Fantasy as a genre

Fantasy is a still developing literary genre and having a better understanding of its structure and how it generates meaning may help literary scholars to better understand why the genre seems to have such growing popular appeal. Fantasy has sometimes been criticized for over-reliance of tropes and narrative formulas. Even among those who are sympathetic to Fantasy, one specific sub-genre, the Quest fantasy, has been considered exceedingly formulaic and trivial. In spite of a number of studies on more traditional Fantasy material, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, there is still a lack of academic publications on more recent works and, therefore, still little understanding of how the genre has been evolving and how fantasy writers have been dealing with the challenges imposed by the genre’s own characteristics.

What we call the modern Fantasy genre is actually, like many other genres, a very hazy generalization encompassing works believed to share essential similarities.[1] Brian Attebery makes a useful distinction between what he calls fantasy-as-formula, which is ‘restricted in scope, recent in origin, and specialized in audience and appeal’ and fantasy-as-mode, which is ‘a sophisticated mode of storytelling characterized by stylistic playfulness, self-reflexiveness, and a subversive treatment of established orders of society and thought’.[2] While many, perhaps most, of the works with the characteristics of what Attebery describes as fantasy-as-formula lack narrative depth of their own by over relying on the tropes of the genre, my own research has convinced me that even within the ‘formula’, some aspects of the narrative are worth analysing, such as the intrinsic relation between chronotope, world building and characterisation in Quest Fantasy and in the Epic.

[1] Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, ‘Introduction’, in The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, ed. by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 1–4 (p. 1).

[2] Brian Attebery, Strategies of Fantasy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992), pp. 1–2.

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