Fantasy in Contemporary Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Fantasy in Contemporary Literature


Fantasy in Contemporary Literature

The following entry presents discussion and criticism of literature incorporating myth, legend, and other fantastical elements through 2003.

Fantasy, legend, and myths have been an integral part of literature through the ages. From such early allegorical texts such as Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene to modern works like J. K. Rowling's “Harry Potter” series, writers have used fantasy in novels, poetry, and short stories. Although fantasy is often studied as a genre, especially in discussions of books that focus on science fiction, the use of the fantastic as a literary element in books, poems, and drama has been a consistent trend across many genres and over many centuries. In the twentieth century in particular, fantasy has assumed a central place in literature, specifically as a structural and allegorical element that has allowed authors from varied backgrounds to tell their stories to a universal audience.

In explaining the importance of the fantastic in modern literature, T. E. Apter comments on the appropriateness of fantasy, writing that the essential purpose of fantasy in literature is, in effect, the same as realism, except fantasy literature often relates logical stories from the premise of the fantastic. However, Apter cautions against a too-literal interpretation of the correlation between fantasy and realism, noting that in modern literature in particular, fantasy is an integral element of an author's efforts to convey his or her ideas to the reader. The impact of the fantastic relies on the fact that the world presented in these stories seems to be real, yet everything is different. This discontinuity and disconnect imbues each phrase and all images in the text with layers of meanings and associations that almost create a new language. Discussions of fantasy in literature, especially that of female authors, often focus on this issue. The works of Toni Morrison, Susan Cooper, Anne Rice, and others have often been critiqued both in terms of their place in fantasy literature and as examples of works that creatively use language through the construct of the fantastic. Lucie Armitt notes that women writers often use fantasy elements, traditional myths, and legends to convey an alternative point of view. Similarly, Nancy A. Walker proposes that fantasy and irony are often used as interdependent narrative devices by female authors, who change the traditional usage of language in their works in specific and complex ways to convey the message of their text. Citing Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Walker points to the opening sentences of the work as proof of how Atwood revises the mythologies of everyday life through her use of language.

Although elements of the fantastic have been a continued presence in literature through the centuries, especially during the Romantic and Gothic eras, in his overview of the fantastic in contemporary literature, Richard Alan Schwartz specifically comments on the importance of fantasy in modern literature. According to Schwartz, many modern writers have mined the world of the fantastic “as a way of combating the bleak aspects of our age,” and he cites works such as John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor (1967) and Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) as examples of how the “fantastic can be used to deal with truth's uncertainty.” Neil Cornwell, in his study of the growth of the literary fantastic, has also made note of the fact that the fantastic was a dominant element in many works of modernist literature during the early part of the twentieth century. Identifying science fiction and horror literature as significant tangents of the literature of the fantastic, with which works of the pure fantastic share many characteristics, Cornwell draws a distinction between the two types of writing, proposing that works that belong to the realm of the pure fantastic often “stress on interfacing worlds” that seem to lie elsewhere, and yet have “mysterious connections with … normal reality.”

While a number of critics view the use of the fantastic as an effective means of confronting issues that are important in reality, an equal number of critics and authors believe in the sustaining power of fantasy because of the escape and release it provides. In their essay summarizing the reasons behind the popularity of such characters as Harry Potter and the commercial success of the film adaptation of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt point to the power of fantasy as a means of participating in worlds that play by different rules, ones that have their own histories, language, and vocabularies. Equally powerful, theorize Brottman and Sterritt, is the human compulsion to “immerse ourselves in the lives of others,” especially in cases where the protagonist offers a welcome refuge from the details of ordinary life. In addition to providing an escape, novels and stories dealing with the fantastic routinely deal with issues of sociological and theological significance. Thus, write Brottman and Sterritt, the most powerful fantasies operate on a dual level, using a combination of allegory and literal meaning to explore recognizable and pertinent human conflicts in a setting that is imaginative and extraordinary.

Representative Works

Brian Aldiss
The Saliva Tree and Other Strange Growths (novel) 1966
White Mars; or, The Mind Set Free: A 21st Century Utopia (novel) 1999
The Cretan Teat (novel) 2002

Margaret Atwood
Life before Man (novel) 1979
The Handmaid's Tale (novel) 1985

John Banville
Nightspawn (novel) 1971
Birchwood (novel) 1973
Doctor Copernicus (novel) 1976
Kepler (novel) 1981
Mefisto (novel) 1986
The Newton Letter: An Interlude (novel) 1982

John Barth
The Sot-Weed Factor (novel) 1967

Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451 (novel) 1953
Dandelion Wine: A Novel (novel) 1957
Ahmed and the Oblivion Machines: A Fable (novel) 1998
One More for the Road: A New Short Story Collection (short stories) 2002

William S. Burroughs
*Junkie (novel) 1953
The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (novel) 1971
Cities of the Red Night (novel) 1981
The Place of the Dead Roads (novel) 1983
Queer (novel) 1985
The Western Lands (novel) 1987

Italo Calvino
**Il castello dei destini incrociati [The Castle of Crossed Destinies] (novel) 1973

Angela Carter
The Passion of New Eve (novel) 1977
Nights at the Circus (novel) 1984

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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

T. E. Apter (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Apter, T. E. “Introduction: Fantasy and Psychoanalysis.” In Fantasy Literature: An Approach to Reality, pp. 1-11. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, Apter explores the role and significance of fantasy in literature, contending that psychoanalytic theory offers a useful means of studying the unique difficulties posed by fantasy literature.]

