The Big Idea: Matthew Sangster
Want to dig into the tropes and traditions of the fantasy genre? Matthew Sangster has come over from the University of Glasgow to give us An Introduction to Fantasy, and to retrace the steps that brought him to propose and then write the book.
People who love Fantasy know viscerally in their hearts what Fantasy does for them. However, when the time comes to explain why Fantasy is important and inspiring, it’s sometimes tricky to put this into words. The big idea for this book was very simple: to try and explain why we should care about Fantasy.
I wanted to write a book that drew on my experience as a literary critic to analyse what Fantasy does for its creators and audiences, but I also wanted to write a book that was faithful to Fantasy’s love of wonder and play, a book that was enjoyable to read, that welcomed people in as good fantasies do. To what extent I succeeded is another question, but that was certainly the idea.
In writing An Introduction to Fantasy, I wanted to broaden out what critics have tended to talk about when they talk about Fantasy. Most academic studies of Fantasy focus on novels specifically. I definitely wanted to write about novels: in the book I discuss, among other things, how Ursula K. Le Guin uses language to conjure Earthsea; how Guy Gavriel Kay and Steven Erikson make and unmake histories; how N.K. Jemisin builds her worlds; how Patricia A. McKillip quietly subverts the assumptions that underpin many Fantasy stories; and why Lin Carter was being unfair when he described Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara as a ‘cold-blooded, complete rip-off’. However, for me, modern novels are only part of the picture. To address this, I wanted to pay proper attention to three other aspects of Fantasy.
The first is Fantasy’s deep roots. Fantasy is a genre profoundly invested in the past, with a powerful interest in recovering and reworking older stories. Rather than looking at Fantasy as a genre that begins with The Lord of the Rings, it’s helpful to take a cue from Tolkien himself. Tolkien passionately promoted older fantastic literature, but in his writings, he also transformed it. Seeing a richly imagined medieval-inspired world through the more contemporary sensibilities of the hobbits is a big part of the magic of his works.
Many fantasies are deeply informed by ancient myths, medieval romances and traditional folk tales, but they reconfigure these older forms to allow them to speak new truths in the present. Fantasy stories often manifest the genre’s obsession with writing and unwriting history through plots that begin in the middle: a technique borrowed from classical epic. Characters’ quests commonly uncover the extent to which their situations have been determined by historical events, but they also provide means for rejecting the logics of the past. Fantasies are often fond of prophecies, but they enjoy them most when they turn out very differently than is initially expected.
The second thing I wanted to write about was how Fantasy manifests in forms other than prose. Fantasy has long lineages in poetry, art, sculpture and performance, and present-day Fantasy sprawls promiscuously across many forms of media. Therefore, as well as considering books, I discuss films, animation, TV series, drama, comics, visual art and games, writing about works including Arcane, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dungeons & Dragons, Elden Ring, Final Fantasy VII, Hadestown, Magic: The Gathering, Pan’s Labyrinth, Planescape: Torment, The Sandman and Spirited Away.
The final thing I wanted to capture is the extent to which Fantasy is constituted by its communities. It’s a genre that glories in drawing ideas from a shared commons and returning them transfigured. We might think of collaborative anthologies of reworked fairy tales, or fan fiction and modding communities, or the combination of preparation, improvisation, rule-following and rule-breaking in tabletop roleplaying games or the shows derived from them, such as Dimension 20 or Critical Role. Genre’s openness manifests in creators’ and fans’ love of talking about influences and processes, and in vibrant conversations in magazines, online forums, video essays, convention programmes and blogs (like the one for which I’m currently writing).
I’m not usually very good at beginning at the beginning, going on till I come to the end and then stopping. I tend to work better jumping around within a manuscript. However, for this book, I wrote the sections largely in the order that they appear. I started with an introduction discussing definitions of Fantasy and why we shouldn’t get too hung up on these, and then worked through the chapters one by one.
The chapters fall roughly into pairs. The first discusses how Fantasy uses language to evoke both impossible things and new possibilities, considering how it lets us think differently about the world by positing imaginary alternatives. In the second chapter, I confront one of the main accusations levelled at Fantasy: that it is guilty of mindless repetition. I argue that Fantasy rarely repeats mindlessly. Instead, it takes recognisable tropes and adjusts or recontextualises them to produce novel meanings, creating narratives that combine the pleasure of recognition and the shock of the new.
The third chapter examines Fantasy’s root forms, looking at how modern fantasies rework techniques, tropes and ideas from myths, legends, epics, romances, wonder tales and religions. The fourth chapter looks at how Fantasy, scientific thinking and realism interact, arguing that fantasies make careful use of realist techniques while recognising their limitations and blind spots. The fifth chapter considers world-building, examining the powerful attraction of making new worlds and the techniques employed to create an illusion of fullness. The final chapter discusses the collaborative nature of Fantasy culture, arguing that it provides a model where the value of a work lies in the connections it creates.
The book is a product of the time I wrote it, during 2021 and 2022. It reflects the things I was reading (and re-reading, and watching, and playing), as well as the conversations I was having with my colleagues and students at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic and with my fellow curators on the upcoming British Library exhibition Fantasy: Realms of Imagination. If I was writing it now, I would probably have included books I’ve enjoyed since I finished – C.S.E. Cooney’s Saint Death’s Daughter, Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga, Laurie Marks’ Fire Logic. I’m also pretty sure there would be a fair bit about the live-action One Piece and Baldur’s Gate 3…
For me, though, what the book leaves out isn’t really an issue. While it’s rather longer than I originally intended (the expected length grew by about 40,000 words between first pitch and final submission), it was never meant to be in any way comprehensive. The An in the title is very deliberate. I didn’t want to try and pin down a definitive vision of what Fantasy should be.
Hopefully, the book will provide its readers with some new ideas and perspectives, but the thing that will make me happiest is if people can take ideas from it and do things with them that I never imagined or expected. For me, the best thing about genre is that it’s a continuing conversation. The idea shouldn’t be to try and have the last word, but rather to make something that others can build from.