“I believe that the fantastic is an area of literature that is heavily dependent on the dialectic between author and reader for the construction of a sense of wonder, that it is a fiction of consensual construction of belief. This expectation is historical, subject to historical change, and is not unique to fantasy. Wayne C. Booth has written that ‘for experienced readers a sonnet begun calls for a sonnet concluded; an elegy begun in blank verse calls for an elegy completed in blank verse’ (Fiction 12). This dialectic is conditioned by the very real genre expectations circling around certain identifiable rhetorical techniques that I will be describing. Intrinsic to my argument is that a fantasy succeeds when the literary techniques employed are most appropriate to the reader expectations of that category of fantasy.”
–Farah Mendlesohn

In Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn sets up the project of “understanding of the construction of the genre; specifically, I wish to consider its language and rhetoric, in order to provide critical tools for further analysis” (loc. 100-102).  She further sets forth a focus on “the way in which a text becomes fantasy or, alternatively, the way the fantastic enters the text and the reader’s relationship to this” (loc. 116-117) and identifies “four categories within the fantastic: the portal-quest, the immersive, the intrusive, and the liminal” (loc. 132-133). She puts this forth as a taxonomic understanding of the genre, though she does not attempt to claim universal applicability or to preclude other such taxonomies, preferring to “open up new questions” rather than to “offer a classification” (loc. 143-145). She emphasizes, “Generally speaking this is a book about structure, not about meaning” (loc 169).

Mendlesohn’s allowances for disagreement and difference are helpful, as I cannot help but bristle somewhat at the strict categories she puts forth–though, even she is willing to acknowledge that there may be crossover and “hybrid” texts. In defining her categories, she writes, “In the portal-quest we are invited through into the fantastic; in the intrusion fantasy, the fantastic enters the fictional world; in the liminal fantasy, the magic hovers in the corner of our eye; while in the immersive fantasy we are allowed no escape. Each category has as profound an influence on the rhetorical structures of the fantastic as does its taproot text or genre,”  and notes that “Each category is a mode susceptible to the quadripartite template or grammar— wrongness, thinning, recognition, and healing/return—that John Clute suggests in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (338–339)” (loc. 134-138).

Aside: It is noteworthy that Mendlesohn draws a connection between “liminal fantasy” and Todorov’s “the fantastic,” noting that “his ideas are encompassed within this section but do not describe the whole. Liminal fantasy as discussed here is very clear that magic, or at least the possibility of magic, is part of the consensus reality, a position rather different from, but not in conflict with, Todorov’s more specific interests” (loc. 314-316).

She addresses some complexity of, for instance, texts that might straddle the divide between “immersive” and “portal-quest” fantasy, by noting that much “quest” fantasy, which is often set in a completely separate world from our own, “adopts the structure and rhetorical strategies of the portal fantasy: it denies the taken for granted and positions both protagonist and reader as naive” (loc. 375-376). This seems, perhaps, to ignore instances where the protagonist is clearly not naive but the reader is assumed to be–The Dresden Files leap immediately to mind as a popular genre example–but as Mendlesohn has already acknowledged the validity of alternative perspectives, I can justify following where she leads at this point. (She also does not win points from me by observing that “it is perhaps not coincidental that the classic portal tale is more common in children’s fantasy than in that ostensibly written for the adult market” (loc. 363-365), but as it is not her focus, neither shall I make it mine.) In many ways, Mendlesohn seems to be describing The Hero’s Journey when she describes “quest” or “portal” fantasy, moving from the known world into the unknown.