The aim and purpose of fantasy in literature are not necessarily different from those of the most exacting realism. What is called ‘truth’ in fiction is often hypothetical: if a character has certain traits, then one is likely to find, or enlightened by finding in him, other,...

(The entire section is 4725 words.)

Richard Alan Schwartz (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Schwartz, Richard Alan. “The Fantastic in Contemporary Fiction.” In The Scope of the Fantastic—Theory, Technique, Major Authors: Selected Essays from the First International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film, edited by Robert A. Collins and Howard D. Pierce, pp. 27-32. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Schwartz reflects upon the resurgence of fantasy literature in the twentieth century, theorizing that this return to the fantastic is a means for modern authors to create a sense of order in a fast-changing and chaotic world.]

The turn to the fantastic in literature represents in some ways a...

(The entire section is 2736 words.)

Charles Rougle (essay date autumn 1990)

SOURCE: Rougle, Charles. “On the ‘Fantastic’ Trend in Recent Soviet Prose.” Slavic and East European Journal 34, no. 3 (autumn 1990): 308-21.

[In the following essay, Rougle expounds on the increasing use of fantasy elements in Russian literature, especially during the 1970s and later. He also examines the major sources for fantasy elements as they are used in modern Russian literature, as well as common themes in these works, attempting to determine a common ideological ground in order to place this trend in a historical perspective.]

Until relatively recently, Soviet literature was very much dominated by normative definitions of realism which dictated, among...

(The entire section is 6764 words.)

Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt (essay date 21 December 2001)

SOURCE: Brottman, Mikita, and David Sterritt. “Allegory and Enigma: Fantasy's Enduring Appeal.” Chronicle of Higher Education 48, no. 17 (21 December 2001): B16.

[In the following essay, Brottman and Sterritt discuss the renewed popularity of traditional fantasy elements, such as wizards and goblins, in contemporary literature, contending that the idealized settings of many modern works of fantasy provide a welcome escape from the mundane and ordinary aspects of life.]

Harry Potter's enormous popularity and moviegoers' keen anticipation of The Lord of the Rings reconfirm the enduring desire of both children and adults to immerse themselves in fantasy...

(The entire section is 1684 words.)

Criticism: Language, Form, And Theory

Larry McCaffery (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: McCaffery, Larry. “Form, Formula, and Fantasy: Generative Structures in Contemporary Fiction.” In Bridges to Fantasy, edited by George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes, pp. 21-37. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.

[In the following essay, McCaffery expounds on the “inadequacy of the concept of fantasy” as it is currently defined as useful in understanding the “nature and purpose of much contemporary literature” identified with that label.]

It may be that men ceaselessly re-inject into narrative what they have known, what they have experienced; but if they do, at least it is in a form which...

(The entire section is 7741 words.)

Nancy A. Walker (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Walker, Nancy A. “Language, Irony, and Fantasy.” In Feminist Alternatives: Irony and Fantasy in the Contemporary Novel by Women, pp. 38-74. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

[In the following essay, Walker identifies language and the means to expression as a central component of women's writing, further explaining that language has a special and interdependent relationship with such literary devices as fantasy and irony. According to Walker, fantasy and language are tied together in unique ways, and she illustrates this connection through an analysis of several works of fantasy by women writers.]

In Marge Piercy's Small Changes,...

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Theo L. D'Haen (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: D'Haen, Theo L. “Magical Realism and Postmodernism: Decentering Privileged Centers.” In Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, edited by Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris, pp. 191-208. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, D'Haen defines the origins of magical realism and postmodernism in literature, examining the use of the former in the works of Salman Rushdie and Angela Carter. D'Haen proposes that elements of magical realism and fantasy are often used by writers who are writing from a non-centric point of view.]

Because the term “magic” or “magical realism” has persisted for over half a century but is...

(The entire section is 7171 words.)

Criticism: Major Writers

Virginia Harger-Grinling and Tony Chadwick (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Harger-Grinling, Virginia, and Tony Chadwick. “Djinn by Alain Robbe-Grillet: Or the Architecture of the Fantastic.” In Reflections on the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fourth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, edited by Michael R. Collings, pp. 25-31. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Harger-Grinling and Chadwick address the ways in which Robbe-Grillet uses the image of the traditional Arabian genie to guide readers through fantastical elements in Djinn while setting large parts of the book in a realistic world.]

