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An Author’s Journey: The “Many-Terraced Houses” of Fantasy, 1

Sara Douglass, "The Wayfarer Redemption" (art by Luis Royo)

Sara Douglass, “The Wayfarer Redemption” (art by Luis Royo)

An Author’s Journey: The “Many-Terraced Houses” of Fantasy, 1

Good Morning, Everybody!

An excellent essay published recently in by Hugo-Award winner Kameron Hurley made me think about the way that today’s audiences assess “epic fantasy” as a genre. ( …)

Kameron Hurley

Kameron Hurley

In the piece, Hurley assails the ways in which creators, readers, publishers, and the marketplace collectively “frame” our expectations of the epic fantasy genre — especially in publishers’ almost-reflexive shunting of any female-crafted epic fantasy into “romance,” “young adult,” or “fantasy” categories.

Overused fantasy landscapes: "Bored of the Rings" (Harvard Lampoon)

Overused fantasy landscapes: “Bored of the Rings” (Harvard Lampoon)

When Hurley looks at epic fantasy as a genre, she writes:
[Begin excerpt: “Epic fantasy seems to have drifted into a prescriptive mode characterized by gritty descriptions, multiple POVs, abuse and maiming, medieval milieus, and, oddest of all (!), work that does this as written by male authors … When one holds up as examples of a type of fiction only work written by men, and only dark, pseudo-medieval work by men, it’s an effective way of shutting out all other types of work … 

Kameron Hurley, "God's War"

Kameron Hurley, “God’s War”

… Once one has constructed a frame, one has to work very hard to maintain its borders, even when those borders can clearly be far broader. This was the frame they were shown. This is what fits. Everything else must be put in different boxes … What we fail to understand when we critique the reading habits and choices and shoring up of the frames that people have made when called out about this—this lack of memory and categorization of women authors, this constant pushing out—is that though these are things done by individuals, the actions themselves are part of a broader system of dismissal and un-seeing that we’ve been internalizing—all of us—from the time we were children. We grew up in a system that wanted us to see and remember and prioritize particular voices and worldviews, and we perpetuate them whether we’re aware of them or not… [End excerpt]

Gerold Sedlmayr & Nicole Waller, eds., "Politics in Fantasy Media: Essays on Ideology and Gender in Fiction, Film, Television and Games"

Gerold Sedlmayr & Nicole Waller, eds., “Politics in Fantasy Media: Essays on Ideology and Gender in Fiction, Film, Television and Games”

Hurley’s “system of dismissal and un-seeing” perhaps coincidentally echoes some of the points made by Dirk Vanderbeke’s recent discussion of “inclusive & exclusive systems” in his essay, “Haven’t I Been Here Before? China Miéville’s Uncanny Cities” (in G. Sedlmayr & Nicole Waller, eds., Politics in Fantasy Media: Essays on Ideology and Gender in Fiction, Film, Television and Games, MacFarland; 2014), but as applied to the overall perception about epic fantasy in the marketplace, I think that Hurley’s points are well-taken, especially her concluding call for action that asks us “…to be part of rebuilding the landscape. The truth is we must be part of building new stories. But first we must pull down our preconceptions of what we can and should and ought to write … .”

For my part, I’ve no problem reassessing how we define epic fantasy, and indeed a movement’s already underway to classify all of the ‘subgenres’ that Hurley lambastes in a way that opts for complete inclusion under the term “fantasy.”

This attempt at definition is occurring at the academic level — where, remember, the works of Oxford medieval professors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis arguably created & popularized the entire genre in the 1930s-1960s!

The most accessible place to peek at the literary consensus is in the recent book, The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature (edited by &, 2008), where I’ll end today with some excerpts that concisely sum the current state of affairs:

Edward James & Farah Mendlesohn, eds., "The Cambridge Guide to Fantasy Literature" (CUP: 2008)

[Begin Excerpt, from Edward James & Farah Mendlesohn, “Introduction,” The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, pp. 1- 4]:

“Fantasy is no so much a mansion as a row of terraced houses, such as the one that entranced us in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew with its connecting attics, and a certain level of consensus around the basic bricks, but the internal décor can differ wildly, and the lives lived in these terraced houses are discrete yet overheard.

