From LitWiki
The Iliad, Achilles and Hector By Rubens

Fantasy, a genre of narrative fiction, originates from supernatural elements, like magic. Although sometimes coupled with the science fiction genre, fantasy deals with elements thought to be generally impossible.[1] In comparison, science fiction deals with elements that have not been proven but could potentially happen.

The earlier works of fantasy, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, contributed prominent elements to the modern day genre, such as themes of transformation and journeys to exotic lands. Because of its lengthy and rich heritage, fantasy is believed to be the antecedent of other literary genres.[1]

Fantasy is notable as the only form of literature that consistently blurs the boundaries between adult fiction and children’s fiction.[2] In recent years, fantasy has conquered box offices and best seller lists. Novels and novel based films, like the Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings series, have made the genre popular in modern culture. Fantasy also plays a major role in the video gaming world. Players have the potential ability to write their own storylines through interactions within different games.


Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh

Fantasy dates as far back as the third century B.C.[3] Alexander Romance, with its earliest versions appearing in the third century, is a Greek novel about the mythical adventures of Alexander, the Great.[4] The romance is fantastical in nature because he “battles with non-human opponents--the giant crabs, monstrous beasts, dragons or pygmy people of the lands beyond the world".[5]

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey contributed motifs of illusion and delusion as well as journeys to exotic lands.[1] The Babylonian epic, Gilgamesh (ca 200 BC), is an early example of the hero quest story.[1]

These heroes, with higher powers and mythical creatures, are written about even centuries later in Classical, Celtic, and Norse mythology. However, it is Greek mythology that has made the most impact on fantasy.[6] The works all involve elements of other worlds, gods, dragons, and monsters.[7] Greek mythology introduced other elements, including the tortured hero, like Heracles, prophecies, and monsters and beasts, like Cyclopes and Pegasus. Sphinx, Centaurs, and evil sorceress were prevalent in Greek mythology, and fantasy borrows from these creatures as well.[6]

Gillian Polack writes “if speculative fiction includes all fiction that pushes the boundaries of the known and the experience and incorporates elements of the numinous, the magical, and the inexplicable, than a range of medieval texts are readable as science fiction or fantasy”;[8] some of these texts might include Beowulf (ca 700 AD) and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (ca 1470; printed 1485), notable for the legend of King Arthur.[7]

Other worlds are important in the plot of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and instrumental in the development of fantasy. Brothers Grimm, with their grotesque fairy tales published between 1812-15, contributed to the genre as well.[7]

It was during the 18th Century that contemporary fantasy first appeared in fictional traveler’s tales. In the late 19th Century, it gained popularity as its own distinct genre.[9] For example, it was in 1977 when Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara made the bestseller list;[7] a story of evil warlocks, other worlds, and a powerful sword.[10] The popularity of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were also part of the movement into mainstream culture.[9]

Characteristics of Fantasy

One of the defining traits of the genre of fantasy is magic. It’s the most basic element of fantasy. Magic is something humans can’t perform, which makes the task intriguing to readers. Magic is in charms, spells or rituals that are used in order to produce a supernatural event.[11] For example, Harry Potter finds out at the age of eleven he has magical abilities.

Other worlds are an imaginative creation by the author of a place that is nothing like earth. It is a completely imagined world where anything can happen and is only limited by the author's imagination. The characters can also have the ability to jump between two worlds.[11] For example, in C.S Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the characters are able to go to Narnia from England through a magical wardrobe.

Universal themes are also needed. The most basic of these is good versus evil. There's always a good guy trying to fight for what is right against the powerful force of a bad guy.[11] For example, in the Harry Potter series the good and evil could be Harry and Voldemort. Other themes include love and friendship, death, isolation, etc. Special character types are abundant in fantasies. Some examples are fairies, giants, ogres, dragons, witches, unicorns and centaurs. An author can shape the character in such a way that the reader has no problem believing that such a being could exist.[11]

The use of talking animals or [anthropomorphism] in fantasy stories can be used for several purposes. Sometimes the animals can talk to humans, as in James in the Giant Peach or The Chronicles of Narnia. Then sometimes the animals only talk amongst each other and are incapable of talking with humans, as in Charlotte's Web, Redwallor Rabbit Hill. The need and use for communication is prevalent in both types.[11]

Fantastic objects help the characters perform their task. Many times these objects become almost a character in themselves. Many times characters need such an object to make themselves complete.[11] In Harry Potter, J. K Rowling writes, “…the wand chooses the wizard.” The wand has emotions and can feel, making it a character. Also in the series, The Sorting Hat chooses the house to which each wizard or witch belongs.

