What is the history of the fantasy genre?
The other day I was thinking about the question of how the fantasy genre came to be. It seemed like an intriguing task to uncover the depths behind one of the most renowned genes in literature. It was an opportunity I could not pass up on.
Following a bit of digging, I came upon some intriguing results. In this article, I will be meticulously explaining the history of the fantasy genre and all of the events that made fantasy what it is today.
The Beginning of the Fantasy Genre
Marking the distinct beginning to the fantasy genre is a challenging task.
The roots of the fantasy genre date back all the way to the times of ancient mythology. Not to mention, up until the twentieth century the history of fantasy is a bit hazy.
Nonetheless, there are some common places in history that fantasy readers point out when referencing the start of fantasy.
The Odyssey, written by Homer in the 8th century BC, is renowned as a classic work of literature. What you may not know is that some consider this narrative to be the first fantasy work ever written.
It is certainly a valid claim. After all, The Odyssey does incorporate many of the archetypical elements of the fantasy genre that we see in the modern era.
There is a treacherous quest, mythical creatures, sophisticated characters, high-flying action and the presence of magic. The Iliad also contains these elements, but not to the extent of The Odyssey.
Whether or not Homer is the founder of fantasy is still debated by many to this day. Regardless, it is evident that this mythological work formed a loose foundation of what would eventually characterize the fantasy genre.
Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women
There is another faction that argues the event that marked the beginning of fantasy was the release of one specific work by George MacDonald.
Published in London in 1858, Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women was not the typical work of George MacDonald. This work involved many elements which at the time was perceived to be more geared toward children.
The gist of the novel is that a young man is pulled into a fantasy world where he searches for the female befitting to his standards of perfection. At the time, MacDonald was a pioneer in the use of faeries and spirits in an adult novel.
George MacDonald later followed up this work with another innovate work named The Princess and The Goblin.
The premise of this story is that a young princess, Irene, and her friend, Curdie, must outmaneuver a band of goblins inhabiting the caves beneath their dwelling.
MacDonald knew he was onto something with these novels. Although people thought him crazy for bringing insanely imaginative elements to the adult reading world, he did not let this stymie his efforts. He stuck with his gut instinct in spite of the critics.
MacDonald even stated the following:
“I write, not for children, but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” (source)
Who is the True Founder of Fantasy?
Over the years, many names have been thrown into the mix of who should officially claim this illustrious title.
After scourging the Internet, the forerunners in this race were Homer and George MacDonald.
Honorable mentions include William Shakespeare with his work of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sir Thomas Malory with his work of Mort d’Arthur (the legend of King Arthur) and Jonathan Swift with his work of Gulliver’s Travels.
Without further ado, let’s break down the arguments for the leading candidates.
The works of Homer certainly precede the works of George MacDonald. Homer released his works centuries before the Victorian era, the period when MacDonald began writing his fantasy pieces. So Homer certainly has time on his side.
It can also be said of Homer that the defining characteristics of the fantasy genre stemmed from his mythological narratives.
Yet, it is still uncertain of whether or not Homer was aiming to establish this new reading genre.
When George MacDonald set out to writing his works of Phantastes and The Princess and The Goblin, he had the specific intent of cultivating a new, unique realm in the adult reading genre.
What also must not be overlooked is the vast influence MacDonald had on some of the most famous fantasy authors ever. MacDonald played a crucial role in nurturing what would become the staple novels of the fantasy genre.
For instance, MacDonald acted as a supportive adviser to Lewis Carroll. MacDonald was actually the one to convince Lewis Carroll to submit one of his most renowned works for publication.
What renowned work? None other than Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
MacDonald also held major sway over other famous fantasy writers.
His influence spread to the works of C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia), J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan), Lyman Frank Baum (author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), and the legend himself J.R.R. Tolkien (author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings).
MacDonald even corresponded with the great Mark Twain.
It is said their relationship got off to a rocky start, but they later ended becoming rather close acquaintances. Concrete evidence of this rocky start is shown in a letter Twain wrote concerning his thoughts about the novel Robert Falconer by George MacDonald:
“My! but the first half of it is superb! We just kept our pencils going, marking brilliant & beautiful things–but there was nothing to mark, after the middle.” (source)
I have summarized the “founder of the fantasy genre” arguments for Homer and George MacDonald in the following table:
|Earliest Known “Fantasy Work”||✔|
|Cultivated Elements of Fantasy Genre||✔|
|Intent to Conceive Fantasy Genre||✔|
|Influence on Other Renowned Works||✔|
It is evident that both of these individuals brought something new and innovative to literature that led to the inception of fantasy.
After analyzing all of the facts, it appears to me that Homer is a founder of the broader subject of fantasy in literature. George MacDonald, on the other hand, more befits the image of the founder of modern fantasy.
All in all, I am of the opinion that both of these exemplary men have proven themselves founders of the fantasy genre in their own right.
Milestones that Caused the Fantasy Genre to Surge
It is common practice to split the historical timeline of the fantasy genre into two sections: the Pre-Tolkien era and the Post-Tolkien era. The emergence of J.R.R. Tolkien and his works is what cemented the fantasy genre into the heart of literature.
