The Shadowy Realistic Types of Fantasy: Magical Realism, Mythic Fiction, and Mythpunk
In my survey of fantasy subgenres, I’ve saved a comparison of perhaps the most elusive until the end of my series. These three purposely walk the line between reality and fantasy, playing with readers’ minds as part of their appeal. Some term these categories literary rather than genre fiction. I consider them fantasy, and they are among my favorite. These three follow a linear progression, from one to the next.
Magical Realism is a type of fiction that blends magical elements with the real world. Those bits of magic are treated as commonplace realities in the storyline. The matter-of-fact acceptance of magic in the world as we know it has a startling impact. The juxtaposition of the unbelievable in a realistic setting provides the hook of the genre.
Characters often possess a peculiar oddity, perhaps being capable of living well beyond a normal lifespan, or having an unusual gift of levitation, flight, telepathy or telekinesis.
Magical realism is not readily embraced by Western readers, who more often require a reality founded on natural and physical laws and are not so accepting of an unsubstantiated mythic reality. Reading this genre does require a leap of faith, since it expects us to let go of common ideals and societal mores. Non-western culture better accepts mythology as a foundation for everyday life.
For some background, the term magical realism originated in 1955 from the art world, to describe a trend in fine art adapted from surrealism. In literature, the focus tended toward an examination of the mundane, everyday aspects of life seen through a hyper-realistic, mysterious viewpoint. Franz Kafka, writing in the 1920s, was credited as the genre’s founder. Latin and South American authors strongly influenced its development, including Venezuelan Arturo Uslar-Pietri, Cuba’s Alejo Carpentier, and Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. Toni Morrison’s Beloved shows a fine American example of the style.
Perhaps the best-known work is the novel by Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude. That is truly one of my favorite books, but I went through a range of emotions while reading. I strongly disliked it at first, because it required me to read in a way I hadn’t before—with a lot of acceptance.
A reader must let go of his/her preexisting ties to what is conventional in terms of plot advancement, linear time structure, scientific reason, etc. This is to transport the reader into a state of heightened awareness of life’s connectedness or hidden meanings—quite a mental journey. It often employs a writing tool called textualization—a fictitious reader enters the story within a story while reading it. That makes you self-conscious of your status as a reader. Then the tool takes another step, when the novel’s world enters into the fictitious reader’s world, blurring the lines of reality.
The authors deliberately withhold information and explanations about the disconcerting fictitious world—a technique termed author reticence. The narrator does not provide explanations about the accuracy or credibility of events described or views expressed by characters. The story proceeds as if nothing extraordinary took place. This technique is necessary since explaining the supernatural world would immediately reduce its legitimacy relative to the natural world. The genre can therefore explore new realities and has been used as a platform to express new political ideals. For this reason, it was chosen as a key type of literature in Central and South America.
Several fantasy writers have said that “magic realism” is only another name for fantasy fiction. Terry Pratchett said realism “is like a polite way of saying you write fantasy.” I agree in part, that it is a subgenre of fantasy. But it stands on its own as a distinct subgenre, since the category utilizes specific techniques like textualization and author reticence to provide a slightly different reader journey than in other fantasy subgenres.
It is thought that magical realism gave rise to Mythic Fiction. That subgenre was influenced by writers Anne Sexton and Angela Carter, both feminists who promoted their views with adult fairy literature. Carter’s book Nights at the Circus is a good example of a work that forged a new direction from magical realism.
Mythic Fiction includes contemporary works that rely heavily upon mythology, folklore, fairy tales, and the tradition of oral storytelling. Authors included in this subgenre include Charles de Lint and Terri Windling. Along with co-editor Ellen Datlow, Terri Windling influenced what works were labeled mythic fiction, in their annual volumes of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (1986-2003). Those anthologies pushed the boundaries of fantasy to include mythic works. Datlow and Windling also edited the Snow White, Blood Red series of literary fairy tales for adult readers, as well as many anthologies of myth & fairy tale inspired fiction for younger readers such as The Green Man, The Faery Reel, and The Wolf at the Door.
Mythic fiction often employs character archetypes previously defined in mythology, rather than inventing their own personages, legends, and folklore. The works are set in the modern world, making the category easily confused with urban fantasy. However, the key elements of magical systems and character roles are more rigidly defined, adhering to past definitions.
The Endicott Studio, under direction of Terri Windling and Midori Synder, has been influential in recognizing authors of the mythic fiction subgenre. They have compiled a recommended reading list of what they believe are the 100 best novels of contemporary mythic fiction. This includes some amazing reading, many on my own TBR list.
Mythpunk represents the newest branch from mythic fiction. The most notable author of this subgenre is Catherynne M. Valente. Her work The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden is a textbook example of the category. She defined the new label—a brand of speculative fiction which starts in folklore and myth and adds elements of postmodern fantastic techniques: urban fantasy, confessional poetry, non-linear storytelling, linguistic calisthenics, world-building, and academic fantasy.
I found that definition a bit stiff so I discovered a more casual interview with Valente where she was asked what about the “punk” element in mythpunk sets it apart from mythic fiction. She answered, “…mythology, folklore, the fairy tales we grew up with told us all about a defined world where we could only be a few things: princesses or witches, princes or paupers, wizards or hags. Mythologies that defined a universe where women, queer folk, people of color, people who deviate from the norm were invisible or never existed. It’s about breaking that dynamic and piecing it back together to make something strange and different and wild.”
So mythpunk is about the unpopular crowds of fairytales, rather than the glamorous princesses and princes. It reexamines mythology with a modern politically correct view. Therefore, this subgenre modifies the easily discernible character archetypes of mythic fiction.
Valente was also asked an interesting question—why most mythpunk writers were young, female, and working for small presses. She replied, “Well, I think women have a lot of ground to stand on when it comes to feeling anxiety toward fairy tales and traditional mythological narratives. Young people like to break things. And anything playing out on the edge is going to have truck with the small presses at some point, because small presses take big risks.”
Other mythpunk authors include: Ekaterina Sedina, Theodora Goss, and Sonya Taaffe. The mythpunk aesthetic can also be found in the music of The Decemberists and in the film Pan’s Labyrinth, certainly my favorite movie of all time.
You can see how these three subgenres, magical realism, mythic fiction, and mythpunk are related as extensions of one another. However, each utilizes those shadowy edges of reality to take the reader on an unusual and rewarding journey.
Title image: Un Ballo in Maschera by George Tooker.