The Fantasy Literature of England

Reviewed by:

G. Connor Salter, Professional Writing alumnus from Taylor University, Upland, IN.


The Fantasy Literature of England


Colin N. Manlove


Resource Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers

Publication Date:

May 11, 2020 (first edition by Palgrave MacMillan published 1999)




230 pages


Fantasy literature of all kinds has been around for centuries, from the Grimms’ fairy tales to modern magical realism novels. While fantasy stories can be found all over the world, Colin Manlove argues that England has a particularly rich history of the fantastic, even in periods where the English public frowned upon it. He leads readers through English fantasy literature, first with a chronological history and then breaking the genre into six subgenres:

  • Secondary world fantasy
  • Metaphysical fantasy
  • Emotive fantasy
  • Comic fantasy
  • Subversive fantasy
  • Children’s fantasy

In a chapter on each subgenre, Manlove considers its defining traits and recurring themes. In the process, he notes how England’s tolerance for fairy tales has shifted over time, and how changing attitudes to faith, science and the supernatural influenced different fantasy writers and movements.

Manlove admits up front that the lines between fantasy and other genres (such as science fiction) are hard to define. He gets over this problem by using critic Brian Attebery’s idea that fantasy literature is what logicians call a “fuzzy set,” a group with central members and surrounding ones which become less connected as they move further away from the center. This idea allows Manlove to consider how certain stories can fit into fantasy but also be members of other genres. He can talk about the Gothic novel as a kind of fantasy, even though that tradition eventually evolved into the modern genre we call horror fiction. He can also consider how writers like Clive Barker (whose work is often described as dark fantasy or fantasy horror) contributed to the genre, even if they are properly speaking on the periphery.

The “fuzzy set” ideas also helps when Manlove starts unpacking the different subgenres. He admits in the introduction that these subgenres bleed into each other, with many stories which could fit multiple labels. For example, The Lord of the Rings is secondary world fantasy, but it has elements of desire and pastoral scenes, both elements seen mostly in emotive fantasy. Because he’s already set up the fuzzy set idea, Manlove can describe what makes each subgenre distinct but also reference certain books in multiple chapters, showing how fluid these distinctions can be.

 Manlove’s ideas about each subgenre are well-developed, and he does a great job of showing how each one has morphed over time. He frequently builds on ideas that Tolkien and Lewis contributed to the genre, but without making his particular interest in the Inklings too blatant. He brings up their particular ideas, such as Lewis’ emphasis on desire for the supernatural, throughout the book, and readers familiar with Manlove’s previous books can see when he’s referencing his past research on them. However, Manlove doesn’t lean on their ideas so heavily that the book turns into “Lewis and Tolkien and then everyone else.” He’s careful to use a multiplicity of sources, and show the full diversity of the genre, not just the particular end of the spectrum influenced by Lewis, Tolkien and their circle.

All things considered, Manlove gives a very thorough and enriching overview of English fantasy.


Rating (1 to 5 stars)

5 stars

Suggested Audience

Readers interested in the detailed history of fantasy literature in England, including how C.S. Lewis and Tolkien have influenced the genre.

Christian Impact

Manlove highlights the particularly Christian themes or concerns that appear in a lot of English fantasy, especially during the pre-Enlightenment era when almost all fantasy had Biblical elements or imagery. He also explains the shift that took place during the Victorian period, as Darwinism affected people’s faith in the Bible, affecting how the way fantasy novels talked about Christianity and faith in general. As in Manlove’s earlier Modern Fantasy, his analysis shows how fantasy has been concerned with spiritual ideas from the beginning, even though more recent authors have become more interested in religious hypocrisy or crises of faith.

Note: This book builds on ideas that the author developed in his earlier book Modern Fantasy: Five Studies. To read ECLA’s review of Modern Fantasy, go to:

The Fantasy Literature of England


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