History of Fantasy

Here you can find a timeline of main literary events within the fantasy genre. For the purpose of this exercise, I have tried to focus on written texts rather than films or shows. 

I hope you enjoy this timeline and find it just as educational as I did!

  • The first signs of fantasy's influence on people are that of cave paintings which depicted mythical creatures in Indonesia

  • Throughout the ancient periods stories were often spoken and passed through generations via re-tellings reliant on the person's memory to recollect them at gatherings. It is through this form that many stories continuously evolved, becoming either better or worse versions of the original tale like the commonly played children's game 'Chinese whispers'

  • Origins of fantasy can be traced back to ancient mythology, which, at its basic purposes, explained the workings of nature - the supernatural quality of mythology would become one of the elements of fantasy

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2100 BC - author unknown) and The Odyssey by Homer (circa 750 BC) are often credited as the first fantasy works

  • Epics and legends came next - such as Beowulf (circa 800 AD - author unknown) and King Arthur stories (such as Le Mort d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, 1485)

  • Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, 1200

  • A Midsummer’s Night Dream by William Shakespeare, 1595

  • 17th century (1600s) - fairytales (Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Madame  d’Aulnoy) influenced the development of the fantasy genre. Originally written for the adult audience

  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, 1726

  • The 'Icelandic sagas' are introduced to the wider audience in nineteenth century (1800s), through translations by William Morris and others, and provided an important new thread in the development of English-language fantasy, influencing many writers, such as: William Morris himself, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dianna Wynne Jones, Alan Garner and Neil Giaman

  • Many stories from the realms of fantasy followed - The Nutcracker by E.T.A Hoffman,1816 is acknowledged as a groundbreaking piece of literature

  • First pieces of fantasy literature for children and young adults appeared in the 1800s - Hans Christian Anderson and Lewis Carroll

  • It has been estimated that by 1825 around 5,000 novels or pamphlets of Gothic fiction (a commentary on the barbarity of the modern age) had been published in England. The Gothic, along with the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott, ushered in the nineteenth-century cult of the medieval

  • Study and republication of ‘real’ medieval fantasy, such as Beowulf and Arthurian romance, much of which was seen through the Gothic sensibility of the time

  • Romanticism is born - poets such as Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley took the sublime landscapes of the Gothic and gave them a lighter and more inspiring colour

  • The creation of enchantment distinguished fantasy literature from the classical fairy tale - as Pamela S. Gates states: “literary fantasy, then, became  a medium to sustain our need for heroes and our perpetual belief that good can overcome evil but through the level of moralising found in earlier tales”

  • ‘Traditional’ forms of the fantastic were being pulled in towards a common centre, combining with new forms that had more modern origins - partially dependent on the changes wrought by the Enlightenment on the intellectual climate of modern Europe which saw an unprecedented rise in free-thinking, manifested in the growth of deism, and progress in the pure and applied sciences 

  • Folklore revival movements of the 1880s, 1920s and 1960s - sealed an already strong association between Celtic music and fantasy literature

  • Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood - movement which most contributed to the look and feel of the kind of fantasy that would dominate in  the bookshops in the later twentieth century

  • In the late nineteenth century, fantasy would continue with an intensity of observation, and an attempt to create a fantastic world through the accretion of details. At the start of the twentieth century, however, the ‘voice’ with which this detail was written shifted dramatically

  • By the end of the nineteenth century (1800s) Sinbad and Aladdin (from The Thousand and One Nights (or The Arabian Nights) were part of the Western tradition

    • By the 1900s, ghost stories were a staple and highly popular magazine fare

      • Twentieth century (1900s) was ushered in by Edith Nesbit, who altered and refreshed the fantasy tradition and laid out the ground rules for the use of magic in fantasy literature. Wrote about childhood and collision of magic and the ordinary, not about morals and lessons

      • L. Frank Baum and Edith Nesbit created what has been termed ‘indigenous fantasy’ - to create for American children a fantastic world that owed nothing to the fantasy traditions of Europe - inspiring the first few years of the twentieth century to produce highly inventive fantasy for children

      • Revival of Christian Fantasy

      • 1925 - the first name in sword-and-sorcery is Robert E. Howard

      • Early twentieth century fantasy came of age with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, 1937

      • John W. Campbell starts science fantasy (a.k.a ‘rationalised fantasy’) genre

      • 1950 - the idea of whimsy begins to dominate among many of the fantasy writers in this period (can be, but does not have to be, a fiction of sentiment, tend to arouse pleasant emotions of amusement, delight, and sometimes sweet heartbreak, however, whimsy can also be sinister)

