Dungeons Deep and Caverns Old: A History of Fantasy

Previously in OUR SPECULATIVE FICTION CRASH COURSE SERIES: A History of Science Fiction

When Heinrich Schliemann was seven years old, his father presented him with a Christmas gift: a book entitled The Illustrated History of the World. In this book, Heinrich discovered, was a full-page image of an ancient walled city, its stately buildings and towering citadel engulfed in swathes of orange flame. The city was Troy, a fortress town on the Anatolian Peninsula, during its sacking by Greek soldiers during the Trojan War. The inclusion of this painting in a “history of the world” might have been somewhat controversial in 1829, since, as young Heinrich knew from his voracious readings of Homer’s Iliad, the city of Troy was widely thought to be a myth. But the image stuck with Schliemann, and in 1868, with a copy of the Iliad in his luggage (and absolutely no formal archaeology training), he set off for Turkey in hopes of discovering the ruins of the city.

It was a patently ridiculous endeavor on paper. Troy was, after all, likely fictional, and even if it wasn’t, Heinrich Schliemann–who had made his fortune essentially as a professional con artist–was hardly the man to find it. And in truth, the search was, for many years, fruitless, to the point where Schliemann nearly gave up altogether. But things changed in 1869, when English archaeologist Frank Calvert reached out to Heinrich Schliemann, asking him to partner on a dig for the ruins of Troy on the far Western tip of Turkey’s Biga Peninsula. Schliemann agreed, and in 1871, they began their excavation. 

The dig was fraught with conflicts–Calvert grew frustrated with Schliemann’s hasty style of excavation, and Schliemann became annoyed when Calvert published an article critical of the project without consulting him first. But despite the team’s infighting, their efforts paid off on May 27th, 1873, when, while digging at the site, Schliemann finally spotted the first glints of gold through the dust. With some further digging, he and his team eventually unearthed a cache of royal gold, jewels, and other artifacts that Schliemann would come to call “Priam’s Treasure,” after the Trojan king in Homer’s epic. It was official: Heinrich Schliemann, inspired by the stories in his favorite book, had proven once and for all that the legendary city of Troy was not fantasy, but reality.

Of course, the hard truth is a bit less glamorous. Most accounts of Troy’s discovery leave out the fact that Schliemann had actually dug past the ruins of Homeric era Troy, destroying much of it in the process, not to mention the fact that the Turkish government had to sue him for attempting to smuggle artifacts out of the country. Nor do many accounts acknowledge that Schliemann took full credit for the endeavor, when Frank Calvert had spearheaded the project and done the lion’s share of the planning and work on it. Nonetheless, there was something emotionally resonant in this story of a young boy growing up to discover that the mystical world in his storybook was real. And in a world that was becoming increasingly mapped, measured, traveled, and understood, there was something thrilling about the idea that lost worlds could still exist right under our noses, just one intrepid adventure away. It was this sort of imagination–this thirst for hidden worlds beyond our own–that would ultimately serve as the inspiration for the burgeoning literary genre of fantasy.


Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie in the 1986 fantasy film, Labyrinth

If you were to ask a random selection of people what defines a “fantasy” story, their responses would likely reference a specific set of deeply codified tropes that we’ve come to associate with the genre: wizards, dragons, knights, princesses, a medieval European setting, and so on. But the real answer is, unsurprisingly, a bit more complex than that. In the book Essentials of Children’s Literature, academics Carl Tomlinson and Carol Lynch-Brown describe fantasy as “[l]iterature in which the events, the settings, or the characters are outside the realm of possibility.” And this is a solid baseline definition–as a subgenre of speculative fiction, fantasy stories do by necessity include elements that are, well, fantastical. But to separate fantasy out from other forms of speculative fiction, like sci-fi, we need to be a bit more specific in our assessments. Perhaps a better way to put it is that fantasy is literature in which things happen that are counter to the accepted rules of our universe, and occur as a result of supernatural or magical forces rather than technological innovations. In other words, a story where a character can fly with the use of a magical incantation would be fantasy, a story where they can fly with the use of a jetpack would not.

