fantasy and a sense of wonder

This is excepted from my 2009 book, A Guide to Fantasy Literature, now available as a Kindle eBook.

Magic Realism

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 

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.]


In a fascinating, slim volume, The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy, Harvey Cox, a Professor of Divinity teaching at Harvard fr0m the mid-1960s to 2009, made an eloquent prediction that it was time for festivity and fantasy to come back into a place of value (as it had been in the medieval world, before Cartesian logic and scientific method ruled for some centuries).

Cox was echoing what J.R.R. Tolkien had written earlier in a powerful essay, “On Fairy Stories” (written 1938, published 1947 in Essays Presented to Charles Williams). Tolkien called it “sub-creation” – noting how the literary invention of whole imaginary worlds, as in fairy stories, is a mirror of that God did in creating the world. Cox took up this case when he wrote:

Fantasy is the richest sources of human creativity. Theologically speaking, it is the image of the creator God in man. Like God, man in fantasy creates whole worlds ex nihilo, out of nothing.
—p. 59, Harvey Cox, in The Feast of Fools (Harvard University Press, 1969)

In the early pages of Feast, Cox lays out his case:

Though we have no annual Feast of Fools, the life affirmation and playful irreverence once incarnated in that day are bubbling up again in our times . . . rediscovering the value of two components of culture both of which were once seen in the Feast of Fools. The first is the feast or festival . . . the other important cultural component is fantasy and social criticism.

Cox continues:

In a success and money-oriented society we need a rebirth of unapologetically unproductive festivity and expressive celebration. . . . We need a renaissance of the spirit and there are signs that it is coming.

Cox’s book is a wonderful work (from which I quoted a different, equally thought-provoking passage in A Guide to Fantasy Literature).

Surely he is pointing to a key to understanding the role of fantasy literature: to celebrate (unproductively and unapologetically!) just how creative we can be in our storytelling . . . and yet to do it in a way that makes us even more amazed at the world beyond those fantastic ones that we return to, each time, after celebrating our various feasts of fools.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

Magic in fantasy occurs as a central nervous system of the fiction. And though is it the systematic underpinning of all that happens, it is frequently mysterious, capricious, often dangerous.

Its main logic: rules are rules, and woe to the person that offends or transgresses those powers.

This is at the heart of G.K. Chesterton’s observations about key elements of fantasy (that he extends to Christian philosophy), the first being an absolute sense of wonder. And the second: that transcendent, unknowable rules need to be obeyed and heeded, even if we don’t understand them.

This is the belief that fantasy is built upon. Fantasy rests not on a block-by-block foundation of logical understanding but on a hidden bedrock of great mystery and faith.

Robin McKinley is one of those treasured fantasy writers who has written a slew of wonderful number of novels over a career, and garnered praise and big-time awards (Newbery Medal for The Hero and the Crown, a Newbery Honor for The Blue Sword, the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature for Sunshine).

Sunshine, by the way, is a great work, and gave rise to one of my favorite statements from McKinley: “There is no sequel to Sunshine.” Unlike so many others, she feels no need to write sequels. She writes when she’s ready to write:

It’s not up to me! I can’t do anything unless or until a story comes to me and says, “Write me – write me now.” (. . .)

Yes, there are lots of loose ends.  I like loose ends.  Loose ends are like life, and, proficiently deployed, make a story feel like life.

Here’s her take on magic in Spindle’s End. It wonderfully mixes an original look at magic that pervades everything . . . with a delightful sense of place, all in the first pages of that novel.

The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster-dust. (Housecleaners in that country earned unusually good wages.) If you lived in that country, you had to de-scale your kettle of its encrustation of magic at least once a week, because if you didn’t, you might find yourself pouring hissing snakes or pond slime into your teapot instead of water. (. . .)

If you lived there, you learned what you had to do . . . like asking your loaf of bread to remain a loaf of bread before you struck it with a knife. (. . .)

Generally speaking, the more mobile and water-dependent something was, the more likely magic was to get at it. This meant animals – and,  of course,  humans – were the most vulnerable. Rock were pretty reliably rocks, except of course when they were something else that had been turned into rocks.

And by the way, about magic settling on everything . . . on her website, she claims this as a personal motto, which many of us writers share:

My favorite sofa cushion reads, “My idea of housework is to sweep the room with a glance.”


(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

Neverland. It is the home of our eternal childhoods, with all those wonderful dreams and adventures.

In J.M. Barrie’s play and novel, Peter Pan, it is plural. There are many Neverlands, one for each of us.

With the death of Michael Jackson, a childish pop star on a strange quest for his lost youth, we all find ourselves reflecting on issues of childhood, fantasy worlds, and the reluctance of leaving a creative, carefree youth for the burdens of maturity.

While we must, perhaps, become grown-ups (drat!), we need not leave all things imaginative and fantastic behind. Our lasting love of great books for young readers, especially those of fantasy literature that celebrate the wonder of childhood, must reflect some bit of that in all of us.

Indeed, a good book is like the story of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew older. It never ages. We can pick up the novel Peter Pan, or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, or (insert the name of your favorite here!), and remember being like those children, and travel with them on their adventures one more time.

if you haven’t read it, the story of Peter Pan by J.M. (James Matthew) Barrie is quite lovely, full of the Victorian whimsy that I’ve suggested is a cornerstone of modern fantasy.

Here’s a bit about Neverland.

I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island, for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose.

It would be an easy map if that were all, but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needle-work, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, three-pence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on, and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still.

