Let’s start with the most obvious thing: fantasy fiction is fiction. All good fiction has certain characteristics in common that can be summed up as “telling a good story well.” Whether you’re talking about fantasy, science fiction, murder mystery, thriller, war story, romance, or anything else in fiction, the things that matter most are the characters, plot, conflict, theme, language, and creativity.
Despite this, we do divide fiction into categories based on story elements and conventions and typical themes. A murder mystery is a story with a murder in it that presents a mystery to be solved in the course of telling the tale. A romance is a story in which at least two of the characters are involved in a romantic relationship and the complications of their relationship form a substantial part of the plot. A science fiction story is one in which future technology and/or societal development plays a role either in the story itself or in setting the background. In all of these the word “story” is crucial because no matter the genre one must tell a story. But the genre elements are what distinguish this type of story from other types.
A fantasy is a story in which fantastic elements appear. What are fantastic elements? They are elements of myth, fable, and fairy-tale: gods and goddesses, demons and super-beings, magic, alternate worlds and realities, quasi-human beings (elves, dwarves, fairies, giants, ogres, goblins, or make-up-your-own), and fantastic creatures, places, and objects. Defining fantasy elements precisely is not really possible; like most art, this is more a matter of how something feels when it cruises, strolls, or rampages through the imagination than it is of anything objective.
Fantasy elements don’t have to dominate the story to classify it as fantasy, but they have to be present and they should preferably be significant to the plot or to at least some of the characters.
Fantasy is often lumped together with science fiction, but the two genres are quite distinct, and fantasy is much the older of the two. It’s as old as writing, actually. The Epic of Gilgamesh, among the earliest stories still in our possession, is a fantasy, as are the myths and legends of the earliest human civilizations and many of the stories in the scriptures of all current religions. Science fiction, in contrast, could not exist until modern science and the accompanying idea of progress came into existence. The earliest science fiction stories were written and published in the nineteenth century.
Still, it’s true that fantasy, although very old in its roots, has experienced a renaissance in relatively recent times, especially since the 1970s. When we speak of fantasy fiction as a modern genre, therefore, it’s reasonable to date the phenomenon from the mid to late twentieth century, while acknowledging its much older roots. That was when the modern conventions of the genre, such as they are, were established and when writers and readers began (in modern times) to think of it as a type of literature for adults rather than just for children.
Mythos and Logos: The Decline and Rebirth of Fantasy
What this means is that fantasy (in the form of myth and fairy tale) was common and popular from the invention of writing itself until early modern times, then for a while became relegated to children’s fiction until the second half of the twentieth century, when fantasy for adult readers experienced a rebirth. Why is that?
The answer, I think, has to do with two different types of thinking, two different approaches to reality called mythos and logos. Mythos has been described as a mode of knowledge rooted in intuitive insight. It concerns itself less with what is in simple description (that’s the realm of logos), and more with the meaning of what is. Consider the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, and the fall. This is, in fact, a fantasy story, involving a deity, a talking snake, and the fruit of a magical tree, all of which are fantasy elements (at least insofar as the god walks about in a physical garden and talks to people with a literal voice). Now, taken as a simple literal description in the realm of logos, this story is untrue; these events did not happen in real history and that is not how the human race began. (Apologies to any Biblical literalists reading this, but the facts as we know them are the facts.) But the story has multiple levels of meaning which make it “true” in another sense; it relates to the loss of innocence as knowledge is gained and value judgments are made, and on a larger level to the transition from foraging and hunting to farming and agrarian civilization, with its backbreaking labor (“in the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread”) and its subjugation of women to men.
The same is the case with the fantasy elements in all (good) fantasy fiction. These elements do not exist in any simplistic, linear, straightforward sense in our world. (Of course, the characters and events in any type of fiction don’t exist, either – but in most non-fantasy fiction they theoretically could. That’s not the case with the fantastic elements of a fantasy story.) But they are “real” in another, mythic sense: they have meaning. They have significance.
Modern times have featured the empowerment of logos – straightforward, logical, linear thinking and description of what is. We might think of the early modern centuries from the fifteenth through the first half of the twentieth as similar to adolescence, when a person struggles to put childhood behind and strains to be “adult” in a self-conscious way that real adults don’t bother about so much. When the scientific method and rationalism were relatively new, literate society experienced a similarly self-conscious focus on being “adult” in what included both an exaggerated confidence in rationalism and a degree of fear (some of it unrecognized, some acknowledged) that these new and beneficial ways of thinking might vanish away, swamped by a tide of irrationalism and mythic thinking. As a result, mythos was suppressed for a time. Even religion itself largely abandoned it and tried to make itself a wholly-rational enterprise reasoned from the first premises of scripture. A part of that suppression was the banishment of myth and fairy tale – of fantasy – from adult literature.
By the middle of the twentieth century, however, logos had given birth to death camps, nuclear weapons and a threatened environment, and it became clear to many people that, however great the benefits of linear thinking, it would not suffice all by itself to build a good life or a good society. Mythos has enjoyed resurgence since then in many forms. Mythic thinking within religion has reclaimed much of its place, the value of myth has been recognized by philosophers and psychologists, and fantasy for adults has become a popular genre of fiction once again.