Fantastic Forms of Fantasy

Monica Singh posted under Writing Tips on 2021-07-18

Did you know that of all the universes contained within the gamut of literature and fiction, the Fantasy genre suffers from the misconceived perception of being branded ‘escapist’ – negatively? A well-known argument against this alleged ‘escapism of fantasy’ was given by the incomparable J. R. R. Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy:

“Fantasy is escapist… and that is its glory. If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

In The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (1979), another eminent fantasy and science fiction author, Ursula K. LeGuin, says:

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”

And, we agree! Therefore this month’s #HarnessWriting event #Fantasmo, is an attempt at bringing this burgeoning genre to your notepads and word documents.

Now, what is Fantasy?

One of the innumerable genres of literature, Fantasy relies heavily on the inclusion of magical and supernatural elements in a story that do not exist in the real world. Of course, a real-world setting may also be utilised by incorporating fantastical elements, but for the most part, fantasy involves the creation of entirely imaginary universes with their magic systems, physical laws and people of imaginary races and of course, creatures.

In a nutshell, it can be safely said that fantasy is not tied to reality or scientific fact in any way.

Within this overarching banner of Fantasy, lies a whole host of varied sub-genres, with hordes of new sub-genres being established every other day! To compile a list of all the currently existing sub-genres of fantasy is a Herculean task. Therefore, this article focuses more on the conventional and/or popular sub-genres in the Fantasy world.

1. High or Epic fantasy. Conventionally portraying a single well-developed hero or a band of heroes, high (or epic) fantasy is typically set in a grand-scale magical universe that has its own set of rules and physical laws that govern its running.

Example: Frodo Baggings and The Fellowship in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954).

2. Low fantasy. These stories are set in the real world and include unexpected magical or supernatural elements. These stories usually have characters that often discover secret magical forces or supernatural creatures within their very normal (and oft-times dreadfully boring) surroundings. An extremely well-known example of this type of story is… yes, you guessed it right: The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.

3. Magical realism. Though this sub-genre is very similar to low fantasy, here, the magical or supernatural elements are often (not always) the delusions, fantasies, or imaginings of the character/s in the story. However, whether they are is often deliberately unclear. These elements are non-central to the otherwise highly realistic setting of the plot.

Example: Gabriel García Márquez’s classic One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro.

4. Sword and Sorcery / Heroic fantasy. Essentially included as a subset of high fantasy, this subgenre focuses primarily on ‘sword-wielding heroes’, insane amounts of swordplay, exciting battle sequences and violent conflicts. As an inevitable consequence, these stories often also include the ‘damsel in distress’ trope. These lovely ladies are then gallantly rescued by our dashing and inordinately chivalrous heroes! And, before you ask, yes, there is a lot of magic! Because how else are these men of yore, supposed to possess superhuman bravery and good looks at the same time?!

Example: Conan the Barbarian in Robert E. Howard’s pulp fiction stories, as well as magic or witchcraft.

5. Gothic or Dark fantasy. This genre combines the elements of fantasy and horror, aiming to simultaneously awe and unnerve or frighten the readers. Here, horror elements (like ghosts, the undead, haunted castles, monsters) form the primary focus of the story and help in setting its tone. The best example of stories set in this subgenre is the varyingly unsettling work of H. P. Lovecraft’s universe.

6. Fables and Fairy Tales. Predictably, these are stories inspired by fairy tales and folk tales, embedded with moral lessons and typically intended for a younger audience. Fables use anthropomorphism to breathe life (and magic) into animal characters. These tales are usually set in distant magical worlds (often beginning with age-old phrases like “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…”) where dragons, witches, trolls and other supernatural characters are an accepted reality.

Example: Aesop’s Fables and Arabian Nights, The Brothers Grimm’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812).

