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A Short History of Fantasy Fiction in 9 Books

Fantastical stories have drawn readers in since the very first written epics like Gilgamesh and The Odyssey – tales of gods, heroes, monsters and magic are some of the oldest works of literature we have. These days, with TV shows like Game of Thrones and the recent big-screen adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the fantasy genre is becoming more and more accessible to people who never would have tried it before. So here’s your primer on how this weird and wonderful genre became what it is today: ‘A Short History of Fantasy Fiction in 9 Books’.

Fantasy Before Hobbits

Before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, people still loved stories of magical journeys and marvellous adventures.  In fact, some of the oldest literature we have is fantastical and wondrous. One of the first works that is recognisable as ‘literature’ is the Epic of Gilgamesh, the ancient Sumerian poem telling the story of a tyrannical king called Gilgamesh who undertakes a quest with his friend Enkidu. You can definitely see the roots of a lot of modern fantasy literature in early texts like these, and each new civilisation drew on the same story structures, to the extent that some people have suggested that the standard ‘quest narrative’ is somehow an inherent part of the human mind.

The Odyssey

Homer, a great storyteller in Ancient Greece who we do not know much about, wrote two epic poems called The Illiad and The Odyssey which told the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath. The Odyssey is a classic sequel: take a supporting character from the first book and tell a story about them. In The Illiad, Odysseus was the genius who came up with the Trojan Horse that eventually won the war, but he faced a long journey to get home to his wife and son in Ithaca, the island he ruled. In The Odyssey, Odysseus faces terrifying creatures, a seductive enchantress called Circe, and the anger of the gods themselves as he tries to return home! At the same time, we see his wife Penelope’s struggles as she tries everything to put off the suitors pressuring her to re-marry, and Odysseus’ son Telemachus dealing with the absence of his father. Homer was the William Shakespeare of his day, and like Shakespeare, he wrote a very good story.


Homer, pictured here, cast Greek gods in starring roles alongside mortal heroes


Even though we don’t know who wrote Beowulf, this epic tale has survived through history to remain one of the greatest Old English poems written. Written in England but set in Scandinavia, it tells the tale of a hero called Beowulf who travels to a kingdom attacked by a hideous monster called Grendel every night. It is one of the earliest horror stories as well as fantasy, with fear approaching whenever the sun sets. As Christopher Booker points out in The Seven Basic Plots (NORFOLK HOUSE 809 BOO), Beowulf has basically the same plot as Jaws, and the same monster plot has been used and re-used countless times since. Beowulf is cocky at first, refusing to use a weapon to defeat Grendel because he thinks he’s just that good, and indeed, he manages to mortally wound Grendel. However, he hadn’t counted on Grendel’s mother, an even more terrifying creature who cannot be hurt by Beowulf’s weapons. With its story of violence and revenge, Beowulf is very close to a lot of our modern fantasy tales, with Beowulf even having a character arc we can see repeated again and again in fiction and film.


Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf famously opens with “So.”- the conversational tone is meant to invoke a story-telling session around the fire

The Tempest

Shakespeare was a huge influence on the fantasy genre, with his plays bringing witches, fairies and ghosts onto the stage. A Midsummer Night’s Dream drew on folklore about fairies and now Oberon, Titania and Puck have become staples of fantasy fiction, and Macbeth frightened people with its tales of witchcraft and horror, but it is The Tempest that stands out to many people as his most fantastical play. A group of sailors, including the King of Naples, are stranded on a mysterious island when a great storm wrecks their ship. They quickly discover that the island is ruled by a powerful wizard with magical servants who wants to wreak revenge on these sailors for past wrongs. However, his gentle daughter Miranda falls in love with Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples, and Ferdinand must prove himself to Prospero to win Miranda’s hand and save his father and the other sailors. Don’t be put off by Shakespeare’s language – this play is a classic fantasy tale!


