I. What is Fantasy?
Fantasy, from the Greek ϕαντασία meaning ‘making visible,’ is a genre of fiction that concentrates on imaginary elements (the fantastic). This can mean magic, the supernatural, alternate worlds, superheroes, monsters, fairies, magical creatures, mythological heroes—essentially, anything that an author can imagine outside of reality. With fantasy, the magical or supernatural elements serve as the foundation of the plot, setting, characterization, or storyline in general. Nowadays, fantasy is popular across a huge range of media—film, television, comic books, games, art, and literature—but, it’s predominate and most influential place has always been in literature.
II. Examples of Fantasy
Fantasy stories can be about anything, anywhere, anytime with essentially no limitations on what is possible. A seemingly simple plotline can be made into a fantasy with just one quick moment:
Susie sat at her table with all of her favorite dolls and stuffed animals. It was afternoon tea time, and she started serving each of her pretend friends as she did every other day. But today was no ordinary day. As Susie reached the chair where she had sat her favorite stuffed bear, she suddenly had the strange feeling like someone was watching her. She stopped pouring the tea and looked up at Bear, who stared back with his glass eyes and replied, “Well Hello!!”
As can be seen, by changing one ordinary thing into something fantastic or imaginary—like a normal stuffed animal coming to life before the eyes of a child—the story turns into a fantasy.
III. Types of Fantasy
There are dozens of types and subgenres of fantasy; below are several of the most well-known and typically used.
Fantasy stories that are medievalist in nature; particularly focused on topics such as King Arthur and his knights, royal court, sorcery, magic, and so on. Furthermore, they are usually set in medieval times. They often involve human protagonists facing supernatural antagonists—opponents like fire-breathing dragons, evil witches, or powerful wizards.
b. High/Epic Fantasy
Fantasy stories that are set in an imaginary world and/or are epic in nature; meaning they feature a hero on some type of quest. This subgenre became particularly popular in the 20th century and continues to dominate much of popular fantasy today. Prime examples include J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.
c. Fairy Tales
Short stories that involve fantasy elements and characters—like gnomes, fairies, witches, etc— who use magical powers to accomplish good and/ or evil. These tales involve princes and princesses, fairy godmothers and wicked stepmothers, helpful gnomes and tricky goblins, magical unicorns and flying dragons. Fairytales feature magical elements but are based in a real world setting; for example, “Snow White” takes place in a human kingdom and also has a magical witch. The most notable collections include Grimm’s Fairytales (Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel) and works by Hans Christian Anderson (“The Ugly Duckling,” “The Little Mermaid”) and Charles Perrault (“Cinderella,” Tales of Mother Goose). It is also very common for stories in other genres to feature elements of fairy tales, like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where humans are unaware that a fantasy world exists within their own.
Fantasies that involve elements of myths and folklore, which are typically ancient in origin and often help to explain the mysteries of the universe and all of its elements—weather, the earth, the existence of creatures and things, etc—as well as historical events. The most well-known are Greek and Roman mythology; for example, stories about the Greek Gods and heroes like Hercules have been retold countless times through fantasy films. Major examples include Homer’s epic tales The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Short stories that are similar to fairy tales, but involve animated animals as the main characters. The most famous collection is Aesop’s Fables, which each end with a short moral; for example, his tale “Mercury and the Woodman” concludes with the lesson, “honesty is the best policy.”
IV. Importance of Fantasy
While fiction in general is a popular way to tell stories, fantasy’s key asset is that it allows authors to do things outside the confines of the common world. By removing the limitations of reality, fantasy opens stories to the possibility of anything. People can become superheroes, animals can speak, dragons become real dangers, and magic can be as normal as anything else in life. Most importantly, fantasy is for the audience—it allows people to escape from reality, becoming lost in exciting and unusual stories that provoke the imagination. Fantasy allows authors and audience alike to fulfill their wonders about magic and the supernatural while exploring beyond what is truly possible in our world. Furthermore, some fantasy stories (particularly fairy tales) confront real world problems and offer solutions through magic or another element of fantasy.
V. Examples of Fantasy in Literature
Fantastic stories of kings and queens, princes and princesses, knights and dragons have been entertaining people for centuries. One of the oldest and most important pieces of English literature is the epic fantasy poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In this medieval tale, a green knight challenges King Arthur in a match that involves each opponent taking one stroke of an axe to their neck. Below is a selection from the tale, when one of Arthur’s knights steps up to take the challenge in place of the king, and the Green Knight goes first…
The Green Knight adjusts himself on the ground, bends slightly his head, lays his long lovely locks over his crown, and lays bare his neck for the blow. Gawayne then gripped the axe, and, raising it on high, let it fall quickly upon the knight’s neck and severed the head from the body. The fair head fell from the neck to the earth, and many turned it aside with their feet as it rolled forth. The blood burst from the body, yet the knight never faltered nor fell; but boldly he started forth on stiff shanks and fiercely rushed forward, seized his head, and lifted it up quickly.
Here, we see the extent of the Green Knight’s supernatural abilities—he is decapitated by the axe and picks up his own head, otherwise seemingly unharmed. King Arthur and his knights, however, are humans, without supernatural abilities. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a classic example of a medieval fantasy featuring human protagonists and supernatural antagonists.
