Fantasy and the Literary Canon

Posted: February 18, 2014 in Literature


*an artist rendering of Hermione, Harry, and Ron from Harry Potter*

I have spent much of my life reading fiction novels. I’ve come to realize the importance of the classics or, more specifically, the novels that fall under the category of the “literary canon.” These novels harbour innumerable reasons as to why they are so important to one’s life. Northrop Frye tackles this in his lecture (The Educated Imagination), as he tries to explain what role (if any) literature plays in our religious, social, and political life.

Through my encounters with the classics, I have ignored the fantasy genre (along with many others). Admittedly, I know very little about fantasy except that many recent movies are based off novels of this genre – I don’t think I have to list them. I do know that these fantasy novels don’t make it under the umbrella of the “literary canon.” So, I asked one of my best friends (author of the blog, The Truth About Life and Running) to teach me. My driving question was simple: What is so appealing about the fantasy genre? Not only did I buy his response, I have a new-found appreciation for the genre.

I am going to try and expel his response in as brilliant a manner as he expelled it to me:

Fantasy very much follows a simplistic yet structured plot. He argues that fantasy actually has very little to do with the mystical (dragons, magic, wizards, etc) and more to do with reality than is often credited for. There are common plot lines that seem to make their way into the majority of fantasy epics: 1. The young/naive protagonist – he finds himself taken out of his ordinary world and thrust into a world of adventure against the forces of evil. He references Frodo Baggins (Lord of the Rings), and Harry Potter. He also references Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), but that was a film…trying to keep this central to literature. 2. The mentor – he comes out of nowhere to help our protagonist and is completely devoted to him. He references Gandalf (Lord of the Rings) and Dumbledore (Harry Potter). The mentors usually die in sacrifice for the betterment of the protagonist. 3. Friends – the protagonist finds friends that help in his venture and stick with the protagonist even after the mentor is gone. In other words, very seldom is the adventure a lone one. 4. The betrayer – this character sets the group back, usually out of jealousy. He references Boromir (Lord of the Rings) and the younger brother seduced by the White Witch (Narnia). 5. The villain – this character rarely manifests themselves in human form. He references Sauron (Lord of the Rings) and Voldemort (Harry Potter).

He goes on to discuss the endings of such novels (usually a battle of some sort), as well as the hero’s return home. Though the references are mostly from Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, the idea is that this genre follows a very simplistic yet structured plot. Arguably, one could pick up a fantasy epic and expect the aforementioned characteristics. Frye states, “If you pick up a detective story, you may not know until the last page who done it, but you always know, before you start reading, exactly the kind of thing that’s going to happen.” (Frye, Northrop. The Educated Imagination).


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