Dame Helen Mirren stars as the wizard Prospero (renamed “Prospera”) in this movie adaptation of The Tempest

One Ring To Rule Them All

Heroic epics were a fantasy staple for most of history – stories of larger-than-life heroes who fought dragons, wizards and even gods, often aided by magic or legendary weapons. However, as fantasy fiction developed into its own genre, the heroes became more varied and their challenges more personal. A hero could be a hapless wizard, an assassin, or even a hobbit who likes nothing better than a quiet day in!

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

This entry is technically four books – but hopefully you’ll forgive me for that! These books are impossible to separate out. J.R.R. Tolkien changed the expectations of fantasy when he wrote novels about a fantasy world called Middle-Earth, and an entire genre was born. It is hard to find a fantasy novel since Tolkien that wasn’t in some way influenced by The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, even if writers were trying very hard not to be like Tolkien! The Hobbit is the tale of Bilbo Baggins, who lives a quiet, gentle life, until one day a wizard and an awful lot of dwarves decide to have a party in his house. He is whisked away on an adventure that is wonderful and terrifying, filled with goblins and dragons. When The Hobbit proved so popular, Tolkien’s publishers wanted him to write a sequel. Instead, he wrote The Lord of the Rings, a trilogy that has inspired fantasy-lovers for more than fifty years. Tolkien had heroes in his stories, of course: Aragorn, Thorin, Gandalf and Bard the Bowman, but what captured people’s imagination was the fact that the main characters of his stories were Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, two people who were small in stature, had lived in a quiet village all their lives, and didn’t know how to fight. Tolkien’s novels showed people that you didn’t have to be the stereotypical legendary hero to be brave, strong and true, and to win against impossible odds.


Tolkien’s elegant elves and bristly dwarves have become fantasy staples

The Discworld Graphic Novels – The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic or Guards! Guards!

We’ve talked about the sad loss of Terry Pratchett on this blog when he died last year. His Discworld novels feature dragons, wizards and magic, but definitely not the way you expect them to be! By the time Pratchett released his first Discworld novel in 1983, the fantasy genre had become staid and boring, filled with samey stories that took heavy inspiration from The Lord of the Rings. The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic both parodied Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories (a classic of the Sword and Sorcery sub-genre) and Tolkien’s destined heroes and mysterious wizards. The Colour of Magic is the story of Rincewind, the worst wizard ever, as he and his naïve companion Twoflower stumble through barbarian hordes, evil cults and dragons. The Light Fantastic is about Rincewind (we feel we should remind you: the least competent wizard) trying to stop a cataclysmic world-ending event, and Guards! Guards! is the first in the series to feature the recurring characters of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, basically a cop show in a fantasy world. Since then, Pratchett has written more than forty novels in the Discworld series, parodying everything from Shakespeare to football. The Discworld is comedic fantasy, filled with characters that are guaranteed to make you laugh, but Pratchett also used his fantasy world to explore satirical commentary on our world and to showcase some surprisingly poignant moments (try reading Night Watch without tearing up!) He used fantasy as a mode to talk about immigration, prejudice and the conflict between meaningless tradition and hard-headed innovation. Pratchett is one of the biggest contributions to the fantasy genre ever, and all the way through, his novels manage to be funny and heartwarming as well as epic.


The Ankh-Morpork City Watch went on to star in 8 of Pratchett’s novels, and featured in many more

Assassin’s Apprentice

Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice is part of a sub-genre of fantasy called Romantic Fantasy. No, this isn’t all brawny Highlanders and swooning ladies! In Heroic Fantasy, which covers The Lord of the Rings and lots of similar stories, the focus of the story is often on the quest or journey to save the world, and the heroic deeds of the main characters. Romantic Fantasy is often about political intrigue and the relationships between characters. Assassin’s Apprentice is about a young man called Fitz who is the illegitimate son of a prince and is trained as an assassin, and it shows a very different side of fantasy from The Lord of the Rings – the threat here isn’t Sauron or a dragon, but is instead the potential lies and dangers of politics in a fantasy realm.


It often falls to young adults to save the world!

