The fantasy genre has many subgenres to help categorize novels into smaller groups within this massive genre. Because fantasy is such a large genre, it is helpful to distinguish between the hundreds of thousands of stories that exist within the umbrella of “fantasy.”
One sub-genre of fantasy that you may not be entirely familiar with is surreal fantasy. This genre combines elements of surrealism and elements of fantasy to create a story that can sometimes leave you wondering what in the world you just read. Surrealism itself can be hard to define, and it can be even harder to understand. If fantastic and confusing novels are interesting to you, surreal fantasy is something you may want to check out.
History of Surrealism
Surrealism can be somewhat complicated to definite. There are a number of definitions that exist and the correct one will largely depend on who you ask. After World War I, artists, writers, filmmakers, and other creatives began creating works that were illogical and somewhat unnerving.
An important aspect in any work of surrealism is an element of surprise. Sometimes this is manifest as unusual juxtapositions. The surrealism movement was associated with communism and anarchism, so it was met with a decent amount of resentment, especially in the US. The largest center of the surrealism movement in the 1920s was Paris, but surrealism spread like wildfire across the globe.
As previously stated, the surrealist movement found its way into theater, art, film, and literature. Of these, surrealist literature is often the most difficult to understand. Surrealist writers are known for being all over the place with their thoughts and their writing. In fact, it is sometimes difficult to even follow what they are talking about. Because of this, surrealist literature has not gained a huge following compared to many other genres.
And today, surreal fantasy is still not a huge genre. But it does have some very dedicated followers. There are hundreds of books within the genre. In fact, you may have heard of some of the books within this genre without even realizing that they are surreal fantasy.
Elements of Surrealist Literature
There are a few important elements to remember when deciding if a novel is surreal fantasy. The language and imagery used in surrealism are typically not connected in a logical way. There are often time jumps, dream sequences, and many irrational elements working together.
Dream sequences or fantasy sequences are very popular in surreal fantasy. In these novels, the reader may or may not be aware that it is a dream or a fantasy, but the characters are almost certainly unaware of this fact. The dream sequence allows an entire story to happen, just to find out that it was all a dream. This is a simple way to explain all of the fantastic and surreal elements that occur in the book.
In many surreal works, there is no narrator telling the reader what is going on. The reader has to piece things together as they go.
Irrationality is another popular element of a surreal novel. There are bound to be things that just don’t make sense. There is no explanation for them, and that may be unnerving or irritating for some readers. Not everything in a surreal novel will have explicit meaning, and it may not be logical.
Surreal fantasy takes all of the elements of surrealism and adds in magic, quests, or mythical creatures. Surrealism differs from fantasy in that surrealism works from elements that could, in theory, exist in our world. Fantasy, however, contains elements that could never exist in our world.
Surreal fantasy takes elements of surrealism and fantasy and combines them, making the story potentially even more fantastic and interesting to the reader. Surrealism takes the rules of reality and turns them on their head. Fantasy then adds in new rules that are not realistic at all.
Examples of Surreal Fantasy
Even though it’s not the most popular genre, there are still some great examples of surreal fantasy. Surprisingly, it is a fairly old genre, with some classic books to choose from if it is something you are interested in. As previously stated, there are various definitions of surreal fantasy depending who you ask. The examples below may not be everyone’s definition of surreal fantasy, but they generally fit the genre.
One of the most popular surreal fantasy stories is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. It is more commonly known as Alice in Wonderland. In this novel, a young girl falls through a hole in the ground to Wonderland. Here, she encounters talking animals, all kinds of various creatures, and an evil queen. This novel is quintessential surreal fantasy because not only does it contain elements of fantasy like magic and a grand adventure, it also contains many of the important elements of surrealism.
There is a lot of irrationality in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Even the characters themselves say so. There are moments where nothing makes sense. Something that you understood just a page ago is now something completely different with little to no explanation.
At the end of the novel, the reader finds out that it was all just a dream. Young Alice didn’t actually travel to Wonderland. This ending to the novel wraps up all of the loose ends. All of the whimsical and irrational things that happen to Alice while she is in Wonderland don’t need to be explained or made sense of. Dreams are often nonsensical, so the story is too.
Though the book was published before surrealism really hit its stride, it is still considered one of the most popular surrealist novels. That, along with the fantastic elements makes it a great example of surreal fantasy.
The Neverending Story is a novel from 1979, which follows a boy named Bastian on an epic journey. The boy finds a novel in an old store and begins reading it. He starts to think that the characters in the novel are aware of him. Eventually, he finds his way into the world in which the story takes place and he interacts with the characters there. This element alone definitely categorizes this book as surrealism. Of course, the reader of a book cannot actually enter it and interact with the characters.
Once Bastian enters Fantastica, the world in which the book he is reading takes place, he encounters creatures and obstacles that he must conquer. This gives the book the elements of fantasy, thus, making it surreal fantasy.
The book concludes with the boy returning home. He goes to the owner of the shop in which he found the book and tells him about the journey he has been on. The shop owner tells Bastian that he, too, went to Fantastica. This leaves the reader wondering how much of it really happened, and how much of it was in his imagination. It is up to the reader to decide what was real and what was not. This is a classic element of a surrealist novel and a great addition to the fantasy of The Neverending Story.
Surreal Fantasy: Conclusion
I hope this article has helped clarify what this genre is exactly.
And as usual, feel free to leave a message in the comments below if you have questions about this or another fiction literature-related topic!