For the first decade or so of the nouveau roman in France, critics...

(The entire section is 3532 words.)

Lance Olsen (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Olsen, Lance. “Misfires in Eden: García Márquez and Narrative Frustration.” In Ellipse of Uncertainty: An Introduction to Postmodern Fantasy, pp. 85-100. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Olsen focuses on the narrative frustration commented upon by many critics of García Márquez's work, noting that the uncertainty and nebulous nature of the writer's work is intentional, and very much in line with many other works of postmodern fantasy which resist the idea of closure or completeness.]

These are not the times to go around thinking about weddings.

García Márquez...

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Lance Olsen (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Olsen, Lance. “The Presence of Absence: Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians.” In Ellipse of Uncertainty: An Introduction to Postmodern Fantasy, pp. 101-13. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Olsen analyzes Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians as a groundbreaking work of postmodern fantasy, one that “recharts, interrogates, challenges, and dismantles dominant cultural myths.”]

There is only a blankness, and desolation that there has to be such blankness.

Coetzee (Waiting for the Barbarians, 73)

John M. Coetzee was born in Cape...

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Elizabeth Cummins (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Cummins, Elizabeth. “Earthsea.” In Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin, pp. 22-64. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Cummins provides a detailed analysis of Le Guin's “Earthsea” trilogy as a coming-of-age journey set in the realm of the fantastic, where fantastical elements resonate with “ethical, emotional, and aesthetic meaning.”]

The impetus for the Earthsea series was Le Guin's invitation in 1967 from Herbert Schein, publisher of Parnassus Press, to write a book for an adolescent audience. That audience, Le Guin explains in her essay “Dreams Must Explain Themselves” (1973), led to her choosing the...

(The entire section is 10492 words.)

Jennifer Smith (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Smith, Jennifer. “Supernatural Genres: Horror, Gothic, and Fantasy.” In Anne Rice: A Critical Companion, pp. 9-18. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Smith traces various literary influences on the writing of Anne Rice, including the Romantics, the Victorians, and writers of Gothic fiction.]

To analyze Anne Rice's work by genre or kind of fiction, it's necessary to go all the way back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was then that writers developed a fascination with the modern ideas of the supernatural. These writers, the Romantics, rejected the idea that everything could be explained by science and instead...

(The entire section is 4156 words.)

David Gooderham (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Gooderham, David. “Fantasizing It As It Is: Religious Language in Philip Pullman's Trilogy, His Dark Materials.Children's Literature 31 (2003): 155-75.

[In the following essay, Gooderham places the trilogy His Dark Materials in the context of modern works of fantasy literature, noting that although the work has been enthusiastically received by critics and readers, the resistance it has inspired in religious groups can be largely attributed to Pullman's language usage.]

Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials,1 has received enthusiastic reviews during the years of its publication; there have, however, been quite other...

(The entire section is 8611 words.)

Criticism: Women Writers And Fantasy

Charlotte Spivack (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Spivack, Charlotte. “Fantasy and the Feminine.” In Merlin's Daughters: Contemporary Women Writers of Fantasy, pp. 3-16. New York, N.Y.: Greenwood Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Spivack provides a brief overview of fantasy literature and theory, focusing on ways in which women writers have modified the fantasy genre to demonstrate self-fulfillment and the preservation of community.]

In spite of the pervasive critical ambivalence toward individual works of fantasy, the theory of fantasy literature has attracted much critical attention in recent years. Pioneering attempts to define the nature of “the fantastic” were Harvey Cox's The Feast of...

(The entire section is 6404 words.)

Lucie Armitt (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Armitt, Lucie. “The Grotesque Utopia: Joanna Russ, Jeanette Winterson, Angela Carter, Jane Palmer and Monique Wittig.” In Contemporary Women's Fiction and the Fantastic, pp. 15-38. London, Eng.: Macmillan, 2000.

[In the following essay, Armitt discusses the significance and use of utopian fantasy worlds in the writings of several women authors.]

And once the old world has turned on its axle so that the new dawn can dawn, then, ah, then! all the women will have wings …1

Fictional utopias can be deceptively unsatisfactory. Elsewhere I have even claimed they may be threatened by redundancy, being...

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Further Reading


Cart, Michael. “Carte Blanche: Fantasy Is Flourishing.” Booklist 97, no. 16 (15 April 2001): 1546.

Brief overview of contemporary fantasy fiction, noting the continued popularity of the genre with a new generation of readers.

Cooper, Susan. “There and Back Again: Tolkien Reconsidered.” Horn Book Magazine (March-April 2002): 143-50.

Evaluates Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, remarking on the sustaining power of its themes.

Gamallo, Isabel C. Anievas. “Subversive Storytelling: The Construction of Lesbian Girlhood through Fantasy and Fairy Tale in Jeanette Winterson's...

(The entire section is 360 words.)