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An illustration of three fairies by Arthur Rackham
Arthur Rackham
from A Midsummer Night's Dream (1908)


The Fantasy Genre

  • Events occur outside the ordinary laws that operate within the universe.
  • Magic is central to the fantasy genre.
  • Fantasy stories often involve journeys and quests.

How does fantasy differ from science fiction and fairy tales?

  • Science fiction stories also operate outside the normal boundaries of the real world but they are usually set in the future and involve the wonders of technology
  • Fairy tales are shorter than most fantasy works. Characters and settings lack specificity. Seldom are place names given or detailed descriptions of characters provided in fairy tales; nuances and subtleties of portrayal are deliberately ignored. 

Types of fantasy

  • There are 3 different ways that fantasy writers set up their worlds.
    • Some novels begin and end in a fantasy world (for example The Hobbit or A Wizard of Earthsea).
    • Others start in the real world and move into a fantasy world (for example Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan).
    • A third type of fantasy is set in the real world but elements of magic intrude upon it (for example Mary Poppins or David Almond’s Skellig).
  • Realistic settings are often called primary worlds; fantasy settings, secondary worlds.

Portals between worlds

  • Protagonists usually cross some kind of opening or “portal” between the two worlds
  • Examples of portals:
    • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: a wardrobe
    • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: a painting
    • Haroun and the Sea of Stories: sleep
    • Harry Potter books: platform 9 and ¾
    • Coraline: a door in a flat
    • Peter Pan: magical flight
    • The Golden Compass: windows cut between worlds
    • Inkheart: a gifted storyteller reads aloud 

Why do writers use the fantasy genre?

  • The major advantage of fantasy is that it can open up possibilities; it is not confined to the boundaries of the real world.
  • Writers are able to convey complex ideas on a symbolic level that would be difficult to convey otherwise.
  • Fantasy works can provide a fresh perspective on the real world.
  • Ursula Le Guin has written that “fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true.”1The fantasy genre involves a different way of apprehending existence but it is no less true than realism.
  • Fantasy stories can suggest universal truths through the use of magic and the supernatural.
  • Thomas Hardy preferred fantasy over realism, claiming that “a story must be exceptional enough to justify its telling,” and that a writer must have “something more unusual to relate than the ordinary experience of every average man and woman.”2

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1. Ursula Le Guin, “This Fear of Dragons,” in The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children, ed. Edward Blishen (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1975), 92.


2. Thomas Hardy, The Later Years of Thomas Hardy 1892–1928, comp. Florence Emily Hardy (London: Macmillan, 1930), 15-16.


Resources on fantasy stories

Adams, Gillian. “A Fuzzy Genre: Two Views of Fantasy.” Children’s Literature 28 (2000): 202-14.


Armitt, Lucie. Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction. New York: Continuum, 2005.


Baker, Deirdre F. “What We Found on Our Journey through Fantasy Land.” Children’s Literature in Education 37, no. 3 (September 2006): 237-51.


Gates, Pamela S. , Susan B. Steffel, and Francis J. Molsen. Fantasy Literature for Children and Young Adults. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2003.


Gooderham, David. “Children’s Fantasy Literature: Toward an Anatomy.” Children’s Literature in Education 26 (September 1995): 171-83.


Hunt, Peter. “Landscapes and Journeys, Metaphors and Maps: The Distinctive Feature of English Fantasy.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 12 (Spring 1987): 11-14.


Hunt, Peter and Millicent Lenz. Alternative Worlds in Fantasy Fiction. London: Continuum, 2001.


Lynch-Brown, Carol and Carl M. Tomlinson. “Modern Fantasy.” In Essentials of Children’s Literature. Boston, Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2008, 133-49.


Lynn, Ruth Nadelman. Fantasy Literature for Children and Young Adults: A Comprehensive Guide. 5th ed. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2005.


Nikolajeva, Maria. “Fairy Tale and Fantasy: From Archaic to Postmodern.” Marvels and Tales 17, no. 1 (May 2003): 138-56.


Norton, Donna E. and Saundra E. Norton. “Modern Fantasy.” In Through the Eyes of a Child: An Introduction to Children’s Literature. Boston: Pearson, 2011, 261-93.


Russell, David L. “Fantasy: The World of Make Believe.” In Literature for Children: A Short Introduction. Boston: Pearson, 2012, 194-215.


Whitney, David. “Fantasy Narratives and Growing Up.” In Where Texts and Children Meet, edited by Eve Bearne and Victor Watson, 172-82. London: Routledge, 2000.


Yolen, Jane. Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood. Little Rock, Arkansas: Little House, 2000.