When Is Fantasy Not Fantasy? Or, One Person’s Religion = Another Person’s Mythology

When Is Fantasy Not Fantasy? Or, One Person’s Religion = Another Person’s Mythology

Peters BonesI’ve always been intrigued by the appearance of the supernatural in historical fiction. When a modern writer sets a novel in the historical past, and uses elements of the supernatural, or magic, or some such item, it’s fantasy, right? Or, is it magic realism? Or is it magic realism only if the story is set in modern day South America, preferably written by a modern day South American?

Just what is magic realism, anyway? Is it more than magical thinking on the part of characters? Or a way for non-genre critics to talk about supernatural elements in books they don’t like to think contain supernatural elements?

Are Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael novels examples of magic realism? Or plain old fantasy, for that matter? Cadfael prays to the Welsh Saint Winifred, and she responds. Miracles happen. The authorities, in this case the Abbot of Shrewsbury, might check for fraud (was the lame boy truly lame to start with?) but no one doubts the possibility of the miraculous, and no one searches for another explanation. On the other hand, no one suggests that this is a series of crossover books. Why not?

It’s one thing for modern writers to write of historical times and include the belief systems of the people of those times. Maybe that isn’t, strictly speaking, fantasy. But what about contemporary writers, by which I mean the people writing in those times? What about that kind of “historical” fiction?

Shake MacbethIt’s usually around this point that I begin to think about Shakespeare. I don’t think there’s any historical evidence to show whether Shakespeare himself had any belief in the magical, though it’s a fair bet that he was a religious believer. The Christian god and the belief in him features prominently in any western writing of the 16th and 17th century, so we shouldn’t be too surprised by that. On the other hand, Greek and Roman mythologies also feature prominently in writing of that time period, so isn’t that interesting?

(An aside from the Ph.D. in 18th-century English literature: the Bible was first examined as a piece of literature [rather than a religious text] by Robert Lowth, the first Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, in his lectures, “De Sacra Poesie Hebrerorm” [On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews], beginning 1710. But I digress.)

Is Shakespeare including elements of the fantastic and supernatural, or is he just including elements of the reality of his time?

The witches in Macbeth are certainly treated with a degree of respect and certainly of belief. Banquo may ask them “Are ye fantastical?” but it’s more that he doubts his own eyes, not that he suggests witches as such don’t exist. Note that they don’t get arrested for charlatanism, nor even for heresy. And it’s only Banquo who questions them, in any sense of the word.

Like all good prophets, dating back to the Oracle at Delphi, they speak cryptically, and seem to be predicting the impossible, what with the movement of forests and the “not of woman born” stuff, but they do speak truely. By the time they predict Macbeth’s death, he has every reason to believe them, since everything else they’ve predicted has come true.

Shake DreamOn the other hand, does Macbeth represent historical fiction for Shakespeare? Can he be said to be writing about the historical beliefs of people in the time of Macbeth? Hmmm.

The ghost in Hamlet is likewise treated with belief and with respect. At first, Horatio doubts its existence, but only until he sees it with his own eyes. Hamlet is moved to act on its request. There wouldn’t be any play at all if Hamlet didn’t believe in spooks. However much modern scholars might argue that the ghost represents Hamlet’s own unconscious knowledge and suspicions, there can’t be any doubt that for the audiences of the time – and the other characters in the play – the ghost represented a ghost.

In The Tempest we have a practicing magician in Prospero, along with a couple of non-human fantastical characters, Caliban and Ariel. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the western mythology of fairies and sprites is bolstered with a kind of “Greekness” by including Theseus, himself a figure from Greek mythology. These I think we can categorize as fantasies in the modern sense. After all, Shakespeare carefully moves them out of England (and cold, sensible Denmark) to those warm island and Mediterranean communities where anything could exist.

So, any magic realism in Shakespeare, or it is all fantasy?

(An aside from the feminist: witches are raggedy cackling old women living in hedgerows, eating refuse; magicians are Dukes)

Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures (now available in omnibus editions),  as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she is writing the upcoming Halls of Law series. Visit her website:www.violettemalan.com.

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Aonghus Fallon

I think your first example is particularly thought-provoking, Violette. I’ve read a few of the Brother Cadfael books down through the years (2 -3), generally while staying with friends. I always saw them primarily as Medieval whodunnits. I never realised that there was a miraculous dimension as well, and reckon it might be problematic, if only in terms of reader expectations.

This applies to any instance in which a writer tries to mix and match genres. For example, I read the first two books of the Starbridge Chronicles based on a recommendation made on this site. I should add that I thoroughly enjoyed both books. I also reckon they’d benefit from being reissued as a composite volume (the third book is set at a later date and involves a different set of characters, but the second continues where the first left off). There was so much in both books to like, I ended up wondering why they hadn’t been more successful. On reflection, I think the author did play fast and loose with ‘the rules’ on a number of occasions. We are initially presented with what is supposed to be a Science Fiction book. However, there is also magic, and several scenes which are clearly magic realist – at one juncture, various mythological creatures are released from captivity, intended (I’m guessing) to symbolize the nascent imaginative liberation of an oppressed people.

