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Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: What is Fantasy?


Sub-genres of fantasy literature are manifold and multiform, each pursuing and providing a different central idea around which a magical, marvelous world is built. However, to truly understand what each sub-genre entails, one must first look into what fantasy itself is as a genre/type of literature. This series of articles will begin with an overview of most commonly referenced theories of fantasy and the fantastic, and will then move on to explore and analyze fantasy’s most prominent sub-genres.

Theory of Fantasy Literature 101 is divided into six chapters including:

1) What is Fantasy?

2) On Mythic Fantasy

3) On Epic Fantasy

4) On Magical Realism

5) On Grim-dark Fantasy

6) On Sword & Sorcery

Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: What is Fantasy?

Fantasy as a worldwide literary genre has risen to prominence in the second half of the twentieth century, and is currently a dominant force across all entertainment media. When one thinks of fantasy, names such as Lewis, Tolkien, Martin, Sanderson, and Lovecraft all come to mind. Yet, fantasy has existed long before them in varied forms and its origin can be traced to early oral tradition and myths. Despite its long history, it remains difficult to truly define what fantasy and the fantastic entail: this first part of the series of articles on fantasy and its sub-genres seeks to give a brief overview of the most influential theories of the fantastic.

To better understand a term that can, in some respect, be equally applied to myths of old and to contemporary superheroes, one must take a closer look at the very nature of the fantastic. A structuralist literary critic Tzvetan Todorov (1973) set the foundation from which one can observe fantasy literature. “The fantastic occupies the duration of … uncertainty” (25), Todorov claims, and in doing so opens his tripartite classification of the fantastic.

Figure 1.

The Room From Which the Patient Escaped.

Note: The narrative goes out of its way to cover any and all possible means of escape: it seems that either the institution is corrupt or some supernatural forces are at play (Bluscreens, nda).

The first category, that of the uncanny, implies that a given narrative is centered around “events that seem supernatural,” but that “receive a rational explanation” (44), by the end of the story. These events often create a sense of fear or unease. Even though Todorov’s theory was written with literature in mind, the true nature of the uncanny can perhaps best be showcased in visual media. Scorsese’s Shutter Island presents a story where the viewer is never certain, up until the very end, whether or not some supernatural forces are at play. One scene in particular exemplifies the uncanny: the protagonist enters a room from which a mentally deranged patient had allegedly escaped. An inspection of the space ensues, and no feasible means of escape are uncovered – it is as if the escapee vanished into thin air. Here the sense of unease and fear rises and it is not until the end of the movie that the viewer can be certain that there were no supernatural forces at play in that instance.

When Todorov writes on the marvelous, he strikes closest to what an average enjoyer of fantasy would consider a part of the genre:

“…supernatural elements provoke no particular reaction either in the characters or in the implicit reader. It is not attitude toward the events described which characterizes the marvelous, but the nature of these events” (54).

Such narratives thrive on the sense of wonder that they awaken within their implicit reader. That wonder, however, is not shared by the characters within the narrative, for the world they inhabit is entirely normal to them – it fits their consensus reality. Examples here are plentiful and easy to find, but this article shall focus on Tolkien’s famous The Lord of the Rings trilogy merely to point out a specific aspect of the marvelous. When the claim is made that the characters within a narrative take the world for granted, it does not mean that certain elements of said world cannot surprise them. Much like humans are awed and surprised by Earthly events and sights, characters of marvelous stories can also be taken aback without breaking the limits of what Todorov meant by his category of the marvelous. Therefore, when Frodo goes on his solemn quest, he is frequently puzzled and awestruck – yet, the existence of orcs, elves, and ancient evils in Middle-Earth is a fact none can dispute.

Figure 2.

Frodo and Sam in Awe of Middle-Earth.

Note: Despite the many trials and tribulations Frodo and Sam face, never once do they refer to anything in Middle-Earth as supernatural or impossible - it is part of their consensus reality (Persall, 2021).

What, then, is the pure fantastic according to Todorov? His definition is severely limiting and it poses that the pure fantastic arises only when three conditions are met (the middle being optional): the implicit reader’s hesitation must be maintained to the very end; that same hesitation can be shared by the characters; lastly, any poetic or allegorical reading must be cast aside for it fractures the very notion of hesitation as a mechanism for determining the fantastic. Simply put, Todorov’s fantastic appears only if the reader remains oblivious if something that occurred in a narrative is an actual product of the supernatural or some uncanny happenstance.

