Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Magical Realism


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. Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: What is Fantasy?

2. Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Mythic Fantasy

3. Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Epic Fantasy

4. Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Magical Realism

5. Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Grimdark Fantasy

6. Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Sword & Sorcery

Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Magical Realism

In 1925, a German art critic by the name of Franz Roh employed the term magic realism to describe the end of Expressionism and the emergence of a new art infused with dream-like, fantastical motifs. Afterward, this meaning was expanded and became linked to the 1960s era of Latin American literature (Hart, 2005, p. 1). Magical realism is a multi-faceted phenomenon that is difficult to categorize; it is contentious to place it under the fantasy umbrella as it is often seen as a unique entity. Following a discussion on the basic notions of magical realism, attention will be turned to the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, whose work became all but synonymous with magical realism as such. The end goal is to provide an overview of the (sub)genre, showing why it can (and perhaps should) be considered a part of the fantasy family of genres.

To understand magical realism, it would perhaps be prudent to explore its constituent parts in order to observe what their combination might entail. Starting with the latter, realism calls to the forefront ideas of consensus reality, of a realistic mode of writing in which authorial intention is focused on creating a narrative not only based in reality, but defined by it. In fact, such a work uses real elements of day-to-day life in order to evoke emotion and rational involvement in a fictional world.

Figure 1: Magical Realism in Art - The Waiting Room. George Tooker. 1959.

Magic, on the other hand, is significantly more difficult to define, but this is not to say that the aforementioned description of realism is absolute, as it should be viewed as a set of guidelines. However, even guidelines prove to be problematic for ‘magic’ – for something to be magical, it must be somehow different from reality; it must, in some ways, break the rules of what is considered normal and possible. Thus, one ventures into the realm of impossibility, of things that cannot be, yet somehow are.

Magical realism emerges when these two worlds merge and become a singular, indivisible entity. In this (sub)genre, no reaction is given when something extraordinary happens. In fact, the story is presented in such a way that nothing seems extraordinary. The reader realizes that certain aspects of the world go beyond the accepted consensus reality of the physical world, but works of magical realism strive to erase the seams that connect the real and the magical.

It could be said that the magical subverts the realistic (much like in fantasy). Eugene L. Arva (2008), an independent researcher from the University of Miami, points out that "[b]y virtue of its subversive character, magical realism foregrounds....the falsehood of its fantastic imagery in order to expose the falsehood...of the reality it endeavors to represent" (p. 61). This interplay of subversion is essential to the understanding of magical realism: one must ascertain the significance of magical elements and why they have been 'allowed' to subvert reality at specific places in the narrative. In his analysis of García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude a quintessential work of magical realism – S. M. Hart (2005), a Professor of Hispanic Studies at University College London, states that “the realism of the real [in that novel] is permeated by magic just as the world of the magical is underpinned by the real” (p. 4). It is perhaps this sentence that best defines magical realism as a whole: in it there exists no clear boundary between the fantastic and the realistic, since realism and fantasy blend to a point where it becomes impossible to separate one from the other.

Figure 2: Magical realism is often described by the balance between its two juxtaposed sides; here, the magical seems to overwhelm the real. - Beyond. Tomasz Setowski. 2022.

In the aforementioned novel, Márquez juxtaposed two ideas of ‘magic’ – what seems to be magical to one group of people is merely an everyday occurrence to the other. For example, members of the first group consider ghosts, levitating priests, and morphing gypsies to be magical; the second group marvels at magnets, trains, and moving pictures. However, it must be taken into account that magic (and realism) can only be realized if observed in the context of consensus reality.

In one of Márquez's short stories, The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World, the reader is presented with a coastal village on the shores of which a dead body emerges. The women of the village take it upon themselves to clean him:

But only when they finished cleaning him off did they become aware of the kind of man he was and it left them breathless. Not only was he the tallest, strongest, most virile, and best built man they had ever seen, but even though they were looking at him there was no room for him in their imagination (Marquez, 1972, p. 147).

A man so unique, so physically perfect that the villagers could scarcely imagine him; surely such a concept is fantastical, if not deeply philosophical. However, the fact remains that even though they beheld what one might consider a mythical being, the women in the story were not scared or unwilling to accept it as a part of their reality. The man’s magic seemingly extended beyond mere physical boons as his presence (even while dead) was enchanting to the point that the entire village became entranced – they named him Esteban and the village became known as Esteban’s village thereafter. A dead man conquered a village: a synopsis of the story that is doubtless fantastical.

However, to truly understand magical realism, one must experience it through direct interaction with text. Any retelling of the Drowned Man detracts from the unique merger of realism and magic present in the narrative.

