Once upon a time, a scholar named Farah Mendlesohn set out on a valiant quest to create a classification system for the fantasy genre. The result was her 2008 (yes, “once upon a time” is approximately in the realm of 2008) book Rhetorics of Fantasy, an analytical and example-piled volume that digs deep into the question of what the different types of fantasy are, what we expect from them, and why they work.
Mendlesohn assures the reader that these four categories she’s come up with—Portal-Quest, Immersive, Intrusion, and Liminal—are not the new “rules” for fantasy writing nor the be-all-and-end-all of classification within the genre. They’re a tool meant to make studying these stories easier and more interesting, allowing readers, researchers, and fans to look at the genre from new angles with a new frame of reference. And so, just as I have previously brought you Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Tolkien’s Cauldron of Story, and Leavy’s Swan Maiden, I bring you Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy, summed up in several paragraphs and with a lot more anime and video games than the original textbook.
So, how are these categories divided up? The most important—and to me, the most interesting—distinction is that the lines are drawn not just by the content of the story but how the story itself is told. Point of view, tone, and style make all the difference. Let’s say, for a quick and simple example, that a whale with a city on its back flies over a small town. If your point-of-view character looks up and goes “aaaaaaa! What the hell is that?!” the story is most likely an Intrusion Fantasy, with the fantastic disrupting normalcy. But if your point-of-view character looks up and goes “oh, is it Wednesday already?” then it’s a Liminal Fantasy, in which the fantastic is accepted as blasé. The same events do not necessarily create the same story, nor the same type of fantasy.
Do these categories cover all fantasy written ever? Probably not—again, Mendlesohn says that these boxes are just one mode of talking about the genre, not The Rules. There are stories that don’t quite fit into any of the four categories as well as stories that fit into more than one at once. These categories might sound like Mendlesohn’s setting up fences between different types of fantasy, but they should be taken to be elastic and malleable rather than made of stone. As always, genre is fake, but very interesting. With that, let’s get into what exactly these four categories are…
In short: “we are invited into the fantasy”.
As the name suggests, these stories begin in an ordinary “frame world” and the protagonists move across some sort of threshold into a secondary world full of magic and wonder. Mendlesohn offers The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as the easiest example: the normal human kids travel through the portal that is the wardrobe and end up in the fantasy world Narnia, where the adventure takes place. The protagonists are introduced to this fantasy world at the same time as the reader, so these stories tend to come with their own specialised brand of exposition; that is to say, a lot of it, all of which can be taken to be true fact and pure worldbuilding. Needless to say, a crucial element of this type of story is, as with the Intrusion Fantasy, the protagonists reacting with “whoa! This is weird!” when interacting with the fantastical elements for the first time (though they’ll hopefully get used to them as they go along).
Some other classic Portal-Quest Fantasies include Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz (as opposed to its retelling Wicked, which is entirely set in Oz starring Oz residents, thus making it an Immersive Fantasy instead). And of course while we’re here we can’t not mention Sword Art Online and its enormous family the isekai genre, which seems to be the most popular and easy-to-spot current incarnation of the type.
Interestingly, while you might think The Lord of the Rings would be a classic Immersion Fantasy with its sprawling high fantasy world, Mendlesohn uses it as an example of the Portal-Quest. This is because our heroes the Hobbits begin their journey in the established-as-ordinary frame world of The Shire and actually don’t know much about the landscape beyond, so we get that same experience of learning about the fantasy setting alongside the naïve travellers once they cross the threshold. With this example in hand, it’s important to remember that these categories can cross over and you can have one within the other—again, it’s all about how the story is played out and through what framing. With this in mind we can also consider stories like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Deltora Quest to be Portal-Quests too.
In short: “we are allowed no escape” from the fantasy.
Sounds a little frightening in those terms, actually. But what Mendlesohn means by this is that the fantasy world is the only world in this type of story. Though a secondary setting isn’t the only criteria here, but the way the point-of-view character interacts with and frames it: whereas the protagonist of a Portal-Quest Fantasy sees the fantasy world through fresh and amazed eyes, the protagonist of an Immersive Fantasy must see it as their normal, everyday world.
That doesn’t mean they can’t be wowed by it from time to time, but we must remember that, in Mendlesohn’s words, “The immersive fantasy invites us to share not merely a world, but a set of assumptions. It presents the fantastic without comment as the norm for both the protagonist and for the reader.” It means that worldbuilding will be shaped a very different way, since the reader and the characters begin with a very different level of knowledge about the setting.
Immersive Fantasies include basically anything we’d call “high fantasy”: stories like A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, Monster Blood Tattoo, Rogues of the Republic, the Discworld books, anything in The Elder Scrolls or Dragon Age franchises, and indeed anything to do with Dungeons and Dragons (though, depending on your particular campaign, there’s probably some Portal-Questing going on at some point) and so on and so forth.
