What is it?
Definitions are tricky things, and definitions of literary genres are
even trickier. They tend to exclude what they should include and to
include what they should exclude.
The definition of fantasy is no exception. But since genre-
definition is fundamental to genre studies, I suppose I’d better just
give it my best shot and let the inevitable debate begin. If you
disagree with my definition of fantasy,
I welcome your comments—debate and dialogue are almost always a healthy
thing, and, more than that, are integral to the process of academic
I identify four-and-a-half main strands of fantasy literature: myth,
legend, and fairy-tale, which together form a sort of continuum,
sub-creation (borrowing—and perhaps twisting a
bit—from Tolkien), and the half-strand of allegory. I count allegory
as only half a strand because it could just as easily be identified as a
genre itself. Actually, with the exception of “sub-creation”, all of these
terms are names of genres, but within modern fantasy literature only
allegory has retained a significant measure of independence.
From this brief description, we can make a start at defining our
term. Modern fantasy draws on myth, legend, and fairy-tale, but
somehow isn’t any of those. If I was forced to identify what
distinguishes fantasy from those older genres, the best I could
come up with, I think, would be “disbelief”. Not that medieval
Europeans took their fairy-tales literally, nor that there weren’t
ancient Greeks who didn’t believe in their myths, but modern
fantasy literature draws on those older traditions with the
conscious, consensual knowledge that the supernatural details they
relate are not only not real, but not possible.
Put it this way: If you went up to a medieval European listening to
the tale of Sleeping Beauty and asked him if the story was true, he
would most likely have said that no, it was only a story. But if you
then asked him whether witches existed and if they could really
curse people, he would probably have looked startled at the
suggestion they weren’t real, and then vigorously asserted
that they were. As for the disbelieving Greek, even though the
Greek myths were not “real” to him, they were nevertheless a part
of a living religious tradition—a quality that the Greek myths no
longer possess for us.
Modern fantasy literature, then, draws on myth, legend, and fairy-
tale as at least half-disbelieved traditions of the supernatural. This
element of disbelief is important even when the tradition is being
employed to re-create belief in the supernatural: C.S. Lewis, for
example, wanted his Narnia stories to inspire belief in the
supernatural, but not necessarily in the specific traditions of the
supernatural that he employed. While he would doubtless be
overjoyed to hear of his Narnia stories inspiring belief in the
existence of a personal devil or the good of a wild zest for life, I
doubt he would be happy if he heard that, after reading the stories,
his readers had developed a belief in the White Witch or in the god
We can speak, then, of fantasy as literature that draws upon some
at least half-disbelieved tradition of the supernatural in some
manner integral to the main story. But this does not say enough.
The “sub-creation” strand has been left out altogether.
Modern fantasy—not all of it, but a lot of it—tends to strive to
create a whole internally consistent world, a “sub-creation”, in
which the story is set, a world which obeys its own unique, but
nevertheless somehow consistent laws. I say “somehow” consistent
because those laws may be as weird as a game of chess made literal
or as “normal” as the laws of science we’ve discovered up till now,
plus (usually) a few that we haven’t yet, for interest’s or for
authorial convenience’ sake. It’s in this sense that science fiction
may be considered a sub-genre of fantasy.
Adding our first definition to this “sub-creation” component will
only partially exclude science fiction—indeed, since science fiction
and fantasy are both intimately caught up with cosmology, it is
impossible to entirely separate them: they are like Siamese twins
with one heart. Certain features do help us to distinguish them:
science fiction has its head in the future, for example, while fantasy
has its head in the past, but even these eventually blur: George
Lucas’ Star Wars saga with its opening, “A long time ago in a
galaxy far, far away...”, is probably one of the most obvious
examples of this blurred boundary between science fiction and
fantasy. Another good example is the sci-fi/fantasy section in your
local library and/or bookstore.
So then, stories that draw on some at least half-disbelieved
tradition of the supernatural, whether directly or indirectly (through
imitation or sub-creation), in order to create the impression of a
world in which the supernatural is (in a sense) natural and performs
some function integral to the story—such stories are what I would
Which is to say that fantasy includes what we would normally call
the supernatural as an integral, natural part of normal reality.
It’s easy to see then, why Christians, who believe that the
world-creating and -sustaining supernatural God became a part of our
normal reality, would turn to fantasy as a mode of expressing the
It’s also hard to see: If the Christian message has so much in
common with admittedly imaginary fantasy literature, wouldn’t
there be a danger that, if represented in fantasy, the Christian
message itself might be taken for fantasy?
This is a real concern with some Christians: I’ve had a family
(whom I respect very much) tell me not to teach their children C.S.
Lewis because he was “new age” (there are witches and magic in
his books), and I’ve even had it suggested to me (again by a
Christian whom I very much respect) that Christ’s parables were
all true-life stories (after all, he was omniscient, he’d have a whole
world full of stories to draw on).
I would suggest that this concern is an extension of the iconoclastic
controversies, in which well-meaning Christians went around
destroying images and icons because of the danger people would
end up worshipping them rather than God. The reply to the
iconoclasts applies equally well to the fiction/fantasy debate: The
better you know someone, and the more you respect him, the less
likely you are to confuse him with his picture (or his statue, for that
matter). The better you know Reality, and the more regard that you
have for It, the less likely you are to confuse Reality with its
fictional or its fantastic representations.
Tolkien said as much in his “On Fairy-Stories”:
For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that
things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a
recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was
founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of
Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs
and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.
What, then, are we to make of this sub-category called “Christian
Fantasy”? How are we to define it?
There are at least two or three possible definitions. The simplest
would be that it is fantasy written by Christians. This definition
would have the unfortunate side-effect (unfortunate at least from
the point of view of those wishing to engage in purely literary
studies) of re-opening the currently rather vexing question of who
exactly is and is not a Christian.
We could broaden the definition to include all fantasy written by
those who claim to be Christians, but this would only
generate controversy in the other direction: Does not a community
(however fractured and divided that community may currently be)
have at least some rights to self-definition by excluding from
the community those who do not adhere to the fundamental beliefs
that define the community? And who are these “literary critics”
anyhow to be including as part of the community any old chap who
feels like claiming to be a part of the community, even when he’s
not willing to abide by the community’s standards and beliefs?
There’s really no way to get entirely away from this debate, but, in
a (probably futile) attempt to find a safer middle ground, I, as a
Christian student of literature, proffer the following as a definition
of Christian fantasy:
Christian fantasy is fantasy literature that embodies or reflects
some aspect of the Christian world-view and is written by an
author who claims to be Christian.