The Hobbit was originally published in 1937 as a piece meant for children. It quickly became a cornerstone in children’s literature and remains a cornerstone to this day.
The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954. Unlike its predecessor, this novel was not geared toward children. Tolkien aimed The Lord of the Rings toward an adult audience.
This change of intended audience was groundbreaking, similar to the achievements of George MacDonald but on a much larger scale.
As of 2020, The Lord of the Rings has sold 150 million copies worldwide. These astronomical sales numbers marks it as one of the most popular works of literature ever written.
As you can probably imagine, the fame of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion made sweeping changes to the world of literature. The fantasy genre finally established a name for itself with the emergence of these works.
Prior to J.R.R. Tolkien, the fantasy genre did not have a definitive novel that could lure the casual reader in. In the Post-Tolkien era, this was no longer a problem.
Other Major Works During the Pre-Tolkien era
As aforementioned, George MacDonald helped to cultivate some major works while the fantasy works of Tolkien were on the rise.
This created the perfect storm of fantasy masterpieces that gave the fantasy genre the momentum it needed to propel itself into relevance.
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis took advantage of the growing popularity of the work of Tolkien and spurred to success after its publication in 1950.
The main characters in this novel are children. These children play an indispensable role in the affairs of Narnia, the fictional setting of the series.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was also a marvelous complement to star alongside these trending fantasy works.
This tale revolves a young protagonist named Alice slipping down a rabbit hole into an otherworldly setting filled with imaginative fantasy beings.
Most Significant Literary Events in the Post-Tolkien Era
The Sword of Shannara
The Sword of Shannara was released in 1977 and helped to carry the momentum that Tolkien sparked into the modern era.
The novel follows two characters on two separate storylines. The story takes place in a fictional realm called Four Lands, including many signature facets of epic fantasy such as warring armies and a Warlock Lord.
A Song of Ice and Fire
A Song of Ice and Fire was published in 1996 and quickly became a staple of the fantasy genre.
This story revolves around a complicated web of characters, each with their own agenda in mind. All of the happenings surround the Iron Throne, the royal seat of Westeros. Since its release, A Song of Ice and Fire has attracted a cult following that has only grown stronger over time.
The Harry Potter series was released in 2001 and has had a tremendous impact on exploring how far the depths of a magic system can go in fantasy.
The series follows Harry Potter and a band of friends. The story revolves around the mischievous adventures they have at Hogwartz.
The plot also involves a signature magic system, which is arguably the most compelling piece of the entire series.
The Effects of Post-Tolkien Fantasy Works
Post-Tolkien fantasy works carved out the intricacies behind fantasy that further branded it as a legitimate reading genre.
All of the typical elements that classify fantasy today were ultimately refined in fantasy works such as the ones listed above.
This is where magic systems really started to take on a definitive structure. Whereas before magic use was vague and unspecified, authors started to employ a rigid structure to magic in their novels. This helped fantasy novels take off and carry the momentum of the fantasy genre forward.
World building also began to encompass a more prominent role in fantasy as authors started to see success with more graphic settings. Attention to detail became much more pronounced as fantasy authors incorporated the success of other novels into their own work.
These specialized features of fantasy originated with the release of these inventive fantasy works.
Not only did these specific novels make fantasy popular, these novels engraved fantasy into literature.
In fact, fantasy grew to the point where it eventually gave birth to other sub-genres. Epic fantasy, low fantasy, magical realism, sword and sorcery all stemmed from these Post-Tolkien works.
Recent Events that Catapulted the Fantasy Genre into Stardom
The Lord of the Rings Movies
The prosperity of The Lord of the Rings series in the literary world drew the eyes of those in movie industry. Peter Jackson was the man to officially take on this massive challenge.
Although it was challenging work, it was well worth the reward.
Peter Jackson went on to release three films based on The Lord of The Rings. The Fellowship of the Ring was released in 2001, The Two Towers was released in 2002 and The Return of the King was released in 2003. These three films grossed 5.82 billion dollars total for the franchise (source).
The popularity of this movie series did wonders to bolster the fantasy genre, motivating other entertainment directors and producers to take a risk on fantasy.
Game of Thrones Television Show
One of these producers decided to take a chance on the acclaimed A Song of Ice and Fire.
Titled Game of Thrones, this series debuted in 2011 with the help of the mastermind of the literary series himself, George R.R. Martin. This series continued on for eight seasons before ending in 2019.
Game of Thrones arose as a cult spectacle as the television show progressed, blasting the popularity of A Song of Ice and Fire into the stratosphere. Game of Thrones accrued an estimated 2.28 billion in profit for HBO over the course of these eight seasons (source).
These kinds of profits simply do not happen for the average show in the entertainment industry.
Game of Thrones has brought people from all backgrounds into the fold of fantasy. It is helped to break down the perceived barrier to entry into becoming a fantasy fanatic. Hopefully, this will inspire other entertainment outlets to do the same.