Natasha explores her passion for fantasy literature, and why its historic mistreatment hasn’t deterred her from pursuing a masters’ degree in the genre.
Whether in your fantasy world you’d wield a sword or a belt of throwing knives, or have wings to fly, fantasy’s creators and fanbase are striking back. Fantasy has often been misconstrued as an unserious literary genre and has been discarded as worthy of study within academic circles. Not only is the genre, its creators, and its fanbase taking strike against this inaccurate image, but Glasgow is the centre of call to arms for this battle.
The University of Glasgow (UofG) is currently the only institution globally that runs a postgraduate taught program for Fantasy Literature, offering modules that explore fantasy across media, and the development of fantasy writings from 1780 to the modern day. UofG also launched the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic (CFF) in September 2020. Along with Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations (GIFCon) running every year, and the 82nd World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) being held in the city in August 2024, Glasgow is at the centre of discussions regarding Fantasy and the Fantastic. This was one of the driving factors that attracted me to move here for postgraduate study.
My relationship to the genre is long-standing: The Hunger Games and The Final Empire were staples on my bookshelf as a teen. Even as a child, many nights were spent reading different books from the Rainbow Magic series with my mum, although the plot line was the same for every single book. However, my heart lies with Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series, which follows the story of a teenage assassin, Celaena Sardothien, in a corrupt kingdom with a tyrannical ruler. I was fascinated with Maas’s bad-ass, blade-bearing, well-styled protagonist, and it was that series that inspired me to apply for an English degree. When I first moved to the University of Exeter, where I undertook my undergraduate studies, I found that fantasy as a genre was looked down upon within the academy. I felt like it was seen as a merely trivial, commercialised form of writing with little-to-no literary merit, despite the first-year syllabus containing texts with significant elements of the fantastic, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. When I was asked what my favourite novel was, only one lecturer out of four acknowledged the importance of fantasy within the developing form of the novel.
When you think of fantasy, you may automatically consider the genre’s use of magic, elves, and fighting. Perhaps you think of stories that follow the great journeys of a hero or heroine, or that George R.R. Martin still hasn’t written all the books in the Games of Thrones (GoT) series. With fantasy’s increasing popularity, why is it that works of fantasy have taken such a long time to receive the recognition they deserve and be studied as a serious genre?
Professor Brian Attebery has noted that one of fantasy’s defining characteristics is its tendency towards escapism. That was definitely one of the main reasons why I was drawn to the fantasy section of Waterstones as a child and teen, and indeed why I am enrolled on the fantasy masters’ here at UofG. But fantasy has often been overlooked for providing an insight to contemporary culture and its trends. The Victorians were obsessed with narratives surrounding fairies and changelings, many of which were used to express the subconscious feelings of the era. Whilst most fantasy fans love the genre for its escapist qualities, fantasy should also receive recognition for its serious depictions of contemporary cultural issues, but within an alternate world which allows us to think about human society and its frailties.
Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside, the first book in The Founders’ Trilogy, was one of my chosen novels for my undergraduate dissertation, titled ‘Fantastic Things: Objects in 21st Century Fantasy Literature’. Bennett allegorises modern developments in technology via his magic system of scriving, and stated in an interview with Eliot Peper that scriving was used to make comparisons to software and technology in the story “fairly obvious.” Bennett further asserted that fantasy as a type of speculative fiction gives readers “the emotional distance to allow us to more dispassionately judge our ongoing moral conundrums.”
I enjoyed Foundryside for its escapist nature, feisty animate objects that have important relationships with human characters, and for its allegorisation of technological development within western capitalism. My dissertation explored how objects shape fantastic narratives and ended with a reflection: if objects can shape a fantasy world, are they not shaping ours? The aim of my argument was to draw comparisons with how fantasy narratives can make us reflect upon our relationship to waste and recycling in the geological age of the Anthropocene. If an object could talk, would we be so quick to throw it away? As the climate emergency accelerates, fantasy is more concerned with the environment than ever before, and it is surely fitting that both COP26 and the establishment of the CFF took place in our city.
Fantasy is one of the most profitable and popular genres within modern publishing, with literary agents and publishing houses willing to pay six-figure deals to authors with original fantasy narratives, reflecting a popular and ever-increasing market for the genre. Indeed, Alan Garner has been shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize for his work Treacle Walker. While I have my guilty-pleasure authors like Sarah J. Mass, the complexity of worlds such as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, R.F. Quang’s The Poppy War, and Bennett’s Foundryside, shows that creators of the genre are readying to bear arms within the literary world. Ultimately, they will make it clear that fantasy is fighting back against the snobbery which has previously discarded the genre as unworthy of literary merit.