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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What is medieval fantasy for adults?

When we were children it was easy for us to become enchanted by stories and films that were riddled with unrealistic scenarios and outcomes because stories designed for children and the wider audience are for the most part unrealistic on purpose. After all, fairy tales intentionally contain absolutes and one-dimensional characters because they’re important for the growth of our children’s moralities and identities. And many traditional fantasy novels, inspired by medieval fairy tales, continue this pattern of writing for children and the wider audience. If you’ve chosen the path of a medievalist or simply are passionate about medieval living you probably already know how easy it is to be dissatisfied with most medieval fantasy. There are of course gems like The Traitor Son Cycle and A Song of Ice and Fire which are intentionally inspired by actual history rather than fairy tales and these tend to grab a different audience.

I dream for medieval fantasy stories that even the most scholared of academics can not only enjoy but lose themselves in just like they do when they read manuscripts in their preferred niche. Not yet to this day is there a medieval fantasy movie deserving the description ‘realistic’ (of course excluding non-fantasy historical epics from the 1920s to 1980s like A Man for All Seasons).

Once you’ve truly delved into medieval history you too will realize how unrealistic even the newest of medieval films and TV shows really are. For instance the movie Ironclad has thatch that’s only as thick as my thumb; The Last Kingdom shows everyone, even the rich, wearing drab-colored clothing; Game of Thrones, perhaps worst of all despite its reputation, shows swords stabbing through breastplates!

Realistic fantasy will never be better or worse than unrealistic fantasy because at the end of the day everyone needs something to read.

For further reading consider the volume Misconceptions About the Middle Ages edited by Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby

Once again I make a shout out to http://manuscriptminiatures.com/ for the amazing image!