Hey all! This post may not be all that exciting, but i figured it might be useful to handful of people. I am currently in grad school for my MFA in Creative Writing at Southern New Hampshire University, and one of my classes has us analyzing where our preferred genre is at in the current publishing climate. This is more of just some random words I threw together for the assignment than anything serious, but I figured it wouldn’t make a half bad post. Anyways, here are some of thoughts on the fantasy genre.
Tolkien, Rowling, and the New Age of Fantasy
The speculative fiction genre, in particular adult fantasy, is undergoing a sort of renaissance in the mainstream publishing community. It is not that fantasy had fallen away. Since the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in 1954 the genre has steadily been growing. The 1990’s started the shift of works primarily derived from Tolkien into ones that have decided to approach fantasy in unique, rather than derivative, avenues from their ancestor.
During this decade, new authors such as George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb, and at the tail end, J.K. Rowling started gaining critical mass until the point that the Harry Potter became a household name. Due to the success with that series, an entire generation of children began reading the fantasy genre as their first or one of the first novels that they had experienced. Such work introduced many of the familiar tropes that have made the fantasy genre stand out from its sibling, speculative fiction: witches and wizards, fantastic creatures, and most importantly magic. As the primary target demographic for Harry Potter grew up, their interest in fantasy lingered, but their tastes aged as well.
During the twenty years from the release of Harry Potter the readers who start in the genre became interested in three different things, deeper exploration of character, setting, and consistency. At its heart, Harry Potter is intended to be a story of good vs evil aimed at children. As the children readers aged, some became interested in works that reflected a gritty reality. Works with morally ambiguous characters or conflicts began to gain widespread interest even if they had been successful within the genre previously. George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and the subsequent television show A Game of Thrones are some of the best examples of this. It is this series that has transposed fantasy from being widely popular in mainstream children’s books into being mainstream adult literature.
Even judging from Martin’s work, which has extensive use of setting, some readers wanted more. The one’s that fell in love with Rowling’s use of magic may have developed a sense of dissatisfaction with her magic as adults. The readers became interested in the why of things. They wanted to know how the magic, the hallmark of the fantasy genre, works and what are its limitations.
Insert some of the successful modern fantasy writers such as Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, and N.K. Jemisin. The new fantasy genre differs from many of its predecessors by differentiating “hard” vs. “soft” magic. “Soft” magic is defined by magic that has no apparent rules. This is the magic of Tolkien of Martin and even of Rowling. It doesn’t matter how or why magic is able to work, and often plot is the only thing that limits when it can or can’t be used. New fantasy has shifted towards “Hard” magic.
Hard magic is defined by systems of rules that are consistently applied throughout a narrative arc. The superhero subset of fantasy has been using this kind of magic for quite some time. Magic appears in specific forms, i.e. the Flash being able to move at super speeds or Essun in The Fifth Season being able to affect tectonic activity. Any other application of magic must tie back to the central premise, and thus helps create a sense of internal depth and helps with foreshadowing.
I believe that the fantasy genre is starting to split into two major groups. Those of the modern writers who tend toward harder magic systems and those who like the mystique of traditional fantasy. The pendulum is beginning to swing back toward softer magic. Patrick Rothfuss straddles this line with skill in his work The Name of the Wind. In this narrative two major magic systems are used, one hard that is viewed as “science” by the characters and the other soft and viewed as true magic.
My paper actually continued on quite a bit, but it doesn’t really add anything to this post as it went more into how my work intersects with all of this. Thanks for reading, and if you made this far, I’d really appreciate if you hit the subscribe button below. Thank again, and I hope you are having a wonderful day!