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History of Fantasy Literature

Before the Eighteenth Century

The beginnings of fantasy are impossible to discover, although
they have been traced by some scholars back beyond the beginning of
recorded human history. Early forms of fantasy include the epic of
Gilgamesh (c. 2000 BCE), The Odyssey (c. 850 BCE), Beowulf (c. 725
CE), and all the fantastic myths of all cultures.
Before the eighteenth century, a significant portion of the
reading (and listening) audience considered what we now read as
fantasy and fantastic literature to be in some way true. Tales of gods
and goddesses, witches, voyages to strange lands, and knights battling
monsters were presented as taking place in the real world, or in
historical or distant parts of that real world. The people who believed
in the truth of the tales were not necessarily stupid, but remember that
there was no such thing as science. An overdose of common sense
caused some Europeans not to believe in such fantasy creatures as
elephants, giraffes, and rhinoceroses, and it seems that dragons are no
more unlikely than dinosaurs, unless you believe in science. Few
readers today take these stories seriously; we now read them as
charming fantasies, often embodying wisdom.
Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
Gothic tales filled with supernatural occurrences and set in the
medieval past began to become dominant in the eighteenth century.
In addition, other works such as the Tales of the Arabian Nights and
many continental fairy tales were first translated into English during
this period. Fairy tales and childrens stories, particularly those of the
Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, achieved the greatest
popularity, leading to the persistent notion that realistic fiction is adult
reading matter and fantasy is appropriate only for children.
In fact, many of the finest works of fantasy of the nineteenth
century were published as childrens literature. In spite of the Victorian
craze for fairy tales and folk tales, and regardless of the popularity of
such classics as Alice in Wonderland, fantasy remained predominantly
childrens literature until the second half of the twentieth century.
Before 1900 the characteristic form of fantasy was the fairy tale.
By the late 1890s, other strains of myth and the supernatural mixed
and blended with the traditional form, producing many new variations,
ranging from heroic medievalism, to animal tales, to scientific wonders,
to jungle adventures, to American fairy tales of Oz.
Twentieth Century
In the early twentieth century, fantastic adventure fiction
became standard in the thriving pulp-fiction business. Edgar Rice

Burroughs and A. Merritts works first appeared in these magazines

and became so popular that they dominated fantasy fiction for more
than two decades, until the end of the 1930s.
The fantasy novel as adult reading was not common until the
influence of J.R.R. Tolkiens masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, began
to be felt in the late 1950s and 1960s. Particularly characteristic were
its large scale, its carefully measured fantasy world and its narrative
Although all fantasy stories may be defined by their specifically
magical nature (whether they take place in an imaginary medieval
landscape, a fairyland, or a contemporary metropolis such as New York
or Detroit, magic works), recent works of fantasy tend to fall into a few
broad categories.
The intrusion of at least one fantastic element or event
into the real world (usually historical, but occasionally
A real person is placed in an utterly fantastic setting (such
as Dorothy in the Oz stories, or Alice in Alices Adventures in
Includes both a fantastic setting and fantastic elements
or events and does not include any reference to the real
world. Obviously, most of the fantasy works of Tolkien and
Ursula K. LeGuin are of this type. Much of the subdivision of
fantasy known as Sword and Sorcery (or Heroic Fantasy, as
typified by Conan the Barbarian), also falls into this third
Other subcategories include:
High Fantasy: this type of fantasy emphasizes a moral quest in
which good forces are in direct conflict with evil forces. The
ultimate goal for Good is to complete the quest and achieve a
victory that preserves the state of the known and existing world
of the story.
Dark Fantasy: this type of fantasy emphasizes the themes of
horror, fear, and impending death. Often times the quest in Dark
Fantasy is to survive the horror and looming death. This subgenre is sometimes known simply as horror. Major authors in
this category include Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert
Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, and Stephen King.