What Is Magical Realism?

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For centuries, fantasy novels were a staple on any bibliophile’s bookshelf. Still, the storylines were firmly rooted in magic, with little to no realism involved.

But by the middle of the 1920s, a new genre of literature made its way onto the scene, which incorporated some of fantasy’s most well-loved magical elements against a backdrop of everyday life. The genre was called magical realism. Since then, it’s gone on to become one of the most important subgenres of fantasy fiction.

In this article, I’ll cover everything you’ve always wanted to know about magical realism, including what it is and where it came from. Plus, I’ll include some famous examples of popular magical realism books from the genre’s heartland of Latin America.

So, What is Magical Realism?

I’ve already written a brief introduction to magical realism in my recent post about great magical realism books, but in case you missed it, here’s my take on this fascinating genre…

Magical realism blends elements of fantasy into realistic tales. On the surface, these stories often take place in mundane, everyday settings with real-world characters. However, extraordinary, magical creatures and events are interwoven into the plot and require the reader to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the ride.

So, in a nutshell, magical realism is about taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary.

Of course, every magical realism story is unique, but there are a few overriding themes that most, if not all of them, include. A real word setting is an essential component, so you won’t find Tolkein’s Middle Earth or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia here; these stories take place in locations that really exist or fictional towns and cities based upon life as it is in the real world.

Then, of course, we need some magical elements to contrast against this realistic backdrop. These elements come in many forms, for example, mythical characters, such as fairies and leprechauns, ghosts and ghouls, or witches and warlocks. They could also appear as otherworldly phenomena, such as a firmament of ice in the sky or a portal leading between two dimensions.

Another classic way authors include magic into magical realism is through the use of realistic, human characters who also happen to possess supernatural power, such as telekinesis, telepathy, or the ability to travel through time. But whatever form the magic comes in, it’s usually presented as a normal component of the world within the story, rather than something out of the ordinary and unexpected.

Subgenres Similar to Magical Realism

Magical realism is a unique genre that is easy to distinguish from pretty much all others. Still, it has a few characteristics that overlap into other subgenres, too.

Perhaps the most similar of these subgenres is urban fantasy. In many ways, most urban fantasy stories are also magical realism stories since they feature mythical creatures existing in real-world settings and scenarios. But urban fantasy is a little more nuanced, as the backdrops tend to be gritty, inner-city areas with a lot of crime, and the stories are usually most often set in the modern-day.

Another distinction between these two subgenres is that, as a general rule, urban fantasy contains more fantasy and less reality than magical realism does. For example, most urban fantasy books have a cast filled with wizards, witches, vampires, werewolves, and the like. But the characters in magical realism stories tend to include more regular everyday people.

The History of Magical Realism

The term ‘magical realism emerged before the genre hit the literary scene. It was coined by German art critic Franz Roh in 1925, who used it to describe a painting style that, thanks to fantasy elements and dream-like subjects, didn’t adhere to the strict rules of realism. But it was more than two decades later, when this fantasy subgenre first became popular, the term was used to describe an author’s work.

Magical realism has its roots in Latin America, where prominent writers began to blend traditional folklore elements into realistic plots and storylines. The genre was popular throughout Latin America from the early 1950s onwards. Yet, it wasn’t until the boom period of the 1960s that it really took off around the world. For the first time, these innovative authors received international acclaim.

Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez are credited as the fathers of magical realism, and writers around the world have emulated their approach of blurring fantasy and reality into one story ever since.

Yet while Latin America is the undisputed heartland of magical realism, earlier exceptions from elsewhere would have fit the category perfectly if the genre had existed at the time. One of The most famous examples of earlier magical realism is Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella, Metamorphosis, which describes a man who wakes up to find himself unexpectedly transformed into a giant bug.

Examples of Magical Realism from Latin American Authors

Here are some of the most famous books from Latin American authors whose work has put magical realism on the international stage.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude
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This classic 1967 novel by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez is the crowning jewel of magical realism and hailed as one of the most influential novels to come out of Latin America to date.

This epic tale follows the Buendia family and their adventures and struggles spanning across an entire century. Set in a time of extreme political upheaval, this multigenerational story is filled with complex and intricate characters, rich symbolism, and subtle elements of magic that make this the ultimate “fairytale for adults.”

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Like Water for Chocolate
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This delectable 1990 novel from Mexican author Laura Esquivel is an adventure into magical realism and a combined cookbook.

The story centers around Tita, the youngest De La Garza family member, and her struggle to find her place in the world. Born into a life of duty, she dedicates her every waking hour to caring for her mother while everyone around her flourishes in their freedoms.

But ever since she was a baby, she’s been surrounded by subtle magic, and as Tita grows into a young woman and learns to cook her family’s traditional cuisine, her powers flourish in the kitchen.

She discovers an astonishing ability to infuse her inner feelings into the dishes she creates, and everyone who tries them is affected in profound ways. And so, through her magic, she finally finds the freedom and expression she’s always craved.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

The House of the Spirits
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This classic 1982 book by Isabel Allende is one of the most beloved Latin American novels of the 20th century.

Just like One Hundred Years of Solitude, this tale centers around the trials and tribulations of a multigenerational family. Spanning several decades, the story examines each member of the Trueba family’s victories and tragedies as they struggle to survive and thrive in a time of political upheaval and revolution.

But youngest daughter Clara holds special powers that set her apart from the rest of her family. She’s a clairvoyant with the ability to see into the future and predict what lies ahead for herself and others. And although her family works to conceal her magic from the rest of the world, some powers are too strong to remain hidden away.

The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier

The Kingdom of This World
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Published in 1989, this landmark novel by Cuban author Alejo Carpentier takes the reader on a journey through a turbulent time in Haiti’s history, during the slave revolt of 1804.

Told from the perspective of a slave, the story documents the real-life struggles of a nation in turmoil. After suffering at the hands of white Europeans for centuries, the Haitian people finally freed themselves, only to be enslaved again by new leaders of their own kind.

This fascinating voyage through history is underpinned by the mysteries of Vodou magic, making this novel a quintessential, classic example of magical realism.

Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

Ficciones
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Ficciones is a collection of short stories from celebrated Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, who is considered one of the giants of the magical realism world.

Written between 1941 and 1956, these compelling, innovative, and often bizarre stories shot Borges to worldwide literary fame when they were translated into English just a few later.

These stories are classic examples of the mundane and ordinary fused with magic and mystery. Each one reads like a labyrinth weaving its way through realistic worlds filled with miraculous phenomena and fascinating characters with extraordinary powers.

Conclusion

Magical realism blurs the lines between reality and fantasy in a way that no other genre can. The stories above helped put Latin America on the literary world stage, setting a precedent for authors worldwide to create some of the most compelling fantasy novels of all time.

For more book recommendations, check out my article 10 Great Magical Realism Books You Should Read. It’s a selection of the best classic and contemporary works from magical realism authors worldwide.

What are your favorite magical realism books? Let me know in the comments below!

Bonus Read:- 25 Types of Magical Beings and Their Definitions.

Bonus Read:- 18 Types of Magic from Magical Worlds in The Most Popular Books.

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