Among the problems that have come into view since academic teachers and learned societies laid their hands on fantasy fiction (ff), once the domain of fanclubs and arcane magazines, the question of definition is one of the most intriguing. If ff is not simply anything that will sell as ff, what is it? In what sense can it be said to be a genre? If it is a genre, what is its history?
To date, there have been more than a dozen book-length attempts in English and a few in other languages to answer these questions, plus a number of periodical essays dealing with the same problem.1 What strikes the observer most about these investigations is their scope of disagreement. If one author asserts that as a genre, "fantasy" has existed only since the 1960s (Pesch 23), another claims that it flowered between 1880 and 1957 (Irwin x), and yet another categorically denies fantasy the status [End Page 11] of a genre (Hume 21). Terms such as "imaginative," "speculative," "fantastic," and "fantasy" are used in widely different and sometimes conflicting ways; there is disagreement about what books are typical examples of ff and about the relation of ff to other genres such as science fiction (sf), fairy tales, Gothic stories, and so on.
In this situation, it may seem presumptuous to make yet another attempt at resolving the problems that so many competent people have already tried to solve. However, unless we prefer to push the question aside (ignominious desertion before the enemy, in my view), we need not fewer but more ideas and proposals to be examined and tested as to their plausibility and usefulness. The following remarks are to be understood as suggestions of that kind, no more than a sketch much in need of fleshing out, but I hope useful in that it might provide impulses for further research.
Part of the problem lies in the ambiguity of the word "fantasy." The Oxford English Dictionary lists no less than seven separate meanings, plus a large number of subdivisions. The definition "a genre of literary compositions" appears only in the 1972 supplement, the earliest instance mentioned being the title of the 1949 Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It would certainly be illusory to expect that a general agreement could be reached, but at least we need to be aware that writers may mean different things when they talk about "fantasy." In spite of the definition quoted, and of well-known books such as Manlove's Modern Fantasy and Prickett's Victorian Fantasy, I should like to plead for the use of either "fantasy literature" or "fantasy fiction" (the two, for all practical purposes, can be regarded as synonymous) as the term denoting a concrete body of texts (that is, a genre), reserving the term "fantasy" for meanings such as "sub-creative art" (Tolkien, "Fairy-Stories" 55), "an impulse native to literature" (Hume 21), or "a natural human activity" (Tolkien, "Fairy-Stories" 56).
We need to realize also that some writers use "fantastic" simply as the adjective derived from or corresponding to "fantasy," whereas others, mainly under the influence of French criticism, use the word in a much more restricted sense, applying it exclusively to Gothic fiction and related genres of the uncanny.2 Confusion could be avoided either by retaining [End Page 12] the French fantastique when this restricted sense is meant (as Hume does) or by taking up a suggestion made by Clayton (as I shall do in this essay) who, for reasons to be discussed later, introduces the nonce-word "fantasmatic" (62).
Another lesson to be learned from existing attempts at definition is that ff cannot be defined exclusively in terms of subject matter, form, or function. Though all these aspects are certainly important for an understanding of the genre, they are secondary insofar as they do not provide categories that can be used in a rigorously systematic way. Any list of "typical traits" will be in danger of appearing arbitrary. Is it totally imaginary settings that separate ff from other genres? Then how can it be distinguished from sf or fairy tales? Do these settings have to...