Sometimes a Fantasy is All You Need*

tolkien-and-fantasy-seriesAs this is posted, it would have been J.R.R. Tolkien’s 124th birthday. Whether or not you’re a fan of Tolkien’s work, it’s hard to deny the influence he’s had on generations of readers and writers. And, if you think about it, Tolkien set himself quite a task. He didn’t just create plots and characters, as all writers do. He invented whole new realities and sets of assumptions. And that’s to say nothing of the variations on languages that he invented.

And we could say a similar thing about more modern fantasy series, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Roger Zelazney’s Chronicles of Amber series, or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. Those who write fantasy series create all sorts of alternate realities, relationships and so on.

What’s the appeal of fantasy series? If they’re well-written, then the characters are appealing. We care what happens to them. And fantasy series can be very effective as escapes from daily life. Underneath, though, the good ones address issues that we all face: love, loss, quests, conflicts, human traits, and so on. So, even though they don’t describe the real world we know, they are realistic in the sense of the way the characters interact and evolve.

This is a crime fiction blog, of course, so one question we could ask is: do series such as the Lord of the Rings novels ‘count’ as crime novels? Strictly speaking, they may not. But there are certainly crimes aplenty in them.

As Tolkien tells us in The Fellowship of the Ring, the One Ring was the motive for more than one murder (I’m not talking here about conflicts between warring factions). As an example, two Stoor Hobbits find the ring in a river, and one falls so much under the spell of the ring that he kills the other to get it. There are plenty of other examples, too, in these novels, of different crimes that are committed to get the ring, or because of it. And that’s to say nothing of crimes committed for other reasons. So, although you might not think of this as a crime series – and it isn’t, by most people’s estimation – it certainly features its share of criminal acts.

What about J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series? These novels have become classics, and not just in the YA/young reader market. Millions of adults love them. The adventures of Harry Potter and his friends take place mostly at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The plots involve many different sorts of fantasy creatures, magic, and so on. But they also capture the lives of the young people who attend the school. And in that sense, they resonate with readers who are going through (or remember) the same sorts of challenges.

But are they crime novels? Again, most people would say, ‘no.’ At least, not strictly speaking. But if you think about it, there are certainly crimes committed in them. As fans of this series can tell you, Harry Potter’s parents were murdered when he was a baby. Harry was almost a victim, himself. There are several other plot points in the series that involve murder, conspiracies, and other crimes. So, although most people don’t think of the Harry Potter novels as crime fiction – and they really aren’t, in the sense that we often think of that genre – they certainly have crimes woven through the plots. Perhaps it’s little wonder that Rowling has also written crime fiction under the name of Robert Galbraith.

Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series is a set of novels featuring Corwin, Prince of Amber, and later, his son, Merlin. Amber is ‘the one true world,’ of which Earth is only a shadow. The early novels focus on Corwin’s gradual (re)discovery that he is one of the potential heirs to the throne of Amber, although his brother Eric rules it at the beginning of the series. As the novels go on, we follow Corwin’s return to Amber, the conflicts among the rivals for the throne, and the adventures that the various family members have. It is very much a fantasy series. It’s also an interesting look at family struggles, dysfunctional relationships, and the human nature that’s behind greed, power grabs, and so on.

The series become very popular in the 1970s and 1980s as a set of fantasy novels. But are these books crime novels? They don’t focus on particular crimes and their investigations, as ‘typical’ crime novels do. However, there’s plenty of crime in this series. There are murders, conspiracies, abductions, and more. It’s by no means the peaceful story of a magical kingdom…

Nor is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. As fans know, this series features an epic struggle for power among several families. But it’s a lot more than that. The series features rival fictional Houses, supernatural beings, and other elements of fantasy. It’s also a gritty look at jealousy, greed, dysfunction, and more. So, in that sense, you might argue that the series resonates with readers on a very human level.

And there’s plenty of crime, too. There are planned assassinations (some of which are, and some of which aren’t successful), other murders, and arson, among many other crimes. In fact, many people consider it a very violent series. So, while it’s usually classified as a fantasy series, there’s a strong argument that there are elements of crime novels in it, too.

