What defines a fantasy novel? An otherworld setting? Magic? A sword on the cover?
Most of you reading this post will be some sort of a fantasy reader and there won’t be much that I—a fantasy newbie—could illuminate for you about this intriguing genre. What I can do, however, is share my experience of how fantasy crept up on me from behind and snuck in the back door of my psyche, cleverly disguising itself in non-fantasy titles, chewing me up and spitting me out as not only a fantasy reader, but a fantasy author too.
Since publishing my debut novel, Daughter of Albion, last year, I have been reviewed on fantasy blogs, invited to speak on fantasy panels, and shortlisted for a fantasy award. All of this has been wonderful, except for the fact that when I wrote the book, I had no idea that it was a fantasy.
I hadn’t set out to write fantasy, and my shameful secret, as I sat wedged on panels between serious genre writers who could spout a steady stream of references to fantasy titles, was that I had never even read much fantasy. Most of the books I liked were historical, literary or popular fiction.
Or so I thought.
Feeling a little confused, I decided to take an audit of the books I had most loved in my childhood and beyond, the books that had imprinted themselves most deeply in my imagination, and see if there was any antecedent for the wellspring of pagan mysticism that had bubbled up from my writer’s belly.
And what I discovered, to my surprise, was that every one of these books was infused with some kind of magic, mysticism, animism, mythology or the supernatural: The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin, Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller, The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, By the Light of my Father’s Smile by Alice Walker, Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel, The Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery.
There was something magical, something that reached for the otherworld, in every one of my favourite books. Perhaps I was not such a stranger to fantasy after all.
I began to wonder what was it about this kind of magical writing that pushed these novels so deep into the psyche? What power did they hold?
The answer lay in the question of why I read novels. Like many others, I read to learn, to be moved, to connect, for pleasure, escape, and love of language. But above all else, I read to draw closer to the unknown.
The ‘fantasy’ elements in every one of my favourite books were exploring an aspect of human spirituality: consciousness after death, ancient religion and mythology, folklore and ritual, a numinous presence in nature, the presence and meaning of god. Some of them were about our deepest yearnings expressed as a magical metaphor, others were about the spiritual power of a landscape. All were grappling with what is unseen and unknowable, yet immensely powerful.
I realised that fantasy—with its currency of the symbolic, the strange and the magic—is ideally suited to exploring ideas that transcend the material world. And this was the very thing I had attempted to do in my own novel.
Daughter of Albion is the story of a young woman’s rise to power in Iron Age Britain on the cusp of the Roman invasion. It is steeped in the pagan spirituality and mythology of the ancient British Celts: people take animal form, spirit realms are traversed through water, time is fluid.
See also: Daughter of Albion: New Excerpt
The story was born as I stood on the crest of a hill, overlooking the misty fields of Somerset, England, in the depths of midwinter. I was moved to ask: could I be indigenous to this landscape? Was this place worshipped by my blood ancestors?
In reading all I could about the tribes of the Iron Age Celts, I found a people with whom I felt a great kinship: they were deeply spiritual, they valued knowledge above power, and they lived with a profound reverence to the natural world. Their ideas became as real to me as they must have been to them and I wrote about their beliefs as if they were true.
This is why I was so surprised when I my novel was described as a fantasy. I had thought fantasy was something ‘made up.’
I have learned it is so much more.
I still do not read a great deal of conventional fantasy. I like my novels rooted firmly in the real world or in real history, but with an echo, an intimation of what lies beyond. There are always exceptions, such as Margo Lanagan and C.S. Lewis!
An element of fantasy offers a way of understanding the world that goes beyond the rational. It can touch upon the deepest and most primal parts of our psyches, places where reason and science loosen their stranglehold, and truth emerges.
ILKA TAMPKE's short stories and articles have been published in several anthologies, and in 2012 she was awarded a Glenfern Fellowship. She lives near Melbourne with her family and is at work on a sequel to Daughter of Albion.