The 4 Categories of Fantasy: Applying Some Ideas From RHETORICS OF FANTASY by Farah Mendlesohn
There are many more or less recognised subgenres to fantasy. On the bookshelves of Waterstones, steampunk jostles alongside urban and high fantasy. On social media people argue about what is and isn’t grimdark while some of the authors most acclaimed for writing grimdark cry out that it is so ill-defined they don’t even know what the subgenre is.
Some academic commentators can be disparaging about genre writing in general and fantasy/sci-fi in particular. Speculative fiction is seen as somehow less worthy, a veritable McDonald’s of fast-fiction gastronomy against the Michelin-starred Fat Duck of literary fiction (lit-fic). But in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn makes a sharp riposte to such prejudice:
“All literature builds worlds, but some genres are more honest about it than others.”
Mendlesohn’s book draws on a plethora of examples to illustrate some intriguing perspectives on fantasy fiction. Although writing with considerable academic rigour, Mendlesohn’s core ideas can be used to examine a wide range of fantasy writing.
I found it refreshing to see the fantasy genre afforded the weight of earnest critical scrutiny. In Rhetorics of Fantasy Mendlesohn proposes four ways to categorise fantasy fiction, namely:
- Portal/quest fantasy or
- Immersive fantasy or
- Intrusive fantasy or
- Liminal fantasy
In portal or quest fantasies, characters leave a familiar home and journey into a new land, typically with the help of a guide who also conveys an absolute and unchallenged history of the land and its world. There is none of the ambiguity of interpretation that we see in real world history.
In immersive fantasy, the world is entirely known to the characters who inhabit and act in it. Immersive fantasy is also characterised by a “thinning” of the world of the protagonists which is under threat and experiencing a decay of some form. Discovery and restoration may be the engine of a portal fantasy, but this threat and thinning drives the immersive fantasy.
In intrusive fantasy, the fantastic or supernatural intrudes into or invades a familiar world (which could be our contemporary world or it could be itself a fantasy environment). The intrusion generates the threat, conflict and change to drive the story forward.
Liminal fantasy is harder to define. The fantasy elements sit at the edge of the story so that neither characters nor reader can be entirely certain that it exists.
Mendlesohn goes on to examine what those categories might mean for how fantasy is written and how it is read, and how each form is made more effective. She notes that
“The only real purpose of any critical study such as this is to make it possible to open up new lines of enquiry and to lay down new challenges. … I have suggested some ways in which the English-language fantasy that has been written in the past hundred years can be understood; that there are certain types of fantasy and that to be effective, they need to be written in certain ways.”
This sentiment is expanded on in the introduction to the Cambridge Companion to fantasy literature, where the editors refer to Mendlesohn’s taxonomy and note that
“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.”
This implies that some kinds of exposition may work in one fantasy context, but not another. In a portal fantasy like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Aslan can fill in some fragments of world history with a voice of authority and it works. In a quest fantasy like The Lord of the Rings Gandalf can pontificate at the Council of Elrond about the origins of Isildur’s bane and it works. But try delivering the same kind of “sure of itself to the point of pompousness” exposition in an immersive fantasy like Terry Pratchett’s City Watch novels and it would literally break the reader’s immersion in the world.
The portal/quest fantasy is characterised by a newness, an unfamiliarity to the characters which begets a need for description and explanation. The characters are tourists in a vividly visual world that they do not know. Mendlesohn contends that “As I write, I am increasingly convinced that the primary character in the portal fantasy is the land.”
From my own reading I would cite Kings of The Wyld as a quest fantasy. Even if the Wyld is an area that the band have previously explored, the characters go through a series of discrete events in what Mendlesohn would term a “bracelet” fantasy with each event being a link on a chain and with the rich world of the Wyld featuring almost as a character in its own right.
