On the fantasy genre II: An attempt at a personal taxonomy

This is a follow-up to this post (I finally have time to write again).

If you frequent internet fora related to nerdy stuff at all, you'll be familiar with the cyclical debates about sub-categories of fantasy. A typical one is about what constitutes High Fantasy as opposed to Low Fantasy. The official definitions deal with the divisions between a primary (ie. real) world and a secondary (ie. fantastical) world, with "low" and "high" denoting the presence or influence of the secondary world or even fantastical elements in general. However, lots of people also use the "low" and "high" to describe the tone and scale of the fiction or to quantify the amount of magic, heroism, mythological resonance, etc.

This gets confusing fast. Something like Warhammer can be high fantasy by some definitions (it takes place in a "secondary" world, it has magic and demons and so on) or low fantasy by others (it's kinda grotty, its characters are regular humans, its tone is one of despair and failure rather than heroics). Even within its own franchise, Warhammer is arguably all over the spectrum, ranging from Age of Sigmar and the more heroic elements of the wargame (spell-slinging elven kings riding on dragons fighting dudes with magical swords riding on gryphons), across the somewhat more upwards-looking editions of the RPG, to the crapsack analogue of early modern Europe of first edition WHFRP.

Another example is how Dark Souls (a personal favourite) is often labelled as dark fantasy but writing "dark fantasy" into google image search or pinterest will often present you with imagery quite unlike anything in the souls series. Or perhaps the confusion over what exactly constitutes "urban fantasy" - in some cases it's weird fiction (like Mieville's New Crobuzon, Planescape's Sigil or VanderMeer's Ambergris) and in some cases it is romantic fiction about sexy teen vampires in a contemporary city.

There's very little sensible aesthetic overlap between works often placed under the same label.

So three things come to a head here:
1) To summarise the previous post. I generally don't believe in the usefulness of (sub)genre labels other than a marketing tool. I think all literature is speculative to a degree. When it comes to "fantasy", particularly when it comes to literature, I prefer to think of a spectrum from naturalistic/realistic to phantastical/imaginative. The later end of the spectrum contains everything from Marquez, Borges and Blake to Lovecraft, Clarke and Tolkien. If this is the x-axis, the y-axis denotes the quality of the work, with the criteria of quality being the same regardless of whether we're talking about Zola or Dunsany. I refuse to talk about "what makes a good fantasy novel" as a question distinct from "what makes a good novel".*

2) The traditional distinctions of sub-genres within fantasy are confusing in general and largely useless to me personally. One of the main advantages of putting stuff in categories is to communicate things faster. When there exists substantial confusion about what constitutes a category, there's a much smaller chance I will use in conversation to shorthand something. (For example, if I was to pitch Warhammer to a bunch of new players, I would avoid using the term "low fantasy" like it was a plague-ridden rat.)

3) With that in mind, and reflecting on Brendan's question, I tried compiling a mental list of themes or elements that stood out to me in my favourite examples of media that people would generally recognise as fantasy. That is, I asked myself: once works are placed on the x/y coordinates, what other possible ways are there to distinguish between them, and compare and contrast them?

I eventually came up with three dichotomies that stood out to me (as all binary oppositions these are nothing but simplifications and generalisations). These could be called aesthetics or moods and they can be predominant throughout the work, present only in parts of it or even wholly absent.

1) The first is a distinction between wistfulness and mournfulness. Insofar as a work of fiction imagines some other reality, it might do so in terms of yearning for some future potential or salvation or it might be forlorn, nostalgic and grieving for something lost. It might be easy to frame these emotions in political terms, as Moorcock did in his Epic Pooh essay, but I think such a reading cannot be deployed generally and uncritically. I do feel that in very broad terms, wistful fantasy has a blue-collar element to it, while mournful fantasy has an aristocratic element to it. But saying that such fantasy also unequivocally supports a corresponding position would be naive. Gormenghast is mournful and aristocratic, but it is also a satire. Wistful and mournful aesthetics might roughly correspond to adventurous and gothic, but those are otherwise overburdened terms.

2) The second dichotomy would be between whimsical and sensible. At the far end of whimsical spectrum, works are largely unconcerned with verisimilitude or real world logic. Their fantastical imagery is purely a projection of the author's inner world of ideas. On the sensible end we can find an effort to root the world in some kind of reality, often with what we'd call worldbuilding. Whimsical fiction seeks wonder and invention, it is weird, volatile and eccentric, while sensible fiction seeks to settle, ground itself, to be serious or even solemn. Contrary to one's intuition, an argument could be made that the second, more realistic, kind of work is ultimately also more escapist. Its claims to historical verisimilitude or a consistent, thoroughly conceived world are perhaps nothing more than deflections, or inversions of how the real world is, or might be, but again, this is not a generally applicable reading. By contrast, whimsical aesthetics, by refusing to take the secondary world entirely seriously, or making it unreliable or "unfinished", deploy a kind of anarchist epistemology or even ontology towards the fiction.

As before with Moorcock, this time it was John M Harrison that ascribed a political dimension to this tension, in an essay I'm currently struggling to find a reliable link to. China Mieville once neatly summarised the tension that exist between the two by referring to Call of Cthulhu (both the story and the game). Lovecraft continually assures us that the eldritch horrors he's writing about are incomprehensible, unspeakable, etc. yet often launches into lengthy, detailed descriptions of the same. The game goes one step further by giving these entities beyond human ken stats and hit points. Perhaps the most conflicting of the three, this dichotomy embodies the paradoxical human drives to both invent and imagine the impossible and nonexistent and then survey, describe, catalogue and box it. "Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge, exists without my consent," as the Judge put it in Blood Meridian.

3) The last dichotomy I identified was a distinction between what I decided to call lofty and grotty. Lofty implies a vast scope, an airy and open environment, something bright and spectacular. Ironically, the proportions of it, while oversized, are often clearly delineated, symmetrical and adhering to Kantian notions of beauty. Loftiness is the translation of the otherworldly into comprehensible, human terms. On the other hand, grotty is the lack of comfort or wellbeing, dirt and grime. The word probably related to grotesque, itself derived from Italian grotta (cavern, cave) it suggests darkness and claustrophobia. Again, ironically, despite suggesting a small and constrained space, its lack of light and general discomfort, removing things beyond human control and view, invokes Kantian notions of the sublime. If loftiness is the injection of divinity into the world, grottiness is its absence, it is the unheimlich and the alienation of man from nature, the unwelcomeness-in-the-world, to get a bit Heidegger. These aesthetics map rather well to one of the possible meanings of high vs low fantasy, but without getting confused by alternative definitions.

I am not sure if these categories will ultimately be of any use to me or anyone else, but as the title says, this is an attempt, a tentative approach to describing what I see as certain dichotomies present in speculative literature. And to restate, it's important to acknowledge that both elements might be present in the same work: the way they coexist, fight or contradict each other can say a lot about the work itself.

*Because of commercial pressures to tag things as "fantasy" and fill genre-lit shelves in bookshops, a lot of dross gets produced and sold not on the merit of being good, but on the merit of belonging to a genre. Thus, as far as there is such a thing as a "fantasy genre" (or crime, or sci-fi, or horror) it is being done a great disservice by catering to a different (lower) set of standards than "high literature". A lot of phantastical/imaginative works are not considered fantasy (ie. they will not be found in the fantasy section of the bookstore) simply because they are good.