Here Mendlesohn puts forth a claim that I must entirely resist, that “Fantasy, unlike science fiction, relies on a moral universe: it is less an argument with the universe than a sermon on the way things should be, a belief that the universe should yield to moral precepts” (loc. 445-447). This strikes me as far too prescriptive–or, arguably, observationally descriptive–these are trappings of fantasy in some cases, but they fail if one treats fantasy as process or method rather than object or product. At this point I find concise language for what I’m groping after: fantasy as methodology, not taxonomy. In considering that Mendlesohn’s taxonomy is incapable of directly answering my interests, I am freed from trying to fit square peg to round hole and may instead focus on allowing her ideas to illuminate my own thought process. (That is: I can take her arguments as a kind of process or method, a journey in fantasy terms, rather than being overly fixated on them as conclusion/destination/commodity. This makes sense to me as I write this, yet I also pause to wonder what value it may really hold–a tangent of interest, but also one I will not presently explore.)

Mendlesohn spends much of her chapter on portal-quest fantasy establishing theories of narrative structure and power dynamics, accusing fantasy stories that present traditionalist worlds with a hero who breaks from that tradition as “imperialist” and accusing maps and histories as removing the possibility for history to be a constructed argument instead of absolute truth. This leads her to conclude that “It is a truism that fiction is about conflict, but in the portal-quest fantasies the possibilities for such conflict are limited by the ideological narrative that posits the world, as painted, as true. Consequently, it is this closed narrative that restricts the plot possibilities for most quest and portal novels” (loc. 701-704). This is an interesting view, though it’s also one that I cannot quite agree with; this is less about fantasy, perhaps, and more about a post-modern distrust of fixed narratives. It’s applicable, even interesting, but I’m not certain it’s more particularly true of fantasy than of many other genres–if anything, it brings to light certain genre shortcuts, such as pointing out observations by Diana Wynne Jones that scrolls in fantasy always seem to reveal truth and so forth, that speak to me more of lazy writing than true genre convention. (Of course, when a bad habit becomes common enough, it may certainly become a convention of the genre–but not necessarily so.)

However, as much as I may find friction with this taxonomy, it is key to note that these elements are parts of what Mendelsohn uses to distinguish quest-portal fantasy from immersive fantasy. The noteworthy rhetorical structures seem to be a static world, where the present and future seldom live up to past glories, where the world is revealed through authoritarian narration of one form or another, whether via or to the POV character(s). Change tends to come through the actions of the hero, though they are often as not governed by external forces, such as guides and prophecy, rather than an evolving world of which the heroes are only one part. The immersive fantasy, as she examines it, “is a fantasy set in a world built so that it functions on all levels as a complete world. In order to do this, the world must act as if it is impervious to external influence; this immunity is most essential in its relationship with the reader. The immersive fantasy must take no quarter: it must assume that the reader is as much a part of the world as are those being read about” (loc.  1572-1575). This creates an extremely heavy burden for the author: expository reflection is a narrative device that almost always steps outside the narrative, addressing the reader as if they must be instructed, and in immersive fantasy, this must not be done.

Aside: Mendlesohn reflects that The Lord of the Rings is really a portal-quest fantasy existing within an immersive fantasy. Putting this in terms of the Hero’s Journey, The Shire is our Ordinary World, and stepping beyond it is the “portal” and “quest.” Is is further interesting to note that Mendlesohn is critical of a world where objective truth is not only possible but known when this is clearly a reflection of the author’s philosophy–Tolkien believed in objective Truth, so it is not curious to note that Gandalf does as well and presents his information that way. What is interesting, here, is the distinction she makes that The Shire, a comfortable and known world, is not presented this way, thus distinguishing the immersive from the portal-quest.

While I’ve grappled with this text and have found its taxonomy of perhaps only little direct use, its method of interrogating how the fantastic enters a work and what the relationships are between reader, author, and fantasy offer much that is useful to consider. Clearly, a fantastic process or method must address these questions at some time or another, and this text offers much to consider on that front. Further, it invites the writer of fantasy to examine on a very structural level the choices that have gone into constructing their narratives. For that alone it seems highly useful; I, for instance, can look back on stories I have written and see where I have struggled with form, for I lacked the scaffolding and language to ask myself useful questions about it. Mendlesohn’s text frames such questions very usefully, suggesting various rhetorical elements to structure that remained previously elusive to me.


Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan U P, 2008. Kindle edition.