Fantasy Fiction

Fantasy has been a tool in the storyteller’s kit since ancient times and today counts as one of the highest selling genres in fiction and film - but what is it?

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Table of contents

    Fantasy Fiction definition

    Let's define fantasy fiction.

    Fantasy fiction: a definition

    Fantasy fiction is a literary genre and a sub-genre of speculative fiction.

    Fantasy fiction is concerned with magic, the impossible, or the fantastic. It can be set in a fictional world that may contain characters inspired by myth or folklore, such as trolls, elves and dragons.

    There are various types of fantasy fiction, including:

    • Fairy Tales

    • Animal Fantasy

    • Lost World/Lost Race

    • High Fantasy

    • Portal Fantasy

    • Humorous Fantasy

    • Magic Realism

    Fantasy Fiction books and examples

    Let's look at some examples.

    Fairy tales

    Fairy Tales started life as 'Tales of Wonder' – stories handed down orally of fantastic, otherworldly events and people. During the Renaissance, people began to write down and collect these stories.

    In 17th-century France these tales became very fashionable for reading aloud at salons, and Madame d’Aulney started writing sophisticated versions, called Contes des Fées (Tales of Fairies) (1696-98). A fellow writer, Charles Perrault, also started writing Histoires, or Contes du temps passé (Mother Goose Tales) (1697).

    A century later, in Germany, the Brothers Grimm collected together myths and legends to prevent them from being lost to future generations. They published this collection as Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1812), and so the fairy tale canon was expanded.

    The salon began in the 18th century and was an informal gathering at the houses of intellectuals, usually wealthy women, where literature, the arts, and sciences were discussed.

    Animal fantasy

    In Animal Fantasy means animals taking on human characteristics. Animals speak and act like humans in many of these stories. For example, the wolf in Red Riding Hood or the cat in Puss in Boots.

    • Rudyard Kipling - The Jungle Books (1894, 1895)
    • Kenneth Grahame - Toad of Toad Hall (1908)
    • Richard Adams - Watership Down(1972)
    • Gabriel King - The Wild Road (1997)
    • David Clement-Davies - The Sight (2001)
    • M.I.McAllister - Urchin of the Riding Stars (2004)

    The fiction of heart’s desire

    As the Gothic and Sensational novels grew in popularity over the 18th and 19th centuries, fantasy takes a bit of a backseat with the exception of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (and both of these were written with children in mind); instead, science-fiction kicks off with the novels of Jules Verne.

    In the late 19th century fantasy fiction began to flourish again in both children’s fiction and adult literature. A couple of authors had a far-reaching influence on the genre:

    • F. Anstey (1856 – 1934)

    • Rider Haggard (1856 – 1925)

    F. Anstey’s comic novel Vice-Versa (1882) describes a boy discovering a magic stone that allows him to swap places with his father. This and other novels by Anstey were extremely popular; his blend of humour and fantasy inspired other writers such as E.Nesbit, who wrote Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, The Story of the Amulet.

    Anstey’s Vice-versa has since been adapted several times for film, and was retold in a mother-daughter version by Mary Rodgers in her 1972 novel Freaky Friday.

    Anstey's original concept continues to influence Hollywood age-swap films like Big (1988), 18 Again! (1988), Opposite Day (2009) and Shazam! (2019).

    Lost world

    At around the same time as Anstey another writer, H.Rider Haggard, was writing about lost kingdoms and peoples in his Quatermain novels King Solomon's Mines (1885), She (1886) and Allan Quatermain (1887). Zhese were part of a whole new ‘Lost World’ genre that includes A.Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912) and Rudyard Kipling's The Man who would be King (1888).

    In these novels, explorers and adventurers make perilous journeys into as yet undiscovered parts of the world, experiencing the extraordinary, the bizarre, the ‘unreal’ in a series of unearthly, at times surreal, escapades featuring hidden kingdoms, secret cults, and magic.

    Rider Haggard is seen as the father of the lost world genre whose influence extends to J.R.R.Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft and later, in the film world, the Indiana Jones franchise.

    High fantasy & portal fantasy

    No discussion of fantasy fiction would be complete without mentioning two of the most influential writers of fantasy literature: J.R.R.Tolkien and C.S.Lewis.

    Tolkien is widely regarded as the patriarch of fantasy fiction for his works The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) which are considered ‘high fantasy’ novels. Tolkien’s work has seen many imitators and has helped shape modern fantasy fiction.

    High Fantasy concerns itself with epic tales, larger than life heroes and villains that are not usually human.

