Joseph Erwin – Freelance Dungeon Master

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What is “True” Fantasy to Me?

It’s not a matter of gate-keeping, and more a matter of definitions. This is just me partaking in the great human tradition of coming up with more categories.

“True Fantasy” means a world or story which is bounded only by the limits of imagination; it is whatever wondrous situation the mind can conjure up.

This is opposed to Dark Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy, High/Low Fantasy, Science Fantasy, etc. which often adhere to medieval-inspired tropes and ideas. Not all of them do, but most do. Many prefer to exist in the shadow of Robert E. Howard and J. R. R. Tolkien, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

However, Fantasy has become a genre so closely associated with those authors that it is sometimes worth getting back to what “Fantasy” is. Before George R. R. Martin; before Tolkien; Before Howard.

The best way is to demonstrate by example.

The Dark Crystal is a “True Fantasy” film. The world in which it takes place is not our world, not even close. Nothing in Thra seems to be an exact analogue of a recognizable creature from our world. The living things which inhabit the story have their own unique cultures, aesthetics, and biology.

In addition, there is the element of magic present, which prevents Dark Crystal from slipping into the realm of science fiction documentary (though it could be seen as such). The magic is never clearly defined or explained, but is merely a part of the world which everyone accepts. This essential lack of questioning the logic behind fantasy elements is another part of what makes something “True Fantasy” to me. It’s like an old fairy tale that way.

Another element which usually identifies True Fantasy to me is that the narrative usually does not revolve around violence, conquest, or destruction (at least, at the hands of the heroes). Bravery can come into it, but often times it is simply the bravery of facing up to a challenge or an enemy which one has no hope of defeating. The encounters with the Garthem at various points in the film result in the characters needing to hide, outsmart, or flee, since they cannot simply pull out a sword and directly slay their enemies.

Pan’s Labyrinth is another True Fantasy Film to me. Even though it is partially set in the Second World War, the nearby realm of dangerous and ancient fantasy is just as real to the film. The things which exist in the world of fantasy have little coherence or explanation beyond being animal-like in design. The ritual the girl is asked to perform has the seemingly eclectic rules of any fairy tale ritual. The almost rule-less actions and story points are an essential part of True Fantasy.

“Trust me! Do I look like the kind of faun who’d like to a kid like you?”

So does that mean that something has to have the feel of a classic fairy tale in order to be True Fantasy? Well, no.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a spectacular film done in the style of elaborate 18th century fantasy, and has a LOT in common with an old Grimms fairy tale called The Six Servants. Despite its unique take on the genre of fantasy, I do not consider it to be a True Fantasy film (which is funny, considering that characters in the film will consistently refer to the Baron as living in a “world of pure fancy and fantasy.”)

The film is, despite it’s roots, still based in a world which largely abides by recognizable rules and structures. Yes, you can fall into a volcano and meet Vulcan the smith-god, but it makes sense that he would be there. Yes, there is a giant fish, but it looks like a giant fish we could recognize, and the ships in its belly are to be expected, considering the myths about sea monsters. The film is also resolved with violence, albeit combined with some trickery.

It also has major themes which reflect the morality of British imperialism and its relation to other nations, setting it even more firmly in a world which is familiar to most viewers.

It’s close, but not quite.

I love True Fantasy. It’s not for every day, nor is it for everyone, but I do think it is important to remember that there is more to fantasy than just Elves, Dwarves, Wizards, and maybe some dark themes if you want to be “edgy and unique.”

Published by Joe Erwin

I am an independent creator and GM with a deep love of storytelling and adventure! I desire most to share these things with others, and I hope to do that through my work and my writing.

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