fantasy literature

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

Fairy-Tale Fiction

A third ring of fantasy [of five discussed in this chapter], in many ways distinct from the sweeping canvas of High Fantasy and the rollicking escapades of Adventure Fantasy, is the delicate canvas of the Fairy Tale. While in many ways a smaller canvas, it is no less ambitious; think of a miniature painting, which still contains an entire world within its borders.

As a branch of fantasy literature, fairy-tale fantasy serves up a cluster of psychologically rich stories. These deep tales are rife with domestic problems, dreadful challenges, and astounding transformation and redemption.

The term “fairy tale” is misleading, as only a small number of such stories actually involve fairies. The German term for such stories is Märchen, freely translated as tales of wonder.

Fairy tales, and fiction that draws on those themes, range from “once upon a time” bedtime stories like Cinderella or The Little Mermaid, rooted in polished literary collections by writers such as Charles Perrault in the late 1600s or Hans Christian Andersen in the 1800s, up to modern stories by Angela Carter, Jane Yolen, Patricia McKillip, Donna Jo Napoli, and others.

While fairy tales were demoted in Victorian times to the nursery, their original sources in oral lore were powerful, often gruesome cautionary tales. Even the fairies for whom the genre is named were once held to be dangerous, annoyed if crossed, and prone to taking revenge in dreadful ways. Early collections of such tales by folklorists such as Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who collected Germanic tales in the early 1800s, were full of awful, cruel behavior, mostly used to scare children into being good.

Over time, the fairy-tale stories in published forms were cleaned up and sanitized. In sweeter renditions, fairy tales made perfect bedtime stories for the child, nicely tucked into the cozy bed, on the boundary between being awake and crossing into the magical world of dreams.

Fairy tales have several significant features. First, they tend to deal with personal transformation. People (or creatures) change in dramatic, often miraculous ways. The ugly duckling is transformed into a beautiful swan, the toad into a prince, the cinder-maid into a princess, the fool into a wise person.

Second, these tales are easily recognized by their domestic settings, close to home, full of familiar detail. But in fairy tales, these are homes or villages full of shadows and sometimes hidden malice. On a very personal, psychological level, fairy tales explore some invisible boundary between the safety of home with proper behavior – ideally a place of good parents, obedient children, a loyal spouse, a protective lord not far away – and what happens when some boundary is overstepped.

Capricious dangers abound, in the dark forest nearby, or force their way into the cottage or manor house itself, to lurk in dark corners until the wrong word is said or wrong deed done.

The traditional tales so often introduce dangers from within or very near to home: the careless or evil parent, the jealous sibling, the scheming spouse, the old crone or strange man at the door.

In some cases, the transgression is caused by our own penchant for foolishness, vanity, greed, or curiosity, to transgress a command or forget a promise, to open the door or talk to strangers or look into the forbidden chest or mirror or behind the locked door.

When the stories venture outside the home, they quickly leave the relative security of the cottage, village, or protective castle to cross the boundary into the dark forest, the foreign land, the wilderness full of monsters.

The old versions of Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, or Little Red Riding Hood were full of this legacy of terrible deeds, dark shadows, and uncontrolled passions. As Donna Jo Napoli said in an interview:

Fairy tales deal with the evils we know exist in the 
world around us and in ourselves.
– interview (2001), with Philip Martin

Today’s authors use resilient forms of these old traditional tales to explore modern relationships. Their stories blend fairy-tale themes of mischief, malice, and moxie with contemporary issues of dysfunction, alienation, disenfranchisement, poverty, abuse. The evil stepparent, the child bride, the wicked witch, are reinterpreted to expose social injustices and evil deeds.

As Midori Snyder notes, in modern fiction today, Sleeping Beauty takes on new forms “as a helpless 1950s stay-at-home girl, a bold space opera heroine, an oppressed time-traveling queen, a stoic Holocaust survivor, a sexually abused child, and myriad others.”

Jane Yolen’s 1992 book Briar Rose, for instance, tackled the subject of the Holocaust with a fairy-tale approach, using not only themes from the Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty story but also what Yolen called “fairy-tale logic,” which allowed her to imagine an escape from a concentration camp where in fact there had been none. In a 2001 interview about the novel, Yolen noted:

The idea for an adult novel on the subject “Briar Rose,” 
had come to me when I was watching the documentary “Shoah” in which the concentration camp Chelmno was described – a camp in a castle. Castle, barbed wire, and the gassing of innocent folk. It suggested the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” in a horrible way.

