Fantasy fiction: From the Greek for “to make visible,” a type of fiction set wholly or in part in a world that is magical or that has magical elements. Fantasy settings are often vaguely medieval, Arthurian lands but may take a variety of forms, from cities on Earth to imaginary worlds to intergalactic space. Fantasy fiction is often populated by inhabitants subject to magic, witches and wizards, humanoids such as gnomes and hobbits, mythical creatures such as dragons and harpies, and beings such as elves, fairies, and nymphs. On the most fundamental level, fantasy fiction is make-believe; it depicts the impossible, at least under the laws of nature and physics as we know them, and thus routinely requires suspension of disbelief.
Fantasy should not be confused with the fantastic, a related term applicable not only to fantasy fiction but also to other literary forms, such as magic realism and cyberfiction, that contain fanciful, supernatural, or otherwise incredible elements. As defined by theorist Tzvetan Todorov in Introduction à la littérature fantastique (The Fantastic) (1970), the fantastic mingles the marvelous (which concerns magical events and locales) with the uncanny (which can be explained as delusion), thereby creating “hesitation” (i.e., ambiguity and uncertainty) as to whether a natural or supernatural explanation accounts for events in a narrative. Fantastic texts discussed by Todorov include works ranging from The Arabian Nights (also known as The Thousand and One Nights) (c. 1450) to Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories (c. 1840s) to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898).
Fantasy should also be distinguished from science fiction and horror, although there is considerable overlap between fantasy and the latter two genres. Whereas science fiction and fantasy both involve imaginary worlds, science fiction is technical and technology-oriented; it must obey the laws of the universe. As Isaac Asimov, a writer of both science fiction and fantasy, put it, “science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not.” In the case of fantasy and horror, fantasy spotlights the magical, horror the supernatural or paranormal. Fantasy also tends to be more mythical and epic, horror more gothic and grisly. Unlike fantasy, horror is meant to evoke apprehension and fear.
Fantasy fiction, which has roots in folk tales and fairy tales, emerged as a modern literary mode in the mid-nineteenth century, during the Victorian Period. Tales translated into English in the first half of the nineteenth century from sources including The Arabian Nights and the classic stories of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm proved particularly influential, as evidenced by works such as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843), John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River (1851), George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858), Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and Other Stories (1888), Arthur Machen’s Fantastic Tales (1890), and William Morris’s The Roots of the Mountains (1890). Illustrations of many fantasy narratives produced by these writers anticipate the extravagant visual aspects of some forms of present-day fantasy fiction.
Other important influences on the development of fantasy fiction as a genre include Romantic poetry, medievalism, and Arthurian legends. Romantic poetry, which privileged the imagination and incorporated fantastic elements, as exemplified by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Witch of Atlas” (1824), helped set the stage for the emergence of fantasy fiction, which by its very nature eschews “believable” events and settings. Medievalism — an interest in the art, history, and thought of the Middle Ages exhibited by several Romantic poets as well as writers and painters associated with the Victorian movement of Pre-Raphaelitism, such as Morris — provided fantasy writers with a source of images, themes, and settings that remain popular to this day. In this regard, the genre is especially indebted to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose influential narrative poem Idylls of the King (1859) repopularized traditional Arthurian legends, that is, tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Fantasies attesting to continuing interest in Arthurian lore throughout the twentieth century and beyond include T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958), which compiles The Sword in the Stone (1938) and the three other novels composing White’s Arthurian tetralogy; Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy (1970—79); movies such as John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) and Jerry Zucker’s First Knight (1995); and the 2001 TNT television production of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novel The Mists of Avalon (1982), which presents Arthurian materials from the perspective of female characters.
Nineteenth-century fantasy narratives were frequently meant primarily for children and young adults, but early in the twentieth century fantasy emerged as a form of popular literature for adults. Influential fantasies from the first half of the twentieth century include E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ourobouros (1922); Celtic Revival novelist Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924); J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937); and Mervyn Peake’s Gothic, grotesque Gormenghast trilogy (1946—59). Notable short stories, published in the American magazine Weird Tales, include H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928); Clark Ashton Smith’s “A Rendezvous in Averoigne” (1931); and Robert E. Howard’s “The Phoenix on the Sword” (1932), the first of the Conan the Cimmerian (better known as Conan the Barbarian) stories.
Ironically, it was two Oxford University scholars of the Medieval Period — Tolkien and C. S. Lewis — who contributed significantly to the expansion of fantasy fiction beyond medieval settings and Arthurian lore. Both writers sought to produce literary works distinct not only from realism but also from the allusive, complex modernism of writers such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, who drew heavily on classical mythology. The characters in Lewis’s seven-volume Narnia series (1950—56), an example of theological fantasy fiction, shift back and forth between the middle-class world of twentieth-century England and the imaginary world of Narnia, created by the “Great Lion” Aslan. The characters in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and his Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954—55; adapted to film 2001—03), by contrast, exist solely in a second world called “Middle-earth” that is heavily influenced by Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon myths.
