When you are discussing literature, what do you think of when you hear the word “fantasy”? One of the first things that pops into my mind is magic. Indeed, for me, magic is almost an essential element of a fantasy novel. But upon reflection, I find reason to question that first impulse. Years ago, I read the novel “Watership Down” by Richard Adams. It is generally considered a fantasy novel. It doesn’t really have magic, but it does have talking (to each other) rabbits. One of the rabbits, though, is kind of psychic, so perhaps that could be classified as magic, but that would be a stretch, I think. And regardless, the real reason “Watership Down” is classified as fantasy is not Fiver’s sixth sense; it is the anthropomorphic treatment of the rabbits and their society. Rabbits are elevated to a human level of consciousness with complex relationships and intricate interactions. There is a “bad guy” rabbit in the name of General Woundwart (if I recall correctly) and a number of heroic protagonists: Hazel, Bigwig, and Fiver to name a few. When I was a kid, my favorite was Fiver.
Anyway, my point is that magic alone does not have a wide enough scope to be considered the crucial element in a piece of fantasy literature. There are plenty of fantasy novels that do not rely on magic, and are still considered fantasy. What, then, is the defining characteristic? Is it the classic pairing of the “good guy” versus the “bad guy,” or in literary terms, the protagonist and the antagonist? Unfortunately, that has too grand a scope of application. Where the net cast by the term “magic” permits too many books to escape, the net cast by the simple existence of antagonists and protagonists is far too inclusive. Most literature would be included by such a definition.
Looking on Wikepedia we get the following definition of fantasy: “Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, or setting.” That seems like a reasonable definition, but is it complete? I’m not sure the previously mentioned “Watership Down” passes the test. Would you classify talking rabbits as “supernatural.” I guess, in a sort of technical way it is, but I tend to think of supernatural as something grander: ghosts, spectres, or the actions of deities. Making rabbits talk seems somehow less “above and beyond nature” and more of a variant on the way nature is. And besides, do we really know that rabbits don’t have some primitive language that allows them some minimal communication? It may be unlikely, but it is not impossible. Regardless, we still need a primary characteristic. The key is to focus on the two terms “magic” and “supernatural” in the above definition. They share the characteristic of generally being considered impossible (at least as far as current human science is concerned). From that, I would argue that the defining characteristic of fantasy is that it incorporates an element of the impossible, whatever that may be. In “Watership Down,” this is the ability of the rabbits to talk (yeah, I know I just said talking rabbits might be possible, but generally speaking most people would regard it as impossible) and have complex relationships. In other stories, it is the ability of humans to cast powerful spells. It will be interesting to see how this would change if science were to prove something like, say, the existence of ghosts or telepathy. The line between fantasy and normal literary fiction would be blurred to ever greater degrees.
Anyway, those are my somewhat disordered thoughts on the subject; care to share yours?