Books in Our Fantasy Literature Canon
The Lost Years of Merlin
The Book of Three
The Dark Is Rising
The Ranger's Apprentice: Ruins of Gorlan
The Wizard of Earthsea
Welcome to Fantasy Literature!
Sabriel and her daemon, Mogget, enter the mists of the Old Kingdom in Garth Nix's Sabriel.
So just what IS Fantasy Literature?
Answering this question seems like a very good place to start our discussion. Wikipedia defines fantasy as "a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme or setting." In other words, fantasy deals with events, stories, places, creatures and beings that do not -indeed, cannot- exist in the natural, "real" world. Some common examples of these elements are dwarves, elves, wizards, witches dragons, unicorns and a host of others you can imagine. When these beings are put into stories that include magic and lands that do not exist on Earth, then we have a fantasy.
But there are many ways to tell these kinds of stories. Some of the different kinds of fantasy that exist are high fantasy, low fantasy, sword and sorcery fantasy, and alternative history fantasy. Let's look at some of the characteristics of each of these subgenres of fantasy before we begin our reading.
High fantasy stories generally take place in a land and/or time that is entirely fictional, made up by the author. This is called a "secondary" world, because it is not the "primary" or natural world that you and I actually live in. In the secondary world, the author's own rules apply. That is, there can be dragons or witches etc. as long as they behave consistently. (That they behave consistently is important to help us believe in them and their world.) High fantasy worlds are frequently based on the Middle Ages in Europe with kings, queens, knights and castles. The stories in high fantasy are often about a struggle between the forces of Good and Evil. The protagonist (the "hero" or "heroine") is usually someone who didn't expect to have to "save the world" but who must rise to the occasion. The protagonist is generally aided by a guide, a wiseman, a mentor who helps the protagonist achieve his/her quest. Some well known examples of high fantasy are The Lord of the Rings or Eragon.
Low fantasy stories often take place in our primary, or "real" world but with many magical elements included. There may be only one magical character capable of doing some limited magic in the everyday world that you and I live in. There may be a group of beings who have magical powers in an otherwise "normal" world. The protagonists in these stories are usually characters who may not be very effective in the real world, but who can use their fantastic powers to achieve their goals. Low fantasy stories can take place in almost any time setting, from the "nowadays here and now" to the "long, long ago and far away" but they usually have a world that you and I would easily recognize and be able to live in.
Sword and Sorcery Fantasy
The Sword and Sorcery brand of fantasy is more adventuresome. These fantasies are not so much about the battle between Good and Evil as they are the personal struggles of the protagonist to overcome obstacles and come out on top. As he/she goes through the world, they use magical powers as well as strength and cunning to win battles, defeat villains, slay mythical creatures and better their lot.
Alternative History Fantasy
Lastly, the alternative history fantasies make use of histories we know from our "real" world to build new stories that might have happened if magic and fantasy beings did exist. These stories take some events that actually happened and create new possible outcomes to the events, outcomes that could only happen if magic and fantasy creatures had an effect in the real world.
As you can see, these different types of fantasy are not clearly divided, and there are many more that we have not discussed. A fantasy story could easily be a combination of high fantasy and alternative history, or any other combination. But these categories should help us talk about the books we read and help us identify various ideas and concepts in the stories. So as you read through all the wonderful books in this course, give some thought to these ideas and how they apply to the stories you read and enjoy.
Fairies and mermaids watch as ocean surf gives birth to unicorns.
Books in Our Fantasy Literature Canon
The Golden Compass
Dealing with Dragons
The Queen of Attolia