Fantasy with and without consistency

Separating fantasy fiction from fabulism

In this article I outline a stipulative definition of fabulism as the Todorovian-marvelous literature of internal contradiction.

Sasquatch crypto-zoology and Christian folk superstition simply don’t mix well, even for comic effect.
— Turkey City Lexicon entry attributed to Howard Waldrop

My native Swedish language contains some funny words made up to sound like English. We say flipper for pinball, playback for lip-synced performances, and after work for alcoholism. More recently, salesmen rebranded simple scooters as “kickbikes” on the Swedish market, using a direct translation of an established Swedish word (sparkcyklar) for the very same thing.

Swedish usage of the English word fantasy is not so broken, but paradoxically specific. When and where I grew up, it was used only for a genre of literature: Fantasy as written by J. R. R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin etc. The same genre was clearly recognizable in other media, such as the movie The Black Cauldron (1985), the Swedish TRPG Drakar och demoner (1982), and computer games like Heroes of Might and Magic (1995).

For a Swedish loan, this narrow sense of fantasy isn’t far off the mark. It refers to stories taking place in a secondary, persistent, pseudo-medieval world of magic, and all such stories are called fantasy in English too. They are a genre of the “Todorovian marvelous”, named for Tzvetan Todorov, meaning literature that shows itself to be fundamentally incompatible with reality, as magic is.

The English language recognizes the same genre of the marvelous as “fantasy fiction” or “genre fantasy”. Shortening that to “fantasy” makes the word I grew up with. That is now the word’s primary sense even in English. For example, the Wikipedia entry on fantasy concerns “a genre of speculative fiction set in a fictional universe, often inspired by real world myth and folklore.” However, the English word retains a little of an older breadth. The phrase “fantasy painting”, for example, refers primarily to very colourful, geologically implausible landscapes, without the pseudo-medieval or folklore connotations of the literary genre.

A more basic definition of the English word, in Merriam-Webster, is “the power or process of creating especially unrealistic or improbable mental images in response to psychological need”. It is this older and broader sense of fantasy that shows up in fantasy painting. It is not identical to the Swedish word fantasi with an “i”, the meaning of which is imagination itself.

The development of genre fantasy

Ancient authors of marvelous literature were applying their imagination to things they believed in. The Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2100–1100 BCE) was embellished from the legend of a king and various religious claims. Genesis (ca. 500–400 BCE) was likewise written to support the authors’ sense of racial and cultural identity. The Golden Ass (ca. 160 CE) was irreverent, but even that Roman novel hooked into the belief system of its own place and time. This changed with the Enlightenment and secularization. The Gothic novel, patterned after The Castle of Otranto (1764), was restricted to a belief system that had become obsolete, and did not have the force of conviction. Often, as in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), the fantasy of this period was all whimsy and allegory.

In “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” (1844), Edgar Allan Poe contrasted “the unmistakable idiosyncrasy of the dream” against a “rigorously self-consistent” supernatural experience. The first individual prototypes of genre fantasy were created shortly after Poe, in the mid-1800s through early 1900s. This period stretches roughly from George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858) up through Lord Dunsany and William Hope Hodgson. The latter pair sometimes employed a daydreaming tone, but they also succeeded in building the first isolated glimpses of Poe’s rigorous self-consistency in the supernatural.

By the time Robert E. Howard got into the game with Conan the Barbarian, there was a market for the fantasy genre as such, though it continued for a while to be associated with alternative names like “weird fiction” or “weird tales”, the title of the magazine that first published Howard. He wrote an essay, “The Hyborian Age” (1936), for the explicit purpose of characterizing the consistent secondary world of his fantasy. That mythology is based on a set of peoples—human races or ethnic groups—that Howard believed existed in the real world, like the authors of Genesis who wrote about their Hebrew forefathers as something other than Canaanites. Small-scale serial production like Howard’s, in the early-to-mid 1900s, carved the mould of fantasy fiction. There were still very fanciful scenes in the stories of Clark Ashton Smith, where tone and image sometimes had the upper hand over plot, but Smith’s Hyperborean cycle would not have been a cycle without some substance and internal cohesion distinct from pure imagination.

The Lord of the Rings (1954) started the era of mass production. Tolkien was undeniably imaginative and, like his predecessors, he reworked motifs from medieval myths. Some parts in his stories—akin to Dunsany and Smith—have the disjointed, freewheeling tone of a daydream, such as Tom Bombadil. Tolkien’s most crucial innnovation, however, was his general care for unity on the scale of an entire novel and an entire universe. He famously feuded with C. S. Lewis over allegory and the integrity of the imagination. Whereas Lewis included Father Christmas (Santa Claus) in Narnia, Tolkien exported nothing so crass or culturally specific. Middle-Earth’s histories run deep enough for multiple volumes of lore beyond the novels, including whole languages. What happens in Middle-Earth seems to happen for reasons that are intrinsic to that world. In short, Tolkien worked methodically to build a story that worked on its own terms. This effort finally defined fantasy fiction for the later environment where I grew up.

Tolkien’s hard work and visibility bred a taxonomy. Howard and Smith were retroactively classified as “sword and sorcery”, while “fantasy” without further qualification was increasingly reserved for authors like Robert Jordan who churned out seemingly endless volumes of material, extrapolating from prior events within their respective secondary worlds. These authors resembled their contemporaries in science fiction, the main difference being in their higher levels of narcissism rather than their lower levels of technology. With the genre firmly established, inferior authors like Terry Goodkind sold well in it.

