Educational / Interesting Articles, Realism in Fantasy

Magical Realism plus Medieval Fantasy equals What? Historical Fiction with Magic or Something Totally New?

It’s common for people to confuse magical realism with fantasy, but what, I ask, after understanding their differences, would they look like combined? Combined, would it simply be medieval historical fiction with some magic thrown in or would we be dealing with a whole new genre? You may find my conclusion very interesting.

First let me briefly describe what I find to be the extreme difference between the two genres.

Magical realism uses magic to bring the reader closer to reality, while fantasy uses the same to help the reader escape from it. Magical realism, in other words, brings us closer to truth. Fantasy, by its design, takes us away from truth. This is exactly why much magical realism is considered literature and why much fantasy is not. Literature, for reasons of academic growth, urges us to think in order to understand the meanings behind things in our own real world. Fantasy, though it may provoke thoughts now and then, wants us to escape from reality for reasons of pleasure.

fantasy vs magical realism - creating a new genre

I believe that in a “magical realism-esque fantasy story” there should be little or no explanation of the laws governing magic and spells because all the laws here are already governed by all the natural laws of reality.

Now, some may wonder, is something like this no different than historical fiction with some magic thrown in? The answer is no because we’re still stealing from fantasy here in the sense that the world our characters live in may be a different world than our own, so therefore all the nitpicking of names, locations and dates you find in historical fiction is unnecessary here. In historical fiction a reader would scoff if she saw a knight with a 16th century bascinet wearing a 12th century harness. The said technology is separated by 400 years! In fantasy, however, a combination like this is acceptable because it’s fantasy. Considering this, we also can’t forget that we are stealing from magical realism as well, and what that means is, though we may be able to invent our own locations and dates, we can’t, however, change the laws of reality. The fantastic elements we’re applying are all here to make the reader learn more about the very world she lives in and this would be difficult, but not impossible, if the world in the story was too different than our own real world.

the difference between magical realism and fantasy

Traditional fantasy, full of myths and misconceptions about history, can very well teach us a few things about our own world but that still doesn’t make it magical realism. Magical realism would be no different than fantasy if it didn’t pride itself in being an academic source for truth. So if they were to be combined would we get something very similar to alternate history or low-fantasy? Yea, medieval alternate history, with made up dates, a few fake locations, yet still holding true to the laws of our own universe, suggesting what might have happened if a bit of magic existed here and there for the purpose of learning more about our own world, is very close to “magical realism and medieval fantasy combined,” but we’re still not quite there.

What would the Battle of Crécy have looked like with dragons involved? What would be the most realistic outcome? What could this outcome teach us about our own world? These are questions an alternate history author might ask. And these questions also underline the one limitation alternate history has, the one limitation “magical realism and medieval fantasy combined” does not have–historical setting!

what is magical realism compared to fantasy

Fantasy worlds have very different historical settings than our own. For example you might call a fantasy author rather unimaginative if she named the two warring kingdoms in her story England and France because fantasy kingdoms should have their own fantastic names. And, indeed, the kingdoms in “magical realism and medieval fantasy combined” might very well have their own fantastic names as well. In fact, the whole planet the story occurs on may be different, BUT although the planet might be different, it still, in order to be “magical realism-esque,” has to exist in the same universe as our own planet and therefore must obey the laws of our own universe!

Do you know what this means? Do you understand how impactful this is? Knowing that my “medieval fantasy” is taking place on a planet very similar to Earth, in the same universe as Earth, I’m free to make up my own locations, dates and events while still being “ultra realistic,” and, unlike in alternate history or historical fiction, I can even invent a completely new historical setting as well. And although my world is “ultra realistic” no one can bash me if my characters are wearing morions with hourglass gauntlets (two pieces of armor which, when considering Earth’s historical accuracy, would never be seen together) because, lo and behold, technology here has transpired differently than on Earth because my whole historical setting is different… EUREKA!

This in an essence, having a medieval setting (which happens to have magic) on a different planet than Earth while still being in the same universe as Earth and so therefore still adhering to the same laws of reality as our own universe, is “magical realism and medieval fantasy combined” because, like fantasy, our story is taking place in a different world than our own, but, like magical realism, our story is also obliged to follow the rules of reality and bring us closer to truth. The only thing we must do now is create a name for this exciting new genre. What do you think?