Even the Disney versions, those versions of fairy tales so popular with young viewers, often present a fairly evil villain. But the commercialized versions dilute the raw power of the tales, falling into a routine of sappy romances, comic sidekicks, and formulaic endings. As Jane Yolen pointed out in an essay, “Once Upon a Time”:

Cinderella, until lately, has never been a passive dreamer waiting for rescue. The fore-runners of the Ash-girl have 
all been hardy, active heroines who take their lives into their own hands and work out their own salvations. . . .

To make Cinderella less than she is, an ill-treated but 
passive princess awaiting rescue, cheapens our most 
cherished dreams and makes a mockery of the magic inside us all – the ability to change our lives. [The Disney film 
version] set a new pattern for Cinderella: a helpless, hapless, pitiable, useless heroine who has to be saved time and time again by the talking mice and birds because she is 
“off in a world of dreams.”

. . . Poor Cinderella, Poor us.

– Quoted by Terri Windling in “White as Snow: 
Fairy Tales and Fantasy,” introduction to Snow White, 
Blood Red (1993)

Fairy tales, and their modern expressions in fiction today, deal ultimately with choices we make every day: to help a stranger, face a fear, stand up to the powerful, or conquer our base instincts. The fairy tale often comes down in the end to a practical lesson, usually learned the hard way, of personal or household value – about the difference between foolishness and wisdom, cowardice and pluckiness, laziness and industry, dumb luck and just desserts.

They also explore the eventual redemption found in tales of wonder – the transformation or wisdom gained from fairy-tale’s school of hard knocks needed to live “happily ever after” in today’s uncertain world. Next time, we won’t waste our three wishes on sausages or make fun of the village fool or forget our promises.

While High Fantasy describes great battles to ultimately defeat great enemies, and Adventure Fantasy teaches codes of behavior to keep at bay the pesky and everpresent forces of chaos, Fairy-Tale Fiction reveals the closest evil, that dwelling within us, or within those in our immediate surroundings.

As Terri Windling wrote, a fairy tale “goes to the very heart of truth. It goes to the very hearts of men and women and speaks of the things it finds there: fear, courage, greed, compassion, loyalty, betrayal, despair, and wonder.”

We have met the enemy and he is us. Fairy tales have given us our most memorable villains: the jealous witch in Snow White, the stepsisters of Cinderella, the wolf of Little Red Riding Hood who takes the place of sweet grandmother. Are they not so villainous precisely because they reside so close to home?

[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 Lev Grossman’s delightful, if slightly disturbing, 2009 book, The Magicians, the author draws high fantasy’s sword from the stone one more time, but manages to sharpen and harden the edge to slice and dice a re-imagining of a fantasy world that is tougher, more mature, and more realistic than, say, the high-school world of Harry Potter or that of Narnia’s more innocent children.

Grossman’s modern setting begins in New York, then moves to a pastoral college for magicians in upstate New York on the Hudson. In fact, the literate students refer to both the Harry Potter body of fiction and to a Narnia-like set of book called the Fillory chronicles, Fillory and Further, a set of five novels for children “published in England in the 1930s.” In his fresh, post-modernist look at fantasy, Grossman manages to both playfully mock the conventions of fantasy, and yet to draw from it and add his own vision to that grand literary universe.

A central conceit is to seriously tackle the implications of magic on these young adults. What would these awesome powers of manipulation do to a person’s emotions, to his/her ethics, to daily motivation, to long-term ambition . . . if so much could be conjured and controlled? The characters at Brakebills College suffer a realistic cycle of doubt, exhilaration, ennui, insouciance, personal bonding and betrayal, all pulled down by the hedonism of booze and sex, the difficulty of taking anything seriously when so much is variable.

In particular, Quentin Coldwater and his colleagues struggle with the challenge of imagining any career after school that would have the artificial intensity and systems of expectations and rewards as the world of rigorous academia.

Grossman shows at least one set of parents, magicians themselves, who have descended into apathy, near lunacy, and he talks about other magical graduates with great powers and low ambitions that spend their time in irrelevant pursuits, working at hedge funds making easy money or randomly tinkering with magical problems of insignificance.