And that’s the thing about these well-known fantasy series (and many others I haven’t had space to mention). They may not be, strictly speaking, crime series. But they do contain plenty of crime. More than that, they’ve had a great deal of influence on our culture. And, put quite simply, many people think of them as well-written stories that sweep the reader away.

What do you think? Are you a fan of fantasy series? Do you see elements of the crime novel in them? If you’re a writer, do you write fantasy?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Sometimes a Fantasy.


Filed under George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Galbraith, Roger Zelazny

30 responses to “Sometimes a Fantasy is All You Need*

  1. Tim

    I’m not sure about fantasy fiction, which I have hardly ever read, but S/F has plenty of crime. Here is the link to one interesting and superb example:
    As for other S/F examples, I bet your readers/visitors/commenters can come up hundreds.

    • That’s quite true, Tim, and I’m glad you brought it up. There is a fascinating overlap between sci-fi and crime fiction, and Winters’ work is an example of how it can be done very, very effectively.

  2. Fantastic post Margot and some Kings of fantasy fiction novels there. In the past, when I’ve done my talk on detective fiction and where the genre comes from, I’ve cited Terry Pratchett’s Vimes novels from the discworld and Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next as contemporary authors who cross genres, writing crime fiction in a fantasy world. There are many that do it in sci-fi too, but that’s another post 🙂

    • It is, indeed, D.S. And thanks, not only for the kind words, but also for mentioning both Fforde’s and Pratchett’s work. As you say, they are very talented contemporary authors who’ve done a lot to meld crime fiction and fantasy. I like it a lot that authors cross genre boundaries like that. I think it keeps things interesting, and invites readers to try something a bit new. And I’m sure your talk on detective fiction is absolutely fascinating.

  3. I’d argue (and have done so, I think) that the Harry Potter books are indeed mysteries. There are carefully planted clues scattered throughout the seven volumes which, properly interpreted, could help readers solve some of the mysteries. One very early example of what I mean: Harry’s “conversation” with the snake in the first book paves the way for explaining a more sinister conversation with a basilisk in book 2, not to mention the giant snake, Nagini, in later volumes. I see the series as a classic whodunit with heavy supernatural/fantasy elements.

    • You make a strong argument, Les, about the Harry Potter books. Certainly Rowling makes use of clues, and includes other elements that most people associate with the mystery novel. I like the way you look at the series from that perspective.

  4. mudpuddle

    Jack McDevitt, sci fi writer… just finished two: Polaris (a locked room mystery in a spaceship) and Seeker (a whodunit involving lost colonies and murder)… there’s a prequel i haven’t read yet, but i recommend these two…

  5. Nope. Not a fan. Tried about four times to get through LOTR (the book) & never got more than half way. I saw all the films as they came out here on boxing day and i was on godson duty…but I mostly slept.

    I’ve read all the potter books but again only because I had to (goddaughter this time).

    to me fantasy, magic, the paranormal are all in the same bucket and are not for me. I wish they were – I’d love to have the kind of brain that can get lost in them – but I can’t.

    • Fantasy/magic stories aren’t for everyone, Bernadette. If the plots and characters don’t draw you in, well, they don’t. And the whole premise of magic and so on do demand suspension of disbelief – sometimes quite a bit of it. Well, if nothing else, you can take pride in what a good godmother you are…

  6. Margot, nearly every work of fiction has some crime element in it, be it fantasy, sf or western. Harry Potter definitely has strong elements of crime fiction. In fact, I wonder if the series would have been as successful if there had been no criminal, conspiratorial or suspenseful subtext to the adventures. Except for Book 1, the series goes far beyond YA fiction with shades of fantasy, mystery, horror, romance, occult, and mythology. In that sense, one can’t bracket Harry Potter in any one genre. It belongs to nearly all of the categories.

    • It is hard to pin that series down to just one category, isn’t it, Prashant. I think it’s because there are several different sorts of plot strands and so on in those novels. And it’s interesting you would make that observation about fiction. Author Sophie Hannah has said that just about every great novel has some sort of crime in it, and perhaps she has a point.

