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What is Fantasy?

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 32, Number 1, April 2008
pp. 161-172 | 10.1353/phl.0.0013

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Wizards, elves, dragons, and trolls—this is certainly the stuff of fantasy, populating the fictions of such giants as Tolkien, no less than the juvenilia of many aspiring writers. However, it is much easier to identify typical elements of fantasy, than it is to understand the category of fantasy itself. There can be little doubt that, in practice, the genre is pretty well defined, concretely manifesting itself in the shelves reserved for it in video shops and bookstores. But stating why a work belongs on these shelves, rather than those in the near vicinity, such as horror and science fiction, or those more remote, like plain old fiction, presents a real challenge. Certainly, a mere few feet could separate fantasy from the other shelves, but the conceptual distance those feet represent appears great indeed. What, if anything, distinguishes this genre from other categories of mass art. In other words, what is fantasy?

To begin, fantasy is a transmedia genre, since there are fantasy novels and movies, for instance, as is illustrated by J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings saga and its recent cinematic adaptation. It is interesting to note that fantasy includes works from other media as well, such as paintings, which often accompany fantasy narratives, like Frank Frazetta's recognizable illustrations for Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories. Forms of entertainment are also affiliated with the genre, such as role-playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons, though one might balk at considering such things even forms of mass art? Nonetheless, despite the variety of media and entertainments associated with fantasy, narratives occupy a fundamental place within the genre. For paintings, drawings, and the like are only recognizably fantastic given some narrative background that tells us what wizards, trolls, and dragons look like.1 Plausibly, it is what allows us to see that a drawing depicts an elf, for example, rather than a child with odd pointy ears. Thus, even if some works of fantasy are, strictly speaking, non-narrative, fantastic narratives remain fundamental, since these other works would not be classified as fantasy without them. This warrants initially setting aside things like fantasy games and paintings to focus on narratives. What, precisely, makes a narrative fantastic?

First, fantastic narratives are essentially fictional. For regardless of how one ultimately understands the nature of fiction, the notion of true fantasy seems patently incoherent, quite unlike, say, true crime. And it must be stressed that this point should be compatible with any theory of fiction. Second, the sort of things that can make a work fantastic, like wizards and dragons, must be prominent in the work—they cannot be minor details. For example, had there been a two-minute scene in Spartacus in which someone cast a spell, the scene would have been fantastic, but ultimately the movie would not be classified any differently; you would still find it on the drama shelf. Moreover, this condition is not peculiar to fantasy.2 For instance, no one who has suffered through a Steven Seagal film would seriously classify it as romance or even action-romance, simply because it has a minor romantic subplot. Fantasy is no different from any other genre in this regard: whatever features define a genre must be prominent in a work in order for it to belong to the relevant genre. Third, the sort of content that can make a work fantastic must not solely be viewed as symbols for things that are not fantastic. In other words, these elements cannot just be taken as allegorical.3 This alone would seem to disqualify George Orwell's Animal Farm from the genre, since most read the intelligent animals as merely symbols portraying various factions in communist Russia. It should be noted that the actual intentions of the author probably matter little here. For example, even if scholars discovered that Tolkien merely intended the Middle Earth saga as an elaborate allegory, it would remain fantasy; few would be tempted to move the books to another shelf. Fourth, the relevant content must not solely be mocked or lampooned within the work.4 This is necessary to block parodies of fantasy from inclusion in the genre. Epic Movie...

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