This is excepted from my 2009 book, A Guide to Fantasy Literature, now available as a Kindle eBook.
The fourth ring [of five I discussed in this chapter] of fantasy, Magic Realism (also called Magical Realism), produces stories in which fantastic things happen, often unexpectedly, in the midst of realistic everyday settings and events. These marvelous occurrences may be quite mysterious and capricious. In these stories, magic is more likely to act as an independent force rather than a tool used by the story’s characters.
As Sheila Egoff points out in her study of fantasy literature, Worlds Within (1988), a characteristic feature of “enchanted realism” is that, unlike in classic fantasy or fairy tales: “The [protagonists] of enchanted realism do not change the world; instead they themselves are changed. . . .”
In Gabriel García Márquez’ novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), the people of José Arcadio Buendía’s village are enchanted by a sudden onslaught of magical gypsies.
. . . whose dances and music sowed a panic of uproarious joy through the streets, with parrots painted all colors reciting Italian arias, and a hen who laid a hundred golden eggs to the sound of a tambourine, and a trained monkey who read minds, and the multiple-use machine that could be used at the same time to sew on buttons and reduce fevers, and the apparatus to make a person forget his bad memories, and a poultice to lose time, and a thousand more inventions so ingenious and unusual that José Arcadio Buendía must have wanted to invent a memory device so that he could remember them all.
In an instant they transformed the village.
The inhabitants of Macondo found themselves lost in their own streets, confused by the crowded fair.
Then, in a passage which reveals another trick of magic realism, the tables of magic are turned. Before the gypsies depart, they offer the townspeople one last wonder. Inside a tent, guarded by a giant with a shaved head and a copper nose-ring, sits a large treasure chest. Inside is nothing but an enormous translucent block of ice, revealed to anyone who will pay to touch its cold surface.
This, too, is magic realism: the fantastic is transmuted back into the ordinary. Surprises, revelations, visions, and paradoxes are the coins of the genre. Everyday reality is magical and vice versa. In this back-and-forth trapeze act, magic realism offers the “Consolation” that Tolkien found in fantasy – the return home to normalcy – only here found throughout the story, rather than only at the end of the book.
In novelist Jonathan Carroll’s writings, for instance, talking animals, dreams, and strange apparitions mix easily with the mundane:
God’s office was nothing special. By the way it was furnished it could just as easily have belonged to a North Dakota dentist or some comb-over in middle management. The secretary/receptionist was a forty-something nondescript who told [Simon] Haden in a neutral voice to take a seat. “He’ll be with you in a minute.” Then she went back to typing – on a typewriter. God’s secretary used a manual typewriter.
– Glass Soup (2005)
The story’s protagonist, Simon, finally gets called in to see God.
A giant white polar bear sat behind a giant black desk across the not so large office. The animal’s size and that of the desk made the room appear much smaller. The bear was looking at a white paper on the desk. It wore rectangular black reading glasses perched on the end of its fat black nose.
The desk was empty except for that single sheet of paper and a copper-colored name plaque on the right front corner. The name engraved on the plaque was Bob.
God was a polar bear named Bob?
. . . Looking up, it saw him and the bear’s features immediately softened. “Simon! Wow. Wow. Wow. It’s been a lonnng time, eh?”
– Glass Soup (2005), Jonathan Carroll
Diane Schoemperlen offers another example in her novel, Our Lady of the Lost and Found (2001). In the story, the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, appears one day in the corner of a writer’s living room, for an extended surprise visit with the single woman, the narrator. In the first chapter, the arrival is foretold in a string of odd household events:
Seemingly trivial, apparently unconnected, they were not even events really, so much as odd occurrences, whimsical coincidences, amusing quirks of nature or fate. It is only now, in retrospect, that I can see them for what they were: eclectic clues, humble omens, whispered heralds of the approach of the miraculous.
– Our Lady of the Lost and Found (2001)
These fairly ordinary events are clearly not magical . . . or are they?
The kitchen faucet, which had been dripping for a year and half, stopped.
The toaster, which for a month had been refusing to spit out the toast (thereby necessitating its extraction by means of a dangerous operation with a fork), repented. That morning the toast popped up so perky and golden, it fairly leaped onto my plate. . . .
The answering machine, which had been recording my callers as if they were gargling underwater or bellowing into a high wind, recovered its equanimity and broadcast my new messages into the room in cheerful, dulcet tones.
. . . The next day, Friday, I had several errands to run. . . . There were parking spaces everywhere I needed them, some with time still on the meter.
At the bank, I got the friendliest, most efficient teller after a wait of less than five minutes. . . .
At the library, all the books I wanted were in and shelved in their proper places.
At the bakery, I got the last loaf of cheese bread.
At the drugstore, all the things I needed – toothpaste, shampoo, bubble bath, and vitamins – were on sale. . . .
– Our Lady of the Lost and Found (2001)
In a 2001 interview, Schoemperlen discussed the techniques of magic realism, its interplay of normal and magical.