With his creation of The Hobbit and the subsequent The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien changed fantasy literature as the world knew it. The most influential part of his writing is the fact that the stories take place in a fantasy world—a world completely external to our own—now known as high fantasy or epic fantasy. In such a setting, elements of fantasy are a standard part of that world. Below is a map of Tolkien’s Middle Earth:
Before Tolkien, the genre of fantasy was composed of stories that took place in our world, but included fantastic elements. Middle Earth is not part of the human earth, and it is home to races, creatures, languages, histories, and folklore that were completely created by Tolkien. In his world, things we see as fantastic are natural parts of the universe he developed. Tolkien also developed a full geography, history, mythology, ancestry, and fourteen languages of Middle Earth.
A very influential set of short fantasy stories is Aesop’s Fables. Below is the well-known tale of “The Hare and the Tortoise:”
The Hare was once boasting of his speed before the other animals. “I have never yet been beaten,” said he, “when I put forth my full speed. I challenge any one here to race with me.”
The Tortoise said quietly, “I accept your challenge.”
“That is a good joke,” said the Hare; “I could dance round you all the way.”
“Keep your boasting till you’ve won,” answered the Tortoise. “Shall we race?”
So a course was fixed and a start was made. The Hare darted almost out of sight at once, but soon stopped and, to show his contempt for the Tortoise, lay down to have a nap. The Tortoise plodded on and plodded on, and when the Hare awoke from his nap, he saw the Tortoise just near the winning-post and could not run up in time to save the race.
Then the Tortoise said: “Slow but steady progress wins the race.”
The fantastic element of this story is, of course, the talking tortoise and hare, and their abilities to reason like humans. Aesop’s Fables are short, memorable, and enjoyable to both children and adults alike, which is why they remain relevant thousands of years after being written. They are particularly memorable because of the moral or lesson that closes each of the stories; in this case, “slow but steady progress wins the race,” which is a familiar saying even today.
VI. Examples of Fantasy in Pop Culture
Fantasy has a particularly large presence in popular culture, much more so than most other genres. Many now-famous books and films have developed massive fan bases seemingly overnight, from fantasy classics like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, to modern day favorites like the Harry Potter series, the Twilight saga, and Percy Jackson and the Olympians.
Literally sold by the billions, the most popular series of books ever written to date is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In fact, the size of the Harry Potter universe within popular culture is immeasurable. The fan following of these fantasy books is both historical and remarkable, as is the resulting relationship between the author and her fans. Rowling even made a special dedication to her fans with Harry’s last journey in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:
As a result of their popularity, the seven Harry Potter books have been made into eight blockbusters (some of the most successful in cinematic history), which led to an expansive merchandise and videogame business, and then further to the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios—to name a few things. Furthermore, the dedication and enthusiasm of her fan base led Rowling to develop Pottermore, an online interactive world set within the storyline of the Harry Potter series, where fans can become virtual wizards and students at Hogwarts, and is still releasing content years after the publication of the final book. When it comes to fantasy in popular culture, Harry Potter is a powerhouse.
One of the most watched series on television is HBO’s Game of Thrones, based on the book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George Martin. Like J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, Game of Thrones is set in an imaginary world. These stories are unique, however, because the elements of fantasy that are part of the books—dragons, white walkers, giants, etc—are all mentioned, but are thought to have become extinct or ceased to exist years and years before. Thus, the dragons are even more magical and terrible to behold because people believe they are gone from the world.
Another series with a massive fan base is Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. Twilight took over the market for teen fiction and was soon developed into four majorly successful films. Knowing in advance that there would be a demand, the franchise even worked with a designer to reproduce Bella Swann’s wedding dress, which became available alongside the release of the related movie. Another trend that rose from the films was “Team Edward” vs. “Team Jacob”—the battle between fans about which man Bella should be with. It took over magazines, websites, social media, clothing companies, and more.
Meyer’s books are also particularly notable because of the huge collection of “fan fiction”—stories written by fans that involve characters and/or elements of the original story—that has resulted from their publication. In fact, one fan’s fiction became so well known that it was recently published—the infamous and wildly successful “50 Shades” novels. Furthermore, the Twilight series made vampires stories “trendy”—it led to a significant rise in the popularity and production of vampire literature, film and television.
VII. Related Terms
Technically, science fiction could be considered a subgenre of fantasy, as it involves supernatural elements. However, it is always distinguished from fantasy because its focus is scientific and futuristic rather than magical and (often) medieval. The most influential science fiction stories to date are undoubtedly the George Lucas’s Star Wars films; further examples include the TV series Star Trek and novels like H.G. Wells’ The War of the World’s and Douglas Adams’ series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Like science fiction, horror could also technically be considered a subgenre of fantasy, but it is likewise always distinguished from fantasy. Horror’s main focus is to promote fear and terror in its audience, sometimes using supernatural elements like ghosts, zombies, monsters, demons, etc. Examples include classic films like The Exorcist and Poltergeist, the popular TV series The Walking Dead, and Stephen King’s horror novels like Pet Sematary.
In conclusion, fantasy is one of the most popular and significant genres in both popular culture and literary history. From its dozens of subgenres, to its compatibility with other genres, to its ability to be adapted into any form of media, fantasy’s influence cannot be compared to many other styles.