What Is Fantasy?

The history and evolution of the fantasy genre, examining its defining characteristics and how it has changed over time.

George MacDonald
Snow White

Defining fantasy

Fantasy fiction is hard to define. Where one story soars with golden dragons, another one creeps through magical woods, or crawls through sewers full of talking rats.


In the last few decades, scholars have established a general principle to connect these different works. Fantasy fiction explores the impossible: from talking rats to walking trees, these stories always contain an element that breaks the laws of possibility.

Other genres, like science fiction, will push the limits of possibility, but never quite cross the line. Fantasy fiction is unique in this – and without the laws of possibility to restrain it, fantasy stories can take us to places that no other genre can go.

Ancient fantasy

Fantasy has been a part of literature since the earliest days of storytelling. In the 1850s, archaeologists in Iraq discovered the remains of an ancient tablet, whose fragmented pieces told a story dating back to 2100 BCE.

This story became known as the *Epic of Gilgamesh*. It features the character of Gilgamesh, a hero who battles fantastical monsters, including a monstrous giant named Humbaba the Terrible. The story also features a magical plant with the power to grant immortality.


Monstrous giants and magical plants break the laws of possibility, which means the *Epic of Gilgamesh* fits the definition of fantasy. This text is actually the oldest story that archaeologists have ever discovered, which means fantasy fiction might be older than any other genre.

Medieval fantasy

Thousands of years after the *Epic of Gilgamesh* was written in ancient Mesopotamia, people were still telling fantastical stories in places like medieval Europe.

The Norse were renowned for their vivid tales about magical beings, where shapeshifting was a common theme. In different stories, the trickster god Loki transformed himself into a horse, a giant, or a salmon. The Norse also told stories about non-human races, including elves, trolls and dwarves.


Another fantasy story from the medieval period was *Beowulf* – an Old English poem from the 11th century. It tells the tale of a brave warrior who fights an evil giant and a treasure-hoarding dragon. These monsters symbolize the darker elements of human nature, like violence and greed.

Middle Eastern fantasy

While stories like *Beowulf* were being written in medieval Europe, similar stories were being told in the Middle East. Between the 8th century and the 13th century, Islamic scholars compiled these stories into a collection known as *One Thousand and One Nights*.

This collection included iconic stories like *Sinbad the Sailor*, about a seafaring hero who travels the world. During his voyages, he encounters fantastical creatures, like giant birds called Rocs, and a whale so large that trees are growing on its back.


A late addition to the collection was the story of Aladdin, about a young man who is tricked by an evil sorcerer into entering a magical cave. Inside the cave, Aladdin discovers an enchanted lamp. When he rubs the lamp, a djinn appears, and helps Aladdin become rich and powerful.

The Brothers Grimm

In 19th century Germany, two brother academics – Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm – decided to compile a written collection of European fairy tales. Some of these stories had been around for centuries, but never officially written down.

*Grimms’ Fairy Tales* included plenty of fantastical elements. One of the most famous examples is *Hansel and Gretel*, a story about a pair of children who encounter a witch in the depths of the forest. The witch tries to eat the children, but the children trick her, and manage to escape.


Another story, *Rapunzel* is about a young woman with long hair who is imprisoned in a tower by an enchantress. A prince discovers the tower, and asks Rapunzel to lower her hair from the window. He uses the hair as a ladder, and the two of them fall in love.

Is fantasy subjective?

Stories like *Hansel and Gretel* raise an important question: does it still count as fantasy if the audience believes the impossible elements are possible? To most modern readers, witches break the rules of possibility, but a lot of people in the 19th century thought the opposite.


If different people have different definitions of possibility, a story which feels like fantasy to one person might feel like realism to another. It all depends on the beliefs of the reader: are witches possible or not?

In 2014, a study asked children to decide whether stories were fantastical or realistic. The study found that children brought up in a religious environment were less likely to call a story fantastical, even if it included magical elements. Those children thought magic and miracles were possible, where non-religious children did not.

Modern fantasy

The long history of fantastical stories reached a peak in the 19th century, with the publication of the first fantasy novels. These books adopted some of the themes and tropes from older literature, like magic and dragons, but threw them against the backdrop of a longer, more sophisticated plot.

The first official fantasy novel was George MacDonald’s *Phantastes*, originally published in 1858. Across several hundred pages, the story follows Anodos, a young man who enters a dreamlike land of fairies. This groundbreaking book inspired later authors, like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.


In the decades since, fantasy novels have been hugely popular all around the world. In a list of the twenty best-selling novels of all time, more than half the list is fantasy fiction, including *Harry Potter*, *The Hobbit*, and *The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe*.

Fantasy films

Alongside fantasy novels, the 19th century also saw the creation of the world’s first fantasy movies. One of the earliest was *Cinderella*, directed by Georges Méliès in 1899. This adaptation of a Grimm fairy tale used special effects to bring the story’s magic to life.


Afterwards, this film inspired countless filmmakers who wanted to explore the visual power of fantasy. In 1937, Walt Disney released *Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs*. This was one of the first ever animated feature-length films, and another adaptation of a Grimm fairy tale.

Decades later, Peter Jackson directed a three-part adaptation of *The Lord of the Rings*. In the history of cinema, no single film has won more Oscars than the third film in the trilogy: *The Return of the King*.

Fantasy games

As well as books and films, fantasy also appears in interactive games. For example, *Dungeons & Dragons* was first released in the 1970s. This tabletop game lets players assume the roles of characters, from half-orc druids to elven rogues, and embark on adventures in a collaborative fantasy world.


In the 1990s, this concept inspired video games series like *The Elder Scrolls*. These open-world games provide players with landscapes to explore, and narratives to unravel, pushing the limits of the fantasy genre as a medium for entertainment.

It makes sense that fantasy lends itself well to interactive games. This is a genre without rules, where imaginations are allowed to run wild. In an interactive game, where players are able to choose their own path, there is even more freedom than there is in a book or film.

Fantasy subgenres

As fantasy fiction has become more and more popular, it has branched into a number of subgenres. For example, high fantasy focuses on epic adventures in grand, alternative worlds. *The Lord of the Rings* is the most iconic example, with its bearded wizards and sword-bearing knights.


Urban fantasy blends magical elements with contemporary urban settings, like Neil Gaiman’s *Neverwhere*, which explores a hidden world below the streets of London, complete with a society of talking rats.

Paranormal romance fuses magical beings with love stories. Stephenie Meyer’s *Twilight* books are a popular example, with their romantic entanglements between humans, vampires and werewolves.

There are plenty of other fantasy subgenres, but they all have something in common. These stories all contain an element that breaks the laws of possibility.

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