Poppins Paradox

What is the only essential ingredient of fantasy? The Poppins Paradox explained

Apropos something else entirely my wife yesterday suddenly exclaimed: “I didn’t think Mary Poppins was a fantasy adventure…

I looked at her and grinned, then I made a sarcastic observation along the lines of: “No, I reckon it was a documentary film…”  but I later added, “What do you think the story of Mary Poppins is, if not fantasy?” As you can imagine, there was no answer to that question (probably just a slap!) However, the exchange got me thinking: what ingredients are required before you can say that something is a fantasy?


For example, using the Mary Poppins source to extend the argument: is one criteria of fantasy that it must reproduce an imaginary universe? Do not all works of fiction, be they speculative fiction, magazines, art, movies, etc. don’t they all fabricate imaginary worlds? Are not even daytime theaters, prime-time soap operas, and even the most daring kitchen sink dramas, regardless of the creator’s impressive attempts to depict reality & literal truth, are they not imaginary universes? So why don’t we call them fantasy?

real London?

The Poppins Paradox is that the story is based on a (in the film version, clumsy and hackneyed, I agree) “real world” setting, in this case London, at a point in “real world” history (a Disneyfied Edwardian England, I suppose) and it incorporates a cast of what seem to be, anyhow on the face of it, ordinary “real world” people. Actually, the British-Australian writer P. L. Travers always knew (and she always intended) that her books would be classed as fantasy adventures… and that’s because they featured a magical English nanny. So is it the addition of a “magical” element that makes a story a fantasy — rather than any attempt to create an imaginary universe?

Oz World

As fantasy writers, I think we can get bogged down (and easily convinced) into thinking we need to create imaginary universes. From L.Frank Baum’s Oz World (above), via Tolkein’s Middle Earth and across DC Comics’ multiverse and into James Cameron’s ecosystem, dropping by the continents of Westeros and Essos on the way through —  we have so much enjoyed reading about & creating our own detailed imagery for invented worlds that we get lost within them. (By the way, these are paracosms, and I discuss them in my non-fiction manual “So You Want to Write Fantasy” — and I also explain why you and I might be drawn into paracosmic worlds) — I’m not saying this is a bad thing — I’m just saying it’s not essential for fantasy…

But that brings us back to my original thought: what is the essential ingredient of fantasy (if it isn’t an imaginary universe?)

As I have said before, in much more detail, the supernatural and the fantastic have always been an essential part of any fiction project (not just fantasy fiction.) In fact, ancient civilizations couldn’t separate storytelling from fantasy… and maybe neither can we!

We're Diabetic

Imagine if I gave you a true-life account of one hour of my life from yesterday… a bit like a witness might give his accurate testimony in court… I think it would bore you to tears, and you would probably unplug or fall asleep before I’m done. Not only would my minute-by-minute and step-by-step story be tremendously tedious… it would also be long (endlessly long, you might think) because it would have to take-up more than an hour to narrate, because every component or aspect would have to be fully explained. Most undesirable of all, though,there wouldn’t be any point to it. There’d be no benefit. So you would ask: what was the point of all that? Why did I waste a good part of my life listening to it? What did I get out of it? In short, a real life account of an hour of my life would be an absurd and unproductive waste of time. Knowing this to be true, ancient storytellers sensationalized, romanticized, and glamorized their stories: they made them fantastic, even if those same stories were based on true events or real-world history. In other words, they hyperbolized the cojones out of their accounts! And the public loved it. So the storytellers knew they were onto something. And that’s how real life and the fantastic got mixed up.


Along came a Bulgarian-French historian named Tzvetan Todorov (1939-2017) who famously claimed that the “fantasticis a liminal space within the architecture of life. This is why I bang-on about liminality so much!

I previously covered liminality in greater detail in my Myth & Magic podcasts (you’ll need to listen to Episodes 13, then Episode 40, and Episode 51 please find the link below) but basically (very basically) it’s the idea that there are moments in our lives when continuities and situations dissolve or become uncertain or outcomes that are previously certain will be thrown into doubt… these are liminal periods (or thresholds) in our life; we meet them rarely (but occasionally) and we all experience them.

We will find (all of us) that during liminal moments (most often experienced in rites of passage) our understanding of time becomes fluid and malleable. And when time is amorphous like this, everything we think is true can be doubted.

Why do I feel so tired?