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7 thoughts on “Magical Realism plus Medieval Fantasy equals What? Historical Fiction with Magic or Something Totally New?

  1. I approve, though what value my meagre seal of approval has, it is up to you to decide!

    I, personally, tend to write purely for my own selfish pleasure. I lack an interest in showing others my works. Writing is a way to get my thoughts cemented on paper so they don’t clutter up my mind and I have space to create new thoughts. The prose I add is for my own enjoyment.

    I write fantasy, I admit. I do, however, enjoy putting many aspects of realism and HEMA in my writing. If I ever publish, I’d do it to either educate an audience uninformed in what realism and HEMA in writing are like or to delight an informed audience with writing that suits their uniquely acquired tastes.

    1. Yes, I too am writing for my own selfish pleasure because, even though my writing’s purpose isn’t to offer escapism, I am still escaping into a different world and I love it! 🙂 I love fantasy, and I would love it even more if it had HEMA in it!

  2. I think litHEMA fits most neatly into the historical continuum. It’s nice if it can inform fantasy, but, since HEMA was born in Europe, litHEMA is best suited to explore historical Europe, too. And it’s not like there’s not a wealth of settings to choose from: Reconquista, the Thirty Years’ War, Italian city-states, Wendish Crusade… just to name a couple. And they all have their lessons to teach! Just like you spoke earlier about teaching history. 🙂

    But, if you want to combine hyperrealistic accuracy with a fantasy setting, who am I to argue? 🙂 I used to do the same with a few friends back in the day – we took the fantasy trope of “elves” and looked at how they would function in a setting extremely grounded in reality.

    By the way, may I ask, how does magic work in Medieverse?

    1. Yes litHEMA can work greatly as a subgenre of historical fiction providing the real-to-life exploration of conflict throughout Europe as you’ve mentioned. As one who loves world-building I’ll be mostly applying it to fantasy however. In the Medieverse magic, not including some supernatural phenomena like ghosts, comes to the characters as a surprise rather than in a casual way but still is extremely rare and unexpected, having the armor of mystery it deserves. Also helping to keep magic mysterious in the Medieverse is the lack of time wasted in explaining its laws. No one piece of magic is the same as another, and so even I am not fully aware of how it works. I still have much world-building to do 🙂

      1. Agreed: when it comes to world-building, few things beat fantasy. 🙂 Also, I like your approach on magic, especially mystery as its primary quality! I never did have much taste for the detailed laws and machinery of magic that many expound these days… 🙂

  3. What you are describing sounds similar to what I write [ only without magic at all].
    I write what I term “cultural fantasy “, because the focus is more on imaginary cultures than worlds.
    In what I write, the setting is planet Earth, the time period is not specified, because the stories take place on a series of made up and rather isolated islands and continents. Since, the planet is Earth, there is no magic and all the laws of nature apply.
    There may be made up plants, animals, or minerals [because, these are undiscovered islands], but nothing mythic or magical (so, no elves, no wizards, no ringwraiths etc.). All creatures are either animal or human.
    And, all political (and most of the physical) conflict is human vs. human.
    I am a amateur historian, myself, so I try to research and draw inspiration from original technologies and logically apply them. Because, past people are smart and do things for reasons. So, yes, in my world people do things like wear headgear [something you hardly ever see in fantasy, even though humans have covered their heads for the bulk of history] , fight with lances and well balanced “hip-holstered” swords, live in castles with painted walls, wear clothes that provide actual function and protection, and…this will make your heart happy…. my main character wears a 28 layer quilted linen gambeson and helmet into battle and his lance and sword do not magically peirce well made metal breastplates.
    Also, his gambeson is very effective in protecting him and actually ends up saving his life, by considerably lessening, what could have been a death blow.

    Oh, and I have surgeons, who do more than randomly hack off limbs [it’s fantasy, so I have prematurely gifted them a limited form of anesthesia, so surgery has advanced a bit more than typically expected], they’re actually intelligent and understand anatomy. They also know how to bandage very effectively (the stupid sloppy bandages in movies irritate me. But, that’s only because I’ve studied actual historic techniques). And, they don’t feed people sheep brains or toad fat or the fingernails of dead children.

    So, all that rant is to say that you are not alone and a few of us are trying.

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