As I’m certain both authors and readers can attest, there are already lots of different forms of fantasy: epic/high, urban, sword & sorcery, to name a few, not to mention subgenres like paranormal romance or how often sci-fi serves as an umbrella term with fantasy nestled underneath.
In what follows, I lay out a proposition for a new way of discussing fantasy. This approach responds to the urgency of global warming and offers a narrative vision of connection to and interdependence with the natural world. Ecofantasy moves beyond glorified visions of a premodern past. Instead, it sparks new, imaginative ways of being part of Nature. Stories in this genre may not propose concrete changes in daily actions that will benefit the earth. However, they do provoke a reevaluation of our relationship with the natural world and inspire a sense of not only kinship with but of belonging within our larger ecosystem. (The levels of this belonging can shift from personal, communal, to global scales.)
So why add yet another category under the fantasy umbrella?
I’m so happy you/me asked!
My first reason sprouts from some of the misconceptions and prejudices around the fantasy genre. For one, and especially from the outside, many people view fantasy as a masculine genre. Fantasy authors like JRR Tolkien, George RR Martin, Robert Jordan—all men with really well-known, widely read fantasy series come to mind. But this leaves out a vast swath of femme fantasy writers.
But my genuine problem with misconceptions around fantasy is that it’s backwards-looking and all about the past. I’m not trying to say that isn’t sometimes true. Take Lord of the Rings for example. The vast majority of the already quite old (white, male) characters in the novel spend their free time hankering for a long-distant, glorified past. They long for a time when true heroes walked the earth, and there was honor, and… you get the picture.
It’s like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her famous TED talk: the problem with stereotypes isn’t necessarily that they’re untrue but that they’re incomplete. We’re missing part of the fantasy genre’s potential by viewing it as something that’s only backwards-looking. (I’m especially thinking of the fantasy subgenres that tend to have medieval settings as opposed to urban fantasy and paranormal romance.)
Although, we do use the past to write our vision of the future—we’ll come back to that.
But let’s say that fantasy is a nostalgic genre. That would still tell us something, like what we’re nostalgic for, which is really what’s inspired my intervention.
When we lump all medieval-esque fantasy narratives together, we obscure the past that many contemporary writers are pulling on that is also a vision for our future. I’m not referring to a romanticized, false vision of the past but instead to something we’ve lost. I mean a past where we knew there was magic in the earth. A past where we were necessarily connected to nature.
These visions are also not fantasies of untouched nature, where the natural world and “civilization” remain completely separate or even opposed to one another.
We need a fantasy that helps us write a more optimistic version of the future, a future where there’s hope for our fight against climate change.
And that’s where ecofantasy comes in.
What is ecofantasy?
By ecofantasy, I refer to a subsection of the fantasy genre that:
- depicts humanity’s connection to nature (in a way that)
- emphasizes our codependence on the natural world
- without relying on false dichotomies or divisions between human society and Nature
Somewhere in these narratives, there needs to be harmony between human civilization and Nature. The “fantasy” shouldn’t be a nostalgia for an untouched earth based on a false, idyllic vision of the past. Instead, ecofantasy inspires imaginative change in our conceptualization of both Nature and ourselves. This approach allows humans to find a place within the natural world, a role as co-participants in a living, breathing, ecosystem.
Why add a special term?
In the 1970s, Barbara Smith wrote about the importance of scholarly study of Black, lesbian, female writers. This was far in advance of our contemporary thinking around intersectionality. Smith argued that without this study, these writers would remain invisible. But, if she could undertake a study of this population of writers, Black, lesbian, female women would be rendered visible, not only as writers, but also in society at large.
Referring to Adichie’s TED talk once more, she speaks of how her first stories were of blonde-hair, blue-eyed children running around the snow in England instead of brown children with kinky hair growing up in Nigeria. At the time, she hadn’t encountered people who looked like her in literature, so it was hard to imagine them belonging there, of stories being about them.
I don’t want to draw too exacting a parallel between what I’m suggesting for combatting global warming and the visibility, representation, and equality Smith and Adichie are working to bring about.
What’s in a name?
What I want to draw from them is this: language and naming make ideas and concepts real. They bring them into being. My hope with coining ecofantasy and describing books in that fashion is that our conversation around Nature, both past and present, and our connection to the earth, can change.
How many times do multiple “once-in-a-lifetime” events need to occur in a single year for us to take this seriously? And of course here I’m speaking rhetorically. By having read this far, I assume you already grasp the urgency of taking action against global warming.
I’m primarily hoping to change our perception about the imaginative action we could start to take. If we can make those actions more imaginable, we can also take those actions.
We cannot create change that we cannot imagine.
I had the pleasure of hearing Mohsin Hamid speak a few years ago about his novel Exit West and the imaginative work he saw his novel doing. Hamid argued for the power of stories, especially in the sci-fi genre, to help us imagine worlds that didn’t yet exist.
With ecofantasy, I hope we find ways of seeing a world that already exists, a world to which we are connected, a world that needs us, individually and collectively. And then, I hope that re-seeing moves from our imaginations to our actions.
I’m hoping to flesh out this part of my eco fantasy proposal more as the study progresses. For now, we start with the representation of nature-based magic.
Most of the examples of ecofantasy that I’ve identified thus far depict magical power as coming from nature.
In Naomi Novik’s Uprooted for example, the land inherently possesses powerful magic that holds sway over the Valley’s residents. The protagonist, Nieshka, is uniquely adept as well. Part of her remarkable power arises in its origin from the earth, like the witches before her. Additionally, the novel’s magic system ties together nature and language.
Shelby Mahurin’s Serpent and Dove trilogy serves as another great example of nature-based magic. The witches’ ashes, embedded in the earth itself, serves as the foundation, the origin of their magic.
We see something similar in The Broken Earth Trilogy by NK Jemisin.
Nature-Based Magic in my own fiction
Nature-based magic is a theme I explore as an author as well as a reader. Iellieth Amastacia, one of the the main characters in the Age of Azuria high fantasy series explores her own natural gifting with magic in Buried Heroes. She is not alone in her gift with nature. In the novel, she seeks out other like herself, namely the druids of Caldara.
An Enemy Force Beyond “Civilization”
One of the markers of high fantasy is a story about the end of one era and the beginning of another. As the previous era falls, disaster strikes.
In ecofantasy, which (so far) I see as a branch beneath epic fantasy, the enemy force goes beyond the threat of civilization. We move away from the dichotomy that separates nature and civilization. The ultimate evil is something more sinister, and often grounded in nature, or in the destruction of both natural and settled places.
The Wood Queen in Novik’s Uprooted is a great example of this. Her past history reveals a conflict between her people and an invading, “civilizing” force. But she taps into something deeper than destroying the woodcutters as she enacts her revenge.
Joining Nature and Settled Spaces
Another example comes from Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, where we have layers of “enemy” forces from the natural world. It begins with the Staryk, a winter elf king, but as the novel progresses, we perceive the larger stakes and the true threat to the natural world. That larger evil force endangers both the human world and the mystical world of the fae.
Threatening these two worlds at once reemphasizes our own connections with the natural world. We do not exist separate from nature. We are part of it.
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Thank you so much for allowing me to share my thoughts with you on ecofantasy. I’m really excited to see where this idea goes over the next few years. If you’d like to contribute to the conversation, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!