Searching for words

Even at its calcified commercial height, fantasy fiction as a genre never absorbed or killed fantasy in the more basic sense. It only took the term. Some writers still wanted to describe daydreams without building an internally consistent world. Many wanted to set such stories in familiar places. Some such stories, like Mary Poppins (1964), were hugely popular. This has created a problem with language. To distinguish the more free and basic fantasy in the writing of fiction from self-consistent fantasy fiction as a genre, critics have sought new terms.

Informally, the Mary Poppins variety of fantasy is often called “whimsical”, an accurate term that also works for a lot of fantasy painting. However, fantasy in the broader sense is not always whimsical. This is illustrated by another popular term, “magical realism”, which first appeared in writing about paintings in the 1920s. It refers to the blending of supernatural and real-world motifs. As expressed in Latin American literature in the 1940s through ’70s, magical realism inserted large, conspicuous breaks with reality (i.e. the Todorovian marvelous) into an otherwise gently fictionalized version of the real world.

Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) is a famous example of magical realism. In it, one man builds a utopian city of mirrors, a parallel society in the Colombian jungle. It’s a miracle, but in the novel, history otherwise proceeds as it did in reality. This is self-contradictory. If someone had built a magical city in Colombia, that would have had some impact on our world. Realistic fictional characters would have reacted to it, but the world of the novel generally does not. That is a premise of the narrative. Whatever it is that implements this premise has no side effects. By the author’s fiat, the magical city exists, but in and for isolation from the larger setting. This is fantasy in the older, more basic sense of the word, not fantasy fiction in the modern sense.

Where The Lord of the Rings is internally consistent and driven by intrinsic forces, One Hundred Years of Solitude is internally contradictory and driven primarily by the author’s desire for allegory, which is an extrinsic force. This is a crucial distinction, but the term “magical realism” does not specifically identify that distinction. Also, Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil is more whimsical than anything in Márquez, and Márquez similarly resists other candidates, such as the term “weird fiction” attached to transitional authors like Hodgson.

Confusion over magical realism

Some genre fantasy authors, including Gene Wolfe and Terry Pratchett, have argued that magical realist writing is genre fantasy by another name. On the other hand, the critic who invented the term asserted that magical realism is a form of realism, and late Italian neorealists who turned to magical realism in their films—such as Miracle in Milan—apparently agreed. Others have drawn distinctions that are certainly important but unrelated to consistency, thus overloading the term. For example, magical realism is often said to differ from fantasy mainly in that it takes place on Earth in historical or present time, which is superficial.

Scholars have drawn deeper distinctions based in narrative style, seeing a deliberate interrogation of classical realism in magical realism. The non-believability and allegorical uses of magical realism are central to many such commentators. For example, in the last chapter of his monograph on The Boundaries of Realism in World Literature, Kornelije Kvas argued that magical realism uses the Todorovian marvelous in a self-contradictory way to point out “the contradictions and shortcomings of society.” This is an argument that magical realism is internally contradictory because there are paradoxes in real societies. That may be perfectly true and relevant to writers like Márquez, and it may fall under the basic dictionary definition of fantasy quoted above, but it is not the distinction I make between basic fantasy and genre fantasy, neither of which are projects to interrogate classical realism.

The final reason not to repurpose the phrase “magical realism” for just one of its connotations is that the phrase as such is counterintuitive across its whole range of meanings. Magical realism does not enchant the reader like a magician, is not convincingly illusionistic like the classical realism it supposedly interrogates, and is not a realism in the unrelated philosophical sense of asserting a specific ontological status, as in the term “moral realism”.

Fabulism

I am left with the need for another term to describe that fiction which is fantasy but which is not fantasy fiction. I have picked fabulism, in the sense of Poe’s “Silence—A Fable” (1838), a good example of the category. Like “magical realism”, fable and fabulism are overloaded with other meanings, such as talking animals. No such animals exist in Poe’s story.

I define the two crucial characteristics of fabulism to be the marvelous and internal contradiction. Other characteristics I have alluded to above are secondary and non-essential. Accordingly, as I use the term in reviews, fabulist literature does not have to be spectacular, or contemporary, or use the familiar. It does not have to be allegorical, though it usually is, and it does not have to be self-conscious about the extrinsic mechanisms that drive it. It must, however, include at least one clearly counter-realistic premise, somehow implicated in a self-contradiction.

In the example of “Silence—A Fable”, there is an inscription on a rock in a dreamlike landscape. The text is first unreadable, then read as “desolation”, then described as “changed” to “silence”. Poe’s narrating demon apparently carries out the change himself by pronouncing a “curse of silence”, but there is no proposed relationship (no system) between the curse and the rock. Each description of the rock contradicts the one before.

Fabulism as I define it borders on genre fantasy. For purposes of comparison, genre fantasy does not have to be medieval or set in a secondary world etc. Genre fantasy only has to be marvelous and internally consistent, with a continuum from there to fabulism. The historical development from Edgar Allan Poe to Robert E. Howard happened along that continuum.

In its second dimension, fabulism borders on naïvism. For purposes of comparison, I stipulate that naïvism does not contain Todorovian-marvelous mental images. Because this is not always clear, another continuum must be permitted. In particular, my distinctions lose their acuity when the author’s intentions and competence cannot be discerned. A work may be fabulist either by design, as are some celebrated works of magical realism and the example of “Silence—A Fable”, or by accident, as when the author fails to draw conclusions from premises, or believes in magic.

The poet John Keats praised what he called the “negative cabability” of great thinkers to make art “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” For my own part I generally prefer internal consistency—with or without paradox—over internal contradiction, but I do not mean for fabulism to be a value judgement. I recognize that some people generally prefer it for a variety of reasons, whether it’s the postmodern punk attitude implicit in deliberate incongruity, or the idea that illusionism is superfluous to symbolism, or the simpler comfort of the familiar neatly separated from the imagination while appearing in the same picture.