Mythology also consists of monsters, creatures, and magic. The two lie very close together when it comes to contents and themes. Tolkien borrowed a lot from mythology when he built Middle-Earth, using Nordic, Germanic, and archaic English myths and legends.[12]

Types of Fantasy

“'Fantasy' is not a single definite genre, but a cohesion of many diverse, often wildly different, genres”.[13] Fantasy is divided into different subgenres each with its own identifying characteristics. Within contemporary literature and media, these characteristics and genres are continuously changing, therefore, making it difficult to create a definitive list.


Portal fantasy begins with a magical doorway connecting two worlds separated by space and time. The hero passes through a portal, willingly, or is summoned to the other world. Plots usually consist of the protagonist trying to return home.[14]However, this is not always the case. In Harry Potter, the main characters prefer to be in the magical world versus the Muggle world.

In portal fantasy, characters travel to different places and to different times is possible. In Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ranson Riggs, one of the main characters travels back in time to 1940.

Portal fantasies are often about ensuring that multiple worlds stay divided.[14] In the Harry Potter series, it is a priority that Muggles have no idea the wizard world exists. Ultimately, portal fantasy is a versatile and an open-ended genre where anything is possible.[14]

Secondary World

Secondary World fantasies are different fictional scenarios. These scenarios mirror the author's thoughts rather than what actually happens in the world.[15] In the author's fictional world, situations become very intense. They have several different dimensions, locations, characters, languages, and timelines are interdependent. The author attempts to make the reader feel as if they are part of the secondary world. It seems unreal, but it explores and unveils the rules and nature of that world. Dark, Low, Heroic, and High fantasies are different types of fantasy literature that use secondary world within the narratives.

Low Fantasies

Error creating thumbnail: File missing
American Gods

Low fantasies are set in the real world with magical components.[16] Low fantasy is in opposition to high fantasy literature with irrational events occurring in a rational setting. It does not consist of magical creatures or secondary worlds. Low fantasy stories focus on the protagonist's daily life. Harry Potter is one example. The series showcases the adventures of a young wizard. Harry’s quest is to overcome the Dark wizard Lord Voldemort. American Gods is another novel that displays low fantasy elements.[17] The main point of the novel is gods and mythical creatures existed simply because people believed in them. Immigrants brought spirits and gods with them to the United States.The conflict is the war between the new gods and the old ones.

High Fantasy

High Fantasies include characters such as dragons, elves, wizards and dwarfs that can be found in a secondary world. The plots are serious, and the main hero fights evil forces. Contemporary high fantasies either exclude the primary world, parallel the primary world with the secondary world, or have the hero enter the secondary world from the primary world through a portal.[18] The Lord of the Rings is a high fantasy novel.[19] The ring symbolizes power and evil; it was created by the The Dark Lord Sauron to rule over middle-earth.[20] It is more powerful than other power rings within the secondary world. The "Eye or Sauron" is a representation of darkness. The "Eye" is used to protect Mordor and give Lord Sauron the ability to see all.

Heroic Fantasy

The Ring

Heroic fantasies follow the hero's story within the secondary world. Most heroes are humble and reluctant to go on the journey. They learn, grow, and become self-aware along their trials and tribulations. Problems presented in the plot are those of the hero, not of the secondary or primary world.[21] Frodo Baggins, from The Lord of the Rings, battles alongside with wizards, dwarfs, and other creatures along the quest to destroy the "ring" in the fire of Mount Doom.[22] The journey Frodo embarks on is a test of survival; he travels thousands of miles, on foot, escaping the black riders, and fighting off Sauron's men holding the only ring that controls middle earth. Throughout his journey, Frodo struggles with the decision to keep the ring for himself or have it destroyed.

