Types of Fantasy

The four main types of fantasy writing and how authors use them to create unique and imaginative worlds.

Secondary Worlds

A fantasy world can also be called a Secondary World. This term was coined by J.R.R. Tolkien in his famous essay, *On Fairy-Stories*. He contrasted it to the Primary World, which is the version of the world we actually live in.

In Tolkien’s stories, the two worlds are separate entities, but other writers have linked their worlds together. In *The Chronicles of Narnia*, the Secondary World and the Primary World are connected by a portal at the back of a wardrobe. In *Harry Potter*, a wizard can simply walk between the Primary World and the Secondary.


In 2008, Farah Mendlesohn – an academic historian – studied a range of fantasy novels written in the last few decades. She identified four approaches to the link between Primary and Secondary Worlds: immersive, portal, intrusive, and liminal.

Immersive fantasy

An immersive fantasy is a story about a Secondary World with no links or connections to our own. Maybe it is set on a faraway planet, or in a completely different dimension. The characters in these stories never interact with the Primary World – the Secondary is all they know.

As a reader, these stories are rich and immersive. They thrust us into impossible worlds unlike anything we have seen before. Place names are different, races are different, even physics are different, with magic often commonplace.


*The Lord of the Rings* is a classic example, along with urban fantasies like *Perdido Street Station*, a story set in an industrialized, magical city. Whatever the setting, immersive fantasy relies on detailed world-building. For the Secondary World to feel real, it requires a lot of depth.

Portal fantasy

Portal fantasies are stories in which a magical gateway connects the Primary World to the Secondary World. A character from the Primary World will often stumble by chance into the Secondary World, then struggle to find their way back.

There are countless examples, from *The Chronicles of Narnia* to *The Wizard of Oz*. In Japan, portal fantasies are called ‘isekai’. Hundreds of Japanese books, films, anime, and games fall into this category.


The lost character in a portal fantasy might function as a reader surrogate. As they encounter a world for the very first time, we share their feelings of surprise and wonder. This is very different to an immersive fantasy, where the characters are already familiar with the world; what seems strange to the reader might not seem strange to them.

Intrusive fantasy

Intrusive fantasies are superficially set in the Primary World, but in a place where elements from a Secondary World have found a way to encroach. It is the opposite of a portal fantasy: instead of a character entering a Secondary World, the Secondary World comes to us.


Often, these intrusions are malevolent, like a magical monster turning up in the middle of a town. The monster disrupts the status quo of the local community, which might come together to chase it away – or in some cases, find a way to build a new life alongside it.

In *Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell*, by Susanna Clarke, malevolent faeries find a way to enter 19th century England, bringing magical misfortune with them. Another famous example is Bram Stoker’s *Dracula*, about a vampire who arrives in the seaside town of Whitby.

Liminal fantasy

Liminal fantasies are stories with small, fantastical elements hovering at the edge of the plot. These elements are often so faint and subtle that the reader wonders if they are there at all. Is this story taking place in a Primary World or a Secondary World?

Liminal fantasies are rare, but one famous example is *Wizard of the Pigeons* by Megan Lindholm. In this story, a homeless man wanders the streets of Seattle. He presents himself as a wizard, but readers suspect he is deluded. Maybe the magic only exists in this man’s broken mind.


Stories like this one blur the lines between reality and fantasy, and encourage readers to question their assumptions about the Primary World. If we saw the same world, through another person’s eyes, would it suddenly feel magical?

Exceptions to the rule

When Mendlesohn outlined her four types of fantasy, she made it clear that stories can be hard to classify. J.K. Rowling’s *Harry Potter* series initially feels like an intrusive fantasy, as Hagrid the half-giant turns up on Harry’s doorstep. Later, it becomes a portal fantasy, as Harry enters the magical world through a gateway in a King’s Cross station.


Philip Pullman’s *His Dark Materials* is another good example. This series starts off as an immersive fantasy set in a magical version of Oxford. But later, it evolves into an intrusive fantasy, when the characters living in this Secondary World find a way to enter our Primary World.

Fantasy fiction is supposed to break free from conventions, and challenge the rules of possibility. Because of this, it makes sense that certain fantasy stories also challenge the rules of categorization.

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