ICKY, STICKY, AND STRANGE
Genre can be a rigid, exclusionary concept, a law chiseled upon sacred tablets. And yet, fantasy often pulls other creative works into its oozing, pseudopod grasp — absorbing everything in a slow, but deliberate crawl across literature. If the law of genre declares anything with a touch of the supernatural as “fantasy,” then the boundaries become delightfully and counterintuitively unclear. Stories like Hamlet and Moby-Dick include fantastical and mythical elements. Do they count as fantasy? Do fairy tales and folklore qualify? What about mythology or any stories with talking animals? Fantasy is the genre where we expect things to get weird. It appears as an ever-changing blob where the most honest definition might be, “I know what fantasy is when I see it.”
For better or for worse, J.R.R. Tolkien gave the genre some defining features. Nowadays, if anything looks like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, we confidently label it “fantasy” (high fantasy or epic fantasy, to be more precise) and leave it at that. The modern fantasy genre, thanks in large part to Tolkien, has been given guard rails. As an author, you can stay in your lane, or you can choose to go off-road, but the guard rails are always there.
Tolkien’s work didn’t emerge from the void fully formed. The genetic material can be traced back to the unauthored folk tales collected by the Grimm Brothers and others like Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Anderson. These stories were often heavily revised for publication. (For example, the Grimm Brothers turned every “wicked mother” into a “wicked step-mother.” It was a treacherous change that forever tarnished the reputation of step-parenting.) Then, there are the dreamland adventures of Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, and Little Nemo in Slumberland. They became a popular extension of the fairy tale. Unlike the fairy tales, these original works came from a single author and were not part of an oral tradition. This leads us to George MacDonald and The Princess and the Goblin. With his novel, we see a bridge from these fanciful children’s tales to Tolkien and the modern fantasy novel.
MacDonald’s legacy is forever tangled with Tolkien. One biographer noted that the stories of MacDonald…