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What Is the Fantasy Genre? History of Fantasy and Subgenres and Types of Fantasy in Literature

Written by MasterClass

Jun 13, 2019 • 7 min read

For many readers, literary fiction provides desperately needed escapism so they can endure the difficulties of everyday life. Even when conjured characters inhabit a recognizable world and speak to the human condition, fictional stories can pull readers out of their own heads. This effect is even more pronounced in the fantasy genre. Untethered from scientific and societal laws, and limited only by their imaginations, fantasy authors explore themes by creating their own worlds, where dragons battle in the skies, alien diplomats try to maintain peace between planets, and strange creatures cohabitate Earth with humans.

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What Is the Fantasy Genre in Literature?

Fantasy is a genre of literature that features magical and supernatural elements that do not exist in the real world. Although some writers juxtapose a real-world setting with fantastical elements, many create entirely imaginary universes with their own physical laws and logic and populations of imaginary races and creatures. Speculative in nature, fantasy is not tied to reality or scientific fact.

What Are the Subgenres and Types of Fantasy?

Fantasy includes a robust and ever-growing number of subgenres, some of which writers combine in their works. There are a few essential subgenres of fantasy:

  • High or epic fantasy. Set in a magical environment that has its own rules and physical laws, this subgenre’s plots and themes have a grand scale and typically center on a single, well-developed hero or a band of heroes, such as Frodo Baggins and his cohorts in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954).
  • Low fantasy. Set in the real world, low fantasy includes unexpected magical elements that shock characters, like the plastic figurines come to life in Lynne Reid Banks’s The Indian in the Cupboard (1980).
  • Magical realism. While similar to low fantasy, magical realism characters accept fantastical elements like levitation and telekinesis as a normal part of their otherwise realistic world, as in Gabriel García Márquez’s classic One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).
  • Sword and sorcery. A subset of high fantasy, it focuses on sword-wielding heroes, such as the titular barbarian in Robert E. Howard’s Conan pulp fiction stories, as well as magic or witchcraft.
  • Dark fantasy. Combining elements of fantasy and horror, its aim is to unnerve and frighten readers, like the gargantuan, otherworldly monsters in H. P. Lovecraft’s universe.
  • Fables. Using personified animals and the supernatural, fables impart moral lessons, like the stories in Aesop’s Fables and Arabian Nights.
  • Fairy tales. Intended for children, these fairy tales and folk tales are typically set in distant magical worlds (with beginnings like “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…”) where trolls, dragons, witches, and other supernatural characters are an accepted truth, as in the Brothers Grimm’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812).
  • Superhero fiction. Unlike stories in which a hero acquires special abilities through scientific means, such as exposure to radiation, these protagonists’ powers are supernatural.

How Did Fantasy Originate As a Genre?

Fantastical elements have always been a part of storytelling, as evidenced by the gods, monstrous beasts, and magic found in ancient mythologies, folklore, and religious texts around the globe. Fantasy as a literary genre is much more recent and differs from its predecessors because its authors are known and both they and their audiences understand the works to be fictitious.

Modern fantasy began in the nineteenth century, following a period of chivalrous European romances and tales whose fantastical elements were still considered somewhat believable. Scottish author George MacDonald, whose novel Phantastes (1858) features a young man drawn into a dream world where he has a series of adventures, is credited with writing the first plainly fictitious fantasy for adults. Englishman William Morris, who’s known for medieval fantasy and specifically his novel The Well at the World’s End (1896), subsequently broke ground in the genre by completely inventing a fantasy world that existed beyond the known world.

Building upon the legacies of MacDonald and Morris, J. R. R. Tolkien penned the first high fantasy, The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955). Both creatively and commercially successful, the epic ushered the genre into the mainstream and influenced countless writers, making Tolkien the undisputed father of modern fantasy. If not for Tolkien and successful contemporaries such as C. S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia series (1950-1956), and Ursula K. Le Guin, author of Earthsea series (1968-2001), the genre might still exist on the literary periphery.

In subsequent decades, fantasy has continued to evolve, diversify, and grow in popularity, with Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara (1977) becoming the first fantasy novel to appear on The New York Times trade paperback bestseller list; J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (1997-2007) becoming the best-selling book series of all time; and Hollywood adapting many fantasy stories into hit films and television shows.

What Are the Common Elements and Characteristics of the Fantasy Genre?

Fantasy is a broad and diverse genre, but there are several common narrative themes and features in many of its stories, such as:

  • Good vs. evil
  • The heroic (or villainous) quest for power or knowledge
  • Tradition vs. change
  • The individual vs. society
  • Man vs. nature
  • Man vs. himself
  • Coming of age
  • Love
  • Betrayal
  • Epic journey
  • The unlikely and/or reluctant hero

Of course, many of these themes are common in other literary genres as well. Young adult fiction, for example, often features a coming of age, a struggle with love and betrayal, and some variation of good vs. evil, such as nefarious adults or cliques of mean kids.

However, thanks to J. R. R. Tolkien’s influential classics The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings, which feature tiny hobbits saving the world, the epic journey of an unlikely or reluctant hero who realizes their true nature over the course of their quest is closely associated with fantasy.

What sets fantasy apart from other genres is its untethering from reality. Stories may speak to the actual human condition, but they do so with fantastical elements such as magic (the existence or absence of which can play a large role in stories); prophecies of a “chosen one” or an impending doom; ancient mythologies from around the globe; reimagined Medievalism; and the creation of entirely new worlds, races, and creatures. While all writing requires imagination, fantasy is a playground for those who want to push the limit of theirs.

What Is the Difference Between Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror?

There is some overlap between these three literary genres, but each has distinct characteristics that set them apart.

  • Fantasy. The genre typically has no basis in scientific fact or speculation. It includes implausible supernatural and magical elements, such as the wizards of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, or the dragons, giants, and White Walkers of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.
  • Science fiction. By contrast, science fiction features technology and natural or technological scenarios that are currently possible or may realistically become possible in the future. For example, in his short story, “Burning Chrome” (1982) and novel Neuromancer (1984), sci-fi author William Gibson coined the phrase “cyberspace” and wrote about a complex network of computer databases sharing information, predicting the internet.
  • Horror. Unlike the other two genres, which may contain horrific elements, horror is primarily focused on mood. Its fundamental aim is to create an unsettling atmosphere and provide the reader with a sense of fear and dread. The setting and circumstances of horror may be entirely realistic, as in Stephen King’s Cujo (1981), where a family’s bat-bitten St. Bernard becomes rabid and terrorizes them. However, horror can include elements of both fantasy and science fiction—take H. P. Lovecraft’s fantastical extraterrestrial deities the Great Old Ones, or the bloodthirsty great white shark in Peter Benchley’s Jaws (1974), for example—but the ultimate goal is to unnerve readers. Learn how to write your own horror story here.

What Are Some Great Examples of Fantasy Literature?

Running the gamut from epic to dark fantasy and magical realism, these bestselling novels—all of which have been adapted into popular movies and television series—are prime examples of well-written fantasy:

  • Alice in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll
  • The Hobbit (1937) by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955) by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) by C. S. Lewis
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez
  • The Princess Bride (1973) by William Goldman
  • The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (1982) by Stephen King
  • The Golden Compass (1995) by Philip Pullman
  • A Game of Thrones (1996) by George R. R. Martin
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) by J. K. Rowling
  • Dead Until Dark (2001) by Charlaine Harris
  • American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman

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