All the works of man have their origin in creative fantasy. What right have we then to depreciate imagination.
The Fantasy genre usually has several clearly marked features which can be roughly summarised as follows:
- A setting which amounts to an alternative universe which can be interpreted in the light of our own world.
- The notion of a quest which has a definite purpose, either finding something, as in the Grail legend, or vanquishing an enemy cast in the form of something evil, often an oppressive regime, sometimes supernaturally backed.
- Arising from this, there are implications of a larger, more abstract, struggle between good and evil seen as underlying the whole of existence. Thus the genre can sometimes be read as a series of extended metaphors. The function can only be truly applied to the best fantasies, such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Eddison’s much earlier The Worm Ouroboros. However, it is something which all writers of fantasy aspire to.
- The agent for carrying out the quest is one person, often, certainly in Young Adult fantasies, marked out for the purpose, either as a sort of abstract destiny or by relationship to a previous king, queen or great hero. Often the agent has no idea of this relationship, having passed a life in obscurity.It seems a general rule that in fantasy for young adults and children, the age of this agent will be within the age range of the intended audience.
- The quest often involves the testing of the hero, to make sure he/she is worthy of the responsibility he/she has been given.
- Human characters are often mixed with monsters or supernatural beings which nevertheless display human characteristics, either good or evil. They can act as benevolent guides as well as malevolent obstacles.
- The stories commonly end with a great gathering of forces to fight a climactic battle. Good is almost invariably successful and the victory can either bring about closure and the restoration of fairness and good government, often involving the return of the rightful king, or provide an opening to the next stage of the quest.
- The stories are normally conservative in nature. They almost invariably provide the restoration of an old order rather than the introduction of a new one.There is an assumption that any new departure in this alternative world is to be feared. Closure can only be achieved when the settled, traditional old ways are reinstated.
- Fantasy as a genre is in direct descent of the great epics of folk-tale, first told by word of mouth long before reading and writing were invented. They developed on similar lines in widely separated cultures – for example, Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology, the Iliad and Odyssey and The Maharabhata – which suggests there is something in them not only universal but inherent in human consciousness.
These features in no way suggest a formula, although it is true that some writers have treated them as one. They are the development of a form and structure over many thousands of years, from the time when stories were transmitted orally, which reflect the needs of the story, and which at its best can enshrine profound statements about the human condition.
However, most modern fantasies, whatever they aspire to, make no such statements: the notions of a larger struggle are seldom there and the writers’ aims are much more limited.