Steph Ward explains:
Everyone believes in different things. Some people may say that they believe that eating meat is wrong because it is cruel to animals, and some people may say that they believe ghosts exist because they saw one. Who is the average individual to question the beliefs of others? The concept of fantasy is very fluid and difficult to pin down when one takes into account how truly subjective it is. Depending on the beliefs of an individual a work of fantasy can easily be considered to be a work of speculative fiction. A majority of fantasy is completely subjective, based upon the personal beliefs of the individual, there are some exceptions to this subjectivity, depending on the way that the novel is set up. A novel that takes place in our world is much more difficult to classify as fantasy than a novel that is set in another world.
A belief can come from anywhere. Some sources of beliefs that may affect what we see as fantasy may come from places like our own experiences, our culture or our religion. Since so many fantasy novelists pull ideas from religions (whether it is Paganism, Christianity or otherwise) it only seems natural that beliefs in religion may alter our perception of what fantasy is. Take the novel Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett: this novel gives you an eschatological tale in which the AntiChrist has been born and will bring about the end of the world. The concepts of the Apocalypse, angels, demons and the AntiChrist are things that are very real to many groups of people because of their beliefs. So the classification of this novel becomes subjective. One’s religious beliefs may dictate that this is not fantasy at all, merely a speculation, a possible course of events about something that will inevitably occur. On the other side of the coin, if you are an atheist and do not believe in anything religious then this book becomes a work of complete fantasy, as you have no beliefs to ground it. Therefore, whether you consider this book to be fantasy or not is a completely subjective thing. There is no way to do it without disagreement from some groups.
Good Omens is particularly subjective because it deals directly with religion, something that people already have extreme beliefs about. The debate of “Is this fantasy?” does not always have to be this heated. It is hard to find an individual who does not believe that The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien is a fantasy novel. This is not to say that it is not a subjective belief. Certainly, some may claim that Middle-Earth does exist but these beliefs seem much less rational to us than the claim that angels exist. Why is this? This occurs because The Hobbit does not take place in our world. This novel takes place in another world entirely, one that the author admittedly made up. It is much easier, and much more rational, to have subjective beliefs in our world than it is to have subjective beliefs about another world. In Middle-Earth, we have only what we are told by Tolkien to form our beliefs on. In Good Omens, which takes place on our Earth, we have all of our personal experience and beliefs about our world to take into account before we can make a decision.
Much of Good Omens is supported by other tangible things, things that we already know exist. The novel makes mention of the Bible, of the Satanist and Christian faiths, of Nostradamus and other prophecy makers, things that we know actually exist or existed. On top of that it adds things that could exist, things that many people do believe exist such as angels and demons. The novel also takes place in our world. We have enough information, from our own life experiences and from those things the novel makes reference to that we know exist to be able to make a subjective judgment on the things that could exist. When Gaiman and Pratchett say, “Many phenomena--wars, plagues, sudden audits--have been advanced as evidence for the hidden hand of Satan in the affairs of man...” (15), it is easy for me to make a subjective call on whether this statement is fantasy or not. That is because it is based in my world and I have experience with all of those evil things listed. I may have been told by the Bible, or by my parents or a hundred other outside sources that Satan causes evil in the world. Since I already know this it is very easy for me to subjectively say that this is not fantasy at all, this novel is actually taking a set of beliefs from outside sources and building a story out of them. However, if I had been raised to believe that neither God nor Satan exist and that the Apocalypse is a bunch of bologna I would say that this is a fantastical concept that is imaginary only. But, if we look at The Hobbit, which takes place in another world, the classification of the novel is much simpler because we have no influence from outside sources. When Tolkien explains that hobbits are “a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort...” (2), I do not have to decide whether a hobbit is a fantastical creature or not because this novel does not take place in the world that I live in. I cannot have a rational, subjective belief about a world that I have no experience of. Good Omens references things that I know, and a world that I am familiar with, so I can make a subjective judgment based on my beliefs about the world as to whether I think this novel is fantastic or speculative. The Hobbit does not allow me to do such things. I have been told that Tolkien created Middle-Earth. This is not my world, so this is fantasy.
Whether something is fantasy or not depends on our beliefs. Our beliefs depend on our experiences and influences from our world. A novel that takes place in our world is open to much debate as to whether or not it is fantasy. That is because people have such varying beliefs on our world. Any novels that take place in our world can never definitively be called fantasy, or anything else. There will always be debate because the human experience and beliefs vary so greatly. However, if a novel does not take place in our world it is much easier to simply slap a fantasy label on it and be done with the whole ordeal.