Epic Fantasy

Epic fantasy, often mistaken for high fantasy, takes its name from the tradition of epic poetry. Like epic poetry, epic fantasy novels have many characters and long, complex plots which help shape the nature of the world.[23] Epic fantasy tales have a high level of magic and violence. Although epic fantasy can be traced back to the epic of Beowulf and Gilgamesh, epic fantasy is still a popular sub-genre of fantasy. Modern versions of epic fantasy tend to be more complicated and realistic. The difference between right and wrong is not as easily separated. The most popular epic fantasy novels of today are J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.[24]

Sword and Sorcery

Sword and sorcery fantasy is characterized by heroes engaging in action and violence in fast paced stories. [25] Tales of sword and sorcery are narrowly focused unlike high fantasy stories which focus more on personal stakes and are self-contained. These stories pull from mythology and classic epics such as Homer's Odyssey. A popular defining work of the genre is Conan The Barbarian, a series by Robert E. Howard. The term "sword and sorcery" originated from the British author Michael Moorcock when he wanted a term for Robert E. Howard's fantasy series.


Folklore comes from tales passed down by word of mouth. It is made up of informal expressions passed around long enough to have become recurrent in form and content, but changeable in performance.[26] This sub-genre consist of myths, legends, fables, and fairy tales.

A myth is that which occurs in time-out-of-time. It is concerned with why the world is the way it is and unfolds in a setting that is distinct from time or place as it is currently recognized.[26] Myths are stories from every culture that, for centuries, have explained natural phenomena and answered questions people have about the human condition; origin and creation stories, stories about life, death, and life after death.[27]

Legend occurs in “historical time” although it typically mixes fact with fiction. Usually, with legends, there is doubt about its credibility. They are unexplained tales warped by the human imagination. A legend can be either about a person or a place. For example, King Arthur, Robin Hood, Atlantis are all types of legends.

Fables are described as a didactic lesson given through some sort of animal story.[28] In Western society, the most common fables are by Aesop, consisting of short stories like The Tortoise and the Hare, and The Ant and the Grasshopper.

Fairytales are short stories, typically with no author. It is still recognizable despite many variations of the story. A fairytale is similar to myths, legends and fables. It can be either told orally or in text. The content of the story can be historical, and usually has a moral lesson. Fairytales typically feature European folkloric fantasy characters, such as dwarfs, elves, fairies, giants, gnomes, goblins, mermaids, trolls, or witches, and magic or enchantments.[29] These type of stories withstand long periods of time because they are an embodiment of a culture, contain fundamental human truths by which people have lived for centuries, or they are simply entertaining.[30]

Magic Realism

Magical realism is a subgenre of fantasy that fuses realistic fiction with magical elements that creates a mythical perception of the real world. Alejo Carpentier refers to magical realism as “unexpected alteration of reality … and unaccustomed insight that is singularly favored by the unexpected richness or an amplification of the scales categories of reality”.[31] Unlike most science fiction or fantasy genres, magical realism is not speculative.[31] Magical realists tell stories from a real world perspective, but the reader is to experience a different reality rather than the objective. [32]

Magical realism does not use imaginary or unseen devices such as angels or ghosts to make the story fanatical. Magical realism stresses normal elements of the world. This type of setting is intended to make the reader feel as if they are in a different world. Readers can often view the reality in two different ways. With magical elements amplifying the state of mind of the reader, time and space are often challenged, and the identity is often broken.[31]

The New Weird

Ann and Jeff Vandermeer state in The New Weird, New Weird is "a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy." [33] The New Weird originates from The New Wave of the 1960s. A genre that was experimental and very political in its point of view. Characteristics include the grotesque of 1980’s literature. The genre is the mix of science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural horror.[33]

Popular authors of the New Weird include China Mieville, Richard Calder, Jonathan Carroll, James Morrow, John Crowley, and many more.[34]

Romantic Fantasy

Romantic fantasy stories share the same basic story line. The heroine has lost her place in society and must form new relationships, including social, political, and romantic relationships, in order to gain acceptance elsewhere. The heroine usually possesses magical powers and falls in love with a man who is also capable of performing magic. However, the magic in romance fantasy is much gentler. The heroine and the hero discover together how their powers can be used in order to restore good. Unlike realistic novels, romantic fantasy novels can end unhappily. Although there is little to no violence, non-graphic sex is common.[35]