Of course the Neverlands vary a good deal. John’s, for instance, had a lagoon with flamingoes flying over it at which John was shooting, while Michael, who was very small, had a flamingo with lagoons flying over it. John lived in a boat turned upside down on the sands, Michael in a wigwam, Wendy in a house of leaves deftly sewn together. John had no friends, Michael had friends at night, Wendy had a pet wolf forsaken by its parents, but on the whole the Neverlands have a family resemblance, and if they stood still in a row you could say of them that they have each other’s nose, and so forth. On these magic shores children at play are for ever beaching their coracles [simple boat]. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.

Peter is a young boy, still with his baby teeth, and he stays that way. How old?

“I don’t know,” he replied uneasily, “but I am quite young. . . . Wendy, I ran away the day I was born.”
. . .
“It was because I heard father and mother,” he explained in a low voice, “talking about what I was to be when I became a man.” He was extraordinarily agitated now. “I don’t want ever to be a man,” he said with passion. “I want always to be a little boy and to have fun. So I ran away to Kensington Gardens and lived a long long time among the fairies.”

And he now lives with “the lost boys.”

“Who are they?”

“They are the children who fall out of their perambulators when the nurse is looking the other way. If they are not claimed in seven days they are sent far away to the Neverland to defray expenses. I’m captain.”

We’re all captains of our own Neverlands. If we have a good library of fantastic books, we can travel there anytime we like. Far better to do it in fiction, of course, than trying to change who we are physically, to try in vain to alter reality, as we can learn from the sad story of Michael Jackson.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

“The Ethics of Elfland” is a chapter from Orthodoxy, (1908) by G.K. Chesterton. As I mentioned in the first part of this two-part post, he describes two core principles of imaginative fantasy stories, recalled mostly as childhood fairy tales told to him in the nursery (which he will apply also to Christianity):

  1. The power of elementary wonder
  2. The doctrine of conditional joy

Here then, is the second principle, that he calls the Doctrine of Conditional Joy . . . the magical virtue of “if”:

For the pleasure of pedantry I will call it the Doctrine of Conditional Joy. Touchstone talked of much virtue in an “if”; according to elfin ethics all virtue is in an “if.” The note of the fairy utterance always is, “You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word `cow'”; or “You may live happily with the King’s daughter, if you do not show her an onion.” The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden.

. . .

In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.

. . .

I have explained that the fairy tales founded in me two convictions; first, that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful; second, that before this wildness and delight one may well be modest and submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a kindness.

These are indeed two of the key building blocks of fantasy literature: developing a startling, imaginative world, and then developing a set of rules by which the wild magic of the fantasy must operate, so that it is not random or capricious, but purposeful and full of meaning, even if mysterious; so that it is a world that must be explored with great respect, even if it is a place where, as Chesterton proposed, instead of fruit, tigers or golden candlesticks grow from trees.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

“The Ethics of Elfland” is a chapter from Orthodoxy, (1908) by G.K. Chesterton. As notes in a review:

If G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith is, as he called it, a “slovenly autobiography,” then we need more slobs in the world.

Its purpose, according to a brief preface by the author:

It is the purpose of the writer to attempt an explanation, not of whether the Christian Faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it.  . . . It deals first with all the writer’s own solitary and sincere speculations and then with all the startling style in which they were all suddenly satisfied by the Christian Theology.

In the Elfland chapter, in all its rambling glory, he comes to two principles of Elfland, which he will apply also to Christianity:

  1. The power of elementary wonder
  2. The doctrine of conditional joy

To start, let’s ignore how easily he disposes of the knowledge of science (“for no egg in itself suggests a chicken”), which leads him to convoluted arguments like:

. . . this fairy-tale language about things is simply rational and agnostic. It is the only way I can express in words my clear and definite perception that . . . there is no logical connection between [a chicken] flying and laying eggs. It is the man who talks about “a law” that he has never seen who is the mystic. Nay, the ordinary scientific man is strictly a sentimentalist. He is a sentimentalist in this essential sense, that he is soaked and swept away by mere associations. He has so often seen birds fly and lay eggs that he feels as if there must be some dreamy, tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there is none.

(Okay, he’s applying his own system of belief to science, and then arguing that it makes no more sense than his own approach.)

But he has a lot of insight about Elfland – that is, the wondrous power of imagination of fantastic stories, especially the fairy tales heard in childhood. Here’s his first principle, the concept of elementary wonder (or “the ancient instinct of astonishment”):

My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. I generally learnt it from a nurse; that is, from the solemn and star-appointed priestess at once of democracy and tradition. The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic. Compared with them religion and rationalism are both abnormal, though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland that criticised the earth. I knew the magic beanstalk before I had tasted beans; I was sure of the Man in the Moon before I was certain of the moon. This was at one with all popular tradition. Modern minor poets are naturalists, and talk about the bush or the brook; but the singers of the old epics and fables were supernaturalists, and talked about the gods of brook and bush. That is what the moderns mean when they say that the ancients did not “appreciate Nature,” because they said that Nature was divine. Old nurses do not tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance on the grass; and the old Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads.

. . .

But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened–dawn and death and so on–as if THEY were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as NECESSARY as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot IMAGINE two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.

. . .

This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this. Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales–because they find them romantic.
In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.

In a follow-up post, we’ll look at his second doctrine of Elfland, what he calls the Doctrine of Conditional Joy . . . the magical virtue of “if.”

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)