I think – in general – Shakespeare does flag the kind of story he intends to tell. ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ isn’t asking the audience to believe in fairies. The fairies are an indication of the play’s flavour: a light, airy confection. Magic and superstition are a big part of Scottish folklore (and thus what people associate with Scotland) so the witches are entirely appropriate. By the same token, there are no fauns or dryads in ‘Coriolanus’. I’m not sure using such tropes is an indication of what people believed in back then, anymore than it would be today (otherwise, on the basis of quite a few current TV dramas, historians would think we all believed in vampires and zombies)

Joe H.

One great example of this is Gene Wolfe’s Latro books (Soldier in the Mist, etc.), which are first-person narrative set in ancient Greece, during the course of which the narrator matter-of-factly mentions encountering various gods & spirits &c.

Sarah Avery

I do think magical realism can come out of all kinds of contexts, not just South America. A giant like Garcia Marquez is inevitably going to influence writers all over the world.

There are, of course, some who feel that claiming the term or creating in the mode of magical realism is cultural appropriation, but that seems to me problematic. There is such a thing as cultural appropriation, and there are conditions under which it can be unethical, but the early great magical realist writers of South America weren’t hoping to write just to a local audience of insiders, and they weren’t insular in their use of influences from world literature, either.

So when a friend described my contemporary fantasy novellas as magical realism in the New Jerseyan mode, I was delighted to accept that label. I don’t know that it fits perfectly, but it’s not wrongheaded, either.

Using a late-arriving label to describe earlier texts is iffier, but I think it’s not unreasonable to say that some of Shakespeare’s plays can be seen as magical realism. So he might not literally have believed in ghosts. That’s okay. Garcia Marquez didn’t believe in literal very old men with enormous wings, nor in ghost ships that can crash into reefs and block the harbors of living towns. Calling The Winter’s Tale magical realism feels more right to me than calling it fantasy. The statue coming to life as the lost woman it represents does not fit any of our notions of secondary world fantasy, with its criterion of internal consistency. If it works, it works as an outward manifestation of other characters’ inward changes — which is right within the range of things we find in magical realism.

Wonderful, thought-provoking post, Violette! Thank you.

Aonghus Fallon

Sure, JH – but is it historical fiction with a supernatural dimension? Or fantasy that acknowledges the historical context? I think there’s a difference.

Aonghus Fallon

Sorry Violette – my issue would be that I’d see the Brother Cadfael series primarily as historical fiction, so I find the introduction of the miraculous confusing. In general, I’d see detective fiction as defined by its preoccupation with the rational rather than supernatural.

Joe H.

Aonghus — Admittedly, it’s been years since I read them, but I think it’s (deliberately, I assume, because Wolfe) ambiguous.

R.K. Robinson

The Cadfael books are straight historical mystery. There’s not a thimbleful of fantasy there. Yes, the “miraculous” is present in the religious sense, but no fantasy, no way. For readers of historical mysteries, they are very good books, for those looking for fantasy, they should look elsewhere.


“Belief” means something slightly different in this context.

People in the 17th century believed in God, but not the way people now believe in God.

They believed in God the way we believe in atoms.

You can’t see atoms; the knowledge that lets you prove the existence of atoms is specialist stuff most people don’t possess; but everyone believes they do exist and are fundamental and important.

Theism was the basic way Europeans of that period explained the universe. You didn’t have to be pious or religious by inclination to believe in God; you might have the spiritual sensitivity of a turnip, and you still would, because everyone did.

Disbelief in magic was just starting to stir in some advanced circles a generation or so after Shakespeare’s death and didn’t become common until a century or so later.

Isaac Newton believed in astrology and alchemy and spent a lot of his time one them.

The great witchcraft panics and persecutions of the Renaissance period only stopped when the European elites stopped believing in witches and taking magic seriously, which was roughly speaking in the middle 18th century in the more advanced areas.

So, yeah, you can take it pretty much for granted that Shakespeare believed in God; it’s overwhelmingly likely that he believed in witches and prophecies too.

(Even people who made what they knew to be false accusations of witchcraft believed in witches; they were just making a false accusation of something that might have been true, like accusing someone of murder or theft when they hadn’t done it.)


It’s been a long time since I read (or watched) Brother Cadfael, but as I recall the first book has a clearly miraculous event as part of the ending. None of the other 20+ have any suggestion of the miraculous (beyond standard miracle of life, “our prayers have been answered” when someone recovers from a poisoning or illness, etc. This is not really any different from lots of other series (books or tv) where the first few chunks end up seeming just a little bit off from the rest when looked at in retrospect.

Eugene R.

