Monday, February 18, 2013

What’s In a Name?

In my previous installment, I posed two questions: (A) What is there about fantasy literature that elicits such enthusiasm among so many readers? and (B) What are the reasons underlying the corresponding critical contempt? I’ll be dealing at length with Question A in up-coming posts by way of exploring the challenges of writing fantasy from a practical perspective. For the moment, I’m going to focus on Question B: Why are so many mainstream writers, critics, and academics so hostile to the genre?

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.


  1. Debbie, Thank you for the fantastic epiphany. Etymology is so interesting, as is the reality that we may be saying the same word but individually, be conjuring up all sorts of different shadings and feelings related to said word.

  2. This was an interesting post. I love it when I can learn the etymology of a word. I had no idea that the fantasy genre had such a bad rep. I don't care for it because I don't enjoy the sometimes complicated process of detailing the made-up world and culture. I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings in film much more than I did reading the book, and I only read the book because any well-read person really should - maybe. (smile)

  3. While my books are staged in the "real world" ... I would argue that everything that takes place therein is fantasy ... the entire story is derived from my fevered brain ... my banker would also add that my hope of monetary reward from creating this fantasy is, also, fantasy.

  4. Fascinating post, Debbie, I really enjoyed hearing the origins of the 'Fantasy' genre. I absolutely love Tolkien's Lord of the Rings - both the film version and the book! And actually, going back even further, I would consider Shakespeare's play, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to be in the Fantasy genre as well (and it's my absolute favorite of all his works). While I'm not really a fan of much of the 'modern fantasy' books with Zombies and the like, there are many that are fascinating, well-written and wonderful stories, just like in any other genre.

  5. Interesting post. I read some fantasy, although I prefer to watch it. I guess I like seeing how the director and writer visioned it in their heads.

  6. While the etymology is interesting, Debbie, I find in your article something else that jumps out at me:

    "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."

    While I've edited 2 books and a number of shorter pieces for a fantasy writer, this genre had never held much appeal for me -- I've always been more into reality (which, at best, is relative). However, her books gifted me with an unexpected epiphany: a great deal of reality can take place under the guise of fantasy. The issues her occasionally unusual characters dealt with smacked mightily of the real problems and pains that many of us human-types face -- and in a light that made their perspectives worthy of consideration, perhaps even educational. Now I view fantasy quite differently and see its potential value to children and adults alike -- depending on its treatment and presentation, of course.

    Love this post, Debbie.

  7. My husband is a fan of Andre Norton and
    Anne McCaffrey, so I've read those authors and find their imaginary worlds to be terrific venues for exploring human interactions and societal challenges. So many lessons to learn, and I think those authors intentionally created those imaginary worlds as classrooms, don't you? Yes, I find this series quite fascinating, too, Debby. I wish you'd mention one of your fantasies in each post though, along with a book cover so we can connect your wise words with your titles. Thanks!

  8. It's amazing how some authors can world build and make it seem believable!

    Morgan Mandel

  9. Debby, I'm in awe of fantasy authors and their ability to create new worlds. The topic of this post brings to mind The Book of Atrus by Rand Miller, the first novel spun off from the popular Myst CD-ROM game. I see through your post that it was very self-aware fantasy: the characters entered other "worlds" of human making and suffered the consequences of imperfection when the science at the world's foundation was wrong. I could certainly appreciate it, but I could never write it.


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