The Real Power of Fantasy Writing

The Holy Grail

This article is by Darren Andrews.

Fantasy can be a potent form of writing if you understand how to use symbolism and maintain the inner consistency of reality.

J.R.R. Tolkien, perhaps the greatest of all fantasy writers, observed that “the realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things…” (“On Fairy- Stories”, Tree and Leaf, p. 9).

Fantasy literature is purposely imaginative. The author of fantasy has the ability to engage the reader’s imagination more powerfully than the author of another genre – if it is done correctly. High fantasy has a very clear purpose in doing this: it is to take the reader on a journey to reaffirm certain principles of good and evil, of morals, of the spiritual and unseen. Fantasy breaks free of any attachment to political correctness or populist thought. It is liberating and yet, at the same time, a solid reaffirmation of age-old realities. It is the child growing to adulthood, engaging in the struggle between the powers of good and evil and fulfilling their part in life. Fantasy is an optimistic view and a moral accomplishment of what otherwise would destroy us.

There are some important things to consider here if you would master the craft of writing effective fantasy. First, let’s look at symbolism.

Fantasy is replete with symbols. This is perhaps the main reason why fantasy can engage our mind more than any other genre. Symbols are a powerful way of getting something into a reader’s heart, mind and soul. Fantasy uses symbols that have been around for a long, long time. Many of these symbols go back to deep ancestral beliefs; they go back into history, into legend, into mythology and into the very scripture of the Bible itself.

This should be a key point to keep in mind when you are writing your own novel. Be aware of these symbols. Look at the way successful authors use familiar symbols and concepts in their writing. Let’s look at two examples from two of the most popular fantasy authors of our time.

Tolkien’s knowledge of mythology, and his love of and expertise in the field of philology (the love of words), were outstanding. This gave him a powerful advantage in his writing because he was able to construct what he called his “secondary world” on the deepest symbols and traditions of the “primary world” – at least on those symbols familiar to the Anglo-Celtic/Christian world. When you are “world building” (or in the process of “subcreation”, as Tolkien calls it) the setting for your novel you must portray an inner consistency of reality. In other words, your world and the things it contains must be believable. A lot of authors fall down in this regard. They make the laws, the history, the inhabitants, and so forth, of their secondary world too far removed from the primary one. Tolkien, in his famous essay, “On Fairy-Stories”, put it this way: ” ‘the inner consistency of reality’ is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World.” (p. 46, Ibid.)

Like Tolkien, Robert Jordan, author of the hugely successful “The Wheel of Time” series, took familiar and cultural symbols and ideas and put them into his own subcreation. When you start to really look through his books (and Tolkien’s) you see that little has been just ‘made up’. Fantasy – powerful and effective fantasy – is not about making things up. Rather, it is about taking pre-existing deep-seated beliefs and symbols from the past, and then placing them with careful skill into a secondary world without straying into the ridiculous.

Jordan’s world has many seemingly strange objects, places and people. But are they totally made up? Do the Aes Sedai have no origin in the Aes Sidhe of Irish myth? Are the artefacts known as angreal (and their variations) not perhaps based on the Sangreal relic-tradition (otherwise known as the Holy Grail)? Trollocs on the trolls of Scandinavian myth?

It seems almost every word and name in “The Lord of the Rings” has some origin, even if just etymologically, in the real world if you start looking.

This brings up another important truth: successful fantasy writers draw a lot of their ideas from cultural mythology, chiefly Norse and Celtic. This is powerful because it links in with our ancestral ‘memory’.

So, in keeping the material of your secondary world tied up and originating in the primary world, the shift is less severe and the resulting subcreation more believable. Fail to produce internal consistency in your world and you have already lost any hope of any true success in the realm of fantasy writing.

The true fantasy author must not only be a subcreator but an enchanter (or enchantress!). The reader must be invited into the author’s secondary world and enchanted to stay by those images and feelings his mind conjures up, and be the better for it when the last page of the book is finished.

About the Author:

Darren Andrews has been writing since his youth – stories, letters to editors, articles & essays, game text, humour, poetry and newsletters. He loves words and their creative use. He has also read and critiqued a number of fiction manuscripts, rewritten non-fiction ebooks, and researched and written articles for various markets.

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Anne Marie Gazzolo
7 years ago

Just saw this on Pinterest – great article!

Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

D.M. Andrews
10 years ago

It is, Antonio 😉

Thanks, Janga.

D.M. Andrews, author.

10 years ago

This is a very good article.  I really like the points Mr. Andrews makes regarding internal consistency, but there is something that bothers me a little.

Perhaps I’ve gotten the wrong impression, but it seems to me that the author favors emulation over innovation.  It’s a good thing for a writer to rely on cultural mythologies to an extent, but musn’t a writer execise caution when doing so?  Musn’t there be some originality in an authors use of symbolisim and relation to the ‘primary world?’

Antonio del Drago
Reply to  Jmklinley
10 years ago

I don’t think that Darren is advocating pure emulation.  Cultural mythologies can be a great source of ideas and inspiration, but it’s also necessary to apply your own unique interpretation to them.  I believe that’s what he’s talking about.

10 years ago

Great article! Thanks for the read!

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