Naturally, examples of such narratives are few and far between. An example can be found in Borges’ short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius – elements of an imaginary geographical location are said (and shown) to have somehow broken through into the reality of the protagonist. Yet, these objects, while strange, are not necessarily impossible in reality. Therefore, their existence can be seen either as supernatural emergence or uncanny happenstance – the hesitation that rests with the implicit reader due to such a conclusion opens the possibility of considering Borges’ story a pure fantastic narrative by Todorov’s standards.

On the different end of the spectrum from Todorov’s extremely limiting view of the fantastic, Kathryn Hume (2014), an academic author on medieval literature, fantasy, and contemporary fiction, proposes a vastly more open-ended approach.

By fantasy I mean the deliberate departure from the limits of what is usually accepted as real and normal. The works covered range from the trivial escapes of pastoral and adventure stories to the religious visions of Langland and Dante. This does not mean that I am trying to relabel all western masterpieces “fantasy”, but fantasy is an element in nearly all kinds of literature, especially the narrative, the most important exceptions being realistic novels and some satiric and picaresque works. (xii)

Here fantasy is seen as an integral part of all literature and Hume is reluctant to clearly delineate what it is as a genre or mode of writing. While it may seem unhelpful to so broadly categorize a term, Hume’s view of fantasy and the fantastic allows the genre to break out of the norms and stereotypes that have become linked to it. Often seen as lesser literature, fantasy works struggle to be considered as serious pieces of literary work and are often discarded as products of commercially-centered popular fiction. However, if one goes back to review classics such as The Divine Comedy or A Midsummer Night’s Dream as tales built on fantastic elements as their irreplaceable foundations, one may be able to begin weaving an argument for fantasy to be taken as seriously as any other thematic center point that classics have explored.

Figure 3.

Dante and Virgil Beset by Demons, Passing Through Hell.

Note: Despite its alegorical nature, the imagery evoked by Alighieri's work is deeply fantastical (Doré, 1861).

Fantasy can also be viewed from a different perspective. Rosemary Jackson (2003), a Marxist literary critic, noticed that “Todorov’s The Fantastic fails to consider the social and political implications of literary forms” (6). She views fantasy literature as a means of subverting reality “for it opens up, for a brief moment, on to disorder, on to illegality, on to that which lies outside the law, that which is outside dominant value systems. The fantastic,” she goes on to say, “traces the unsaid and the unseen of culture: that which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over and made ‘absent’” (4). The idea here proposed is that of social unease; fantasy thus becomes an escape from established societal values and systems, offering a new set of rules within which social and political situations and ideas can be explored and commented on.

Tolkien (2008), on the other hand, speaks of fantasy writing as narratives of “arresting strangeness,” ones that offer “freedom from the domination of observed ‘fact’” (60). For him, the fantastic is a “Sub-creative Art in itself and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression” (59-60). Quite in tune with his own fantasy writings, Tolkien can be said to portray fantasy as something that is felt more than theorized – it provides the ability to create in a way that no other form of fiction does.

Four theories have been offered, but no single answer as to what fantasy is has been given. This is not by omission or error, but simply because there exists no unified theory on what it truly is. However, this series of articles will view fantasy as a continuation of tradition of mythologies and folk tales and will move almost entirely in the realm of Todorov’s marvelous and Humes’ fantastic, all the while attempting to discern what is so arrestingly strange about fantasy as it continues to rise and conquer (popular) culture across all media, including, of course, the written word.


Todorov, T. (1973). The Fantastic; a Structural Approach to a Literary Genre [By] Tzvetan Todorov. Translated From the French by Richard Howard. Cornell University Press.

Jackson, R. (2003). Fantasy: The literature of subversion (1st ed.). Routledge.

Hume, K. (2014). Fantasy and Mimesis (Routledge Revivals). Taylor & Francis.

Tolkien, J. R. R., Flieger, V., & Anderson, D. A. (2008). Tolkien on Fairy-stories. HarperCollins.

Visual Sources:

Cover image:

Hong, K. (2020). The Imagery of the Fantastic. [Digital Art]. Entertainment Weekly.

The Room From Which the Patient Escaped. (nda). [Movie Still].

Persall, S. (2021). Frodo and Sam in Awe of Middle-Earth. [Movie Still]. Metaflix.

Doré, G. (1861). Dante and Virgil Beset by Demons, Passing Through Hell. Encyclopedia Britannica.


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Dino Mušić

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