"Myths and mythology weren't to give meaning to life but to give us an experience of life, an experience of vitality in being alive." -Joseph Campbell
When you think of fantasy, what springs to mind? Elves, orcs, fairies, vampires? Perhaps a certain broom flying wizard? Is it archaic language that sounds like the words were lifted from the King James Bible? Perhaps an epic quest for a magical stone?
Here's the thing, the thing I think some writers, especially those who don't understand fantasy, don't get. There are no rules in fantasy. Ursula LeGuin describes fantasy as, "A journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like psychoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you." And what amazing journey's fantasy authors have been taking us on.
Fantasy has been around for as long as humanity. With the Epic of Gilgamesh, we have been searching for meaning, pushing the boundaries of our imagination. The Odyssey, Divine Comedy, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Princess and the Goblin, and Grimm's Fairy Tales make up many of the early fantasy traditions. As we moved into the 19th Century authors became more inventive creating more than just a quest-like journey or morality tale to scare young children into behaving. Rudyard Kipling had talking animals, Edgar Rice Burroughs dabbled in both science fiction and fantasy, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne was the father of what we now consider steampunk. And all of these writers have opened the door for modern fantasy writers, particularly children's writers like Tamora Pierce, Lloyd Alexander, J.K. Rowling, Megan Whalen Turner, Natalie Babbitt, and Rick Riordan.
Sure there are tropes as with any kind of storytelling. Most popular currently is a cataclysmic disaster that shatters the world, often sending civilization into a medieval existence. Although I do differentiate between sci-fi and genre, I understand that others do not, and so this would probably encompass dystopian sci-fi for some readers. Tied to the disaster stories are the advanced technology subgenre. Examples would be City of Ember and Artemis Fowl.
Perhaps my least favorite trope is the ancient language with thee and thou and shall nots, because you can't have a fantasy medieval like world if they don't sound like they are from the middle ages, right? Wrong. Fantasy, even high fantasy, doesn't need old language especially considering these are by definition, fantasy world. They can talk any way they want. Beka Cooper by Tamora Pierce proves that an author can create their own dialect and cadence. Holly Black often has worlds full of fairies and magic and I don't recall a single 'doest thou' in her novels.
Of course, there is a whole cast of fantasy characters to choose from. Zombies, vampires, wherewolves, fairies, nyads, dryads, elves, dwarves, orcs, unicorns, goblins, mages, priests, knights, sorcerers.
Personally, I don't mind when fantasy novels have these elements, but the point is, they don't have to have any of these things.
The Thief is set in a fantasy world that has no magic, only old gods, who may or may not be helping those in need. The contemporary, The Secret Tree hinted at magic, but at no point was any displayed. Tuck Everlasting featured a family that never dies but the true magic lies in the journey and not immortality. Kneebone Boy felt magical for almost the entire book, but in the end, was a created fantasy by others, featuring no fantasy elements, although there was a castle. Fantasy can be portals, medieval worlds, urban, and fairy tales. It can have wise old wizards or be completely devoid of anyone wise.
Recently, I finished a book by an author that shall not be named who simply did not understand what fantasy is. This author didn't understand that sometimes magic is just a feeling, created within the journey. When a good author pushes the boundaries of imagination, ignoring the stereotypes of whatever genre they are writing, the freedom to create will take the story from fantasy to something fantastic. Taking both the reader and the writer on a journey that in Ursula LeGuin's words, "will change you."