Dragons, witches, faeries, and trolls – these fantastical elements were always part of human storytelling, long before the printing machine was invented.
From classic fairy tales to charming children’s books on the periphery of literature, the fantasy genre has been enchanting its audience since the dawn of time.
But when did fantasy turn into such an established genre with millions of devoted readers? Which authors turned the world of book publishing around? And how does fantasy look nowadays?
Welcome to this brief guide to the history of fantasy. Ready to venture on a magical walk with me?
Fantasy Genre: A Quick Overview
So, what is fantasy in the first place? And how does the genre differ from others?
Well, fantasy is essentially what it says on the label.
It’s a genre that’s known for its supernatural and magical elements, from beings such as witches and dragons to humans with supernatural abilities, fantastical aspects (think time travel or portals between dimensions), or brand-new worlds entirely.
Fantasy has a multitude of subgenres, including:
- High fantasy: One of the most common subgenres, high fantasy is set in its own magical world that has its own culture, nature, laws, rules, and more. Think Middle-earth in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Discworld in the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett.
- Low fantasy: These stories are set in the real world but contain magical elements that clash with reality as we know it. Think Twilight by Stephenie Meyer or Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
- Alternate history: Some fantasy books are set in an alternate version of real history. This gives us a sense of familiarity while also disrupting our experience of what we consider real. For example, Babel by R.F. Kuang takes place at an alternate University of Oxford where magical elements are added to the fabric of the universe.
- Dark fantasy: This subgenre combines fantastical aspects with unsettling or horror-like themes. Some examples include Coraline by Neil Gaiman and Book of Night by Holly Black.
- Fables and fairy tales: These stories are typically written for children, they are often set in magical worlds, and they tend to offer some kind of lesson.
There are many more subgenres out there, such as Young Adult fantasy, romantasy, sword and sorcery, steampunk fantasy, or magical realism. Subgenres often intersect – for example, a book could be described as a YA dark romantasy.
One thing to keep in mind is that although fantasy and science fiction are often spoken of as if they were two sides of the same coin, they are actually very different.
While fantasy focuses on the supernatural and magical, sci-fi is all about technology and how it may evolve in the future. Sci-fi stories therefore often take place in space or in highly technological societies.
For example, Brandon Sanderson’s series Skyward is science fiction, while his series Mistborn is high fantasy.
RELATED READ: What Editors Look for in an Epic Fantasy
Fantasy Genre: Its History in a Nutshell
It’s impossible to pinpoint the precise moment when fantasy was born; long before civilization as we know it came to be, myths and folk tales were already rampant around the globe.
Greek mythology, Norse legends, folk tales about the dark mysteries of the woods beside one’s small village house… people always loved to come up with magical explanations for why certain things occurred in the real world, as if the realm of magic was simply an inherent part of us.
Luckily, there are specific points in the history of literature we can turn to when it comes to the development of the fantasy genre, starting off with the year 1812.
1812: Grimms’ Tales for Young and Old by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm was published. This fairy tale collection helped turn a lot of fairy tales for children “mainstream” as it were, many of which are still famous to this day (e.g., Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White).
1843: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens saw the light of day. This is yet another story comprising magical elements, although it’s important to note that it was still intended for children (although adults could enjoy it as well).
1845: The famous poem The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe was published in the New York Evening Mirror. Poe was a well-known writer of gothic fiction, a popular genre that eventually gave rise to dark fantasy and served as inspiration for H. P. Lovecraft.
1858: What many consider to be the first fantasy novel written for adults was published: Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women by the Scottish writer George MacDonald. The book supposedly influenced two authors who went on to transform the fantasy genre, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.
1865: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll took the world by storm and became one of the most famous examples of Victorian literature. While still meant for children, the story introduces some transformative aspects to the fantasy genre, such as the discovery of a “portal” to a new and magical world.
1954: Until J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, “fantasy genre” was not a coined term. Most fantastical stories were referred to as fairy tales, and in many ways, fantasy still existed on the periphery of literature. However, the success of Tolkien’s epic fantasy meant that fantasy now had its own marketing category and was able to become a rich and flourishing genre that went on to transform the world of books.
1950-1956: The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S Lewis bears mentioning as well, of course. These portal fantasy novels became a classic of children’s literature and helped bring the genre into the spotlight.
1983: Fantasy was now a thriving genre, and one of the most popular fantasy series of the time was Discworld by Terry Pratchett, published in 1983 for the first time. During the 1980s and 1990s, you could often find Discoworld on the Sunday Times bestseller list.
1990: The first book of another famous fantasy series was published: The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time series) by Robert Jordan. The series continues to amass a large readership to this day, as shown by the recent TV show adaptation (2021).
1996: A Game of Thrones, the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin, was published. It wasn’t until 2010 when the now-famous TV show aired that Martin’s series gained worldwide popularity.
1997: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling came out and transformed the book industry. Originally a children’s book series, Harry Potter amassed global fandom from all age groups, sold over 600 million copies worldwide, and turned J. K. Rowling into the first billion-dollar author in history.
When the 21st century rolled around, fantasy was a booming genre and a major player in the book industry. Many more books went on to define new subgenres and maintain the genre’s popularity, for example:
- Eragon by Christopher Paolin
- Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
- The Vampire Diaries by L. J. Smith
- Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
- City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman
- Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
- …and countless more.
What makes the fantasy genre so bewitching?
Now that the questions of what, when, and how have been answered, you might be wondering, “Why, though? What makes fantasy so enchanting?”
Here are a few reasons:
- Fantasy brings a sense of marvel. It connects us to the fairy tales we grew up reading and it enriches our imagination, letting us enjoy magical epic stories no matter our age.
- Fantasy allows us to talk about real-world issues in metaphors and analogies. For example, fantasy novels often address political problems that run parallel to what we’re experiencing in reality, and through exploring these topics in a brand-new medium, we are encouraged to use critical thinking and form our own opinions.
- Fantasy makes for perfect escapism. Sometimes, all you want is to lose yourself in a different world, and what better way to do that than through fantasy? Fantasy books are the perfect combination of critical thought and entertainment.
What’s more, fantasy also gives us a way to experience an epic story with incredibly high stakes from the comfort of our bedroom, not to mention that it’s just incredibly fun to read.
Another plus is that fantasy books tend to have a lot of fans that get to discuss their reading experiences together, and let’s be honest – nothing can top the sense of belonging you feel when you can share your favourite story with other readers.
RELATED READ: What is Young Adult Fiction?
My Recommended Reading List
Before we part for today, how about some recommendations from one fellow bookworm to another?
If you’re a fan of YA fantasy, try:
- Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
- Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard
- Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
If you love high epic fantasy, how about:
- Eragon by Christopher Paolini
- The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
- Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
If you want a lot of romance with a fantasy setting, I recommend:
- A Court of Thorns and Roses by S. J. Maas
- From Blood and Ash by Jennifer L. Armentrout
- Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin
And here are three quirky, light-hearted fantasy books:
- Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson
- The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
- The Ex Hex by Erin Sterling
I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed every book on this list.
Over the years, the fantasy genre has turned from myths and fairy tales into a bestselling category of books that has its own place in bookshops around the world.
At no point in history were there as many fantasy books available as there are now. So, what are you waiting for? Time to jump into a new magical world!