Liking Fantasy Isn’t Just About Liking Magic and Swords

Liking Fantasy Is About More than Swords and Magic

I can’t count the number of times someone has said something to me like, “You’d like Dungeons and Dragons because it has elves like Tolkien,” or, “You’d like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies because they have sword fights like Tolkien.”  The list of things I apparently “should” like because they are superficially like The Lord of the Rings is never-ending and ranges from Eragon to A Game of Thrones—but this argument is predicated on the very flawed assumption that what I like about Tolkien’s is work is simply that it is high fantasy, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Of course, I do like stories with magic and action, but The Lord of the Rings is not my favorite book because it has wizards and knights.  When people suggest this, assume it as obvious, I die a little inside—and begin to seriously question whether they have any understanding of art at all.  What makes a particular book unique and compelling and memorable is not generalities like the type of characters or the setting or the genre bur rather the heart and messages of the story, the things that it’s trying to say.  And to assume that someone likes every fantasy story because they particularly like one fantasy story is to fundamentally miss that point.

There are many things I like about The Lord of the Rings, including the language and the sense of history and, yes, the setting and magic.  But I reread it again and again because the heart of the story speaks to me: the fight between good and evil, the sense that a higher power is guiding events even when everything is bleak, the message that everyone’s choices matter and can make a difference, the idea that everyone from Boromir to Gollum deserves a chance at redemption.  The Lord of the Rings believes in things, presents a certain worldview, and that worldview resonates me.  The same cannot be said of every fantasy story.

His Dark Materials, for instance, is a story that believes in the exact opposite, that there is no higher power, that half the things you believe in that give you hope are a lie.  I find this depressing and dark, and I don’t much like the book as a result.  A Game of Thrones is dark in a different way, filled with backstabbing and killing and sordid acts, and I’m not sure it believes in much as a worldview either.  The focus seems to be on the characters and the plot.  Both books are interesting enough, but I certainly don’t like them merely because they are fantasy and have some exciting fight scenes.  I read them, and I moved on with my life; they do not resonate with me.

I like fantasy generally as a genre, yes, but I also like contemporary novels and mystery novels and historical fiction novels and so much more.  What makes a book compelling is not the surface trappings of the genre but what it ultimately says, what it reveals about humanity or our world or other important questions.  So, please, stop suggesting I will like books and movies and board games just because they have ogres or elves!

If You Like This: Also read my post on adapting classics.


16 thoughts on “Liking Fantasy Isn’t Just About Liking Magic and Swords

  1. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    I feel exactly the same way! I don’t read fantasy for famous swords, Elves, or badass female fighters. I look for the friendships between characters and how they respond to the amazing situations their worlds put them into. I love Tolkien’s works for the beauty and hope they have, in spite of the melancholy nature of Middle-Earth. I read Mary Stewart’s Arthurian Saga for the beauty of her prose and the mystical nature of her take on Merlin and how she renders the nature of sixth-century Britain.

    I don’t read fantasy for the sake of a cool magic system or for a single character’s concept. That doesn’t interest me. And while I’ve read certain grimdark stories like A Song of Ice and Fire (and enjoyed them), they’re not the ones I return to time and again. With fantasy, I look for certain moods, tones, and an array of characters I care about and who care for each other. Elves and swords are great, but they’re not the reason I keep reading fantasy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes! I think the interesting things about fantasy (or historical fiction or science fiction) are often the situations the characters in, or how those “unrealistic” situations can reveal things about human nature or other issues. But it’s far more than “Ooh, swords are cool!”


  2. marydrover says:

    I resonate with this so much. For me, it’s usually space-themed things. I get a lot of “well you must like astrology since you like space” or “this crazy scifi, alien-heavy book is definitely your thing” when, like, just give me The Martian over and over and over, and that’s what I like. Because, very much like LOTR, it’s not about the genre. It’s about the human element. It’s about the people and the choices they have to make and the world that they live in, both how that world views them and how they view it. Sure, dragons and planet-hopping are great, but what I’m really here for is Samwise and Mark Watney. Lord of the Rings is so excellent because it’s not about swords and politics and mythical creatures. It’s about its people, and it’s so beloved because of that.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      That’s interesting! I was vaguely wondering if people did this to readers of sci-fi, as well, since I read sci-fi occasionally, but I’m not sure people “associate” it with me. But, yeah, thinking ANYTHING set in space or with aliens is all the same and you must like ALL of it is nuts. It doesn’t make sense to assume anyone likes every book in any genre. At that rate, you might as well walk up to people and say, “I found a book. I know you like reading, so I think you would like this because, you know, it is also…a book. You like all books, right?”

      Liked by 1 person

      • marydrover says:

        Oh my gosh, YES! That’s exactly it, and it’s the most frustrating thing in the world. People get so mad at me when I say a book is a bad gift for me, but there are so few people who actually understand what the right kind of book to gift is.


        • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

          I give books as gifts a lot, and I hope I pick them out well, but it’s so hard to tell! I just make sure to never ask if they read it yet/if they like it, and it really helps if the person has a Goodreads TBR list or something!


          • marydrover says:

            It really is! I feel like if you know the person well enough, it’s not that bad. I usually only exchange books with two of my friends, but one of them has GR and the other one is very vocal about her tastes, so it works out, haha. But yeah, never ask after if they liked it because that always has the potential to be a tricky conversation!


  3. Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

    Oh my gosh, so much yes to this! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Well, you like fantasy, right? You should read this.” Um, no thanks. Fantasy is soooo freaking broad. Especially when you consider that it’s often lumped as fantasy *and science fiction*, so it’s even freaking broader.

    Someone at the library the other day handed me a book and said they thought I would like it because I like fantasy. xD I was like … thank you, but I don’t really read portal fantasy. They looked at me like I had three heads.


  4. unruh561273 says:

    I agree. I feel like there is this tendency to quickly reference one’s work to another. It has become a danger. A writer writes about a boy going to school and he finds a magic pen. Omg it totally HP. A writer writes about two friends to the death on a game called Rock Paper Scissors. OMG it totally the hunger games. 🤦🏻‍♂️ people need to just enjoy the story not find ways to downsize it. Write what you want because u want to! I honestly wish the trend would stop because I feel like it not helping the writing community.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I think people just make comparisons in part for marketing purposes, but I always feel let down like, “Really? This isn’t My Little Pony meets Doctor Who at all. It just happens to have ponies and a British guy in it.” Or something like that.


Leave a Reply! We'd love to read your thoughts!

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

You are commenting using your 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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.