While fantasy fiction boasts numerous subgenres, works are often broadly classified as high or low. High fantasy is typically defined as a work set, whether in whole or in part, in a secondary world — an imaginary realm that is separate and different from our reality, though it may contain familiar elements. Three types of high fantasy are common: (1) works set entirely in a secondary world, such as Tolkien’s Middle-earth; (2) works that contain both a primary, “real” world and a secondary, fantasy world that are connected by a portal, such as L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900; most famously adapted to film 1939), in which a tornado transports Dorothy and her dog Toto from Kansas to Oz; and (3) works in which the secondary world is part of the primary world, a “world-within-a-world” such as the wizarding world in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997—2007; adapted to film 2001—11). High fantasy is often associated with epic fantasy, i.e., fantasy on a sweeping, heroic scale, so much so that some use the terms interchangeably.
Low fantasy, by contrast, is typically defined as a work set in the “real” world, albeit with fantastic elements. Thus, in a low fantasy work, the environment is familiar and realistic, but one in which magic, the supernatural, or other nonrational features play a part. Examples include P. L. Travers’s Mary Poppins series (1934—88; adapted most famously to film in 1964), which takes place in London but features a nanny with magical powers; Mary Norton’s series The Borrowers (1952—82), which features tiny people called Borrowers who secretly live in the homes of regularly sized humans in England; and the Toy Story franchise (1995— ), in which toys are living, personified beings.
The terms high and low fantasy are sometimes also used to refer to the level of fantasy elements used in a work. Thus, a work that relies heavily on magic, even if set in the “real” world, could be termed a high fantasy, whereas a work that eschews such elements, even if set in a secondary world, could be termed a low fantasy.
Today, Tolkien is commonly regarded as the fountainhead of contemporary fantasy fiction. His essay “On Fairy-Stories” (1938) has figured significantly in discussions of fantasy’s aesthetic and social value, and his Lord of the Rings trilogy, more than any other work, continues to define the conventions of the genre. Key among these conventions is a focus on the struggle between good and evil, often conceptualized as light and dark. Several scholars have characterized Tolkien’s description of this tension as ethnocentric, arguing that the struggle in Middle-earth is culturally twofold, with “good” characters — men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits — being identified with Western (and, more specifically, Anglo-Saxon) values, and “bad” ones — including subhuman trolls and goblins, as well as corrupted or mutated elves (orcs), humans (e.g., Nazgul), and hobbits (e.g., Gollum) — representing the nonwhite, non-Western Other. Other scholars, however, have argued that Tolkien’s world is not so clearly delineated, pointing out, for instance, that it is Gollum’s fateful intervention, not that of the hobbit hero Frodo Baggins, that ultimately results in the destruction of the terrible Ring of Power.
Also conventional in fantasy fiction is the use of a male protagonist with traditional, patriarchal Western values and attitudes. The archetypal hero is typically unaware, at first, of his true identity and / or abilities, but his coming fulfills some prophecy, and his actions ultimately save his life, love, and community from the depredations of evil, magical, and often foreign enemies. The protagonist often benefits from the guidance and help of a mentor along the way.
Although religion and religious faith are seldom a focus of fantasy fiction, the protagonist’s conduct rarely strays far from that prescribed by the Ten Commandments, and his battles are grounded in Judeo-Christian moral precepts. Archetypal heroes invariably strive to do the right thing, assiduously avoiding self-serving, decadent behavior and often avoiding intimate, sexual relationships as well. When such relationships do occur, they tend to be implied rather than expressly acknowledged and are almost always monogamous, or at least serially monogamous, like those of Conan, a typical “sword and sorcery” hero. Infidelity is almost always the result of bewitchment, and profanity usually takes the form of archaic English expressions or of words coined by gods. Violent action, although often described graphically, mainly affects the story’s antagonists; the protagonist and his companions generally emerge relatively unscathed, though they may suffer greatly in the course of achieving their quests. Notably, when good characters do die, they are often resurrected in the final scene or scenes.
Fantasy fiction, while privileging magic, tends to de-emphasize technology and science and to emphasize sociopolitical structures characteristic of preindustrial societies. Unlike science fiction and cyberfiction, which feature computers, spaceships, and a variety of as-yet-only-imagined technological marvels, fantasy fiction is more likely to incorporate agrarian inventions such as aqueducts, catapults, and windmills. Where issues of politics and government are concerned, fantasy fiction tends to rely on feudal models involving peasants and kings, slaves and serfs, knights and lords.
Several additional fantasy conventions derive from the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, an American writer of both fantasy and science fiction. For instance, the training of wizards, a fantasy motif extensively developed in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997—2007; adapted to film 2001—11), harks back to Le Guin’s first novel, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). Le Guin is also credited with creating an “economy” and “ecology” of magic, for her magicians pay a physical price for using their arcane powers. As one of the teachers at the wizardry school on the island of Roke explains in A Wizard of Earthsea, every act has its consequence: “To light a candle is to cast a shadow.” These concepts of physical costs and consequences later came literally into play with the development of Dungeons & Dragons, a role-playing fantasy game initially developed in 1973 in which players earn the ability to perform tasks and must recover after casting a spell.
