Tuesday, May 15, 2007

So What Is Fantasy, Anyway?

Back to science fiction tomorrow - but for now I'm on a fantasy riff and have to stay with it.

The subtext to discussing the problems with magic and elves is, do we really need them? (Since I don't particularly want them.) The answer has little to do with genre literary theory, because it is essentially a marketing question - "fantasy," like SF, mysteries, and "romance" in the modern sense, is a marketing construct, carved out of the great old super-genre of Romance by publishers and bookstores.

Elements we associate with fantasy, such as elves, dragons, and magic in general - though none of them in quite the forms we know now - were part of Romance from its birth, but they are not necessary to it. D'Artagnan and his gallant companions had no more need for a spell than they did for a starship, and got good use of their swords without slaying a single dragon. So did Robin Hood, and every freebooter who ever swashed a buckle, while in a later age a revolver was sufficient for Sam Spade.

When Romance was broken up like the good ship Argo, however, the publishing industry was more careless than the astronomers, who saw to it that every star got a new home. Bittersweet love stories - which were most of the early ones - have no place to speak of on the romance shelves today, and tales of imaginary kingdoms, sans magical special effects, were not within the ambit of fantasy as people understood it after discovering Tolkien - even though there's actually very little magic of the spell-casting sort in LOTR.

Thank God for Guy Gavriel Kay, especially, and some other writers such as Ellen Kushner (thinking especially of Swordspoint). They have proved that it is commercially possible to sell books classed as fantasy that have little or none of the standard D&D-esque elements.

So there's hope for me yet.


Kedamono said...

Fantasy is anything that has a fantastical element. Not necessarily a SF one, though an argument can be made that Science Fiction is just a branch of Fantasy.

For example, the movie Ground Hog Day has as its fantastical element a character forced to relive the same day over and over until he fundamentally changes his personality and outlook on life.

Amelie is another movie where the only magic is the magic of love and a strange synchronicity of events. So I'd say that one can write a fantasy story in which not a single spell is spoke, a nary a elf or pixie is in attendance, and still have the events occur that are fantastical and otherwordly.

Bernita said...

Was thinking of you when I re-read this in John Buchan's "The Dancing Floor," Rick.
"Romance ( he said is a word I am shy of using. It has been so staled and pawed by fools that the bloom is gone from it, and to most people it stands for a sugary world as flat as an eighteenth-century Arcadia....
I suppose it is the lawyer in me, but I define it as something in life which happens with an exquisite aptness and a splendid finality, as if Fate had suddenly turned artist - something that catches the breath because it is wholly right...I like to keep my faith that at one stage in our mortal existence nothing is impossible...So I go about expecting things, waiting like an old pagan for the descent of the goddess. And once - only once - I caught the authentic shimmer of her wings."

Rick said...

Kedamodo - I used to lean toward SF being a branch of fantasy, but now I would see them both as branches of Romance. (When SF first emerged as an identifiable genre, I believe the term used was "interplanetary romance.")

You are right about a sort of fantastical element that has nothing to do with magic in the usual sense; you couldn't possibly roll with D20, for example.

Bernita - yes. Exquisite aptness and splendid finality; those are the attributes of Romance.