EHR 3600: Fantasy vs. the Fantastic

Last time we talked a bit about defining fantasy and Brian Attebery’s concept of fantasy as a fuzzy set. Now we’re going to set that nice concept of fantasy being this no-need-to-define loose term completely aside. Let’s get pedantic.

On the everyday humans-who-aren’t-academic-assholes level of linguistics where if you say something and another human understands you, you are fine, the words “fantasy” and “fantastic” are interchangeable and will drive to the same point. Fantasy/fantastic/fantastical – not real, imaginative, elves or something. On the level of literary theory, the difference between the two gets a little more dicey.

Here are two quotes that frame what I’m talking about. First, John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy:

“A fantasy text is a self-coherent narrative. When set in this world, it tells a story which is impossible in the world as we perceive it […]; when set in an otherworld, that otherworld will be impossible, though stories set there may be possible in its terms.”

Second, Tzvetan Todorov in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre:

“The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.”

Honorary Mention to Eric Rabkin in The Fantastic in Literature who offers up the very useful term “ground rules” for what is expected of any particular reality, be it our real world reality or the reality of Narnia. By the ground rules of our reality, lions don’t talk. By Narnia’s ground rules, that’s chill.  

OKAY, that’s a lot of text to take in. Let’s start unpacking the IKEA box and piecing it together, starting with the concept of a “self-coherent narrative.” Now, self-coherence is, to the best of what I can find, a term from psychology that describes how we interact with our environment. When we come across something that causes stress or tension, self-coherence would bring up past experiences and our current motivations into the present moment to help us cope. I am no psychologist, but like with the math last time, I think I get the gist of it. When applying this idea of “self-coherence” to a fantasy text, I think the key thing to draw on is that fantasy creates tension in how we understand the environment. To use Rabkin’s fabulous term, fantasy functions by creating stress in the ground rules of reality.

Remember the question I posed last time – Fantasy is impossible, but impossible by what standards? Impossible to whom? That fantasy is impossible is a given, more or less (this marks it as different from science fiction, which may be possible at some point, with the right technology), but staying away from too much definition and line drawing, the point is that iterations of impossibility help us understand how fantasy texts are working.

Clute says of fantasy texts: “when set in an otherworld, that otherworld will be impossible, though stories set there may be possible in its terms.” These books are what we so often think of when we think of classic fantasy. Lord of the Rings is obviously fantasy. Game of Thrones is obviously fantasy. The Wheel of Time is obviously fantasy. The line is easy to draw here because the story is set in an entirely other world and that world does not function the way we know our world to function. The things that happen there are impossible. As Clute says, though, the stories set in these other worlds are possible on their terms.

An example: Channeling in The Wheel of Time. People on our earth can’t weave the flows of saidar and saidin. That’s impossible by the ground rules of our reality. In Wheelworld, however, it’s completely possible. An Aes Sedai might be of note because she’s powerful or scary or even doing things with the Power you didn’t know she could do, but not because her ability to use the One Power is outside the bounds of reality.

The first part of Clute’s definition is getting at the same thing as Todorov, but I think Todorov makes more sense when he says the fantastic happens to a “person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.” Clute mentions fantasy texts set in our world, and this is usually the case for fantastic books. They are set in the world as we know it and something happens that is apparently putting stress on the ground rules of our reality. The classic example is Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (which I don’t recommend). The apparently supernatural event in this book is ghosts, and the characters struggle to understand what’s going on because they know ghosts aren’t real. (Ghosts are a bad example because ghosts are easier to believe than fire powers of the mind.)

I say – well technically Todorov says – “apparently supernatural event” because a huge part of the fantastic is, as Todorov also says, the hesitation to believe that the fantastic event is actually something fantastic, or if there is a more rational explanation that would fit within the ground rules of our reality. A much more fun example than The Turn of the Screw is Scooby-Doo (which I very much recommend). All Scooby-Doo episodes hinge on there being a monster that is ultimately unmasked to be human. When watching Scooby-Doo, the audience and the characters alike grapple with seeing a monster they know shouldn’t be real or possible. When we read a fantastic text, the narrative and characters of that text also perceive the fantasy elements as impossible by the rules of reality that they understand. Usually, but not always, we the readers are working from the same real world ground rules as the characters in these stories. As far as Todorov is concerned the effect of the fantastic lasts only as long as this hesitation to believe does. Once the Scooby-Doo villain is unmasked, we’re no longer in a fantastic text, but something different.

Pause for summary:

  • A fantasy text is impossible from the reader’s perspective, based on the ground rules of the reality that the reader knows and understands

  • A fantastic text is impossible from the narrative or character’s perspectives, based on the grounds rules presented inside the narrative itself

I know I said we’d actually get into the Rhetorics of Fantasy in this blog, but I thought it was important to paint this one final broad theoretical stroke for a little more framework. One, the categories presented in RoF fall under these larger umbrellas so this might help us understand them a little better. Two, bringing up Todorov leads into something that Mendelsohn talks about, but we didn’t talk about in that fateful first episode of EHR. That is, the intended effects on the reader created by these particular categories of fantasy. The book is not called Rhetorics of Fantasy by accident. Rhetoric is, according to Merriam-Webster, “the art of speaking or writing effectively.” You know. Ethos, pathos, logos. What you say should produce some specific feeling or response in your listener. It’s the same for fantasy, perhaps even more so. Mendelsohn writes,

“I believe the fantastic is an area of literature that is heavily dependent on the dialectic between author and reader for the construction of a sense of wonder that it is a fiction of consensual construction of belief…This dialectic is conditioned by very real genre expectations that circle around certain identifiable rhetorical techniques.”

I love that phrase – consensual construction of belief. When I pick up a fantasy book I want to buy into the impossible things I’m seeing. That’s why I’m there, after all. Whether it’s The Wheel of Time or Scooby-Doo I want to see some impossible stuff and play with reality for a bit. Mendelsohn writes about the ways in which fantasy writers can make that happen. Rhetorics of Fantasy outlines four categories of fantasy (technically kind of five, but we’ll get there) and their intended effects:

  • The Portal-Quest Fantasy

  • The Immersive Fantasy

  • The Intrusion Fantasy

  • The Liminal Fantasy

Next time, we’ll take a look at The Portal-Quest. Since I do eventually have to return my copy of Rhetorics of Fantasty to the University of Utah library, you can count on that blog much, much sooner than a month from now. I’m actually hoping for tomorrow, but we’ll see!

Until sometime soon – Sally

P.S. I will still use fantasy/fantastic/fantastical in an interchangeable way most of the time. When it’s important to dictate the difference between them in the terms laid out above, I’ll make a note of it.

Again, this blog was made plausible by the existence of our Episode 1 transcript. So, if you liked it please consider going to and sponsoring an episode transcript to enable EHR 3600 to continue!


Clute, John and John Grant. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

Rabkin, Eric S. The Fantastic in Literature. Princeton University Press. 2015.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Translated

by Richard Howard. The Press Case of Western Reserve University, 1973.  

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