Le Guin, who, like Tolkien, is a theorist as well as a novelist, has written extensively on fantasy and science fiction. In her 1973 essay, “Dreams Must Explain Themselves,” she pointed out that fantasy is circular: “The snake devours its tail. Dreams must explain themselves.” In a 1974 essay entitled “The Child and the Shadow,” she characterized fantasy as “the language of the inner self,” a vehicle for depicting and exploring the psychic and moral journey of self-knowledge.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, authors began to break with some of the long-standing conventions of fantasy fiction. One major shift was in the representation of women in a genre that, given its tendency toward patriarchal models and male protagonists, has historically had few female writers and few powerful or good female characters. Even Le Guin, a leader in feminist fantasy fiction, began her foray into the genre by implicitly accepting its patriarchal assumptions; in A Wizard of Earthsea, for instance, men dominate not only the magical and mundane arenas but also the entire story line. Consequently, Le Guin and some of her contemporaries made a concerted effort to give the women of fantasy fiction a voice and a place of substance. Thus, while “weak [or wicked] as women’s magic” are common sayings among the folk in the patriarchal world of Earthsea, women emerged both as supporting and central characters in subsequent books of the Earthsea cycle (1968—2001). Likewise, Angela Carter’s burlesque (and picaresque) novel Nights at the Circus (1984) features a nineteenth-century woman whose career is based on her wings and her ability to fly. Even computer and video games, traditionally male-oriented, began to incorporate female characters in meaningful ways. For example, the computer game Diablo II: Lord of Destruction (2001), a role-playing game, permits players to choose among seven roles, including three female roles (sorceress, amazon, and assassin). Perhaps in recognition of changing social values, the film version of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) attempts to give women a larger, more influential part than they actually played in Tolkien’s original.
In addition, several late-twentieth-century authors inverted the usual theme of the formulaically good hero succeeding on a conventionally moral quest. For instance, Stephen Donaldson’s six-volume Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series (1977—83) involves a psychologically dysfunctional antihero who dies horribly without benefit of divine intervention, wrongs that are not magically righted, and characters who bear the scars of their hasty decisions. Unlike traditional fantasy heroes, Covenant doubts not only the goodness but even the reality of the second world he visits, where he brutally rapes a young woman he thinks is only a figment of his imagination. Ultimately, he becomes the unwilling savior of the very realm in which he never fully believes. In Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series (1990—2013, with the last three volumes completed by Brian Sanderson), the hero’s exposure to and use of magic drives him insane; in Final Fantasy VII (1997), a video and computer game, the line between good and evil is complicated by the hero’s apparent delusions; and in Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule (1994), the hero is subjected to sexual torture. Yet such variations on the fantasy formula remain the exception rather than the rule.
FURTHER EXAMPLES: Mark Twain’s satirical fantasy novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) draws on Arthurian legends. Madeleine L’Engle’s science fiction fantasy A Wrinkle in Time (1962), Julie (Andrews) Edwards’s fantasy The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (1974), and Piers Anthony’s seven-volume Incarnations of Immortality fantasy series (1983—89) are examples of non-Arthurian fantasy novels. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant (2015), in which an elderly and befuddled Sir Gawain appears as a character in a misty landscape where Britons once slaughtered Saxons, offers something of an anti-Arthurian fable about historical atrocities and cultural amnesia.
In his popular and influential fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire (1996— ; adapted to television as Game of Thrones [2011— ]), George R. R. Martin included several strong women characters, most notably Daenerys Targaryen and Arya Stark, though gender relations abound in the novels that reflect medieval misogyny.
The Princess Bride (1987), directed by Rob Reiner, is a well-known, lighthearted fantasy-fairy-tale film. By contrast, The Company of Wolves (1984), a film directed by Neil Jordan and written by Angela Carter, presents a much darker, post-Freudian take on the traditional fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood,” as does Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods (1986; adapted to film 2014).
Fantasy elements also play a significant role in magic realism and neo-Gothic works such as Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). Writing about The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013), a reviewer for The Times (London) said of author Neil Gaiman: “His prose is simple but poetic, his world strange but utterly believable — if he was South American we would call this magic realism rather than fantasy.” Other examples of hybrid works include Piers Anthony’s fantasy-science fiction Apprentice Adept series (1980—90); Clive Barker’s fantasy-horror novel Weaveworld (1987); and television’s animated He-Man (1983—85, 2002—04) and She-Ra (1985—88) cartoon series, which combine fantasy, science fiction, and action / adventure. The permeable nature of the boundary between forms of fantasy fiction is further demonstrated by the fact that Dungeons & Dragons, a game influenced by Le Guin’s novels, in turn influenced later works, such as those in the multiauthored Dragonlance novel series (1984—2009) — which itself spawned several new games.
Fantasy, particularly medieval fantasy, is also popular in the online gaming world, as exemplified by massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as EverQuest (1999), the Arthurian Dark Age of Camelot (2001), World of Warcraft (2004), The King’s League (2011), and Siegius Arena (2012).
In Magic: The Gathering (1993— ), a tradable, collectible fantasy card game set in a Multiverse with countless planes (worlds), players are Planeswalkers (wizards) who use artifacts, creatures, lands, and enchantments to do battle.