Fantasy with and without consistency

Separating fantasy fiction from fabulism

The Swedish language contains some funny words that Swedes made up to sound like English. We say flipper for pinball, playback for lip-synced performances, after work for alcoholism, and so on. So it is with fantasy, which Swedes use for something paradoxically specific. This usage obscures something useful.

I grew up in Sweden in the 1990s. In that environment, the word “fantasy” was used only for a genre of literature: Fantasy as it was 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).

This narrow sense of fantasy represents a subset of the English word’s meanings. It refers to the set of Todorovian-marvelous stories taking place in a secondary, persistent, pseudo-medieval world where magic exists. For a Swedish loan, this isn’t far off the mark. The English language recognizes the same genre as fantasy, where the word is short for “fantasy fiction” or “genre fantasy”.

The sense of the word that I grew up with 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 its older breadth. The phrase “fantasy painting”, for example, refers primarily to very colourful, geologically implausible landscapes, without the pseudo-medieval or folklore connotations.

The more basic definition of fantasy, 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 Todorovian-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 first individual prototypes of genre fantasy were created in the mid-1800s through early 1900s. This stretches roughly from George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858) up through Lord Dunsany’s “The Hoard of the Gibbelins” (1912). Here, a daydreaming tone is primary and divorced from real-world beliefs and agendas, including the allegories of Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

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 tales”, the title of the magazine that first published Howard. Serial production in this era, the early-to-mid 1900s, is what really 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. Howard wrote an essay, “The Hyborian Age” (1936), for the explicit purpose of characterizing the consistent secondary world of his fantasy, but 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.

The Lord of the Rings (1954) started the era of mass production. At first glance, the contents were not new. Tolkien was undeniably imaginative and, like his predecessors, he reworked motifs from medieval myths. Some parts in his stories have the disjointed, freewheeling tone of a daydream, such as Tom Bombadil. Tolkien’s innnovation was his general care for unity. 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 just stole 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 created a problem with language. To distinguish the more basic fantasy in the writing of fiction from self-consistent fantasy fiction as a genre, critics have sought new terms.

A popular candidate is “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.

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. It illustrates to me the difference between fantasy fiction (Tolkien, consistency) and fantasy in fiction (Márquez, inconsistency). There should be a good word for it.

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”.


This still leaves critics like me with the need for a term to describe that fiction which is fantasy but which is not fantasy fiction. I have picked fabulism. It’s not perfect, being somewhat overloaded with other meanings, but it’s better suited to the purpose than magical realism.

In short, fabulism is the Todorovian-marvelous literature of internal contradiction.

Other characteristics I have alluded to above are secondary and non-essential. Fabulism, as I use the term in reviews, 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.

Correspondingly, 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. Under the same stipulative definition, fabulism also borders on naïvism. In the latter pair, fabulism is distinguished by the presence of fantasy in the basic sense of deliberately Todorovian-marvelous mental images. For the term to apply, in all cases there must be at least one marvelous premise, somehow implicated in an internal contradiction.

These 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, or by accident, as when the author fails to draw conclusions from premises.

For my own part I generally prefer internal consistency—with or without paradox—over internal contradiction. However, I do not mean for fabulism to be a value judgement in itself. I recognize that some people actively prefer fabulism for a variety of reasons, whether it’s the postmodern punk attitude implicit in deliberate incongruity, or the idea of the supernatural as a reified symbolism touching the plot, or the simpler comfort of the familiar untouched by the imagination.