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Friday, September 28, 2012

Origins of Fantasy -where did it all begin?

By J. R. Wagner


What are its origins? Who wrote the first fantasy novel?
These are questions both budding and existing fantasy authors should know.

First I think we need ta solid definition

I like this definition despite its source -The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979) -yes, the Soviets.  I've broken it into two parts because the first part is more or less the definition and the second speaks of its origins (albeit a wordy piece of writing).
Fantasy: a type of fiction that ideologically and aesthetically subordinates reality to imagination by depicting a world of marvels that is contrasted to everyday reality and to accepted views of what is credible.
Fantasy literature originated in popular myths, as expressed in the fairy tale and the heroic epic. It is the product of many centuries of popular literary creativity. At the same time, fantasy literature is a continuation of that creativity, utilizing and renewing traditional mythological and fairy-tale characters, themes, and plots and combining them with elements from history and contemporary life. The result is a series of archetypes that combine fantasy and verisimilitude, that conform to the moral and aesthetic principles of an imaginary universe, and that constitute a continuously developing literary mosaic.

Based upon this definition, the fantasy genre is rather wide open.  We could speak of Celtic, Roman, Greek(641BC-331AD) and Egyptian(2686-2181 BC) stories containing creatures that contrast everyday reality.

I often think of the Iliad and Odyssey as early fantasy writing.

The Iliad dates back to 650 BC and its counterpart the Odyssey dates to 630 BC according to Andrew Dalby, author of Rediscovering Homer.  

This is an excellent excerpt about the genre from FindMeAnAuthor.com

"Though the genre in its modern sense is less than two centuries old, its precedents have a long and distinguished history. Fantasy Fiction has a rich history of inspirations for critics to dissect and apply to the modern genre. It is often examined as the modern counterpart to mythology, but whether one of these practices inspired the other, and which inspired which, is hotly debated.

With its roots in myth and legend, fantasy is the most elemental of all the genres. It is certainly interesting that many people for many generations believed in myth and legend in a way that dramatically affected their life and their culture.

One thing is certain: there is something timeless about stories that pit motivating heroes who face long odds against dynamic villains. (It could also be argued that this is the elementary basis of most commercial fiction genres.) Good is good and evil is evil. Eventually there is often a happy ending although important secondary characters may have been killed.

Stories of the Odyssey, Arthur, and the like have influenced and shaped culture for centuries. Heroic fantasy yearns for a time of rigid class distinction, when good and evil were a part of breeding. When the strong ruled the weak and weak lived happily - providing rustic atmosphere in the way good peasants should. In fantasy, the reader may return to a simpler time - the world as we wish it might be."

 One non-modern era publication that cannot be ignored is this Kinder- und Hausmärchen (German for Children's and Household Tales) commonly known today as Grimms Märchen: Grimms' Fairy Tales published in 1812. These stories have influenced writers of all genres for generations.  Even today stories and films based upon these tales.

 A Final non-modern era publication that has influenced many, many authors is titled Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by-Charles Lutwidge Dodgson better known as Lewis Caroll. The story is better known as Alice in Wonderland published in 1865. Many spin-off books and films have come as a result of this novel as well.

The Modern Era of Fantasy

Looking forward 60 years we come to the first fantasy novel in the modern era.  Over and over again I hear the name George MacDonald as the first author to publish a fantasy novel in the modern era.

Amazon blurb:  

One of the most successful and beloved of Victorian fairy tales, George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin tells the story of young Princess Irene and her friend Curdie, who must outwit the threatening goblins who live in caves beneath her mountain home. Macdonald’s pioneering use of fanstasy as a literary medium had a great influence on Lewis Carroll (his later works, I'm assuming), J. R. R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle, all great admirers of his work, which has remained popular to this day. "I write, not for children," he wrote, "but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five."

Others say the first true fantasy novel published in the modern era was written by  
William Morris.

Amazon blurb

The Wood Beyond the World was first published in 1894 and its author, William Morris is often considered one of the authors who aided in the growth of fantasy, utopian literature, and science fiction. C.S. Lewis cites William Morris as one of his favorite authors and J.R.R. Tolkein admits to being influenced greatly by Morris' fantasies. The hero of this romance is named Golden Walter, son of Bartholomew Golden, a great merchant in the town of Langton on Holm. Tired of his mundane life, Walter sets out on a sea voyage, anxious to see and learn more of the outside world, eventually winning for himself the kingdom of Stark-Wall and the love of a beautiful maiden. 

A seldom mentioned story when referring to fantasy that actually cut its teeth as a play in 1904 and was soon adapted and expanded to a novel in 1911.  It was written by J. M. Barrie. The title: Peter and Wendy (now known as Peter Pan).

 Peter Pan fits the definition of a fantasy novel as well as any other and I'm sure has provided countless writers with inspiration. 

There are over 30 published works based on Peter Pan as well as over a dozen films including my favorite simply called; Peter Pan.

A Voyage to Arcturus, David Lindsay-1920

A Voyage to Arcturus is a novel by Scottish writer David Lindsay, first published in 1920. It combines fantasy, philosophy, and science fiction in an exploration of the nature of good and evil and their relationship with existence. It has been described by critic and philosopher Colin Wilson as the "greatest novel of the twentieth century", and was a central influence on C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy.Also J. R. R. Tolkien said he read the book "with avidity", and praised it as a work of philosophy, religion, and morality.

 Why is this particular book important?  Well, there are two names cited as being influenced by this novel that may be familiar.  C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien; two of the biggest names in modern fantasy.


  I have personally read this book over a dozen times -most of them as an early teen.  To many, The Hobbit is the bible of fantasy. The Hobbit launched the fantasy genre into the mainstream and influenced thousands of writers, artists and filmmakers. Tolkien's follow-up novels -The Lord of The Rings trilogy are similarly influential and monumental.






 It is a well known fact that C.S. Lewis and Tolkien were friends during their writing career.  The Chronicles of Narnia includes some phenomenal pieces of writing and some not so phenomenal.  The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe being the most well known of the series.  Despite the ebbing and flowing of the popularity within the series, one cannot question the influence his storytelling has had on generations of readers.




 I realize one could just as easily call this novel science-fiction as they could fantasy, however I believe it should be included mostly due to its influence on future works. This novel touches on complex concepts in a way that still enables young readers to enjoy the story.  After reading A Wrinkle in Time as an adult, I was amazed at how truly rich a story it is.




 All lovers of fantasy have read these great novels by Terry Brooks.  The Sword of Shannara epitomizes a true sword and castle mid-evil fantasy novel. One character pitted against the hopes of the entire world (a very Tolkien-esque theme) but with plenty of differences that make this story both unique and enjoyable -not to mention influential to all its successors.

There are many others along this chronological path that have been omitted simply due to the time constraints (and my unwillingness to write an entire novel) of this author.


Interested in learning more?

check out


Once upon a time all literature was fantasy, set in a mythical past when magic existed, animals talked, and the gods took an active hand in earthly affairs. As the mythical past was displaced in Western estimation by the historical past and novelists became increasingly preoccupied with the present, fantasy was temporarily marginalized until the late 20th century, when it enjoyed a spectacular resurgence in every stratum of the literary marketplace.

Also, there is an excellent timeline on timerime.com called The History of Fantasy Literature.  It includes many great titles. Some covered here. Some not.  

 What are your favorite fantasy novels? 

Do you have any to add to this list?


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