- For other definitions of fantasy see fantasy (psychology).
In literature, fantasy is a form of fiction, usually novels or short stories, though fantasy art, role-playing games, comic books, and movies are also popular.
In its broadest sense, fantasy fiction covers an immense number of works by many authors, from ancient myths and legends, to some recent works embraced by mainstream literary audiences (such as Neil Gaiman's best-selling novel American Gods) and much in-between.
Perhaps the most common sub-genres of fantasy – or at least most commonly associated with the term "Fantasy" – are sword and sorcery and high fantasy, two closely related forms that typically describe tales featuring magic, brave knights, damsels in distress, and/or quests, set in a world or worlds quite different from modern-day Earth and usually inhabited by mythical creatures such as dragons and unicorns. Works by J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber and others are sometimes classified as either Sword and Sorcery or High Fantasy.
There is no universally accepted definition of fantasy fiction, and furthermore, the characteristics of the form and its many overlapping sub-genres are the subject of debate among some fans and writers.
A critical characteristic is that the world feature some difference from Earth that is not a result of science or technology, but rather the result of magic or other anomalous phenomena. But, again, definitions and opinions on the proper classification differ.
As a genre, fantasy is both associated and contrasted with science fiction and horror fiction. All three genres feature elements of the fantastic, of making radical departures from reality or radical speculations about what reality might be like, or might have been like. Some writers and critics prefer the term speculative fiction due to the frequent crossover from one genre to another.
Further blurring the definition, some suggest there is a distinction between "Fantasy" proper as a genre, and "the fantastic," the latter being a fantasy-like element in other fiction.
Though the genre in its modern sense is less than two centuries old, its antecedents have a long and distinguished history. The following lists include works which contain significant elements that might be considered "fantasy" by today's standards, or which modern fantasy authors have drawn upon extensively for inspiration in their own works. The categorization of many of these earlier works as "fantasy" is typically only used within the context of the fantasy genre itself and discussions of its origins; only a small minority would consider them "fantasy" outside of this context.
This relatively obscure (though less so now than in the past) custom of placing mythology in the context of the fantasy genre is especially useful to those that scrutinize the fantasy genre as others would mainstream fiction. This gives fantasy a rich history of inspirations for critics to disect and apply to the modern genre. Obversely, the fantasy genre is often examined as the modern counterpart to mythology. Whether one of these practices inspired the other, and which inspired which, is hotly debated.
Main articles: Chaldean mythology, Egyptian mythology, Abrahamic mythology
The roots of many of today's fantasy subgenres were laid during this time, including those of Bangsian fantasy.
Many have suggested that Egyptian mythology was regarded as mainly allegorical during at least part of its history. The reason for this is that the gods and goddesses of Egyptian mythology were not seen as fixed figures, but as manifestations of a single divinity. Tales of origins and other myths were therefore subject to change for the purposes of relating moral messages or discussing various aspects of the world's nature. At times gods and goddesses could even be deconstructed or combined with other deities toward such ends. Thus, some might argue that Egyptian mythology differs from modern fantasy fiction only in that its primary function was philosophical and religious in nature, rather than simple entertainment.
The Book of Genesis might be regarded by adherents of the Abrahamic religions as an early example of historical fantasy, in that many of the stories contain fantastical elements such as talking snakes and world-wide floods, yet concerned what were/are believed to be actual past events in the real world. To what extent the stories factually portrayed these historical events is the subject of heated debate, even among believers. (There are many believers who consider some or all of these stories to be spiritually-truthful allegory rather than literal fact, much the same as believers in Egyptian mythology.)
Main articles: Greek mythology, Roman mythology, Etruscan mythology
Classical mythology is replete with fantastical stories and characters; the best known (and perhaps the most relevant to modern fantasy) being the works of Homer.
At least some ancient Greek authors were known to express open disbelief in the existence of many of the creatures that featured in Greek mythology, while some of the Greek philosophers apparently doubted the literal truthfulness of of ancient Greek religion. While it is probable that the majority of the ancient Greeks held an actual belief in the fantastic, there existed in the ancient Greek literati people who viewed the factual accuracy of the mythology to be either secondary to or at least separate from the value and meaning of the myths themselves; thus, there was a sense of willing suspension of disbelief (as opposed to actual belief) in the fantastic. Such suspension of disbelief was also necessary for appreciating many known original works, particularly dramatic presentations, in classical antiquity (see fourth wall).
