Modern Fantasy vs. Traditional Fantasy

Although it is certainly not the most popular genre in literature, fantasy is still a prevalent concept to this day.  New authors are emerging with intriguing worlds and systems of magic, and it seems like the influx of new ideas and creativity is boundless.

But which is better, modern fantasy or traditional fantasy?  What’s the difference?

Traditional Fantasy

What comes to mind when you hear “traditional fantasy”?  Probably The Lord of the Rings.  Why?  Because J.R.R. Tolkien has been called the “father of modern fantasy” (which means his type of fantasy is technically old, but it just paved the way for modern fantasy).

Image result for lord of the rings art

The Lord of the Rings was one of the first stories that had a truly unique world, a world with its own history, diverse cultures, races, secrets, etc.  Even if you aren’t a fan of Tolkien, you have to appreciate the sheer greatness and vastness of Middle Earth.  To this day, all the works of Tolkien haven’t been deciphered and published…a job which has been passed down to Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien.  It’s incredible that an elderly man could have such a crazy but fantastic imagination!

Image result for lord of the rings art

As is evident by the pictures I’m using, people go crazy for the world that Tolkien created.  Something that I think a lot of people are impressed by is how well Tolkien contrasts light and darkness, the forces of Good and Evil, without sounding preachy or sugar-coating anything.  Although, in my opinion, the books themselves are not fantastically written, the STORIES of Middle Earth are fantastic and beautiful.

Okay, yeah yeah, Tolkien is great.  But what’s unique about his literature, giving it the title “traditional fantasy”?

Well, like a lot of old stories (aka, classics), the Lord of the Rings is written with a sense of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.  According to the Ancient Greeks, particularly the philosophers, art was meant to reflect the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.

The work of art should reveal to the viewers the Truth…so that they people might understand the Good…and, in doing the Good, they might obtain what is Beautiful.

Isn’t that awesome?

And the Lord of the Rings does this by pitting Good versus Evil against each other, by showing how wonderful Light is against Darkness, by creating heroes and stories that are truly empowering to those that witness and read them.

This is what makes traditional fantasy unique and treasured.  Pick up The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Once and Future King, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.  It is from these stories that we obtain the idea of fantasy, and, in light of the True, Good, and Beautiful, what fantasy is meant to be.

Modern Fantasy

Modern fantasy both has and lacks some things that traditional fantasy lacks and has.  For instance, modern fantasy is very entertaining.  Pick up Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson (sometimes called the Modern Tolkien), or the Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare, and you’ll find these books are very entertaining.  Usually, the pacing is a lot faster.

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Some good things about these books is that the characters are more relatable.  They have flaws.  It’s not that the characters in LOTR do not have flaws, it’s just that the characters are not as “down to earth”.  They don’t struggle as much, or their flaws just aren’t as apparent or human.

Contrast that with the heroes of Mistborn or The Mortal Instruments.  These characters are more down to earth.  They have relationship issues, identity issues.  Things that people struggle with on a day-to-day basis.  This is good; it helps people connect better with the characters they are reading about, it might even help them overcome similar problems.

Image result for the mortal instruments

However, from what I’ve read, what do modern fantasy stories lack (sometimes)?

The True, the Good, and the Beautiful.

Sometimes, I get the sense that authors are trying to justify their own problems through their characters by allowing the characters to be heroic even though they aren’t truly True or Good.  This can obscure a story from becoming Beautiful.

It’s not just fantasy; take a look around you.  Standards aren’t too high anymore for a “hero”.  They can drop somebody dead without thinking, steal, and act out of vengeance and still be paraded about.  Who cares if they sleep around, kiss three different boys, etc?

There can just be a lack of depth to the writing too, as if Modern Fantasy does nothing to challenge the reader to think about life’s big questions.  There is less of “what does it mean to be human?”  “what is truly evil and truly good?” etc.  It’s simply all about “what happens to this characters, the choices he or she makes, etc”.  And then we are left with the uncertain feeling of what’s right or wrong, or even believing (in error) that there is no right or wrong.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter!  Are there any modern fantasy stories that impress you?  Fail to live up to expectations?  Let me know in the comments!

As luck would have it, I have written my own fantasy novel!  I would love to hear how it makes you feel and think.

Is it a good modern fantasy novel?  On Kindle, it’s only $0.99!  I know you have 99 cents to spare, so the only reason you wouldn’t buy it is because you’re lazy!  And you don’t want to be lazy 😉

Click here!

Cover art by Elizabeth M

6 thoughts on “Modern Fantasy vs. Traditional Fantasy”

  1. This concept of “modern” vs. “traditional” in fantasy reminds of an article I read about the differences between British/English/European children’s stories and American ones. One of the key differences was the prevalence of kings, nobility, peasantry, “divine right,” and all the trappings that go along with it within the stories from the “Old World”, and the prominence of personal achievement, hard honest work, and all the trappings of a more independent and individualistic society that pervaded the “New World” works. This difference produces what is often referred to as a lack of magic, whimsy, or fantasy in American stories when compared to their European counterparts. In much the same way, I speculate that the frame of reference of modern fantasy writers is influenced by the current culture which seems to demand flawed heroes and sympathetic villains. The stories still provide the clash between heroes and villains, but the satisfaction of good triumphing over evil is softened by the idea of ethical perspective changing what we see as good and bad. The traditional fantasy, however, as you stated, requires the dramatic presentation of good and evil clashing with clear-cut sides and the knowledge that good must and will triumph in the end. Ethical perspective has no place in this classic formula.

    Another clearly defined difference that I see between traditional and modern fantasy tends to lie with setting. Traditional fantasy is rarely, if ever, contemporary, even for the time when the stories are written. CS Lewis came the closest, by having his characters whisked from his current era to the fantastical realm that operated on its own time frame, where the bulk of the stories took place. Tolkien’s works are intentionally historical in nature, as it was his goal to write a unique “mythology” for England. Most of the modern fantasy I see is either futuristic, (and frequently dystopian in nature,) or set in “current day.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hmm, good point about the difference between American and European/British writers. You’re absolutely right, the differences you mentioned really set the stage for differing the “traditional” from the “modern”. Now that you mention it, I think it’s worth noting that the people we identify as “traditional” are British/English authors, like Tolkien and Lewis! And then the people that I referenced in my post for being “modern” were all American.

      It’s amazing how big an impact cultural differences make!
      Thanks for the comment, it could be a post in and of itself!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My favorite fantasy stories are the ones that have a traditional setting, but manage to escape the worn-out tropes and stereotypes. I love traditional fantasy, but I get tired of seeing the same old stuff over and over again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I like the traditional setting too! Can you give me some examples of those kinds of books you like to read?


  3. Fantastic post! Let me say though that if you like you can expand upon the different varieties of fantasy even further. There is epic fantasy, urban fantasy, dark fantasy, comical fantasy, etc, etc. The list goes on.

    In terms of preferring between traditional fantasy and modern fantasy, my viewpoint goes for both. It depends on how it’s written. I’ve read very poorly written traditional fantasy and very poorly written modern fantasy. Likewise I have read masterpieces on both sides. There is something to be said for the beauty of simplicity of good vs evil, but it’s also nice to read a story with more complex and questionable characters. Both types of fantasy are needed to create a rich tapestry of literature.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re thoughts are most wonderful, if I might say so. You’re right, I could’ve gone into the different types of fantasy…but that itself would create another post!

      I wholeheartedly agree with your views of traditional fantasy and modern fantasy. I think both types are needed as well! Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

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