    The Hobbit describes the adventures of Bilbo Baggins who is suddenly whisked off on a journey of magic and adventure by Gandalf the wizard. Gandalf takes Bilbo with him on a treasure hunt to the lair of the dragon Smaug. The Hobbit was an immediate success, and Tolkien followed it with his trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien further developed the world he had created, creating a complete mythology for it.

    Initially poorly received, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings achieved popularity in the 1970s, followed by film versions and global recognition from the 1980s onwards. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings exist in their own complete mythology and world created by Tolkien, with influences including Norse folklore and Tolkien’s own experiences of World War I.

    C.S.Lewis wrote both science-fiction and fantasy. His first book in the series of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was published in 1950 and explains how the four Pevensie children discover the magical kingdom of Narnia by stepping into a wardrobe. Like Tolkien, Narnia was a world Lewis had created, inspired by Celtic literature, mythology and personal experience.

    The Chronicles of Narnia are not cut off in another realm, however. They are accessible to humans from this world, by means of portals such as the wardrobe in the first Chronicle. Literary influences include Plato, Dante, Milton, and Spenser. The Chronicles have been adapted for radio, television and film and remain a firm children’s classic.

    Fun Fact: both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S.Lewis belonged to a group called The Oxford Inklings. This was a group of writers that met up regularly in an Oxford pub to read and discuss their writing.

    Humorous fantasy

    The humorous style of Anstey was continued by Thorne Smith (Topper (1926), Turnabout (1931)). His stories contained friendly ghosts and body swaps, updated for the reading public of between-the-wars America. Both Topper and Turnabout were adapted for film and television. Two sequels for Topper were also filmed: Topper Takes a Trip (1939) and Topper Returns (1941). His influences can also be seen in later films: Ghostbusters (1989), Beetlejuice (1988) and Night at the Museum (2006).

    In 1983, The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett was published, the first in a series of comic fantasy novels. Terry Pratchett's Discworld series evolved into a colourful, chaotic parallel universe filled with a medley of trolls, dwarves, wizards, humans and gods. The books teem with eccentric characters and themes or countries that mirror those of Earth including politics, journalism, Hollywood, society, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, and most of all the foibles of human behaviour.

    Pratchett’s work ranges from slapstick to satire, making gentle fun of fantasy cliches while also containing underlying philosophical depth and serious messages. Several of his works have been filmed: Hogfather (2006), The Colour of Magic/Light Fantastic (2008), and Going Postal (2010).

    Humorous fantasy can be traced back to the ancient world: Greek Old Comedy (written before 400 BC) is mainly satirical fantasy, (for example, Aristophanes’ The Birds (414 BC) is about a city in the air called ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’).

    Another, later writer, Lucian of Samosata (c. 120 - 180 A.D.) wrote parodies and his Lucianic Dialogues and The True Story are humorous fantasies which pre-date Pratchett by over 1000 years, poking fun at the ‘imaginary voyage’ fiction of Lucian’s own generation. The original stories are lost, but Lucian’s parodies send explorers to the moon (like Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865)) and to the Underworld, where Charon the ferryman leaves his post to explore the mortal world and see how humans live (like the character Death in Pratchett’s Reaper Man (1991)).

    Note: Lucian’s tale of explorers sailing to the moon on a waterspout has also been regarded as a very early form of science fiction.

    Magic realism

    Magic Realism evolved as a rebellion against the Expressionist movement, and as a reaction to the grime and tragedy of the modern cityscape. It is a form of escapism, a means of viewing the world not through rose-tinted spectacles, but through a kaleidoscope of frequently changing colours. Magic realism exists in a dislocated kind of reality where anything magical might quite normally happen. For instance, someone might see a unicorn in the back garden or grow a monkey's tail and while it may be unexpected, these incidents will be treated as part of everyday life.

    The narrative style in magical realism does not follow a predictable line either: the first act is not necessarily followed by the second and third; there may not be an actual climax, or if there is, it won’t happen when you expect it to.

    The term was first used in 1925 by Franz Roh and the genre became popular in Latin America in the 1940s - 60s.

    Authors who contributed to the genre of Magical Realism:

    Franz Kafka is among the earliest authors of Magical Realism with his novella Metamorphosis (1915). In the novella, the unfortunate protagonist Gregor Samsa wakes up to find he has turned into a huge insect. His transformation, rather than arouse horror and pity, merely annoys his father and Samsa is confined to his room where he dies of neglect and despair.

    Jorge Luis Borges is Jungian in his philosophy, believing in the unity of the past, present and future and of all humanity as one. His short stories contain themes of labyrinths, libraries, mirrors, dreams and philosophy.

