A Guide To Fantasy Literature by Philip Martin – Review


Guiding The Imagination

Novels in a Polish bookstore
Novels in a Polish bookstore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Did your parents read you Grimm’s Fairy Tales when you were a child? Or perhaps they read you A. A. Milne’s Winnie-The-Pooh? Or did you yourself read Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland, or J. M. Barrie‘s Peter Pan, or some other imaginative adventure? If so then you have a start in the ever-expanding world of fantasy literature. Philip Martin‘s A Guide To Fantasy Literature will appeal to anyone who has an imagination, who can put aside their “disbelief” (as William Wordsworth wrote in his Preface to Lyric Ballads) and allow a story to take them wherever it will.

Martin has peppered his book with quite lengthy quotes from the novels and this serves to very much wet the appetite of those who have not read much fantasy. “That is interesting, and what happens next?” we ask ourselves.

The general reader is also guided to see what to look for in a fantasy book, or indeed any book. We are encouraged, for example, to ask: what is the character’s motivation, and do they change through the book? Thinking about these questions may at first seem a bit deep, but they are things we ask ourselves about the people we know in ordinary life. Thinking about books in this way can help us to see fantasy tales as more than simply adventure stories, to enjoy them even more because they say things about ‘real’ life.

For those who have read a lot of this genre there will be many moments of pleasurable recognition as old favorites are recalled to mind. The seasoned reader may also come away from A Guide To Fantasy Literature liking the novels they have read even more, as Martin has a great knack of bringing out the more subtle details and messages hidden by the authors in their stories.

As well as readers, this book will very much appeal to those who want to write fantasy stories. The first edition of this book was indeed published under the title The Writers Guide To Fantasy Literature. Martin examines the nuts and bolts of the genre and his enthusiasm for the subject makes us think, “I wonder if I could write fantasy?” Many of us do in fact have manuscripts hidden in the back of cupboards and this is just the book to encourage us to get them out and get to work on them again. It is important to note, though, that this is not a ‘how-to’ book, with writing exercises designed to get you writing. The new title is more appropriate as this book really will appeal to a wide variety of readers, but none the less would-be authors will take a special interest.

Martin‘s reading on the subject has been very wide and indeed covers everything from the little tales of Beatrix Potter to the writings of Jungian psychology analyst Joseph Campbell. He quotes books as old as Homer’s Odyssey to as contemporary as Harry Potter.

The Guide also contains many quotes from the relevant literary criticism. This may sound off-putting, however, you certainly do not have to be a university graduate to understand and enjoy the book. Martin has selected very clear quotations and his own text simply and clearly brings out the meaning in a way that is very easy to understand. Reading the book is more like listening to a widely read, fan speak, and indeed the Introduction makes clear that Martin is just that. He has read fantasy novels since he was an excited boy. Many fans of Lord Of The Rings, for example, know that its author, Tolkien, was a member of a writing club called The Inklings, along with the other famous authors C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, but not so many know that one of the origins of the character Gandalf was a postcard bought during an Alpine trek in the author’s youth, in 1911, which depicted “the ‘spirit of the mountain’: an old man with flowing beard, broad-brimmed hat, and long cloak, sitting on a rock under a pine.” (Chapter 2)

Martin has also included quotes from interviews which he himself carried out with several authors. This material is new and unique. For example in Chapter 4 there is a quote from Martin‘s interview of Peter Beagle where that author explains: “I will literally walk around the room talking dialogue and description to myself. I’m going for rhythm… ” We get an interesting, new insight into exactly how that author writes.

For those who want to read more on the subject of fantasy literature Martin has included a bibliography which is annotated; that is, he gives you a very brief summary of what is in each book.

Very much in brief the main topics covered by the book are:

  1. Are these tales just empty, fanciful entertainments, or do they have a meaning applicable to the ‘real’ world?
  2. The history of fantasy from myth and epic narrative to modern classics like Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series.
  3. What exactly is fantasy and does it differ from science fiction?
  4. How do authors get their fantastic ideas?
  5. The five ‘types’ of fantasy: high fantasy, adventure fantasy, fairy-tale fiction, magic realism, and dark fantasy.
  6. Particular techniques and elements such as meter, repetition and magic.
  7. The importance of location and geographic description, particularly in making the ‘unreal’ seem real.
  8. Techniques of characterization and the representation of real human struggle, with the aim of placing ‘real’ people in very ‘unusual’ circumstances.
  9. The centrality of plot and why we keep turning the page.

Martin‘s A Guide To Fantasy Literature will appeal to a very wide audience ranging from the general reader who has not read much of the genre to university students doing a course in imaginative literature. The book is not at all dull and is written by someone who clearly loves the subject and whose enthusiasm is catching. Martin is very knowledgeable, but does not write in an overly scholarly style. His text is clear, simple and approachable.

Philip Martin‘s A Guide To Fantasy Literature is well worth the price and will certainly entertain most readers.

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