Figure 3: Lack of reaction from passers-by to the fantastical scenes above their heads encapsulates the nature of magical realism. The Tryst. Paul Bond. 2019.

The initial impression one might have when reading the text may be that the perfect dead man is a defeated (demi)god of sorts:; maybe Poseidon’s son met his untimely demise. Tales of magical realism, however, care not for such perceptions or descriptions. It matters little whether the man is a god or a human. The only relevant factor is that his extraordinariness is not seen as supernatural by the villagers – to them it is a product of their consensus reality.

Another key aspect of magical realism is the social commentary which often becomes the separating factor between it and fantasy. Laurence M. Porter (1986), a professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, observed that "even [at] the most exuberant moments of his fantasy...[Marquez's] humanitarian socialist preoccupations are obvious if you read between the lines" (p. 207). Regardless of the political current one argues in favor of, magical realism is a genre extremely conducive to such socio-politic commentary due to its innate subvertivness. However, Wen-Chin Ouyang (2005), a lecturer in Arabic Literature and Comparative Literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, reflects on the social commentary often present in magical realism and ascertains that similar instances can be observed in works of fantasy:

Who would doubt today that J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, defined as fantasy in no uncertain terms, is an allegory of post-World War I Europe and an imagining of an alternative community? Today’s magical realism and fantasy seem equally haunted by imperialism and empire, nationalism and nation-state (19).
Figure 4: The Painter's Family. Giorgio de Chirico. 1926.

Here, the problem one encounters is that of seriousness; the label of ‘fantasy’ likens a work to something that exists within the scope of popular literature. Thus, the ostracization of magical realism from the broader genre of fantasy can be seen as an attempt to attribute gravity to such works. However, that is based on a conception of literature that ascribes lesser value to the popular (and to the fantastic, seeing as it is often part of the popular). True grounds for a division between magical realism and fantasy are difficult to form:

Magical realism has resisted being viewed as fantasy in part because of its own desire for territoriality, and in part because of its aspiration to literariness and radical politics – to be taken seriously as literature and epistéme – which may explain the concern with the distinction between ‘literature’ and ‘popular fiction’. The lines between the two ‘modes’ or ‘genres’, however, have never really been clearly drawn (Ouyang, 2005, 19).

Even though fantasy is set in a fictional land (be it a world or a space on Earth) while magical realism is a part of the ‘real’ world, the two are unequivocally similar. Both subvert consensus reality, both can (and do) comment on ‘real world issues’, and both tackle epistemological questions. To not consider magical realism as belonging to fantasy is a mere choice of categorization and, as stated previously, an attempt to ascribe literary value by the act of exclusion.

After a brief description of magical realism, a short story by Márquez was used to present a vivid example of magical realism. Often understood as a genre in its own right, magical realism can still be seen through the prism of fantasy because, in many ways, it functions as one aspect of fantasy literature. Whether seen as a subgenre of the fantastic or an entirely separate entity, magical realism offers deep insights into the (cultural) state of reality. It both requires and deserves thought and attention as a peculiar amalgam of reality and fantasy that dares to ask and ponder any and all societal questions in a manner scarcely achieved by other (sub)genres.

Bibliographical References

Arva, E. L. (2008). Writing the vanishing real: Hyperreality and magical realism. Journal of Narrative Theory, 38(1), 60–85.

Hart, S. M. (2005). Magical realism: Style and substance. In Hart, S. M. & Ouyang, W. (Eds.). A Companion to Magical Realism (pp. 1-13). Tamesis.

Marquez, G. G. (1972). The handsomest drowned man in the world. In Leaf Storm and Other Stories. (pp. 143-154). Avon Books.

Ouyang, W. (2005). Magical realism and beyond: Ideology of fantasy. In Hart, S. M. & Ouyang, W. (Eds.). A Companion to Magical Realism (pp. 13-20). Tamesis.

Porter, L. M. (1986). The political function of fantasy in Garcia Marquez. The Centennial Review, 30(2), 196–207.

Visual References

Cover figure:

Bond, P. (2016). The Waterhouse. [Oil on Panel]. Paul Bond Art. Retrieved from:

Bond, P. (2019). The Tryst. [Oil on Panel]. Paul Bond Art. Retrieved from:

Chirico, G. (1926). The Painter's Family. [Oil on Canvas]. Tate. Retrieved from:

Setowski, T. (2022). Beyond. [Oil on Canvas]. Mutual Art. Retrieved from:

Tooker, G. (1959). The Waiting Room. [Egg Tempera on Wood]. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved from:

Author Photo

Dino Mušić

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