While the degree to which Classical fiction resembles modern fantasy is debatable, it is significant that it was from this tradition that most of the conventions in the arts of western civilization ultimately derive. Depending on one's interpretation, it could therefore be said that something resembling fantasy fiction, as we now know it, was fundamental to the development of western thinking and modern fantasy by extension. This would seem to place the fantasy genre firmly within a long and distinquished tradition of story-telling, as many fans as well as a growing number of academics have suggested.
Thor's battle against the giants, by Marten Eskil Winge, 1872
Main articles: Arthurian legend, Norse mythology, Fairy tales, Medieval folklore
The story of Beowulf is of particular interest, as the events of the story take place roughly four hundred years before the writing of the text. The characters in the story are unalloyed Pagans, whereas the author(s) is clearly Christian. A story about a past society in which a brave hero vanquishes dangerous monsters, placed within the framework of (what was then) contemporary society's beliefs and ideals, is a formula that has become an instant indicator of fantasy fiction in the years since. Though the story of Beowulf was by no means the first to do this, many of its presumably more original elements have also had huge impacts on the fantasy genre. Grendel's attacks on the Heorot, for example, established the formula of later horror stories and this portion of the tale can be seen as precursory to dark fantasy. (As an aside, Grendel was also the prototypical orc, inspiring J. R. R. Tolkien's race of the same name and the majority of subsequent incarnations.)
The tale of Don Quixote, while not containing especially "fantastic" elements, in addition to its being one of the earliest novels in modern European language, is important in that the protagonist suffers from true-believer syndrome (sometimes called the fantasy-driven mind). As such, the story directly addresses medieval fantasy, legends, and faerytales in much the same way that Mazes and Monsters (1982) addressed fantasy role-playing games -- albeit in not nearly so negative a light.
Early modern fantasy
Following somewhat in the footsteps of Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift used satire in the form of fantasy to parody many of the political and social conventions of its time, and can be considered the earliest work of modern-style fantasy. The story was likely a major influence on what would later become the fantasy genre.
In the late 1800's and early 1900's the modern fantasy genre first truly began to take shape. Many of the more prominent features of the genre, such as world building, were developed during this time: beginning with fictional countries and other lands in the works of Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, and L. Frank Baum, this tradition evolved into the creation of entire fictional time periods (ala Lord of the Rings), realms (ala The Chronicles of Narnia), and even whole, distinct worlds (ala Earthsea). Although fantastic lands, time periods, and realms all have their counterparts in mythology and folklore, such as Jotunheim, the "Worlds" of Mesoamerican mythology, and the fairy realm of English folklore, respectively, these similarities are often regarded as largely coincidental in the case of early modern fantasy. (Later works would come to draw inspiration for their fictional lands, time periods, and realms directly from such ancient sources, however.)
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, much fantasy was published in the same magazines as science fiction (and often written by the same authors). After the great popularity, in the mid-20th century, of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as of C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series, fantasy writing saw renewed popularity, often influenced by these seminal works and, like them, borrowing from myth, epic, and medieval romance.
Works of later modern fantasy are often criticized for over-borrowing themes and plot elements from works of early modern fantasy.
Modern fantasy, including early modern fantasy, has also spawned many new subgenres with no clear counterpart in mythology or folklore, although inspiration from mythology and folklore remains a consistent theme. Since the rise of popular fantasy fiction in the twentieth century, the fantasy genre has subdivided into a number of branches. Whereas works of "early modern" fantasy were often lumped together, later works are typically divided into subgenres. These sungenres are usually extended to include works of early modern fantasy.
Main article: Bangsian fantasy
Bangsian fantasy is named for John Kendrick Bangs (see above), whose late 19th- and early 20th-century Associated Shades series of novels deals with the afterlives of various famous dead people. Frequently used are the Underworld/Limbo/Purgatory ("neutral"), Elysium/Nirvana/Heaven ("good"), and Erebus/Gehenna/Hell ("bad").
Main article: Comic fantasy
Comic fantasy – such as the works of Terry Pratchett – should also be mentioned here. A peculiarly early example of this genre is the aforementioned Gulliver's Travels. This sub-genre parodies the above ideas as well as ideas outside the genre, in a postmodern manner. It might also include the so-called 'worst science fiction story ever published' The Eye of Argon.