Fantasy literature is generally divided into two subcategories: “high” fantasy and “low” fantasy. Despite what the names would imply, these categories don’t refer to the sophistication of the literature, but rather the narrative distance between the world of the story and our own world. “High” fantasy is fantasy that takes place in a world completely separate from this one, with rules that usually differ significantly from our own (think Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings trilogy). “Low” fantasy, on the other hand, is fantasy where supernatural elements occur within our own world, usually under the pretense of being somehow kept a “secret” from most people (think the Wizarding World in the Harry Potter series). There are, of course, shades of subtlety between the two categories–some argue that stories where characters from our world access an alternate world are still “high” fantasy, while others argue that a work must have no connection to the real world in order to qualify. In a general sense, though, it is this distance between the rules of the fantasy world and the rules of our world that most defines fantasy as separate from other genres of literature.

Precursors to Modern Fantasy

Illustration from an 1888 edition of the Panchatantra, a collection of Indian folktales

Of all the subgenres of speculative fiction, fantasy is probably the one with the most recognizable roots in early storytelling. The mythical creatures and arcane traditions that fantasy authors use in their worldbuilding are, after all, frequently drawn directly from folklore. This does not, however, mean that early myth and folklore are fantasy writing. In myth and folklore, fantastical elements often show up in what is ostensibly our own world, but are not established as explicitly violating our world’s rules and expectations. Traditionally, in order for a writing to be classified as fantasy, its intent as a work of fiction has to be clear, hence why the story is either set in a completely different universe from our own, or else the occurences in the story are recognized as differing from the rules of our universe as we understand them. Furthermore, the overlaps between myth, folklore, and religious writing, especially early in human history, are extremely difficult to tease apart, and what might sound like “fantasy” writing to a modern audience could very well have been deeply meaningful religious text to an ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, or Greek. 

Nevertheless, folklore, particularly as it became translated to written literature, is an important stage in the formation of the modern fantasy genre. Among the first works of folklore to be written down and published is the Indian folktale anthology Panchatantra, compiled in the 3rd century BCE. The text was tremendously influential across Europe and Asia throughout the late classical and early medieval era, with a number of its stories being borrowed for other folktale compilations like Aesop’s Fables. Another important precursor of modern fantasy is the “chivalric romance.” These stories, originating in Europe during the High Medieval period, typically told the story of a heroic fictional knight slaying monsters to rescue a damsel in distress (itself a trope common throughout global folklore, as in the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda or the Japanese legend of Yamata no Orochi). But what made them particularly significant was the ways in which they incorporated elements of folklore, especially European faerie myth, into otherwise literary fiction. Characters like Oberon, king of the faeries, commonly made appearances in these romances, along with monsters, dragons, and other mythical creatures from folklore and legend. As the Middle Ages wore on, this form of literature evolved from poem to prose, looking increasingly like what we would perceive as a modern work of fantasy writing. In some cases, the chivalric elements of these stories were supplanted entirely by fantastical ones, as in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene in 1590. 

However, the evolutionary line between chivalric romance and modern fantasy did not continue unbroken. The form fell out of favor at the dawn of the 17th century, as the rise of the Scientific Revolution and subsequent Enlightenment periods drew focus away from the fantastical in most European literature. One notable exception to this trend was the literary fairy tale. Though most modern audiences would consider “fairy tale” and “folktale” mostly synonymous, fairy tales are in fact a far more modern literary concept than is often thought. They arose largely from circles of female intellectuals in 17th century France, who would hold salons dedicated to retelling old folktales. These salons inspired their own subgenre of witty and fantastical fiction, which became known as the précieuse style, after the popular nickname for the participants of these salons. Among the authors who were influenced by this style were Marie-Catherine “Madame” d’Aulnoy, Charles Perrault, and most notably, Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, author of the 1740 novella La Belle et la Bête, or Beauty and the Beast. This latter was particularly significant in that its story was, for the most part, invented entirely by Villeneuve, albeit influenced by earlier similar folktales. Unlike most classic fairy tales, which took place in a bucolic time-out-of-time setting, La Belle et la Bête was set among the urban middle-class, a place from which its protagonist departs to find a magical and mysterious other world. Though Villeneuve’s story is not always classified as fully modern fantasy, it is a distinct and marked leap forward on the path to the genre’s formation in the years to come.

