I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” (1939)
For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom.
—Ursula K. Le Guin, “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” (1974)
In expressing desire, fantasy can operate in two ways (…): it can tell of, manifest or show desire (…), or it can expel desire, when this desire is a disturbing element which threatens cultural order and continuitiy (…). In many cases, fantastic literature fulfils both functions at once, for desire can be ‘expelled’ through having been ‘told of’ and thus vicariously experienced by author and reader. In this way fantastic literature points to or suggests the basis upon which cultural order rests, for it opens up, for a brief moment, on to disorder, on to illegality, on to that which lies outside the law, that which is outside dominant value systems. The fantastic traces the unsaid and the unseen of culture: that which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over and made ‘absent’.
—Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (1981)
For the last two decades, the genre of fantasy has been ubiquitous in popular cultural products from literature to film to comics to video games. As a literary genre, fantasy has venerable historical roots but among critics it has a bad reputation of being escapist, shallow, repetitive, and reactionary. Its proponents claim for fantasy the imaginative exploration of strange worlds and languages, archetypal identities and mythical conflicts.
This seminar is a reading-intensive, writing-intensive introduction to the genre of fantasy fiction. We will study a number of exemplary fantasy media to familiarise ourselves critically with genre-typical master plots (like the Fight between Good and Evil or the Hero’s Journey) and tropes (like the Damsel in Distress, the Child Saviour, or the Grail); we will study the history of the genre; we will look more generally at genre theory to understand how the demarcations of what we call fantasy come about; and we will survey critical evaluations of the genre to find our own positions toward it.