and find them. And then, when you do find them, do some real damn research, write real characters, and don’t go totally off the rails like Stephenie Meyer did with her Quileute werewolves.
Now go forth and read this roundtable with a bunch of fantasy writers of color who have more coherent things to say about this than I do.
A few fantasy novels that are not based in Norse or Celtic or Greek or Roman mythos:
The Earthsea series by Ursula LeGuin (never mind the whitewashed TV version)
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi (also her novel Mr. Fox)
Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
Wild Seed (the Patternist series) by Octavia E. Butler
The Last Wish by Andrej Sapowski (which The Witcher videogames are based on)
The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (which is the closest to Doing Its Own Damn Thing of any of these books)
Wild Seed cover illustration by Wayne Barlowe
What other fantasy novels should we be reading? Got any that aren’t Norse-Greek-Celtic-Roman? Post ’em in the comments, precioussss.