Magic realism is indeed a type of fiction where the protagonists are the ones affected by the mysterious appearance of the fantastic. And that is what happens in my book. . . . the Virgin Mary appears in the middle of the narrator’s ordinary life and then takes part in ordinary life.
. . . I wanted to play around with the connections between ordinary and extraordinary.
– interview (2001), with Philip Martin
Magic realism crosses over readily into modern “mainstream” fiction. The term is used to describe the writings of Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Haruki Murakami, Louise Erdrich, and many others whose works are seldom found in fantasy sections in bookstores or libraries. Yet these stories are clearly a branch of fantasy. They deal with the same issues of good and evil, seen through the filtered light of magic, wonder, and belief.
In magic realism, sometimes the magic is for the good, as characters are overwhelmed by moments of beauty or passion.
On her the food [quail in rose petal sauce] seemed to act as an aphrodisiac; she began to feel an intense heat pulsing through her limbs. . . .
[After eating] The only thing that kept her going was the image of the refreshing shower ahead of her, but unfortunately she was never able to enjoy it, because the drops that fell from the shower never made it to her body: they evaporated before they reached her. Her body was giving off so much heat that the wooden walls began to split and burst into flame. Terrified . . . she ran out of the little enclosure just as she was, completely naked.
By then the scent of roses given off by her body had traveled a long, long way. All the way to town, where the rebel forces and the federal troops were engaged in a fierce battle. One man stood head and shoulders above the others for his valor; it was the rebel who Gertrudis had seen in the plaza in Piedras Negras the week before.
A pink cloud floated toward him, wrapped itself around him, and made him set out at a gallop toward Mama Elena’s ranch . . . without knowing why he did so. A higher power was controlling his actions.
– Like Water for Chocolate (1989, English transl. 1992), Laura Esquivel
In other stories, tricks trip up human protagonists, playing on their greed or other foibles, bringing the high and mighty face down in a puddle. Magic realism draws on the ancient mythic tales of Trickster, known to different cultures as Coyote, Anansi, Loki, Hermes, and so on. Trickster is a complex shaft-shifter. Terri Windling calls him:
. . . a paradoxical creature who is both very clever and very foolish, a cultural hero and destructive influence – often at one and the same time. In the legends of many societies, it’s Trickster who is responsible for giving humans fire, language, hunting skills, or even life itself . . . but he’s also the one who brought us death, hunger, difficult childbirth, illness, and other woes. Alan Garner (the great British fantasy writer and folklorist) calls Trickster: “the advocate of uncertainty. . . . He draws a boundary for chaos, so that we can make sense of the rest. He is the shadow that shapes the light.”
– “Wile E. Coyote and Other Sly Trickster Tales,” in Realms of Fantasy magazine (1997)
In magic realism, the world contains both black and white, yin and yang. These stories often avoid a simple division into good and evil. They suggest that, as in the yin/yang symbol, each half has the seed of the other within it. The two natural forces ebb and flow, in a mysterious dance, achieving a balance that might be unclear to the story’s characters.
The line between good and evil is often blurred, as are the lines between reality and dreams, history and story, actual events and metaphysical truth.
Magic realists raise the question that Jorge Luis Borges asked: What if that which we believe is reality is some sort of dream? If so, who is dreaming it? Louise Erdrich echoes this question in the closing page of her World Fantasy Award–winning novel, The Antelope Wife, with its central image of Native American floral beading.
Did these occurrences have a paradigm in the settlement of old scores and pains and betrayals that went back in time? Or are we working out the minor details of a strictly random pattern? Who is beading us? Who is setting flower upon flower and cut-glass vine? Who are you and who am I, the beader or the bit of colored glass sewn onto the fabric of this earth? . . . We stand on tiptoe, trying to see over the edge, and only catch a glimpse of the next bead on the string, and the woman’s hand moving, one day, the next, and the needle flashing over the horizon.
– The Antelope Wife (1998)
In magic realism, abstract thoughts and concepts can become real. Something intangible is given visible form, like the pink cloud of passion in Like Water for Chocolate that pulls the revolutionary soldier to Gertrudis, or the concept of transformation, as when Gregor awakes in Kafka’s novel to discover he is a really big bug.
But absurd it is not. These are not the melted shapes of surrealism. On the contrary, magic realism often seeks to refine and express concepts more purely than in the murkiness of real life.
One writer suggested that Tolkien fantasy is inherently Protestant, with its belief in the profound impact of each individual’s actions, in assuming that characters can influence the outcome. Magic realism on the other hand is more Catholic, with a belief in miraculous transformation from outside, in mysterious powers that strike unexpectedly. In any case, magic realism is indeed fantasy, simply one in which the rules are often invisible to the human characters involved.
Are we the beader – or are we just a bit of colored glass, following a dancing needle?
[This is an excerpt from the chapter, "Types of Fantasy: Five Rings of Tradition" in A Guide to Fantasy Literature by Philip Martin (Crickhollow Books, 2009), which examines the significant differences between sub-genres of this literary field, named here as High Fantasy, Adventure Fantasy, Fairy-Tale Fiction, Magical Realism, and Dark Fantasy/Horror.]