A study of the Fantasy Genre with Alec Worley’s “Empires of the Imagination” (I)

Reading Empires of the Imagination by Alec Worley has given me a lot of interesting information and new insights on the fantasy genre. Although I am still currently reading it, I have decided to write about facts I found interesting which have raised questions I hadn’t considered regarding my research and case study of Donkey Skin.


Defining Fantasy

It is argued that the fantasy genre has been greatly overlooked in the past, never winning a lot of awards and being neglected to a certain extent. The book discusses the development of fantasy cinema from George Melies to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

An interesting observation by Brian Sibley is the fact that in a way, ‘fantasy movies are a reminder that all film is “fantasy”’; even the most realistic story made into a film, will always be a lie, an illusion. But fantasy is about escapism, however it is not its sole purpose: “Fantasy is inextricably defined by reality; how else can one define what doesn’t exist except by what does?” (Alec Worley, pg 4).

The fantasy genre is vast and regroups so many different sub-genres that it’s hard to define. There is also a confusion that arises when talking about fantasy, science-fiction and horror which Alec Worley defines as fantasy’s ‘sister-genres’.

Bulgarian born critic Tzvetan Todorov has given his definition of ‘The Fantastic’ in The Fantastic: A structural Approach to a Literary genre. “In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils, sylphides, or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination – and the laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality – but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us” (Tzvetan Todorov, pg 8).

Alec Worley argues this clarification regarding the Fantastic is limited and describes spot on a narrative technique rather than the actual genre. However, it all comes down to perception, a fact Todorov hasn’t missed. Once the reader can clarify wether or not the fantastic was an illusion, the film (or book) falls into one of these two categories: the uncanny and the marvelous. He views the uncanny as texts in which it is finally revealed that what seemed to be fantasy was actually a dream or an illusion, entirely taking place in the protagonist’s mind (examples include The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Enchanted Cottage (1945), Repulsion (1965). The marvelous is “the supernatural left unexplained”, the audience or reader needs to accept the existence of the supernatural.

Which brings us to a particular element which helps define the fantasy genre better than anything else could: Magic. And from there, it is easy to see just how much the fantasy genre encompasses: be it a film set in an unknown kingdom, or a story featuring magical characters or even a plot set in our own world where wishes are granted. One cannot explain the miracles, the mysterious forces and inexplicable events present in fantasy. “Can I believe my eyes?” that is the question one needs to ask themselves if they are to differentiate fantasy from reality, but this question leads inevitably to the question of trust; trust in the narrator telling the story. If the narrator can be trusted, then the story is defined as belonging to the marvelous because the supernatural elements are left unexplained but the source of the story is trustworthy. Whereas if the story teller cannot be trusted, then the whole narrative was just a dream, a delusion. Hence this shows that an audience watching a fantasy film, has an unquestioned trust in their storyteller: for the duration of the film (or book) we are watching, we have to accept that magic does exist, that princes can turn into frogs, that somewhere a school for witchcraft and wizardry teaches students to become wizards and that fairies are real. Alec Worley observes that “all films require the suspension of disbelief to a degree, but fantasy films require the greatest of all, since their currency is the unbelievable” (Alec Worley pg 10) And sometimes it may be hard for the audience to make the leap from reality to fantasy; and if they do, it may be even harder for grown-ups to admit it.


This leads me to ask myself: can fairy tales be adapted in a realistic world devoid of magic and still be perceived and called fairy tales?



WORLEY. A., 2005. Empires of the Imagination: A Critical Survey of Fantasy Cinema from George Melies to the Lord of the Rings, McFarland & Company – I have used this book as a tool for research, I do not own anything.



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