China Miéville,  "The Scar" ("Pirate City of Armada," art by Benjamin,

China Miéville, “The Scar” (“Pirate City of Armada,” art by Benjamin,

Edward James

Edward James

[excerpt continued]: “Fantasy literature has proven tremendously difficult to pin down. The major theorists in the field — Tzvetan Todorov, Roesmary Jackson, Kathryn Hume, W.R. Irwin and Colin Manlove — all agree that fantasy is about the construction of the impossible whereas science fiction may be about the likely, but is grounded in the scientifically possible…

M. John Harrison's "Viriconium" series (art by Les Edwards)

M. John Harrison’s “Viriconium” series (art by Les Edwards)

[excerpt continued]: “…after Tolkien’s classic essay, ‘On Fairy Stories,’ the most valuable theoretical text for taking a definition of fantasy beyond preference and intuition is Brian Attebery’s Strategies of Fantasy (1992) … [where he] proposed that we view fantasy as a group of texts that share, to a greater degree or other, a cluster of common tropes which may be objects but which also may be narrative techniques. At the centre are those stories which share tropes of the completely impossible and towards the edge, in subsets, are those stories which include only a small number of tropes, or which construct those tropes in such a way as to leave doubt in the reader’s mind as to whether what they have read is fantastical or not. The group of texts resolves into a ‘fuzzy set’ (a mathematical term), and it is the ‘fuzzy set’ of fantasy, from the core to the edge — that sense of more and less fantastical texts operating in conversation with each other — which is the subject of this book.

Tanith Lee, "Biting the Sun"

Tanith Lee, “Biting the Sun”

John Clute & John Grant, "The Encyclopedia of Fantasy" (Orbit Books, 1997)

John Clute & John Grant, “The Encyclopedia of Fantasy” (Orbit Books, 1997)

[excerpt continued]: “When we leave the project of defining fantasy, the most useful theoretical text is formed from the entries by in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (ed. by J. Clute w/John Grant, 1997). When read together, these construct a grammar of fantasy which draws together notions of structural and thematic movement in the text, of moods, and of tropes and metaphors which have become part of the conversation.  Clute’s most significant contribution to the language of criticism has been his definition of the ‘full fantasy’ to the entry FANTASY. In the full fantasy, a text (which may be a multi-volume work) passes through WRONGNESS, THINNING, RECOGNITION, and HEALING (using the Encyclopedia’s typographic style) …

"Portals 7th Heaven" (illustration by Ivany86 @

“Portals 7th Heaven” (illustration by Ivany86 @

Farah Mendlesohn

Farah Mendlesohn

[excerpt continued]:  “…The most recent contribution to the theoretical debate … is Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008). Mendlesohn abandons the search for definition and accepts Attebery’s fuzzy set and Clute’s grammar, but argues that there are four distinct modes of fantasy, defined by the way in which the fantastic enters the text and the rhetorical voices which are required to construct the different types of worlds which emerge. The four categories are the portal-quest, the immersive, the intrusion and the liminal. In the portal quest, the protagonist enters a new world; in the immersive, the protagonist is part of the fantastic world; in the intrusion, the fantastic breaks into the primary world (which might or might not be our own); and in the liminal, magic might or might not be happening.

Fantastic Realms (

Fantastic Realms (

What the schema offers is a way of considering fantasy on its own terms rather than in the terms used by critics of mimetic fiction. [A.J.’s emphasis] It may even offer a way of evaluating the quality of a particular fantasy; as just one example, an immersive fantasy that uses the rhetorical (and over-explanatory) voice of a portal-quest fantasy is, Mendlesohn argues, unlikely to be effective. [End excerpt: James & Mendlesohn, “Introduction,” The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, pp. 1- 4]

Kameron Hurley, "The Mirror Empire"

Kameron Hurley, “The Mirror Empire”

For this new generation of “fantasists” such as Kameron Hurley who are trying to push past the boundaries of traditional expectations of the epic/high/fantasy genre, a book such as James & Mendlesohn’s collection of essays offers the promise that change is, indeed, possible, and that perhaps Hurley’s recommendation to “rebuild” the fantasy landscape is already well underway!

Thanks for visiting,

Next time: A look at Carlisle’s own definition of the term, “Literary Epic Fantasy!” 

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wow awesome blog!! Sounded like something I would read in my lit theory class– loved yours and Hurley’s interpretations of the epic fantasy genre! Much prefer your definitions than the “typical” Game of Thrones-y outlook!

    Sent from my iPhone


    February 21, 2015
    • Hi, amyrorydoctorwho!

      Thanks for kind words and so glad you share my appreciation for looking critically at fantasy genre; think that the kinds of approaches in this book complement the popular reception we see for different kinds of fantasy in the entertainment industry.

      I’m currently reading James & Mendlesohn’s “The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction,” so please keep an eye out for a book review on that work by the end of the month!

      Again, thanks for visiting and commenting!


      February 21, 2015

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