Two key factors are involved in the answer: on the one hand, semantics; on the other, marketing pressures within the publishing industry during the genre’s infancy. In this month’s article, I propose to address the former factor, taking as my chapter and verse a quote from Shakespeare’s Juliet who asks plaintively, “What’s in a name?” (Romeo and Juliet, II.ii.1-2)
At the University of St. Andrews in 1938, J.R.R. Tolkien delivered a now-famous essay titled On Fairy Stories. In this essay (later published in Tree and Leaf), he invoked the term fantasy to describe The Lord of the Rings and all other works of a similar nature. Tolkien equates fantasy with what he calls Sub-creation: the process whereby the writer creates a fully-realised secondary world within the cosmos of his own imagination. By identifying his work as fantasy, this reticent scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature gave name to the genre a quarter of a century before it was born.
And therein lies the rub. From an etymological perspective, Tolkien wasn’t speaking the same language as his 20th century colleagues in the fields of mainstream writing, scholarship, and publishing.
If you consult the OED, you discover that fantasy derives from the Latin word fantasia (appearance, image, perception). This word in turn harks back to the Greek verb stem phainein which translates roughly as “to bring to light” or “to effect an appearance”. Over time, these antique root words beget modern progeny: epiphany (revelation or insight), phantom (ghost, apparition), fantastic (incredible, amazing), fanciful (whimsical, vainly wishful), fantasize (to indulge in vain or idle daydreams), and fancy (to have an intense desire for something trifling, as in “I could really fancy a beer right now!”).
The above list of modern derivations demonstrates the process whereby the word fantasy gradually lost its original metaphysical significance and accumulated a range of slighter connotations until eventually it comes to represent the antithesis of rationalism. It’s therefore not surprising that in our present-day empirical materialist epoch, any work billed as “fantasy” is often dismissed out of hand by the Establishment as a piece of foolish nonsense, fit only for children - and adults too weak-minded to face up to the realities of the modern world in which personal worth is measured exclusively in terms of money and power.
This concluding observation anticipates speculation concerning the appeal of fantasy literature. The gift that Tolkien and his successors bring to the modern world is a kind of vision: the stubborn conviction that despite all appearances, there is always – however improbably – room for hope.
Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.