Fantasy posts
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Guest Post by Philip Martin, What’s in a Label?

This week, I have a guest post to showcase.  Philip Martin has written two books on fantasy writing: A guide to Fantasy and The purpose of Fantasy.  In the post he has kindly donated to be shown on this site, he discusses the merits or otherwise of genre labels.  It was first shown on his own site on fantasy literature.  It’s great to get the opinions of other writers and readers alike (we hear enough from me!) so if anyone wants to write a guest post, drop me a line via the contact me section of my site and I’ll see if I can make a spot.  Many thanks and over to Philip!

Thomas M D Brooke

A guide to fantasy litThe Purpose of Fantasy

Fantasy Books . . . What’s in a Label?

How useful are genre labels? Book categories? Age-range banding of books for children or adults?

Affixing “labels” to writers, living or dead, is an inept procedure . . . a childish amusement of small minds. . . . at best it overemphasizes what is common to a selected group of writers, and distracts attention from what is individual (and not classifiable) in each of them, and is the element that gives them life. . . .

– J.R.R. Tolkien, in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, 1981

Some writers do follow literary forms and genre conventions closely. Others bend the rules and break the frame with glee.

I myself have on occasion looked at labels for fantasy works (sorry, J.R.R., but it’s still a useful thought process). In my 2009 book A Guide to Fantasy, I use a paradigm of five golden rings: looking at story approaches I call high fantasy, adventure fantasy, fairy tales, magical realism, and dark fantasy.

But I see these rings of tradition as interlinked – yes, feel free to compare them to the Olympic logo! They are elastic, flexible, not exclusive.

My new book, The Purpose of Fantasy, examines the question of age-banding. Are children’s books only for children?

Certainly not. Many great authors have written books as stories to be enjoyed by anyone of any age whose heart is open to the story’s path and purpose.

As Richard Adams noted in his introduction for the 2001 edition of Watership Down:

I went from publisher to publisher and literary agent to agent. . . . They all said, in effect, the same thing: “Older children wouldn’t like it because it’s about rabbits, which they consider babyish; and younger children wouldn’t like it because it’s written in an adult style. . . .”

I thought, “Who’s talking about children? This is a book for readers of all ages.”

Watership Down, first published in 1972, became an immensely popular book for adult readers. It placed 42nd on a list of 100 of the UK’s “best-loved novels” in a 2003 survey by the BBC’s Big Read, logging in between Anne of Green Gables and The Great Gatsby. The list intelligently does not segregate children’s books from adult books.

And the grand winner, after three quarters of a million votes . . . voted the UK’s “Best-Loved Novel”:

None other than J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings.

(Pride and Prejudice bustles in at number 2).

Hmmm . . . I suspect the UK’s “Best-Loved Novel” is one label Tolkien probably wouldn’t have complained too much about!


  1. ‘Watership Down’ was a sort of war story translated into a children’s story enjoyed by adults. I don’t know how many kids enjoyed reading the saga – which it was – but my wife was pretty taken with it. I’ve never been into stories that involve talking animals, not since stepping up from infant school, but the storyline reminds me of ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’, but there’s an overwhelming sense of loss at the end. .


  2. Very good site you have here but I was wanting to
    know if you knew of any forums that cover the same topics discussed in this article?
    I’d really like to be a part of group where I
    can get comments from other knowledgeable individuals that share the same
    interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know.


    • I’m glad you liked the site, thank you. You are always welcome discuss topics here, and submit posts on this subject if you wish.
      However, if you want a forum based site, you could try They have a fantasy sub-category and you may be able to discuss this issue there?


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