The novel Howl’s Moving Castle presents a particularly interesting crossover in that it’s an Immersive Fantasy that dips into Portal-Quest territory when the protagonists travel from their fantasy world to our world, with the secondary fantasy setting presented as the ordinary frame world and modern day Wales presented as otherworldly and weird. Again, perspective matters—if the story was from the point-of-view of a Welsh person who ran into Howl and Sophie, it would be an Intrusion Fantasy, but as it’s being narrated by Sophie, who is forced to describe a computer with no context, it’s a very different sort of tale. You can also see this fun reversal in Les Visiteurs and the first Thor movie.
In short: “the fantastic enters the fictional world” and knocks over all of your bins.
Where a Portal-Quest is about a protagonist from the ordinary world stepping over into a fantasy world, the Intrusion Fantasy is about something fantastical stepping into the world of the protagonist, disrupting what’s been established as normal, and treated as strange and unfamiliar by the point-of-view character.
The easiest examples that come to my mind for this are urban fantasy and magical girls. Usagi was minding her own business in her recognisable frame world before she got tangled up in all that Cosmic Destiny Sailor Guardian stuff, and the plot of the series on an episodic and series-long level is to battle fantastical forces that are encroaching on the ordinary world. The protagonists of urban fantasy tend to be going about their normal lives before becoming embroiled somehow in the supernatural, too: this is certainly true for Buffy, who is on a constant mission to stop all the horrors of Hell flooding her recognisably normal modern-day American town.
Maybe there’s some Grand Destiny that means these protagonists were actually a part of the fantastical all along—it’s certainly true for the two above examples—but the key is, again, how these protagonists react to it and its role in the narrative, and how abnormal and unfamiliar the magic is shown to be. Destiny be damned, if the fantastic leaks into what’s been established as their normal life and they treat it as bizarre and otherworldly, it’s an Intrusion. Other examples include the original Jumanji (as opposed to the more recent movie, which is a Portal-Quest), most of the Transformers franchise (those works set on Earth, at least) and American Gods and Anansi Boys. Dragon Age: Inquisition is another crossover example where an Immersive Fantasy features an Intrusion, when creatures from the Fade intrude rather violently upon the high fantasy setting.
In short: “The magic hovers in the corner of our eye”.
It’s here, especially, that the way the fantastical is treated becomes important to the distinction: “When the fantastic appears, it should be intrusive, disruptive of expectation; instead, while the events themselves might be noteworthy and/or disruptive, their magical origins barely raise an eyebrow. […] The tone is best described as blasé […] matter-of-fact and casual.” Liminal Fantasy is built through strong use of irony, juxtaposition, and toying with the reader’s relationship with the text and their position relative to the protagonist of the story. By all means, our perception as readers tells us that there is something fantastical and bizarre going on, but the text itself does not treat that fantastical bizarreness in a way that matches our gut reaction. It creates an off-kilter, dreamlike state where lines of all kinds are blurred and the very definition of ordinariness is muddled. Worldbuilding facts cannot be trusted in the same way they can in the other categories, if they appear at all. Liminal Fantasy is anything but clear cut and easily defined by rules.
Now, this might sound like magical realism (that was certainly the first thing I thought of), but Mendlesohn actually discusses that particular genre and its Latin American origins in the Intrusion Fantasy section, while acknowledging that it’s difficult to categorise from a foreign perspective. Liminal Fantasy is I think one of the hardest to pin down due to its heavy reliance on the style in which the story is told more than what’s actually happening. One of Mendlesohn’s examples is Holes, which you might not normally think of as a fantasy novel, but which she argues has a tone, structure of language, and storytelling style that lends the weird and magical aspects an unexpectedly mundane quality. The almost folkloric backdrop of prophecies, pacts, and hidden treasures are all accepted casually and dealt with in a matter-of-fact way by the protagonist and the narration generally.
Some other examples Mendlesohn includes are the novel Lud-in-the-Mist, about a quaint English town where fairy magic is woven inextricably into everyone’s daily lives and treated as something mundane yet crude; and the short story ‘Yes, But Today is Tuesday’ wherein a unicorn appears on a family’s lawn and their reaction is “that’s a bit strange, magical things normally only occur on Mondays.” Given Mendlesohn’s definition that “The language moves us through metaphor into the fantastic so that you are forced to question whether any of it was a metaphor” I’m tempted to add Utena as my own example, though I admit that my grasp of this category is a little shakier than the others. But hey, that’s all in the spirit of the category itself, which is intent on blurring distinctions and setting the reader’s perception off-kilter.
Again, these four factions are not intended to be rules or barriers, but simply a new framework and set of lenses to study fantasy through. Maybe this gives you a keen insight into the inner workings and possibilities of genre, or maybe just a neat new way to make lists. It’s certainly made me pay a lot more attention to tone and storytelling style, and appreciate the power perspective has to alter an entire story. So where do your favourite fantasy fictions fit in? Are there any listings of mine that you don’t feel quite gel? As Mendlesohn herself said, these are meant to raise more questions than they solve, and provide a bit of fantastical fun along the way.