Early Modern Fantasy

Photograph of Pauline Hopkins, one of several popular authors of “Lost World” fantasy fiction in the early 20th century

We now find ourselves back in the Romantic era, when speculative fiction was first beginning to take root in English (and soon, global) literature. This era was a fertile ground for the birth of fantasy literature for two reasons: for one thing, literary formats like the Gothic novel had paved the way for surreal and supernatural elements to become incorporated into literary fiction. But because the Romantic era was a response to the Enlightenment (and later, the Industrial revolution), it also led to a revived interest in pre-industrial life, particularly life in the medieval era. Chivalric romances, subsequently, came back into vogue, and along with them came renewed interest in “fantasy” tropes–knights, dragons, fairies, and so on. Though the association between medieval aesthetics and fantasy literature is often attributed to the writing of JRR Tolkien in the mid 20th century, it was the Romantic era that really forged this connection, before Tolkien’s writing popularized it.

But the development of the medieval European fantasy aesthetic was not the Romantic era’s most significant contribution to the development of modern fantasy literature. Rather, it was the ways in which the motivations behind writing fantasy literature changed during this time period–in other words, the birth of writing fantasy for fantasy’s sake. Historian Michael Saler describes this shift as a divide between “imagined worlds” and “imaginary worlds.” An “imagined” world, put simply, is a fictional world created by the author of a story, whose rules and conventions exist to facilitate the narrative unfolding within it. An imaginary world, on the other hand, is a more detailed and cohesive setting, with consistent inner logic that serves to create more of an “alternate” version of our world rather than an expanded or embellished version of it (for a more concrete example of this, think of the fictionalized maps or invented writing systems often printed in the front or back of classic fantasy novels to augment the world of the story). This shift, Saler argues, shows the influence of the 19th century Aestheticist and Realist movements on early fantasy writing. Aestheticism, a movement that eschewed allegorical or moralistic motives for making art, in favor of aesthetic values, gave early fantasy writers license to create imaginary worlds and characters for their own sakes, rather than rooting them in a broader ideological framework. And Realism (a movement ironically held up as antithetical to the Romantic movement that birthed much of modern spec-fic) brought detailed and lifelike writing into the literary mainstream, influencing early fantasy writers to focus on comprehensive and cohesive worldbuilding, building imaginary worlds that felt as tangible as our own. 

It’s no coincidence that these shifts in the creation of imaginary worlds also coincided with a changing relationship between humans and our own world. The first confirmed human sighting of Antarctica in 1820 meant humans could now chart every major land mass on the planet, forever doing away with the mysterious notations of “terra incognito” at the edges of world maps. Advances in communication and travel, such as railways and telegraphy, made distances between foreign lands seem increasingly smaller, making it harder to handwave away a fantasy setting as simply taking place “far, far away.” And, more soberingly, the increasing reach of Western colonialism in the 19th century created a strange duality where “foreign” locations became both fetishized and demystified for European (and especially British) audiences–fetishized by the glorification of European “conquest,” and demystified by the cultural homogenization colonial powers forced upon the lands they colonized. This transition–described by the writer and academic Moradewun Adejunmobi as a “growing awareness of an impending disappearance of a certain kind of exploration”–led to a vogue for a new type of early fantasy narrative in the 19th century, that is, the “Lost World” narrative.

“Lost World” stories, as their name may indicate, featured characters discovering fantastical worlds not by traveling to far off corners of the globe, but by finding them hidden in unexpected locations, such as ancient ruins, uncharted forests, or even the center of the earth. Stories like Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Land That Time Forgot, and, of course, The Lost World, are all examples of this category of early fantasy writing, one that, along with its sister genre, science fiction, would be largely limited to pulp magazines for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While much Lost World fiction was written from the perspective of colonizers, the genre could also be inverted to explore the experiences of the colonized, as in Pauline Hopkins’ 1902 novel, Of One Blood, where a group of black American explorers find an advanced civilization hidden among ancient Ethiopian ruins. The unifying theme of Lost World literature, whether from the perspective of a colonizer or of the colonized, was the idea of the everyday world being one of many possible worlds, some of which were accessible by arcane and magical means. 

