A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder and Enchantment, by Philip Martin

A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder and Enchantment, by Philip Martin (Crickhollow Books, Second Edition 2009, 144 pages, which includes bibliography and index).

"The goal of this book, " says Philip Martin in his introduction, "is to help you better appreciate fantastic stories of all sorts" (page 8).

So I am not the intended audience, exactly--I already appreciate fantasy just fine. His audience is those at the beginning of their journey into fantasy, and for these readers he offers a written gallery tour of the aspects of fantasy writing that set it apart from other genres. It is not a list of the best fantasy books, although many great books (some of which might come a surprise to those with a narrow view of the genre) are mined for examples. This is a book about the tropes of fantasy--the familiar patterns, places, characters and plots that one might encounter on a fairly regular basis.

For the reader who is already well-versed in fantasy, Martin offers no incredibly surprising insights, but he does a great job introducing his readers t the insights of others. "My role," he says in his afterword, "mostly has been to assemble a lot of ideas in one place and to try to provide a helpful organization structure" (page 138), and this he does well. Many of the ideas showcased here are from the great thinkers about writing fantasy. Some I was familiar with (Le Guin, Tolkien) other authors were known to me only through their fiction, and it was a delight to meet them in a non-fiction context (Elizabeth Hand, Peter Beagle, Steven King). It is easy to imagine this assemblage of diverse thoughts leading further in to deeper reader.

In many ways, this book is the beginning of a conversation, where the reader is invited to think about topic x, y, or z, as if for the first time. I think it would best for younger readers, perhaps high school students who dream of becoming writers. For such an audience, not used to breaking books into bits, this would be a valuable place to start. And I think the heavy use of older works of fantasy for examples might tease new readers of fantasy into exploring some foundation stones of the genre.

But I'm a tad uncertain that this younger reader I've created as the ideal audience for the book, because Martin assumes that his readers will be bringing considerable literary erudition to the table. For example, in the section entitled "Premonitions & Prophecies" is the following:

"Readers and the characters themselves are challenged to ponder the meaning of these advance signs. Will Birnam Wood travel to Dunsinane Hill? Unlikely, we think. Can a man not be born of woman and yet come to harm Macbeth? Seems like an impossibility" (page 80).

So that young, would-be writer of fantasy I imagine reading the book should, at the very least, not mind bits of not knowing, not mind that in this swirl of great books and great writers, there are things that might not make sense at the moment.

"Readers," Martin observes, "will tend to identify with the character who knows the least about what will happen in a book; they share this state, trying to understand any new or puzzling event with meager clues" (page 105).

A Guide to Fantasy Literature offers a generous collection of clues, but it is, in the end, simply a series of first steps into a much larger discussion....

which continues at Martin's website.

The Non-Fiction Monday Roundup is at Moms Inspire Learning today!

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the author.


  1. This sounds like a book that should inhabit the shelves of fantasy writers as well as fantasy readers. As an author of fantasy, or as I like to call it, extended reality, (see my recent publication, Randolph's Challenge Book One - The Pendulum Swings. www.randolphschallenge.com)I will certainly be owning a copy.

    Thanks for the pointer.

    Chris Warren
    Author and Freelance Writer
    Randolph's Challenge Book One - The Pendulum Swings

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