What is the motivation for a magician, if they don’t believe in a Narnia-like goodness, with Aslan to reassure in times of doubt? What if they don’t have the slightly narrow-minded pluckiness of Harry Potter and his buddies, ever fighting the good fight?

In The Magicians, the secret for genuine success as a magician is a difficult combination, and there seem to be as many who fail as those who succeed. Magic is tougher than it looks, especially for anyone who’s read the fantasy books — as have Quentin and his friends, as have we all — where stories fall into place, where plucky, good-hearted individuals wend their way through plots designed to challenge, motivate, and ultimately lead to success.

The “real world” of being a magician just isn’t so pat.

From The Magicians (p. 44):

“You don’t just wave a wand and yell some made-up Latin. There’s reasons why most people can’t do it.”

“Which are what?” Quentin asked.

“The reasons why most people can’t do magic? Well.” Eliot held up a long, thin finger. “One, it’s very hard, and they’re not smart enough. Two, it’s very hard, and they’re not obsessive and miserable enough to do all the work you have to do to do it right. Three, they lack the guidance and mentorship provided by the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. And four, they lack the tough, starchy moral fiber necessary to wield awesome magical energies calmly and responsibly.

“And five”—he stuck up his thumb—”some people have all that stuff and they still can’t do it. Nobody knows why. They say the words, wave their arms, and nothing happens. Poor bastards. But that’s not us. We’re the lucky ones. We have it, whatever it is.”

“I don’t know if I have the moral fiber one.”

“I don’t either. I think that one’s optional, actually.”

The moral-fiber part of the equation is the key to Grossman’s literary questioning of fantasy. What if it’s not all so clear?

Amazingly, he manages to let us inside the questioning, while not kicking away all of the parts of fantasy that we love so much.

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

Here’s a link to a good review for my book, A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder and Enchantment, that appeared mid-December in the excellent online journal, January Magazine.

(Despite the name, January Magazine is a year-round thing. Check out their page of interviews with leading authors, from Neil Gaiman to Isabel Allende to Kazuo Ishiguro.)

Anyhow, from the review (by Lincoln Cho) for A Guide to Fantasy Literature:

In addition to talking about specific authors and works, Martin addresses the genre in new and interesting ways. (. . .) Though in some ways, Martin’s work is a scholarly one, he never seems to lose sight of his readership, bringing interesting, learned and accessible thoughts on all aspects of fantasy fiction, from the history, through patterns, places, characters and so on. A GUIDE TO FANTASY LITERATURE is a very good book. Anyone with a strong interest in fantasy literature will come away from Martin’s guide knowing more than what they arrived with.

Thanks, Januaryists!

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.)

“There and Back Again” . . .

In fantasy literature, the story often involves a journey from place familiar to place unknown. Leaving your small cottage, you enter the dark forest. Beyond is terra incognito, where dangerous beasts lurk, strange people are encountered, perilous decisions must be made.

These are the roads to the underground maze of Neverwhere, or the serene treetops of Lothlórien, or the tea parties and croquet matches of Wonderland.

There and Back Again, the subtitle of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, at first seems the epitome of understatement. It suggests the homebody nature of the hobbit, Bilbo’s penchant for the ordinary. The great adventure of going “there,” it suggests, means mostly just being away from home for a while.

But on his return, as is often true in epic tales, the hero finds that home itself has changed. Bilbo’s own neighbors don’t recognize him; they are absorbed in the process of selling off his furniture, eager to take over the cozy hobbit-hole they think he has abandoned. Bilbo himself has changed; he is not quite the same hobbit he used to be.

In that marvelous subtitle, Tolkien has summed up the essence of fantasy. There and back again is the very heart of adventure. To travel through Middle-earth or into any fantasy world is not just a series of stops on a Caribbean cruise. It is a journey into a mythic place.

There’s no “there” there, said Gertrude Stein, infamously, about Oakland, California. In Stein’s circle of hip literati and artists, “thereness” was a prized quality. It described an elevated aspect of place – just as destiny is a special quality of plot, or inner nature is a special aspect of character.

Indeed, this sense of “there-ness” might have been the true meaning of British climber George Mallory’s famous answer to the question of why he attempted to climb Mount Everest. “Because it’s there,” he replied. Perhaps what he really meant was that the high Himalayas had the quintessential “there-ness” of sacred space. Gertrude Stein would have known what he meant.

