The Magic of Queer Fantasy

by Adam W. Burgess
published in Reading

Often when readers think about the origins of LGBTQ+ literature, we think about poetry and drama. Certainly, these two modes have a long history of presenting a wide range of non-heteronormative stories and themes, and perhaps they have been best suited for it. But LGBTQ+ stories in prose narratives have equally long histories. More interesting to me, though, is something that many of the early queer stories across all modes have in common, and which continues to be explored with great success by writers today: Fantasy.

Let’s consider, for example, Greek mythology. These stories were told and passed on orally at first, or presented on stage, but epic poetry has a narrative and acts much like traditional storytelling in prose form. While there may not be queer love of the kind we would recognize today, much because language and ideas, influenced as they are by time and culture, do not equate in retrospect, there are nevertheless numerous explorations of nontraditional experiences surrounding gender and sexuality. Some of these, like the stories of Achilles and Patroclus, were considered critically at the time (by the likes of Plato, no less!) and continue to be attractive today (See: Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles).

We can jump forward in time a bit and think of similar gender play or same-sex relationships in the works of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Jump ahead a bit more and we find Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) and George Sylvester Viereck’s The House of the Vampire (1924).

What each of these stories has in common is an interest in the fantastical. To varying degrees, the characters and plots, even those steeped in historical persons and events, err toward the highly imaginative. These writers reconsider what is, or was, possible in the story worlds they created. Whether this was to create a world that would allow for the open portrayal of non-traditional individuals and romances, or to encourage readers to expand their intellectual or emotional horizons, or all of this, the fact is that LGBTQ stories and the fantasy genre have become wonderful partners.

Let’s consider four ways that an LGBTQ fantasy world has been successfully created.

Independent Fantasy World

When we think of the independent fantasy world in literature, examples include those such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth from The Lord of the Rings and the world created by R.A. Salvatore in his Crimson Shadow trilogy. These are self-contained fantasy worlds separate from what readers would recognize as reality, with little or no connections in time, place, history, or culture. There is also no overlap between the realistic contemporary world a reader might be familiar with and the fantasy world also taking place as a part of, or in relation to, that world.

An exemplary LGBTQ series that makes use of this device is Mercedes Lackey’s The Last-Herald Mage trilogy. Published between 1989 and 1990, these three novels tell the story of Vanyel, an outcast elder son destined for greatness, though he doesn’t know it, and destined to disappoint his royal father, which is less surprising. The story is set in a world called Valdemar, where magic is common but not entirely trusted. What’s truly groundbreaking about this high fantasy trilogy is its publication at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Mercedes Lackey adds an author’s note to the 2016 omnibus edition that explains the conversations she had with her agent about the perils of publishing fantasy novels with a gay protagonist at this time. As she notes, they did it anyway, and readers around the world have been grateful ever since.

Directly Integrated Fantasy World

A directly integrated fantasy world is one where the magical and the realistic worlds are one and the same. There is no separation between the fantasy elements unfolding in the story and the ordinary world which we would recognize and in which these extraordinary events take place. An example of such a fantasy world might remind us of magical realism, where most of the plot seems plausible but sometimes something odd or inexplicable, even impossible, happens. If we take that one step further, we get a directly integrated fantasy world, where the ordinary and the extraordinary are equals. Think of, for example, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series.

An example of this kind of story in the LGBTQ+ sphere is Andrew Eliopoulos’s The Fascinators (2020). The story is set in an ordinary small town in the ordinary United States of America. It’s the kind of place anyone familiar with suburbia might recognize. And yet, driving the story are a group of teenagers who happen to have magical abilities. In this world, “magic just happens.” Much like skills in art, music, or sports, some people have the talent and the ability to grow it, and others do not. What is interesting about Eliopoulos’s approach is that, in the story world he creates, magic is a natural ability that is frowned upon by many. In this way, the author sets up a kind of allegory which, I think, is meant to suggest the illogic in hating a person for who they are. Another great example of this approach is Adam Silvera’s Infinity Cycle.

Indirectly Integrated Fantasy World

The indirectly integrated fantasy world is like the directly integrated world, except there is some distance created between what happens on the magical side of things and what happens in the realistic world. A classic example is, of course, Harry Potter, where all characters inhabit the same world, technically, and it’s a world with which most readers will be familiar; and yet, there’s a clear and necessitated distinction, a figurative line drawn between those living in the magical world and those living in what J.K. Rowling infamously calls the “muggle” world.

In LGBTQ+ fantasy fiction, this approach is rather popular, possibly because it allows writers to play off what is known, shared, and in a way non-threatening while also exploring what is different, unique, and extraordinary. Examples of these kinds of LGBTQ+ stories include Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On (2015) and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (2009). Both stories focus on young people—high school-aged in Rowell but college-aged in Grossman—who are exploring their magical abilities in magical schools that are set apart from the everyday, ordinary world. So, characters might leave home to visit non-magical family, for example, or keep a job in the ordinary world, all of which remains separate from their magical life.

Parallel Fantasy World

The parallel fantasy world is the mode we might be familiar with from a series like C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. In this construction, we find that the ordinary world and the extraordinary world are separate but crossable. In other words, the two are kept distinct more fully than they would be in an indirectly integrated fantasy world. It takes some effort for the main character(s) to move from their known world (which is usually similar to the readers’ known world) into the other, fantastical world.

In LGBTQ+ literature, this often appears in stories containing parallel universes (hence the name I’ve given it!) In adult fiction, for example, we might think of V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy. The first book introduces us to a cast of characters, one of whom is bisexual, that can traverse four distinct Londons, one of which is like the reader’s own non-magical version. Some of these worlds are in chaos, but one thing Schwab does beautifully is to introduce her queer character’s sexuality with complete nonchalance. It’s a refreshing bit of, “this is no big deal” in a genre that is sometimes too on-the-nose about sexuality and in a specific fantasy world that is filled with action and explosive moments. Another excellent example from the Young Adult genre is Corinne Duyvis’s Otherbound (2014), in which a boy from contemporary Arizona can see into, and eventually control, the mind of a girl living in another world.

Thinking About It

In your reading, have you explored LGBTQ+ fantasy specifically? What have you noticed about the fantasy worlds themselves? Do they fit any of these patterns?

In your writing, are you working on fantasy fiction with gender or sexually diverse characters? What kind of story world construction seems most practical to your plot(s)?

Adam W. Burgess is an English Professor at College of Southern Nevada. He has a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University and is pursuing a post-doc writing certificate at the University of California, Berkeley. He loves engaging in all topics related to LGBTQ literature and craft.

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