Culture Bytes: Is Fantasy Literature?

I know we don't talk about a huge amount of literature at Alt:Mag, but we're open to all mediums! Which is good because, recently, as a fantasy author, something's been bothering me. The fantasy genre is often maligned by certain literary circles. We only need to look at the reception to, usually lauded author, Kazuo Ishiguro's recent The Buried Giant to see this. In a foray into fantasy, many wrote it off as 'not real literature' or 'simply a genre novel', but are the two mutually exclusive? Is this derision of the genre fair?

Perhaps the answer lies within its meaning. The internet defines literature as "written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting merit" with Collins English Dictionary adding "written material… especially works of imagination characterized by excellence of style and expression and by themes of general and enduring interest".This appears to be where the problem is, though on the face of things there's no reason that should exclude fantasy. To many, literature, as a form of art, must imitate life and as fantasy for the most part is not set in our world it is left out of this mindset. There are, however, numerous problems with this.

Some of the oldest stories humans have been telling are based in fantasy. Legends and mythology are the staples of what led to the genre as we can see in The Lord of the Rings - it reads as a Christianised version of the Norse tale of Ragnarok.  Considering we are still seeing re-workings of Greek legends such as The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (winner of the 2012 Orange Prize) these stories are clearly still striking a chord, despite their reliance on gods, demigods and centaurs. It must be said the fantasy elements were not what the book was praised for, instead focusing on the themes of friendship and love the book was imbued with. Yet, the fantasy elements were still there and, it would seem, a literary audience enjoyed them. Still on the theme of legends and mythology, as some of the oldest stories our species told, their structure has stayed with us and is still present in contemporary fiction. Most stories, including particularly literary works, still follow the traditional three-act structure. To say that fantasy does not have “lasting artistic merit” would be to say that neither does the origin of fiction - something of an oxymoron.

There are many fantasy authors whose skill with prose alone should ensure their standing in literature. Mervyn Peake, author of The Gormenghast Trilogy, is regarded by many as a master of the art-form and (in my opinion) few could argue against his literary worth. For those who haven’t experienced Peake’s prose, he wrote with a poetic clarity, painting his gothic world with grotesque characters and a lyrical tongue. Gormenghast is considered literature on the merits of its prose alone. However there is another, more famous, writer of fantasy without whom the literary canon would seem incomplete and, surprisingly, I’m not talking about Tolkien. William Shakespeare wrote many works of fantasy such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, but many of his other plays had elements of fantasy too. Hamlet, Richard III and Julius Caesar all have ghosts in, with Macbeth featuring the Three Witches (or Weird Sisters for you Pratchett fans). Magic and fantasy are weaved throughout the work of Shakespeare and yet it seems absurd to suggest his works weren’t literature purely for not being entirely naturalistic.

For many of us fantasy was the first genre we fell in love with - a world beyond our imagination where only the extraordinary can happen! In our childhood it was a genre that unlocked doors to new planets in the deepest recesses of our hearts and minds which then led to new books, new worlds and new genres. Perhaps this is why fantasy is deemed childish, but this first love is an important gateway to a love of books as a whole that can lead all the way back to the most difficult classics. Think of how many children fell in love with reading because of Harry Potter - many have grown into adults who now carry that love into all new literature. The first book I truly fell in love with was The Hobbit - the new world Tolkien had created for me to explore and the company he had given me to do so with was incredible. Why would I possibly want to be anywhere else? From there I found a passion for all books, no matter the genre, now spanning all the way back to likes of Proust, Bronte, Dumas (with a healthy dose of Sanderson, Pratchett and Rothfuss to keep my literary diet varied). To say fantasy isn’t literature is to dismiss this love of reading that it can create. Literature captures the imagination and doesn’t let the reader leave until they have finished the book - few books can do this as well as those in the fantasy genre.

The fact remains most works of literature are considered so because they explore the human experience, just like all books and all fantasy. Harry Potter isn’t about a magic school; it’s about the power of friendship amidst socio-politic uprising. The Lord of the Rings isn’t about a magic ring, it’s about people putting aside their differences to achieve something greater than themselves as individuals. The Inheritance Trilogy isn’t about a kingdom of gods and godlings, it’s an exploration of humanity and its origins - the best and worst of it; how they destroy us and how we overcome them. The generic conventions of fantasy are a setting, a stylistic decision to create a world more epic and exploratory than ours. What this background allows the genre to do is investigate the human experience with higher stakes and push that experience to its very extremes. Fantasy isn’t really about magic or dragons - fantasy is a genre full of stories about us. Literature explores humanity, and we are the spirit of fantasy. 

Sam Leeves is the author of the novels 'Endless Tides' and 'In the Footsteps of the Behemoth', he is also a member of The Fawcett Society. Find him on twitter, @CptSkyheart.

Alt:Mag © Kaizo Minds Collective 2023 | Layout designed by Rumah Dijual and Lewis Cox.