Urban Fantasy

Urban, or modern, fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that is characterized by setting or place. The location is often a city on Earth. Urban fantasy is the opposite of high fantasy- which is established in a fabricated world. Urban fantasy consists of contemporary settings featuring supernatural elements. These stories can exist in a historical, modern, or futuristic period, but the majority of the story must be mostly based in a city. Urban fantasy can include aliens, issues of human and non-human beings coexisting peacefully or otherwise, and/or the involvement of paranormal or mythological creatures. [36] Urban fantasy depicts the influence of modern society on the fantasy elements included in the story, such as an alien driving a truck or a wizard using a telephone booth. Magic is an aspect that is out of the ordinary for the vast majority of the people in the story, and the majority will live normal lives that are ignorant to the fantastical elements around them. Urban fantasy often crosses paths with gothic punk, horror, magical realism, or paranormal romance. [37]

Gothic Fantasy (Dark Fantasy)

Gothic fantasy can also be referred to as “dark fantasy”, and combines fantasy elements with horror. Authors sometimes label their work as "gothic" or "dark fantasy" to move away from the gruesome connotation of the horror genre itself. This combination is typically a fantastical world mixed with a disconsolate, shadowy atmosphere and/or feelings of trepidation, anxiety, and horror. Gothic fantasy can allow the stories to be told from the monster or creature’s point of view or can be used to lend a sympathetic view towards supernatural beings. The gothic subgenre branches off from romantic fiction and can contain similar elements. Gothic works can possess feelings of excess that border on melodrama, a mystery to be solved, or twists and turns that convolute the plot making it nonrealistic. [38] The settings provide the reader or viewer with images of darkness and decay. There is implied violence or gore, but it is never blatantly shown so as the give the impression of that which is frightening; there is nothing concrete. This aspect lends to the uncertainty and building of suspense common in gothic fantasy. Elements of the supernatural are a must: curses, haunted houses, ghosts, witches, vampires, and beasts. The gothic typically features repressed fears, memories, or desires to make the story more gripping to the characters. Secret passages and rooms, creepy, startling sounds, and screams heard off in the distance make for works that keep the viewer or reader on the edge of their seat. [39]


The grim and dark tone of these stories gives this genre its name. Grimdark stories are often set in dystopian or amoral societies with a violent, realistic setting. These fantastic works move away from the uplifting and idealized. Grimdark illustrates how bleak and brutal life is at the moment or was in the past. The narratives do not re-image history or past events, but instead express pessimism or disillusionment. Grimdark features some similar characteristics of dark realism texts and the agency of the protagonist is that they are characters that must choose between good and evil, but they are just as lost as the average person- they have no special insight to how the world works. These texts are based on human nature; elements of jealously, murder, adultery, pride, revenge, and tragedy are all extremely common in Grimdark. While set in fantasy worlds, there is more focus on the psychology of the character than the surroundings [40]

Fantasy in Media

Weird Tales November 1941

An important factor in the development of the fantasy genre was the arrival of magazines devoted to fantasy fiction. When Weird Tales, the first English language fantasy fiction magazine was created, the pulp magazine format was at the height of its popularity.[41] This magazine brought fantasy fiction to audiences in both the U.S. and Britain. Science fiction and fantasy are associated with each other because of this magazine.[41] In the 1950s, epic fantasy hit mainstream with J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings.

The American Film Institute defines the Hollywood fantasy film as “a genre where live action characters inhabit imagined settings and/or experience situations that transcend the rules of the natural world”.[42] Due to the components of fantasy, animation seems to inhabit an unavoidable position in fantasy cinema.[42]