Mendlesohn identifies the Harry Potter books as a sort of crossover between an intrusion fantasy (where magic events and characters initially intrude on the ordinary world of Privet Drive) and a portal fantasy (where Harry enters a wholly new world of Diagon Alley and Hogwarts – all of it necessitating explanation). Mendlesohn identifies the problem with having a series of works in the same portal fantasy setting as being how you preserve that “newness.” Surely by book 2 or 3 it should become an immersive fantasy where the characters are completely familiar with their world.
The need to preserve that estrangement between character and setting is reflected in the constantly changing modes of transport and arrival at Hogwarts until ultimately Harry and his friends are forced to abandon the familiarity of Hogwarts for much of the last two books. Similarly, in the Narnia stories, the portal nature of the story – its newness and need for a guide to explain it – is preserved through different settings within the world, different means of entry into it, and different characters joining the original four.
From my own bookshelves I would pick out Teresa Frohock’s Miserere: An Autumn Tale as an example of portal fantasy. Mortals from our own realm, Lindsay Richardson and her brother Peter, slip into a parallel world of magic and danger. It differs from Mendlesohn’s archetype in that we also follow the point of view of the guide character Lucian quite heavily. In The Lord of the Rings we never ride in Gandalf’s head, only hear what he tells others of his emotions and experiences, yet Lucian’s tortured past and conflicted motivations are laid bare to the reader. To this extent, Miserere possibly straddles the categories of portal and immersive fantasy.
A huge swathe of fantasy falls into the immersive category: complete worlds which the characters know, understand and live in. The reader sits just outside the story, but still within a sphere where the fantastic events must be accepted as credible and normal – as believable as the everyday technology you would see in a contemporary novel.
The world is familiar to the characters to the point of being ordinary. This is what makes it so difficult for authors to “get away” with the “As you know, Bob…” infodumps. Indeed, Mendlesohn notes that “Making the infodump natural is one of the most difficult problems to solve in science-fiction and fantasy.”
In immersive fantasies, the “gospel truth” style of world history that we see in portal/quest fantasies is replaced by greyer, more nuanced pasts – epitomised by that most grise of eminences, the Patrician Lord Vetinari in Pratchett’s City Watch series. We know that the real history of the world in which we live and are immersed is a blurry mess of interpretation. Authors of immersive fantasy who do not match that vagueness in their world histories but instead try to portray absolute truths may find that their world does not in fact ring true. The world’s certainty about its past strikes a discordant note.
As an example of an immersive fantasy I would cite Senlin Ascends and the world of the Tower of Babel. It might be characterised as a portal/quest fantasy given that Senlin is on a (vertical) journey into a new land and a quest to find his wife. But the unreliability of his guides, and the vagueness of its history and politics have more of a feel of an immersive fantasy. It also meets another characteristic of Mendlesohn’s immersive fantasy in that it has a contained world, like Mervyn Peak’s Gormenghast or Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork; the Tower of Babel setting is whole and of itself, a setting that is “a contained space and inward looking.” Added to that the world of the Tower is definitely “thinning” as its systems and its society tremble towards breakdown in the eagerly awaited final book in the quadrology.
Daniel Polansky’s Low Town, with its enigmatic Warden and dark brooding setting, would arguably be another immersive fantasy, as would Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy. The powerful first-person perspective in both series allow Polansky and Lawrence to break with one of Mendlesohn’s strictures on reverie. Mendlesohn’s asserts that “reverie and self-contemplation, far from creating depth, break the sense of immersion in a society, and are fundamentally anti-ethical to either character development or an immersive structure” but she also accepts that “The first person is an intensely immersive device.” So the admonition against reveries may be more relevant for third person perspectives, such as in Brooks’ work, where “the effect of the many reveries is that the characters are tourists in their own mind.”
Mendelsohn concludes by noting that immersive fantasies are mostly fantasies of “thinning” of the world changing and decaying. “They rarely tell of building because building is a venture into the unknown. Instead they start with what is and watch it crumble.”