    Example titles:

    Ficciones (1944)

    The Aleph (1949)

    Neil Gaiman writes a wide range of literary works from fantasy through horror to surrealism and magical realism. His novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013) is a combination of all four as the narrator returns to his hometown and begins to remember events from his childhood. The memories take on an increasingly improbable and surreal form of the hero’s journey and concern monsters in human shape and ‘hunger birds’.

    Characteristics of fantasy fiction

    The basic elements of writing apply to any novel whether fantasy, science fiction, mystery, thriller or literary:

    • A well-planned and structured plot (and possibly subplots)
    • Believable, filled out characters

    After that, the world in fantasy fiction has to be convincing, with its own structure and system, and this applies to any magic involved – magic does not need to be explained away the way science does in sci-fi, but its spells need to be consistent, its mages, witches and wizards need to have lore and beliefs that they follow (with dire consequences if someone breaks the rules).

    Typical elements of fantasy fiction include:

    • Magic or supernatural powers
    • Enchanted kingdoms
    • Powerful witches/wizards/warlocks
    • Talking animals
    • Mythical beasts (flying horses for example)
    • Trolls, dwarves, elves, fairies
    • Objects with magical properties (flying carpets, magic staffs, amulets, enchanted stones etc)

    Fantasy fiction is inspired by mythology, fairy tales and legends. Rather than creating new stories, the fantasy novel is retelling old ones, although in a new way, with a fresh voice or perspective.

    Fantasy fiction characters

    Fantasy fiction characters often hold specific roles and there can be recognisable archetypes including:

    • A hero or heroine
    • A wizard or wise old woman
    • A helpful (talking) animal
    • A trickster (usually a character that can shapeshift, or change their appearance at will)
    • A wounded or dying KIng
    • An innocent or ‘divine’ child
    • The guide: this may or may not be the wizard or wise woman; they will appear at the necessary moment to help the hero gain access to the inaccessible: enchanted castle, locked tower, the invisible bridge and so on.
    • An imprisoned knight or guardian of an enchanted relic

    These characters are again based on folklore; Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) traces the origins of the Hero, the Antagonist, the Mage or Wizard, the Soothsayer, the Ally in ancient mythology from around the world.

    Study tip: the next time you read a fantasy novel, or watch a fantasy film, see how many of these archetypal roles you can identify.

    The difference between fantasy and science fiction

    Fantasy fiction is concerned with myth, legend and magic. Science-fiction is concerned with science: problems and obstacles are overcome by the use of scientifically designed equipment or machinery. Even if the science may seem to verge on the ‘fantastic’ such as time travel machines, or talking computers, it will still be based on a theory or evidence that such things might at some point be possible.

    Both are sub-genres of speculative fiction. There is some discussion as to whether science fiction is a sub-genre of fantasy because many elements are similar, it's only the setting and the way the fantastical elements are couched in pseudo-scientific terms that differ.

    Fantasy fiction explores and frees the imagination: it creates and expands on new worlds that contain gods and monsters, myth and legend, runes and spells. Its technology tends to be ancient, often worked with magic, spells, incantations, energy. It does not rely on any scientific reasoning; its logic is bound up in rituals, oral storytelling, and instinct. Its comparative freedom from ‘reality’ as we know it allows us to escape our own surroundings and to stimulate our own creativity, which may help explain its continued popularity over time.

    Fantasy Fiction - Key takeaways

    • Fantasy fiction is concerned with magic, the impossible or the fantastic.
    • There are various types of fantasy fiction, including:
      • Fairy Tales
      • Animal Fantasy
      • Lost World/Lost Race
      • Humorous Fantasy
    • Fantasy fiction characters are recognisable archetypes including:
      • A hero or heroine
      • A wizard or wise old woman
      • A helpful (talking) animal
      • A trickster (usually a character that can shapeshift, or change their appearance at will)
      • A guide
    • Fantasy fiction is concerned with myth, legend and magic, whereas science-fiction is concerned with science.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Fantasy Fiction

    What are fantasy fiction examples? 

    A.Conan Doyle's The Lost World,

    J.R.R.Tolkien's The Hobbit  and The Lord of the Rings, Terry Pratchett's The Colour of Magic etc

    What is fantasy fiction? 

    In the modern sense, fantasy fiction is concerned with magic, the impossible or the fantastic. 

    What are the characteristics of fantasy fiction?

    Typical elements of fantasy fiction include:

    • Magic or supernatural powers
    • Powerful witches/wizards/warlocks

    • Talking animals

    • Trolls, dwarves, elves, fairies

    What's the difference between science fiction and fantasy?

    Fantasy fiction is concerned with myth, legend and magic, whereas science-fiction is concerned with science.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Choose: Terry Pratchett's Discworld series is filled with ... and ...

    Choose: Fantasy fiction characters include ... and ...

    What is hard worldbuilding characterised by? 


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