I think that one of the difficulties we have in understanding Hamlet is that we (the modern audience) accept the Ghost too readily. In Shakespeare’s time, with an audience composed of Protestants who did not believe in Purgatory and Catholics who did, the Ghost would be much more ambiguous. As Hamlet keeps wondering, is it a foul spirit (Protestant) or is it a revenant (Catholic)? Hamlet may believe in spooks, but with what type is he dealing is his dilemma.

Most of the Shakespearean fantastic of which I can think seem to evoke a sense of the uncanny, which would argue against calling it magic realism. Ms. Avery’s example of Hermione’s statue coming to life is very likely the best such.

And thank you for calling it “magic realism”, Ms. Milan.

Aonghus Fallon

Absolutely, Eugene – ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio….’ etc. In some cases, I think Shakespeare was acknwowledging the possibility something might exist rather than saying he believed in it per se, or expected his audience to believe in it. ‘Look guys, I’m just saying this *might” be true.’

But I think if a modern author writes a work set during a particular historical period, the reader needs to know beforehand what sort if book it is. For example, ‘The Drawing of the Dark’ has a strong historical dimension but nobody would ever mistake it for anything other than a work of fantasy.

Eugene R.

Perhaps the best perspective to adopt is that of the protagonist, so that we see fantasy in a work like The Drawing of the Dark (beer, by the way), but we see magic realism in Homer’s works as the protagonists converse with the gods as part of the day-to-day progress of their lives. Or even a sense of science fiction back-dated, as in Mary Stewart’s Merlin books, where Merlin’s “magic” is a combination of good ol’ Roman engineering skill and a touch of psychic powers.


I’m no expert, but I think there is a difference between fantasy and magic realism. To me, magic realism usually seems like a device to detach the plot from mundane necessities. In fantasy, the magic isn’t a literary device, but what the story’s about. These are both fuzzy sets, of course, but, as a reader, I find that something like One Hundred Years of Solitude hits a different spot from something like Little, Big, though I like them both very much.

On the other hand, for me, the difference between fantasy and non-fantasy has more to do with the style and the author’s intent than the presence or absence of material elements like “magic.” The Cadfael mysteries (which I haven’t read, though I did watch the TV shows on PBS) are presented as historical mysteries. Whether or not you believe in the efficacy of praying to saints, if this is considered or at least presented by the author as a real historical possibility, then I’d say it’s not fantastic. And there are other works (like the Gormenghast books) in which “magic” is absent, but which I definitely consider fantasies.

I mean, suppose I happen to believe in angels. If I stopped believing in them tomorrow, would something like the Book of Tobit suddenly switch genres, from pious fiction to fantasy? That seems too subjective to me. And the author’s beliefs strike me as equally immaterial. Some believers of whatever stripe have written real fantasies involving their own beliefs (as C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams did) or even inverting them (as Tolkien did), while unbelievers can write non-fantastic stories about supernatural realities they don’t believe in.

Shakespeare I consider in a different light, as a playwright rather than a novelist. The three witches in Macbeth have a symbolic role. We don’t really care about them as witches, or even as characters. They embody the temptation to seize power. To me a play is more like algebra than story-telling, with a structure that is dramatic rather than logical. When a ghost or a fairy appears, it might serve to mirror or invert or underscore something, but its presentation as something otherworldly is subordinate to its role in the structure of the play.

Aonghus Fallon

Great points, Raphael. I’d certainly make a distinction between Fantasy and Magic Realism – although to be honest, I’ve read little or nothing of the latter. My impression is that Magic Realism deals with the everyday, the ‘real’ world, but that this is shot through with the implausible and the exotic? Also, that taking a metaphor and turning it into reality is one key trope? Whereas Fantasy (for me) would be defined by what Tolkien called ‘sub-creation’ – world-building. The Gormenghast books would qualify because Peake has created an entirely self-contained world with its own elaborate hierarchies and rules.

An author’s beliefs rarely bother me one way or the other. I guess what I’m talking about is a situation in which the author establishes a world, the rules which govern it, then introduces something else into the mix halfway through the book – something that is inconsistent with the rules established earlier, or inconsistent with the genre to which the book supposedly belongs. There are several examples in the Starbridge Chronicles – the exodus of mythological creatures from their prisons being the most memorable for me, because their function is purely metaphorical (as I said, something I’d associate with Magic Realism): we are not necessarily meant to believe these creatures exist. The description of them is deliberately elusive. It’s what they *represent* that’s important. I think this is a big ask on the part of the author, and I think it may have ultimately cost him readers, because naturally one is left wondering – what kind of book am I reading?


“The Gormenghast books would qualify because Peake has created an entirely self-contained world with its own elaborate hierarchies and rules.”

That’s what would I would say, too.

M Harold Page

Gawain and the Green Knight almost definitely counts as self-aware fantasy. For a start, Gawain wears armour that’s roughly 50 years out of date for the story, which indicates a deliberate distancing.

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