Published: February 23 2008 on Helium
Fantasy literature characteristics have "moved" only a little over the years. In ancient times, super heroes like Jason sailing in search of a golden fleece and Theseus slaying a minotaur have become Harry Potter seeking a philosopher's stone. Gods and goddesses have become wizards and genies. Different words cloaking similar imaginative concepts.
Fantasy literature sails the realms of a dreaming soul. It is one of three genres often referred to as speculative fiction. The other two are science fiction and horror. However "the world of fantasy is not a dream world, a never-never land, but a world that matches ours in reality. The characters confront the same terrors, choices and dilemmas that we do." www.religion-online.org Fantasy literature spins its own reality of landscape, character, chance and circumstance.
All characteristics are built into a dreamscape.
The first dreamscape characteristics evolved with epic fantasy. It claims to be the first recorded genre of humanity. And epic fantasy was born in poetry. There is the ancient world of "Epic of Gilgamesh". It is a cycle of poems, gathered from oral traditions, that has survived from the 3rd millennium B.C. And there is the epic poetry of Homer with his famed "Odyssey" and "Iliad" of about 800B.C. They also sprang from oral traditions. Such poetry is termed a primary or primal epic. But Virgil's "Aeneid" is a crafted (or secondary) epic. It tells the story of Aeneas' Mediterranean Sea wanderings after the fall of besieged Troy. Fate predestines his long journey, over-riding even the interference of the gods. "Fate, to Virgil's Roman audience, is a divine, religious principle that determines the course of history and has culminated in the Roman Empire." www.sparknotes.com
An epic fantasy features a larger than life hero on a larger than life journey bristling with incredible adventure. Often, in classic epics, there are gods and goddesses supporting or cutting down the hero. Often, especially in epic poetry, one of the 9 Muses (daughters of Zeus) is first invoked to bless the telling of the narrative. (More modern epics may replace gods and goddesses with an elemental power from the earth or sun.) And often there is an atmosphere of historical and eternal importance in the telling of the tale. In more modern times, J. R. R. Tolkiens' "The Hobbit" is an example of an epic fantasy.
High fantasy is epic fantasy involving complex worlds and dangerous quests for some form of trophy or for the resolving of monumental chaos. It is a world where diverse heroes share one goal. J. R. R. Tolkiens' "The Lord of the Rings" is an example of high fantasy.
So, the earliest characteristics of fantasy literature involved a super hero, deities and a sense of noble purpose or quest played out in some intricate, long-lasting journey.
But all manner of characterization is possible in fantasy literature. In Frank L. Baum's "Wizard of Oz", a cowardly lion, a scarecrow, a tin man, munchkins, Glinda the good witch and a Wicked Witch of the West are characterized. Yet, Toto the dog remains Toto the dog, with the important role of rocking (with a little help from a tornado) young Dorothy's physical world, on a Kansas farm, into the fantasy world of Oz.
And often such a broad canvas of characterization presents symbolism. "Salman Rushdie draws the connection that Dorothy's last name is "Gale," which is a very strong wind. According to Joey Green's Zen interpretation of The Wizard of Oz, "The cyclone becomes a physical manifestation of Dorothy Gale's inner struggle for self-awareness, the result of the 'gale' winds storming through her psyche." www.turnmeondeadman.net The Wizard of Oz himself has a different appearance for each character. To the Cowardly Lion he is a ball of fire, but to Dorothy, he is a giant head. The Wizard tries to be all things to all people. And Toto symbolizes the enigmatic thread, the "Jacob's Ladder" that connects the human soul with other worlds; even inner worlds.
Characters in fantasy literature could easily be images of anyone in real life. Anyone could be a Dorothy desperately needing some magical joy. Anyone could be the lion longing for some inner strength. Mothers could possibly relate to the wizard.
Sometimes, events in fantasy literature can be a haunting, mythical version of reality. The Yellow Brick Road symbolizes pilgrimage; perhaps like the pilgrims in Chaucer's medieval "Canterbury Tales"; perhaps like the traders on the ancient Silk Road.
Importantly, fantasy literature does not always mean an escapist world. It can be one where we may take some time to see our own world differently; even more clearly.
At this point, it is worthwhile to note that fantasy literature is not restricted to young readers. There is often enough adult theme and symbolism to interest adults, while the storyline can stand magically alone and suit a child's interest. In short, the child-adult classification in fantasy literature is often incidental.
But not all fantasy literature glitters with Baum's idea of a fantastic, symbolic Oz. There are other characteristics of fantasy literature.
Light magic in one fantasy can be the dark, ominous supernatural of spells, curses and potions in another. Or, the two may co-exist in some war of worlds.
The classic fantasy of fairy tale may be laden with elves and pixies; princes and princesses; a talking tree and a horse with wings. But a dark fantasy may have ghosts, zombies, shape changers, werewolves and vampires creating a sense of bold adventure through a world of fear and threat.
Medieval fantasy may be laden with knights, swords, troubadours, castles, grim battle scenes and fair maidens in distress.
And newest to fantasy literature is urban fantasy, where any of these elements may be transposed onto a more cosmopolitan but surreal modern world.
But common to all these genres and sub-genres of fantasy literature is a sense of wonder; almost child-like wonder in those things that could be.
Wonder is a major, critical element in fantasy literature.
Dorothy's song, in the movie version of "The Wizard of Oz", explains the characteristics of fantasy literature well:
When all the world is a hopeless jumble
And the raindrops tumble all around
Heaven opens a magic lane
When all the clouds darken up the skyway
There's a rainbow highway to be found
Leading from your window pane
To a place behind the sun
Just a step beyond the rain
Somewhere over the rainbow way up high
There's a land that I've heard of once in a lullaby
Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true
- "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"