When Is Fantasy Not Fantasy?

In a recent and valuable appreciation of Lord Dunsany on Tor.com, Jo Walton issued the following pronouncement that sort of freaked me out.

Lord Dunsany wasn’t writing fantasy, because what he was writing was defining the space in which fantasy could later happen.

I think it makes sense to draw a line between the modern fantasy genre and the work in older traditions which has influenced modern fantasy. Beowulf and the Odyssey aren’t fantasy fiction in the sense that The Hobbit is.

But British writers had been writing straight-up fantasy for half a century before Dunsany started publishing. MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin or Morris’ The Well at the World’s End are fantasy in precisely the same sense that Tolkien’s fiction is, and they’re obviously part of a continuous genre tradition.

And this notion that genre-establishing work can or should be categorically excluded from the genre it establishes strikes me as inherently untenable.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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19 Responses to When Is Fantasy Not Fantasy?

  1. sartorias says:

    Dunsany is one of many writing in preTolkien fantasy space. The Germans wrote in it as well.

  2. peadarog says:

    All a bit silly, for sure.

  3. marycatelli says:

    I half-agree with the first comment: The Charwoman’s Shadow is better than The King of Elfland’s Daughter.

    • JE says:

      I like them both a lot (and both of them better than Don Rodriguez, although that has amusing moments). But I see what you mean: Charwoman’s Shadow holds together better, and it’s a warmer book somehow. I’m not really involved with any of the main characters in KoED, and I’m not sure we’re meant to be. Whereas I like almost everyone in CW–even the “somewhat gross” Gulvarez.

      [edited for splelign]

      • Morris may have done the first fantasy novels — but how are the Medieval ‘romances’ not fantasy?

        • marycatelli says:

          romances and fantasy

          That’s where the borderline goes, I think, on account of the romances sometimes being of marvels that are not only weird and strange but regarded as impossible by the writer and audience. Ariosto winks about this by putting a hippogriff — a symbol of impossibility because gryphons were supposed to regard horses as good eatin’.

          But some of the earlier ones are clearly dealing with marvels not regarded as impossible. Strange. Not to be expected in your own day and place. But possible.

        • JE says:

          “how are the Medieval ‘romances’ not fantasy?”

          I think that’s a case-by-case thing (as

  4. scbutler says:

    “And this notion that genre-establishing work can or should be categorically excluded from the genre it establishes strikes me as inherently untenable.”

    You’re the academic, aren’t you? Isn’t this sort of argument the very breath of life inside the academy?

    • JE says:

      “You’re the academic, aren’t you? Isn’t this sort of argument the very breath of life inside the academy?”

      Different academics tend to have different slants on this kind of stuff. I’m the sort of academic whom others call “positivist!” “resistant to theory!” “pragmatically oriented!” and even worse names, some of which are true.

      Still, even if one defines a genre as “books which are like Book X” (and I think that’s a weak definition, although it is part of the process of thinking about genre), Book X is identical to Book X, therefore Book X is like Book X, therefore the genre must include Book X.

      • scbutler says:

        On rereading my comment, I now realize I put you on the spot. Not my intent at all. I was trying (and poorly) to make a joking reference to your statement about not understanding the unbending views of some of your peers.

        My apologies.

        No defense of your stance needed. Yours is the one that makes sense.

        • JE says:

          Oh, I took it as a shot at academic literary studies rather than me personally–and a deserved shot, too. Probably nothing has been so destructive to the reading of literature in the past thirty or forty years as the kinds of literary theory promulgated by academics (particularly deconstructionism, which I think is ridiculous on its premises and also leads to very bad teaching).

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