I propose that conjuring liminality, the positioning of ourselves or our readers on an impermanent (almost evanescent) threshold — is the only essential criterion of fantasy. This is why portals are so important in fantasy stories: you leave from a “real place” and enter the magic world of Narnia through a wardrobe, you board the Hogwarts Express and enter an imaginary world from King’s Cross station in London through Platform Nine and Three Quarters. Bilbo Baggins and, after him, Frodo leave the Shire to enter into their magical adventures at a liminal moment in their real lives (their joint birthdays.)

Even the act of picking up a book and immersing oneself inside the world it describes (or luxuriating in a fantasy adventure on screen) is a temporary journey into a metaphysical dimension. Yes, reading and viewing is a transitional moment (a temporary interruption) in how we experience the mechanical passage of time. How often do we suddenly blurt: “Good grief, is that the time?” after reading in bed for too long. How often do we leave a cinema and enter the pale sunlight (blinking) and think “gosh, the real world seems so weird...”

And Mary Poppins? She is caught up in the lives of the Banks’ children, Jane and Michael, and twins John and Barbara, by the east wind. Why then? Because it was a time of liminality: a fluid, malleable and impermanent time when new rules could be established for the young family, and a new “normality” could begin. Poppins always promised she’d “pop out” of their existence once the wind changed… and she did. Poppins’ period was transitional and she, the bearer of change, was merely a temporary evanescent visitor.

So to sum up: fantasy has many desirable ingredients: magic, supernaturalness, fantabulous plot elements, highly imaginative themes & settings, magical creatures, and detailed imaginary universes… but it has only one essential criterion: a sense of disorientation at a transitional moment: liminality.

Agree? Disagree? Ideas or comments?

Words: @neilmach 2021 ©

Comments? Tweet me @neilmach

Neil Mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.


Neuschwanstein — the beautiful Disneyland castle that connects myth & magic with real world history

How does the most beautiful castle in Europe connect all our ideas about myth and magic?

If you are an American writer of fantasy fiction or an American reader, you may have wondered why fantasy fiction focuses so often on a theoretical medieval Europe.

And you might also have wondered whether the medieval Europe of fantasy tales is really like it’s shown in the stories… or is it false? To be fair, it seems that the Disneyfication of our collective folk memory hasn’t helped much to disentangle truth from fiction. For example, we know that at least half of Disney’s most beloved films have been set in a speculative fantasy Europe (this includes recent films) Brave is set in Scotland, Frozen is set in Norway / Sweden, Maleficent is set in England, of course the much-loved Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are both set in Germany, Beauty and the Beast is set in France, The Little Mermaid (it should have been set in Denmark) is set in Switzerland, Peter Pan is set in England, etc. Even one of the most iconic motifs of the Walt Disney Universe, Cinderella’s Castle, is based on an existing royal castle… and I contend that it’s this castle — the most beautiful castle in Europe that unifies all our ideas about fairy-tales: But I warn you that you may not like what I’m about to say, especially if you consider yourself to be a rationalist: it would be a mistake to assume that the Europe of fantasy writers and the world of Disney film-makers is imaginary or counterfactual. It’s not. Fantasy Europe is real!


Wonderfully (perhaps hauntingly) and always fascinatingly… the Europe I live in is not just a fabulous micro-world of magical stories and narratives… it is not simply a place that is historically rich and “Disneyish” to behold… it’s a real fairyland! You do not believe me? I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: I live in an absolute monarchy and only a couple of miles from where a real-life queen sits in an ancient stone tower, inside a thousand-year-old castle. She keeps a Golden Ship near my place, she uses occasionally uses it to row down the Thames near my hometown. She travels down a river, incidentally, named after a water god of such antiquity nobody can remember its origins. Her home, which is a castle / palace sits atop a mighty mound that provides supernatural energy to her and her family… and is one of several castles she uses. And if she takes a coach ride (using a coach from her fleet of carriages and horses) through the local town of Eton, she will see schoolboys dressed in tailcoats that attend a school that looks more like Hogwarts than any school you’ve ever imagined. And this was where our prime minister Boris was educated! This is now, 2020. As I write this. This is real-life Europe.

Windsor Castle
Eton Schoolboys
Eton Schoolboys

We Europeans coexist with history in a way that establishes a special fusional relationship between fact and fable: between the mythical world and the “real and current world”. To understand this, try to guess how many castles there are in Britain. Go ahead, I dare you. We know the Queen lives in one (and she owns others, scattered around the islands) but how many of us Brits pass castles on our way to school, to the shops, or to the office? How many castles are in Britain? No one knows for sure — that’s how many! Historians quarrel over it (there are too many to count) but they settle on a figure of about 1,500. The principality of Wales has the highest number of castles per square mile in the world, over 500, in such a small country, making it the epicenter of castles in Europe. Although Germany has the most castles of any country in the world, France, Spain and Great Britain are close behind.