      • The last period of the ‘hack’ writer , who wrote across genres and was often identified with magazines and magazine editors rather than the community of a particular genre

      • The Golden Age of fantasy genre occurred during the 1950s and 60s - Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954 and Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, 1950 and Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, 1968 - helped forge a clear identity for the fantasy genre and are considered modern epics

      • By the early 1960s there is some justification for an argument that supernatural fiction had come to dominate fantasy 

      • Genuine golden age for children’s fantasy emerging at a time when the notion of ‘a children’s book’ was becoming a much stronger category - emergence of Young Adult fiction

      • Ballantine Adult Fantasy series - between 1969 and 1974 Ian and Betty Ballantine printed sixty-five fantasy titles (sixty-three of which were reprints) which helped to establish the idea of fantasy as a genre in the minds of the reading public

      • Up to the 1970s, while there are many different types of fantasy there is no real sense of separate fantasy sub-genres and separate audiences, with the exception perhaps of the  ghost-story market - the 1970s see a speciation, in which certain aspects of the field become recognisable marketing categories in their own right - two sub-genres of fantasy separating themselves thoroughly were horror and the animal fantasy

      • 1970 - brief revival of the English ghost story along with the creation of science fiction worlds that became almost indistinguishable from fantasy

      • A rise in the new ways of using history in fantasy occurred along with some exceptional contributions to the tradition of the retelling of fantasies of the past, above all myths, legends and fairytales (such as The Princess Bride by William Goldman, 1973 or Beauty by Robin McKinley, 1978)

      • Stories broke through and well beyond the conventional parameters of gender assumptions in fantasy literature - go from fantasy in which women barely exist or are prizes, to independent Amazons and homosexual warlords

      • 1974 - revival of the ghost story with Carrie by Stephen King

      • 1977 - Piers Anthony creates what is called ‘theatre fantasy’ - where the fantasy world provides a theatre stage on which stories can be played out

      • Robert Lynn creates Aspirin the ‘shared universe’ of Thieves’ World - prior to this, writing in someone else’s world was either the purview of amateurs, or of professionals writing for hire (novelisations of Doctor Who etc.). Introduces the idea of a ‘creator copyright universe’ (when a writer is using a world he or she has created)

      • Fantasy became more sophisticated, affected by the developments of science and technology. This revised view of the world and a new attitude towards the laws of nature opened the human mind to much of what fantasy offers

      • In 1977, the fantasy novel finally hit the bestseller list with Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks (Young Adult, sword-and-sorcery)  

      • At the end of the 1970s, sword-and-sorcery was being eclipsed but, ironically, was also increasing in sophistication and becoming a far more knowing genre which both plundered and critiqued its own past. At least one of the fantasy marketing categories, namely the quest fantasy, was threatening to become so powerful as to overwhelm the presence of all other forms

        • In the 1980s there was a surge in feminist subversion of the form - supported by texts, such as The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, 1979) 

        • Emergence of book series that were intended to tie in with gaming conventions (e.g. Steve Jackson, co-founder of 'Games Workshop', developed a line of Fighting Fantasy books (59 so far) & Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weiss produced the Dragonlance series (over 190 books so far) which were novelisations of games actually played)

        • Seems to be an increased concern with the literariness of fantasy

        • 1982 - Steampunk genre originates with The Elfin Ship by Tim Powers and James Blaylock

        • In the 1990s the fantasy genre continued to diversify and although older forms continued, they took on new dimensions

        • Emergence of the label ‘dark fantasy’ - seeming to be both a strategy to reinvigorate the market, and also a reaction to the increasing emphasis on blood and gore in horror movies

        • Medievalist fantasy became really big business

        • Thomas Canty’s artwork creates revival of Pre-Raphaelite faerie

        • Increasing use of local landscapes and local mythologies, if necessary, creating myth-structures  from the whole-cut cloth of the modern world

        • A number of authors worked to generate new kinds of fantasy linked to their own sense of place and their own notions of the fantastic

        • By the end of the century many science fiction and fantasy authors are writing in two contexts, within their own ‘creator copyright’ worlds, but also in ‘licensed’ worlds such as Star Trek and Star Wars

        • Paranormal romance, already popular  in the 1990s developed in the 2000s into a publishing category of its own - in addition to 460 fantasy titles published in 2007, there were 243 paranormal romances

        • The 2000s saw a rise in dark fantasy for children. Although this was a period in which bad-joke fantasy was being seen as particularly attractive to under-11s, there was a great deal of very sophisticated humour available for the older age groups

        • Retellings of fairy tales remain popular and quest fantasies continue to be highly popular

        If there are other events from any period of history or culture that should be included in this list please comment below!


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