Fantasy is greatly emphasized in the video game world. Many include subterranean settings, the vocabulary of elves, wizards, goblins, magical swords, and follow a classic heroic journey. Video games enable players to create worlds where they are heroic, active, and respected. Many video games contain suggestive violence as seen in the Grand Theft Auto,World of Warcraft, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Kelleghan, Fiona. Classics Of Science Fiction And Fantasy Literature. Pasadena, Calif: Salem Press, 2002. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 1 July 2015.
  2. Sanchez, Matt. "Genre Fiction As Literature - Fantasy - Page 2." Genre Fiction As Literature - Fantasy - Page 2. 2005. Web. 2 July 2015. <>
  3. Farah, Mendlesohn, and James Edward. "From Myth to Magic." A Short History of Fantasy. London: Middlesex UP, 2009. Page 9. Print.
  4. "Alexander Romance." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 1 Sept. 2005. Web. 2 July 2015.<>.
  5. Netton, Ian Richard, Kyle Erickson, and Richard Stoneman. The Alexander Romance In Persia And The East. Groningen: Barkhuis, 2012. Page XI. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 30 June 2015.<>.
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Fantasy Influences: Ancient Greek Mythology – Part One." FantasyFaction RSS. Fantasy-Faction, 2015. Web. 2 July 2015.<>.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 "Fantasy 100 - Brief History of Fantasy." Fantasy 100 - Brief History of Fantasy. Peter Sykes & Fantasy 100. Web. 2 July 2015.<>.
  8. Reid, Robin Anne. Women In Science Fiction And Fantasy. Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 2009. Page 1. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 30 June 2015.<>.
  9. 9.0 9.1 "History of Fantasy." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 1 Aug. 2005. Web. 2 July 2015.<>.
  10. Brooks, Terry. The Sword of Shannara. New York: Ballantine, 1977. Print.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 McGowen, Karlene. "Fantasy Books: There's a Whole Other World Out There". Web. 7 July 2015. < >.
  12. Penn, Joanna. " Writing Fantasy: A Short Guide To The Genre". 2013. Web. 7 July 2015. < >.
  13. "Fantasy Subgenres Guide." The Complete Guide to the Fantasy Subgenres. 2005. Web. 7 July 2015. <>.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 "Portal Fantasy." Best Fantasy Books. Web. 7 July 2015. <>.
  15. Walter, Damien G. "Secondary World Problems." SECONDARY WORLD PROBLEMS. N.p., 15 Apr. 2012. Web. 02 July 2015. <>
  16. "Low Fantasy." Low Fantasy. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 July 2015.
  17. "Neil's Work." "Neil's Work | Books | American Gods." Neil Gaiman Neil's Work. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 July 2015.
  18. "High Fantasy." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 02 July 2015. <>.
  19. "The Lord of the Rings." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 02 July 2015. <>.
  20. "Sauron." The One Wiki to Rule Them All. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 July 2015. <>.
  21. "Heroic Fantasy." Heroic Fantasy. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 July 2015. <>.
  22. "Frodo Baggins." The One Wiki to Rule Them All. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 July 2015. <>.
  23. Smith, Chloe. "What Makes 'Epic Fantasy' Epic." Fantasy Faction. 23 Nov. 2013. Web. 26 June 2015.
  24. "Epic Fantasy." Best Fantasy Books. Web. 26 June 2015.
  25. "Sword and Sorcery." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 1 July 2015. Web. 7 July 2015.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Grey, Elspeth. "Folklore: An Appeal to Fantasy Authors to Get It Right." That Character Dies. 16 Dec. 2013. Web. 2 July 2015. <>.
  27. "The Fable, Folktale, Myth, Legend: Differences and Examples-Video and Lesson Transcript." 2003-2015. Web. 7 July 2015.
  28. "Fable-Definition and Examples of Fable." Literary Devices. 15 Feb. 2014. Web. 7 July 2015.
  29. "Fairy Tale." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 5 July 2015. Web. 7 July 2015.
  30. Chen, Chi-Fen Emily. "Folk Literature." Folk Literature. Web. 8 July 2015. <>.
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 "Magical Realism." Magical Realism. Web. 3 July 2015. <>
  32. Holland Rogers, Bruce. "What Is Magical Realism, Really?" Web. 3 July 2015. <>
  33. 33.0 33.1 "The New Weird: "It's Alive?"" The New Weird. Ed. Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2008. Page XVI. Print.
  34. Davies, Alice."Science Fiction Research Association." New Weird 101. 2010. Web. 2 July 2015. <>.
  35. "Romantic Fantasy." Best Fantasy Books. Web. 26 June 2015.
  36. "Urban Fantasy." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 1 July 2015. Web. 3 July 2015. <>
  37. "Urban Fantasy." TV Tropes. Web. 3 July 2015. <>
  38. "Dark Fantasy." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 16 June 2015. Web. 3 July 2015. <>
  39. Rose-Shaffer, Mary. "Exploring Genre: Dark or Gothic Fantasy." SFRevu. 1 November 2008. Web. 3 July 2015. <>
  40. Witvliet, Philip. "Grimdark Defined." Grimdark Reader. Web. 3 July 2015. <>
  41. 41.0 41.1 "Fantasy." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 3 July 2015.
  42. 42.0 42.1 "" Fantasy/Animation: A Conference on Media, Medium and Genre. Web. 3 July 2015.