In 2008 Professor Farah Mendelsohn published Rhetorics Of Fantasy, a scholarly analysis of fantasy that classifies stories based on the relationship of the protagonist to the fantasy elements. From the reviews I’ve read, I think the breakdown of fantasy into four overarching types may have merit.
The categories are Portal-Quest, Immersive, Intrusive, and Liminal. The first three seem to be the most common. Here’s a brief description of each as I understand it.
Portal-Quest Fantasy. This one may be the easiest to understand based on it’s name. The protagonist enters into a fantasy world through a one-way portal, sets things right in that place, and returns to the real world.
The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe is a classic example of a Portal-Quest Fantasy. But so is Lord Of The Rings. Though there isn’t a portal to the real world, there is still this sense of leaving a known world (the Shire) and traveling to unknown places. Certainly the trilogy is a classic quest fantasy.
Another that could be classified as a Portal-Quest Fantsay is the series that influenced me to become a fantasy writer—Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever.
Immersive Fantasy. Stories that start out and take place entirely in a fantasy world are Immersive Fantasy. I think of Karen Hancock’s Guardian-King series as an example of this type of fantasy.
Interestingly, The Lord Of The Rings also could be slotted into this category as well, indicating that there may be overlaps with these categories. Others that come to mind would be Jill Williamson’s Blood Of Kings series, Patrick Carr’s The Staff & The Sword trilogy, and Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s Tales Of Goldstone Wood series.
As I think about it, I guess dystopian and post-apocalyptic fantasy would have to be considered immersive. While the fantasy world is supposedly the real world, the futuristic aspect creates an other world setting. Novels of this type include The Hunger Games, Divergent, Jill Williamson’s Safe Lands trilogy, and Nadine Brandes’s A Time To Die.
Intrusive Fantasy. Stories that fit into this classification bring the fantasy elements into the real world. C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew comes to mind as an example of Intrusive Fantasy though it retains Portal Fantasy aspects as well—another indication that there may overlap with the categories.
Some people call this type the opposite of Portal-Quest Fantasy. Stories like Twilight and Merrie Destefano’s Fathom (in which Selkies exist) would also seem to fall into this group.
Harry Potter would best be classified as Intrusive Fantasy, I believe, though there is an element of Immersive Fantasy, too. The interesting thing about Rowling’s work is that the protagonist is part of the fantastical intrusion, whereas most other stories in this category have a protagonist from the real world who experiences the intrusion of magic or magical beings.
Liminal Fantasy. I don’t have a strong grasp of what these stories are like. One blogger described them like this: “Like the intrusive fantasy, the liminal fantasy is set in our world, but there the fantastic elements are fleeting, barely glimpsed.” One Amazon reviewer defined them this way: “This is the most unusual fantasy, and the smallest category, the one where the fantastic is never fully revealed but always around the next corner or just out of sight.”
Apparently in this category, the fantastical is a known and accepted part of the world, not a shocking anomaly. I can’t think of a title I’ve read that would fit this category. How about you? If you’ve read this type of fantasy, please share titles to help me understand this category better.
So I’m curious. Which of these types of fantasy do you prefer? Below is a poll to show us what the Spec Faith readership likes best. Even if you don’t identify yourself as a fantasy fan but you’ve read some fantasy, feel free to participate. Then in the comments, tell us what makes you like one type more than another.