Young Adult Fantasy

Fantasy has come a long way since The Odyssey, but what hasn’t changed is readers’ thirst for adventure, wonder and magic. In modern fantasy, we’re seeing a lot more diversity in writers and characters, and fantasy novels can be found in the general literature and young adult sections of lots of book shops as well as the science fiction and fantasy section. It’s no longer all quests for powerful swords, scary rings and evil necromancers, either – fantasy these days has so much variety it can be a challenge to keep up!

The Chronicles of Narnia

At the same time as Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis, his close friend, was writing his own fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia. The Chronicles of Narnia are filled with magical adventures, marvellous places and weird and wonderful creatures such as centaurs, unicorns and griffins. The main characters are always children who stumble into Narnia and must face very grown-up challenges of evil queens and wicked kings. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, four children from World War Two London must face betrayal, loss and battle before good can win the day. Lewis’ story is famously an allegory for Christianity, but it is also a lot more than that – these stories are wonderful fantasy tales in their own right.


The Chronicles of Narnia are popular with adults and children around the world

Harry Potter

Like Tolkien, J.K. Rowling changed everything about fantasy when she wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Suddenly adults around the world were reading ‘children’s books’, which some people found weird. More than that, Rowling showed that fantasy could still be taken seriously. She created a world that drew in everyone who read it and made intricately-plotted tales that pitted good against evil but where the conflict was never simple. Her books introduced serious subjects like love, grief and courage to a young audience and will no doubt be classics for a long time. Nobody needs to be told the story, but Harry Potter, the orphaned survivor of an evil wizard’s curse, discovers that he is also a wizard. He attends a magical school where he meets friends who will fight beside him through thick and thin, and he is forced to face his darkest fears to save the world.


Potions, astronomy, divination, magical creatures…you can learn about them all at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

His Dark Materials

His Dark Materials is a series about two young people travelling across many worlds to try and stop a terrifying god-like entity called the Authority who wants everything to be ordered and freedom to be restricted. The first book, Northern Lights (also known as The Golden Compass in America), is about Lyra Belacqua, a wild and independent girl who uncovers a horrifying conspiracy in her world, and travels to another one in The Subtle Knife, where she meets Will, someone who is destined to help her. Philip Pullman is famously reactionary against The Chronicles of Narnia, claiming that it is Christian propaganda, and His Dark Materials is all about bringing down a being (the Authority) that represents the God seen through organised religion. Like The Chronicles of Narnia, though, His Dark Materials is also a wonderful story without any of its religious significance, and you’ll certainly be swept away by the marvellous worlds Lyra and Will visit.


Humans in Lyra’s world have animal counterparts called Daemons, who they cannot bear to be separated from. Lyra’s Daemon Pan changes shape, but mostly looks like a pine marten.

If you liked this…

Rosemary Jackson’s seminal work Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (BOOK ZONE 809.3915 JAC) introduced a lot of concepts that made people take a serious look at a genre all too often dismissed as frivolous. She covers Gothic classics like Frankenstein that blend fantasy with science, and philosophically-minded tales like Kafka’s Metamorphoses.

We have some amazing fantasy films, too, from the films of Studio Ghibli to the recent adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, to YA classics like Inkheart and the Harry Potter and Narnia series.You can find some of these alongside the originals in the BOOK ZONE, and some in the DVD LOBBY- ask a member of staff to help you locate them. Remember to check out the Fantasy display in the Information Store from 22nd till 29th of February.



Robert The Odyssey of Homer – Easton Press Edition accessed at on 25/02/2016

Drumm, C Beowulf accessed at on 25/02/2016

Movies in LA 12.10.10 – “The Tempest” accessed at on 25/02/2016

Christian, C LEGO Lord of the Rings Gimli accessed at on 25/02/2016

rollingrck Ankh-Morpork City Watch 07 accessed at on 25/02/2016

Alcalno, S Modern Chivalry accessed at on 25/02/2016

CookieM NARNIA accessed at on 25/02/2016

Smith, C Harry Potter-20 accessed at on 25/02/2016

Jones, P Pine Marten 301 accessed at on 25/02/2016


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