Perhaps Tolkien did too. As did Joseph Campbell, who wrote: “Sacred place is the place where eternity shines through.”

[This is excerpted from A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder & Enchantment, by Philip Martin, Crickhollow Books, copyright 2009. I’ve also added another excerpt about sense of place, from the “Fantastic Places” chapter, to the Excerpt page of this blog.]

My favorite description of what makes a classic comes from magical realist Italo Calvino: “A classic is a work which has not yet finished telling its story.”

My question: will the Harry Potter books endure and become classics of literature?

First, let’s agree that “great storytelling” and “literary quality” are often found together, but not always. A well-told story is not necessarily great literature.

Yet it seems obvious that great works of literature – the classics – generally have both literary quality and good storytelling. And of the two, skill in storytelling comes first and lasts longest in the minds of readers.

The skills of superb storytellers like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, despite being disparaged for their suspicious popularity, are undisputed and often under-recognized for their complexity. Great storytelling is not something that anyone can do. To believe that misses the skills that writers at the tops of their fields – especially in genre areas like fantasy, science fiction, and mystery novels – have mastered, skills which lie beyond the reach of most graduates of creative writing programs.

The debate over storytelling versus literary quality in popular novels like the works of Rowling or King reminds me of the comment about why Dickens wrote popular novels. G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Dickens didn’t write what the people wanted, he wanted what the people wanted.”

The criticism of being a popular writer, not a literary great, was also leveled on Rudyard Kipling — who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, the first English-language author to win that prize established in 1901. In the presentation, Kipling was praised by the Swedish academy for his great “genius in the realm of narrative.”

So the classics speak to readers for a long time. It might be useful to consider the Harry Potter series in light of the Narnia books, which fifty years after their publication are still beguiling hordes of readers, young and old.

Will the Potter books do the same?

The only fair answer: time will tell.

I don’t happen to believe, by the way, in the term “instant classic.” It’s like “jumbo shrimp” – an oxymoron that just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

I’m inclined to give the series the benefit of the doubt . . . and wait to see. In the meantime, J.K. Rowling and her immensely successful Harry Potter series is doing just fine as a decade-long run of contemporary and popular books.

And movies! Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is about to leap, magic wands ablaze, potent spells spouting, onto the silver screen next week.

[Coming next week . . . further thoughts about Pottermania and the role of the series in fantasy literature.]

(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 Inklings, of course, is the name for the now-famous group of writers and thinkers hosted by C.S. Lewis in his rooms at Magdalen College at Oxford – rooms that might be called shabby chic, with worn, comfortable armchairs and a big sofa. Attendees included Lewis’s good friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and others. They would brew a pot of strong tea, light their pipes, and have at it, first reading excerpts from a work-in-progress and then letting the assembled company “sit in judgement upon it.”

As quoted in Diana Pavlac Glyer‘s fine book, The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, member and older brother of C.S. Lewis, Warren (“Warnie”) Lewis said: “We were no mutual admiration society: praise for good work was unstinted, but censure for bad work – or even not-so-good work – was often brutally frank.”

Glyer’s book documents how they influenced each other in so many ways, as a regular meeting of working writers. In detail, she describes (see p. 104 on) how Lewis helped Tolkien refine the tone of his masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, steering the early drafts of first chapters away from a hobbity, chatty, playful work (first conceived as a sequel to Tolkien’s earlier work for young readers, The Hobbit) and into a more serious work with real “gravity.” It’s a fascinating look into the minds of those two great writers of modern fantasy.

The Company They Keep also brought to my attention the name (see Glyer’s book, p. 3) that Tolkien chose for an earlier version of the Inklings, Kolbítar. It came from an Old Norse/Icelandic word meaning Coal Biters, describing “old cronies” who sat closest to a fire; close enough, as it were, to bite the coal.

What a great image for a literary fellowship, friends huddled around a glowing hearth-fire!

Ever since I heard that term, I’ve also thought of it as a great image for the virtual form: the legions of blog followers, electronic “coal biters,” those of you who bend close to the computer monitor and follow the ethereal musings of bloggers small and mighty. (Today, the term could be “pixel polishers,” but that has so little poetic appeal.)

So welcome, coal-biters all! And be sure to pass on an invitation to others to join us here at Creeping Past Dragons at any time. There’s always a seat at the fire for any and all who might like to squeeze in for a bit of bandying about of all things philosophical and fantastical.

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