Numinous writing is writing that ‘has a strong religious or spiritual quality; indicating or suggesting the presence of a divinity’. Writing that evokes the mysterious, the unexplainable and the magical. Writing that is beautiful, lyrical and fills one with a sense of wonder and awe.
These descriptions are what genre fantasy writing, and especially high fantasy, is all about.
Those who already read and love this genre, feel free to skip ahead to the TOR.com link to Faerie-led: Thoughts on Writing Meaningful Fantasy by Katherine Langrish. For those to whom this genre is an anathema, read on and hopefully you will gain some understanding, if not appreciation, for this genre.
Another way to think of fantasy is fairy tales for grown-ups. This is because the common characteristic is the inclusion of magic and or supernatural phenomenon with frequent inspiration from folk-lore and mythology. There are many subgenres including:
High fantasy which is set in an alternative world; think Middle-Earth or Narnia.
Dark fantasy which includes themes that would be found in horror; they elicit our deepest fears.
Romantic fantasy which focuses on relationships within a fantasy world.
Urban fantasy which is set in a city from Earth as we know it, usually in the western world.
Historic fantasy which is set in the past. The popular series Outlander is historic fantasy.
Although they are often bundled together, fantasy differs from science fiction in that it minimises or avoids science and technology themes and references. That said, there are often descriptions of mechanism and actions that could be defined as scientific or technological, as part of the creation of alternative worlds or explanations of magical systems.
The history of modern fantasy literature is usually said to begin with Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women written by George MacDonald and published in 1858. This novel is widely considered to be the first fantasy novel ever written for adults. That said, earlier examples of fantasy writing could include A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Some would argue that Fantasy has been around for as long as humans have told stories since many creation myths include, indeed they rely on, super natural phenomenon and magic.
Clearly fantasy has been an important part of children’s literature forever! Where would we be without witches, faeries and magical wishes in bedtime stories? Flying with Peter Pan across London, clapping to keep Tinkerbell alive, clicking our heels with Dorothy, and could we imagine a childhood nowadays without Harry?
Fantasy for adults brings adult themes and grown up issues to the storyline and then applies the question: What if? What if magic is real? What if fantastical creatures could come to our aide? What if justice could be served by magical means? What if other realms exist? What if people and gods inhabited the same world? That *anything* is possible is alluring to fantasy readers.
Frequently fantasy is set in an historical medieval or medievalesque world. The romance of the quest, chivalry and noble deeds sit well in this time and setting. As does royalty, a common symbol used in fantasy writing, for much of the deeper meaning to be found in fantasy comes from its use of symbolism including archetypes such as the Queen and Knight.
The arc of the fantasy plot has the potential to be epic, in the truest sense of the word; visualise the tome that is the Lord of the Rings or the 344 chapters of A Song of Fire and Ice (so far) or the 14 books of The Wheel of Time series. It would seem that one of the things that fantasy fans enjoy is the ability to prolong their immersion in these other worlds. That said there are plenty of collections of fantasy short stories, each of which can be comfortably read in one sitting.
Because fantasy writing deals with all things mysterious and magical, it is common for there to be hints of the spiritual. Indeed in some cases fantasy presents a virtually complete spiritual doctrine. The ideals of truth, justice, true love, and honour are all commonly found woven into fantasy. Gods and magical beings wield their powers in the affairs of people. Good triumphs over evil. Thus the use of the word numinous in answer to the question: what are the qualities of first class fantasy writing?
Surprising as it may seem, fantasy is now the third biggest selling adult fiction genre, after crime/mystery and romance. There are dedicated fantasy publishers such as Baen Books, Daw and Tor. And a new subgenre is emerging; Literary Fantasy. All of which demonstrates that more and more adult readers are coming to appreciate and enjoy the numinous writing of the fantasy genre.
The link below is to TOR.com; the online presence of TOR publishing and includes a youtube recording of the prestigious annual Tolkien Lecture at Pembroke College, Oxford. This year it is presented by Terri Windling and titled Reflections on Fantasy Literature in the Post-Tolkien Era.
Note: This blog was inspired by a conversation with a library patron who asked ‘what is the attraction with the fantasy genre?’ And because well-respected Australian fantasy author, Angela Slatter will feature at the upcoming Words with Wine on 7 July 2016. Bookings here.