The Classics of Fantasy: Why We Read Them and Try to Write Them
Updated: Jan 22
All great fantasy writing makes use of the traditions, forms, and structures of the faery tale, fable, folktale, and legend. Most, if not all, early civilizations have stories and legends about magical beings and events, and wondrous tools and strange superstitions, which in ancient times were passed on in an oral tradition. With the advent of written histories, these stories and legends were recorded and have enriched our understanding of culture and our love of narrative. And over the last three hundred years these legends and tales have been translated into fantasy fiction.
Although Harold Bloom’s seminal work The Anxiety of Influence applies more strictly to poetry and canonical literature, the theory he propounds certainly applies to those of us working in the fantasy genre today. There is a very real danger of fantasy writing being derivative and weak, because, to quote Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun.”
And, of course, the seminal fantasy work, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, has become the bible and blueprint for a great deal of fantasy writing. I was struck by that forcibly when re-watching Peter Jackson’s film of the book recently. There is hardly a staple of fantasy that Tolkien has not invented or put his indelible stamp on, from magical beings (elves, wizards, orcs, hobbits, dragons, trolls, dwarves, tree creatures, ghosts/spirits, and goblins) to magical tools (rings, staffs, crystal balls, mighty swords, and magical chainmail).
Certainly, there are other great fantasy writers who make use of the magical beings and tools that Tolkien leaves out: C.S. Lewis creates or uses witches, talking animals, a magical lion, dryads, naiads, fauns, centaurs, gardens with magical trees that become magical wardrobes, magical spell books, mermaids, unicorns, giants, ogres, princes and princesses – the list goes on.
And J. K. Rowling’s wonderfully inventive novels cast a long shadow over recent magic fantasy, as she becomes an influence, a “strong” writer, to use Bloom’s term, that will be hard to avoid.
So, if there is nothing new under the sun, and if it has all been said before, and better, why do we fantasy writers continue to attempt to create fantastical worlds filled with marvels we have already encountered in works by great fantasy authors?
Fantasy is most probably the fastest growing fiction genre in today’s publishing world. Amazon and Goodreads have large sections devoted to fantasy, and the listings are so extensive and varied that finding a new work to read is sometimes overwhelming, even when searching for established writers in the genre. Furthermore, advances in self-publishing make it easier for new writers to create and publish their own fantastical stories, so much so that the field is becoming extremely crowded. Not that this is a bad thing – quite the contrary. Traditional publishing houses, which have long controlled the market, dictating what writers fit what they (as a business with a bottom line) determine the public wants, are now faced with competition from writers who do not write for the marketplace, but rather for themselves and like-minded readers, and this results in creative freedom in a genre that was fast becoming predictable and somewhat stale.
And creative freedom is necessary, for essentially writers attempt to write the story that they always wanted to read - which is not necessarily the story that is already on offer in the stores - even though they / we have most likely already encountered and loved elements of that story countless times before in the work of authors like Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling, Diana Wynn Jones, Doris Lessing, Ursula Le Guin, and other classic writers. We love the stories so much we want to re-experience the journey of discovery, of encountering the characters, their trials, failures, and successes mirroring our own inner journeys of discovery. And while many of us reread the classic stories over and over to the point where we have almost memorized the words on the page, there comes a point where we need variety and change, and to encounter those same necessary elements of the magical tale in a new, slightly different setting. We delight in visiting other worlds, with all their infinite variety, in meeting new and curious characters, in being thrilled by the moments of magic with dragons, swords, spells, fantastical beasts and creatures of myth and legend.
In the best of fantasy writing, there is always a new slant on these time-honoured elements of the genre, a new twist that piques our interest and engages us in the story. It may be the same story, but it is new and fresh, and it satisfies our craving for the mythical journey. So fantasy writers and readers (among whom I count myself and my writing partner P.J. Merchant) struggle to find that new twist, that variant slant on the tried and true fantasy journey, and we continue to engage in the struggle with a measure of delight, and we hope that our readers find that same delight as we envision the familiar journey. The novels we want to read and write may not always be new, as there is nothing new under the sun, but they will be new enough to provide the perfect balance of familiarity and surprise.
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What do you think? Why do you read (or write) fantasy? What aspects of fantasy do you most enjoy? I would love to hear your opinion on what makes a good fantasy, and why you continue to read novels in this genre.
Don't hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the contact form on this website and I will publish your feedback here.
Hetty February 8, 2017