As for splendor, you probably can’t beat the Frederiksborg Castle in Denmark, as for impressive and ancient, Windsor Castle still stands out, what about H.M. Tower of London for darkness? And for romance you won’t get much better than Eilean Donan in the Western Highlands of Scotland. But today I would like to introduce you to the most beautiful castle in Europe – Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, Germany.

Eilean Donan in the Western Highlands of Scotland
Eilean Donan

Not only is Neuschwanstein so architecturally magnificent that it inspired Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, it also meets my conjecture that we Europeans live alongside our history in a way that creates a peculiar interplay between the allegorical & mythological and our current prosaic “real world”.

The castle of Neuschwanstein was built recently. The noble castle was commissioned by King Ludwig II of Bavaria as a haven created in honor of the German “Ring” composer Richard Wagner, who lived between 1813 and 1883. It was built at the end of the nineteenth century. That may sound like a long time ago to you, but to put it in perspective, as a teenager I had an aunt who was born in 1870… so she was present when this place was still being put together. It was constructed basically “yesterday” in terms of castle building. If you go to the tall citadel now you will see its Norman-Romanesque features with sky-scraping arches, proud towers, and exalted pinnacles, all built at enormously surreal eagle-soaring heights and titanic dimensions. But, to be honest, it’s not finished yet!

But the thing is, this place is not just a Disneyland castle, it also cuts across the gaps between history, modernity, and mythology. This place blurs the boundaries of what is “real” and what is “magical” and what is halfway between! This is the wonder of the castle.

Sadly, although it was a glorious tribute to Richard Wagner, the “Ring” composer never visited Neuschwanstein. And much of the castle remains unfinished (it looks finished on the outside, I admit, but it’s half-built inside). If Wagner had ever visited, he would have seen a performance hall where his operas would be sung. He might also have visited the famous Venus Grotto, a cave of artificial stalactites located on the third floor, which was inspired by the legend of Tannhauser, a mythical knight who supposedly found Venusberg, which is the legendary underground home of the Goddess Venus, in other words, Tannhauser visited the otherworld of classical legend.


Upon retiring to the castle grotto, visitors can still move into this liminal darkness to experience for themselves the concept of travelling from one dimension to another. And this would be especially sensational if there is singing from the concert hall situated above the grotto. So, this castle connects fable & legend with modern life. And, if you wanted to prove the link further, the connections between history, prehistory and legend, what about the fact that looted artworks, stolen by the Nazis during WWII, were stored here? Hitler planned to open an art gallery in the castle after the war was won. And inside the castle the Nazis stored-away several rare, magical and powerful symbols. After the Allied victory, U.S. troops discovered 21,000 stolen items within the castle, including altar pieces from churches, private jewelry taken from prominent Jewish families, and vast amounts of furniture. There were so many artifacts, they still haven’t all been catalogued.

And this is not the only castle that has been located here. Schwanstein castle was here long before the place we see now. But that edifice was demolished to make way for the Disneyland towers. And that older castle sat upon the remains of an earlier one, and that upon the stones of an even older one, and so forth. This area was settled in Roman times and the Romans probably put their own fortress on top of an existing prehistoric earthwork. The area later became a favorite summer resort for prince-bishops.

The Swan King - Ludwig II

This astonishing place links Saint Magnus of Füssen with water nymph-maidens of the Rhine, the Viking Valkyries and the dragon slayer Sigurd with the Roman goddess “Venus” — and all this was created in the mind (some say the mad mind) of a fantastical fairy-tale King known as the Duke of Franconia and Bavaria, Ludwig II, the Swan King, who was a direct descendant of a German-Bavarian dynasty that ruled over Holland, Germany, Sweden, Romania, Bohemia, Hungary, Denmark, Norway, Greece, and the entire Holy Roman Empire and gave rise to the Royal House of Windsor, thus the current British royal family who still rule over Britain and the Commonwealth.

It’s all connected. And we go full circle. King Ludwig’s fantasy castle links all these things. Neuschwanstein has associations with magical treasures, precious holy relics, sorcerers swords, the loot of the Nazis, the Royal families of Europe and the oldest of Norse beliefs. And it is built upon the sacred mounds left by prehistoric civilizations. You can visit it one day. It’s the most beautiful castle in Europe.

See the 2014 film The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney, to learn more about Nazi looting.

Words: @neilmach 2020 ©

Comments? Tweet me @neilmach

Neil Mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.