Intrusive fantasy is where the “fantastic” intrudes into an existing comfortable world – a world which is often but not necessarily our contemporary Earth – bringing threat and conflict with it. Buffy the Vampire Slayer would be an archetypal intrusive fantasy, at least in the early series, but as the later series developed it had become more of an immersive fantasy in which the many challenges of their world had become normalised for most of the characters. Indeed, it was as immersive as Hogwarts would have become but for Rowling’s random inventiveness surprising reader and character and keeping them in the eternal newness of the portal/quest fantasy scenario.
Mendlesohn cites Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell as an example of intrusive fantasy, with the world of fairy creeping into England while two wizards vie to control and contain it. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Graham Austin-King’s The Wild Hunt would be other intrusive fantasies, where again the world of fairy – like the world of vampires – intrudes into and threatens (or at least humiliates) the ordinary inhabitants.
Mendelsohn contends that Terry Pratchett’s Discworld works divide into four generally accepted groups – with the City Watch being immersive and the Witches led by Esme Weatherwax being intrusive. This makes sense given that Granny Weatherwax in separate stories faces down both the land of fairy/elves (Lords and Ladies) and vampires (Carpe Jugulum). The DEATH stories are also classed as intrusive, though whether DEATH is intruding into the world, or the world is intruding into DEATH is open to debate. The final group of Rincewind novels are more prosaically described as “screwball comedies.”
Intrusive fantasies depend on the “naivete of the protagonist” and “her… distrust of what is known in favour of what is sensed.” Interestingly, Mendelsohn characterises intrusive fantasy as being more aural where portal/quest fantasies are more visual. Intrusive fantasies rely on sounds where portal/quest fantasies present sights. Teresa Frohock’s Los Nefilim series is arguably an intrusion fantasy where the protagonists intrude into the real world of interwar tension on the fringes of the Spanish Civil War, and Frohock’s Nefilim are intensely aural, casting spells through song and music.
Liminal fantasy is the category that Mendlesohn appears to find most difficult to characterise. A fantasy of estrangement, of the possible, of the fantastic lurking at the edge of the perception of both reader and protagonist, with neither quite accepting the other’s understanding of what the fantastic elements are.
As with much else in Rhetorics of Fantasy, I found it easiest to get a grip of what Mendelsohn was trying to say where she used examples I found accessible or that I was already familiar with. Mendlesohn identified Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm as an exemplar liminal fantasy. Is the protagonist a Seattle-based pigeon-feeding wizard dispensing the Truth, or is he a confused and disturbed Vietnam veteran trying to retrieve his identity in rare moments of clarity? This story reminded me of the Terry Gilliam film The Fisher King starring Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, where another distressed human being clings to fragments of sanity and fantasy on the edge of society. Like many liminal fantasies, The Fisher King is open to alternative readings; either its resolution was an act of magic or a simple coincidence.
Another example of liminal fantasy Mendlesohn cites is Holes by Louis Sachar, where the protagonist Stanley Yelnats teeters on the edge of the fantastic, digging holes in a children’s penitentiary for a treasure-hunting fraud and then fulfilling a prophecy to restore his family’s fortune with the lost hoard of a bandit.
Mendelsohn argues that the liminality of these stories “depends intensely on the reader’s familiarity with the codes of fantasy.” These are books that play with the reader’s pre-existing understanding of fantasy norms and that turn that understanding back on the reader to sow doubt and confusion. “Liminal fantasies leave the fantastic in doubt in part because they deliberately elide the ways in which the fantastic and the mundane are written.”
And what next?
As a friend put it, books like Rhetoric of Fantasy provide a lens through which to examine fantasy fiction. They do not provide answers, still less absolute truths, so much as a different perspective that can add depth to our understanding and in so doing provoke more questions. Certainly it has given me a fresh eye to turn on books that I read, including those in the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off #5. I wonder how many portal/quest, immersive, intrusive and liminal fantasies I will come across…