What Defines Fantasy?

Fantasy is by far my favorite genre. I can get into other books, but I always come back to my first love. And, since I could talk about fantasy for years on end, you get to hear about it today.

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First, you need to know that there are certain kinds of fantasy that I separate from normal fantasy. These types are what you would call “high fantasy” or even “epic fantasy”, but I refer to it as “traditional fantasy”, due to the fact that it’s essentially how fantasy used to be done before the genre evolved.

How is a piece of fantasy dubbed as traditional fantasy? I define traditional fantasy as being such using one and only one piece of criteria. Traditional fantasy must, in my personal definition, center on a fully developed world apart from ours. Though it may be hard to believe, the presence or absence of magic is not a factor at all. While magic is a fun element of fantasy and is present in most works in this genre, a book can have absolutely no magic anywhere in it and still be a true fantasy story. Jaye L. Knight’s Ilyon Chronicles has nary a trace of magic threading through its world, but the important thing is that it’s a fantasy book (and an AMAZING one at that) because it does have that world.

Okay, so traditional fantasy always has a well-thought-out fictional world. But I also divide it into two types of traditional fantasy. I know, things are just getting all crazy, right?

Traditional fantasy type #1: The purest type of fantasy is that in which our world is nonexistent. One of the possibilites for traditional fantasy is that you are immersed completely in a fictional world with no acknowledgement of our own. The characters know nothing of our world, and by all means, it doesn’t exist. You’re in another land, and that’s where you stay, learning the cultures, customs, and general life of its people. You can find this sort of fantasy in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, as well as Jessica Day George’s Dragon Slippers, Jaye L. Knight’s Ilyon Chronicles, Jennifer Nielsen’s The Ascendance Trilogy, and John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice*.

*Some may debate whether Ranger’s Apprentice is even traditional fantasy, since it’s been hinted at that the story may actually be set in a medieval Europe. However, since it operates very much under the fantasy umbrella and it has never been determined that the lands in the book are real, I’m going to count it as such.

Traditional fantasy type #2: This second subgenre of traditional fantasy still meets the criteria of having a developed fictional world. However, this world is featured alongside our own as people from our neck of the woods somehow journey to another place. The new world is still as unique and different as in the first type; it’s just that our world is acknowledged and recognized. Additionally, we learn the rules and customs of this different land through the eyes of the people from our world that go there. This is demonstrated in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and Wayne Thomas Batson and Christopher Hopper’s The Berinfell Prophecies. (I would put more examples of this type of fantasy story, but I’ve discovered that I must read more of the first type than the second, so I don’t have many others).

To summarize, books that contain a central, well-developed world apart from ours are called traditional fantasy. Traditional fantasy can either occur solely within a different world or can center on humans from Earth that are transported to a different world.

What do you think of traditional fantasy and its two subgenres? Which do you like to read most? What are some other books that fit this description? Do tell! 


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