Main article: Contemporary fantasy
Main article: Dark fantasy
Dark fantasy in this context refers to stories that focus on elements usually found in the horror genre but which take place in a setting more alike sword and sorcery or high fantasy. Dark fantasy is also used to refer to "grittier" fantasy, conducted in settings which represent the brutality of the medieval period of most family, generally with a dash of supernatural horror. It may or may not take place in its own fantasy world.
More generally, dark fantasy may be used as a synonym for supernatural horror , to distinguish horror stories that contain elements of the supernatural from those that do not. For example, a story about a mummy or vampire rising from the grave would be most likely described as dark fantasy, supernatural horror, or horror fantasy, while a story about a serial killer is simply horror. In this sense, there is a considerable overlap between dark fantasy and contemporary fantasy.
Main article: Erotic fantasy
Main article: Fairytale fantasy
Adult literature in this subgenre is often violent and overlaps with Mythic fantasy, or sexual and overlaps with Romantic or Erotic fantasy. Children's literature in this subgenre tends to avoid the darker or more sexual tones previously common in traditional fairytales, instead concentrating on the more kid-friendly variety of fairy story.
Main article: High fantasy
Perhaps more than any other subgenre, high fantasy is criticized for borrowing too many of its themes and ideas from previous works, most notably those of J. R. R. Tolkien (often regarded as the father of high fantasy). Others defend this, citing that most of Tolkien's themes and ideas were taken from mythology and folklore with only superficial modifications. Although the fact that most authors in this subgenre tend to limit themselves to those aspects of mythology and folklore that Tolkien used, and often combine them in similar ways, is one that cannot be ignored. As a result, many fans of the fantasy genre have grown exceedingly weary of the repetitious manner in which this subgenre's once most beloved characteristics reoccur.
However, it appears that the use of such particular themes and ideas is the very thing that distinguishes high fantasy from its fellow subgenres, and that a sufficiently unique example of high fantasy would be more likely to be placed in a different subgenre altogether, thus rendering accusations of unoriginality somewhat circular. (Similar arguments have been made for the Western, an entire genre percievedly based around a narrow set of themes and concepts.)
Main article: Historical fantasy
Main article: Mannerpunk
Main article: Mythic fantasy
Often very loosely based in traditional mythology, using familiar mythological personages or deities. This is in contrast to many other forms of fantasy (with the usual exception of Fairytale fantasy), such as the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, which generally invent their own mythologies and volunteer entirely new pantheons, or attempt to disguise traditional mythology with made-up names.
Sword and sorcery
Main article: Sword and sorcery
Inspired primarily by the works of Robert E. Howard, especially Conan the Barbarian.
Main article: Romantic fantasy
Main article: Science fantasy
Fantasy and science fiction jointly share the subgenre called science fantasy, which has many of the trappings of science fiction, such as space travel and laser guns, but also contains significant elements that bear more resemblance to magic than science or in some other way draw more from fantasy than from science fiction. The best known example of science fantasy is the Star Wars series of films and its spinoffs, set aboard spaceships and on alien planets but featuring swashbuckling knights, princesses in distress, a dark sorceror who has enslaved the galaxy, a mystical source of magical power called the Force, and even an opening line that is a variant of "Once upon a time": A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Main article: Fantasy art
Washington residents Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell , and Gerald Brom are world leaders in the fantasy art industry. Many other prominent figures in the industry are present or former employees of Dungeons & Dragons (likewise based out of Washington).
Main article: Fantasy film
As distinct from science fiction films. The science fantasy film Star Wars is arguably the most famous example, but is rarely cited due to its tendency to be classified rather or additionally as science fiction.
Main article: Fantasy literature
Fantasy role playing games
Main article: Role-playing games
This fiction and its older predecessors in turn gave birth to fantasy role-playing games, probably in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Dungeons & Dragons is arguably the most successful and influential role playing game.
Role playing games in turn spawned more fiction in the genre. Game companies have published fantasy novels set in their own fictional game universes; the Forgotten Realms and Earthdawn series are some of the more popular.
Similarly, series of novels based on fantasy films and TV series have found their own niche.
See list of fantasy authors for information about individual authors who write in this genre.
Fans of fantasy get together yearly at the World Fantasy Convention. The first was held in 1975 and it has occurred every year since. The convention is held at a different city each year.