7. Paranormal or Romance fantasy. In its essence, this is a low fantasy (i.e. set in the real world) in which supernatural creatures or talents exist are a key element in the story along with romance at its core. A romance (again, you guessed it right) between a supernatural being and a human. (I know you know where this is going, don’t you?). Now, you may wonder why this is clubbed with Fantasy Romance? Well, mainly because these have become tragically interlinked in modern times. However, for those of you who like to keep your genres straight, Fantasy Romance, unlike Paranormal Romance – falls under the subset of High or Epic Fantasy.

Example: Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead, Graceling by Kristin Cashore

8. Medieval or Arthurian fantasy. In this subgenre, world-building is strongly inspired by medieval society. These stories draw heavily on myths and legends from this period of history. Arthurian fantasy is a subset of medieval fantasy that focuses on the well-known legend of King Arthur and the elements thereof, with characters such as Merlin, Arthur, Guinevere, Uther, Mordred, etc.

Example: The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Once and Future King by T. H. White, Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

9. Urban or Contemporary fantasy. Now this one is a tricky blighter! It has often been used interchangeably with other sub-genre terms, such as low and paranormal fantasy. Therefore, though it describes a story set in an urban society, it has inevitably become synonymous with contemporary fantasy—a fantasy set in the present day (real world).

Example: The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare

10. Young Adult fantasy. This is a no-brainer. A fantasy primarily aimed or marketed at a young adult (teenage) readership, more often than not revolving around young adult protagonists.

Example: Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor, Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo.

11. Grimdark fantasy. Another subset of high fantasy, with a gritty or grim setting, often with central characters that are ‘Anti-heroes’ – with less-than-impeccable morals. Alternatively, they may also focus on criminal underworlds within fantasy societies. Interestingly, this sub-genre provides a unique contrast to the more traditional fantasy and their (usually) ‘goody-two-shoes’ moral heroes, quaint villages and resplendent cities. What does this remind you of? Yes, you are correct! The Game of Thrones Series by the – never going to write winds of winter author – George. R.R. Martin! (Sorry! Not sorry.)

12. Steampunk or Science fantasy. Myriad elements of science fiction and fantasy come together in this delectable subgenre, blending advanced technology and the supernatural to build a world where fantastical and impossible things occur under a thin guise of scientific credibility. Steampunk sometimes falls into Science Fantasy, though it is really hard to separate the two nowadays.

Example: The Chaos Walking Series by Patrick Ness, The Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer

Whew! That was a handful (and more), wasn’t it? Would you believe that the above is a mere tip of the iceberg? It is extremely important to note that we have barely scratched the surface of this giant called Fantasy. Besides those listed above, there are several other sub-genres and related genres that include but are not limited to Historical Fantasy, Portal Fantasy, Comic Fantasy, The New Weird, Speculative Fiction, Horror / The Gothic, Dystopian Fiction and many more!

What Are the Common Elements & Characteristics of the Fantasy Genre?

Now that we know (roughly) what subgenres are included under Fantasy, the next step is to understand (again, roughly) what are the basic or most commonly used narratives/themes (tropes) employed in the stories crafted under this genre. Like all the other genres in fiction, based on the sort of books and plots that have established their predominance in Fantasy, a veritable trend of conventional narrative tropes has emerged over time.

Some of these features include (but are not limited to):

  1. Good vs. evil
  2. The heroic (or villainous) quest for power or knowledge
  3. Tradition vs. change
  4. The individual vs. society
  5. Man vs. nature
  6. Man vs. himself
  7. Coming of age
  8. Love
  9. Betrayal
  10. Epic journey
  11. The unlikely and/or reluctant hero

Again, it cannot be stressed enough that these are not all that fantasy is. The myriad elements of Fantasy and its sub-genres range from the beginning of time and universe to the end of everything in existence… and beyond. Fantasy inherently comprises and bears the potential of being limitless in its scope.

Where fantasy is concerned, the sky is just the next glorious adventure. Not only of this Earth but of other, different earths and worlds that are forever awaiting our imagination!