  7. Apart from LOTR and Dune, both of which I read when young, and Harry Potter which I read when I worked in a school, I really can’t do fantasy much. I try every now and again, but I must be missing the gene. But I do agree that a lot of them have crime elements, as do a lot of sci-fi novels… crime fiction is taking over the universe! Bwahaha!!

    • Bwahaha, indeed! Our evil conspiracy is succeeding! 😉 – You’re not alone, FictionFan, in not getting deeply into fantasy as a genre. It isn’t for everyone, even for those who may sample it here and there. I’m glad you mentioned Frank Herbert’s Dune series. That’s another series where the emphasis is on the fantasy elements, but there are certainly crimes woven through it. As you say, crime fiction is bent on world domination…

  8. I agree with Les above – Rowling planted amazing clues in the Harry Potter books, she was very clever about it. That was one reason I was so keen to read her adult crime books later: I was certain she’d be good at it.

    • Les really does have a good point, Moira, no doubt about it. It makes me wonder whether Rowling had planned, even then, to try her hand at crime fiction at some point. I wouldn’t be surprised.

  9. I don’t write fantasy, but I have read all Lord of the Rings, some of Harry Potter (I think I still have three books to go), a couple of Carol Berg’s fine novels, and a few others. I’m partial to dragons and Hobbits.

    • There is something about Hobbits, isn’t there, Pat? You’re not alone in your partiality. I’ve not written fantasy, either; and, although it’s mistake to say ‘never,’ I honestly don’t see myself doing it. Still, I do respect people who can create whole new worlds like that.

  10. Janet F

    Great post, Margot. Also, interesting comments from everyone. It’s always good when you find a mystery or crime interwoven into a book which is not of that genre, as you say. And you show so many other genres doing this, so good. Loved your ‘evil’ conspiracy plan 😂😂😂

    • Thanks, Janet 🙂 – Glad you enjoyed learning about this conspiracy. Just…don’t let it get around, will you? 😉 – And it is interesting, I think, just how many novels, regardless of genre, have mysteries woven through them. I think it’s at least in part because we want things to make sense. We get curious, and we want that curiosity.

  11. Another intriguing post, Margot. I do enjoy reading fantasy from time to time and as you mention, there so much more involved than just fantasy. I remember reading Lord of the Rings years ago and some of my friends thinking I was nuts for reading such a weird story. I’ve wondered since then how many times they have watched the movies from those very same books. 🙂

    • Thanks very much, Mason. Your comment about your friends and their film-watching made me smile. I think a lot of people who wouldn’t think of themselves as being fond of fantasy have watched their share of those films. And you have a good point: in a well-written fantasy novel, there’s a lot more than just dragons or magic spells.

  12. Great post Margot…and SK’s Dark Tower series and it’s spin off’s for me. which if looking at them in this way would be crime also?

    • Thanks very much, Chris. And you know, I hadn’t thought of the Dark Tower series, but it certainly is a good example of exactly what I had in mind with this post, so I’m glad you filled in that gap. And it’s doubly interesting, since it’s written by a skilled horror/crime writer. And yes, I’d say there are elements of the crime series in it.

  13. John Scalzi’s Lock In is both Science Fiction and a crime novel, and there is plenty of crime and suspense in his Old Man’s War series. I have read the first book in the Garrett P.I. series by Glen Cook. And the books by John Courtenay Grimwood that I have read blend science fiction, fantasy, and crime fiction. And there are many more out there that I haven’t tried yet.

  14. Reblogged this on .

  15. I’ve never considered it before, but now that you mention it, I can see the traits that crime novels within these series/books. I once had a CP who wrote family dramas, but all her books revolved around a crime. In my view her books leaned more toward crime than “family drama” (is that even a genre?). Nonetheless, she doesn’t want to label them as such. No idea why.

    • Oh, that is interesting, Sue! You know, I hadn’t thought of how authors might feel about the way their work is perceived when I was writing this post, but it does matter, doesn’t it? Hmmm…….lots of great ‘food for thought,’ there, so thanks.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s