The popularity of fantasy literature grew steadily with the development of speculative fiction pulp magazines such as Weird Tales. One of these, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, was the first to use the term “fantasy” to describe the genre, distinguishing it as not only its own distinct category of literature, but also as being inextricably linked to the science fiction genre, a symbiotic relationship that continues to this day. It was in the pages of these cult magazines that the concept of “sword and sorcery” fantasy first took root, with stories like Conan the Barbarian codifying many tropes of the genre (including, unsurprisingly, swordplay and sorcery). But it was not until the late 1930s that fantasy truly entered its golden age, with the publication of the novel The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien and the Golden Age of Fantasy

An illustration of Gandalf visiting Bilbo Baggins, by illustrator Greg Hildebrand

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was an English professor at the University of Oxford, specializing in ancient Germanic languages and text. He was fascinated by ancient Anglo-Saxon languages, but equally fascinated by Anglo-Saxon mythology–or, in his estimation, the lack thereof. Tolkien began toying with the idea of creating an “English mythology,” influenced both by historical folklore and the burgeoning conventions of modern fantasy literature. The result was a manuscript for a 1937 book entitled The Hobbit, which would eventually become the first installation of the literary series, The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien is often solely credited as the father of modern fantasy literature, an assessment that, as we’ve seen, is not entirely true. While very original, his stories nonetheless drew heavily from folklore and myth, filtered through the existing tropes of pulp fantasy writing (quests, battles, enchantments, dragons, elves, etc.). What set Tolkien apart, though, was the degree to which his writing resonated with mainstream culture. The effect was delayed, of course–Tolkien’s books were only somewhat popular during their initial release dates in the 1930s through 1950s–but something about the story of a jolly, nature-dwelling tribe that loved feasting and smoking pipeweed struck a much deeper chord among the young people of the 1960s and 1970s. The “back to nature” attitude of the hippie movement, as well as the fantastical imagery and ideas of the psychedelics craze, created a fertile cultural breeding ground for fantasy literature, and Tolkien’s novels were among the first to capture this particular type of imagination. 

Although the Lord of the Rings was not the first major work of fantasy writing to exist, it certainly took the genre more “mainstream” than ever before. More specifically, it made “fantasy” a marketable genre for publishers and booksellers worldwide. The books’ wild success also spawned an early iteration of what we would now consider to be a modern fandom (much to the chagrin of Tolkien himself, who described his fans as a “deplorable cultus”). Though fan communities had existed since the 1930s, particularly in the sci-fi community, Tolkien fans were by most accounts the first major fandom based upon a fantasy franchise (a relationship that would, for better or worse, irrevocably tie the wildly popular book series to more “cult” media, such as TV’s Star Trek). 

The 1970s brought another major player into the mix: the tabletop gaming franchise Dungeons and Dragons. Invented by Gary Gygax in 1974, D&D drew heavily from the “sword-and-sorcery tropes” displayed both in early-20th-century pulp fantasy and in Tolkien’s more literary fantasy writing. D&D players can role-play as fantasy figures such as elves, wizards, and orcs, all while casting spells, wielding swords, and exploring magical dungeons. While Tolkien fans were often cast as freewheeling hippies, the Dungeons and Dragons community consisted largely of quirky, bookish teenagers–the stereotypical “nerd” archetype first codified in the 1970s and 1980s. The intersection of nerd/geek culture and the fantasy genre was also reflected in some of the early video games coming out of Japan in the later 20th century, most notably Nintendo games such as Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda. Shigeru Miyamoto himself described Zelda as being based on the swords-and-sorcery genre, and this influence carried over to Super Mario Bros, which was being developed simultaneously with Zelda (think dungeons, castles, rescued princesses, etc.). 

It’s impossible to pinpoint why, exactly, fantasy became so pigeonholed as a “geek” genre, even as other forms of speculative fiction, like sci-fi, were gaining broader highbrow appeal. Perhaps it was fantasy’s tendency to fall back on more mythic, archetypal storytelling, while sci-fi often leaned more into topical social commentary. Or, in a more pragmatic sense, it may have been sci-fi’s ability to be convincingly rendered in onscreen media, while the tropes of fantasy storytelling, such as monsters and magical phenomena, tended to look cheap and campy before the advent of more sophisticated CGI technology at the turn of the millennium. In any case, even Tolkien’s massive mainstream success could not break fantasy free of its subcultural connotations, and the genre continued to decline in popularity throughout the 1980s and 1990s. That doesn’t mean, however, that the genre went fully dormant–authors like Terry Brooks, Tamora Pierce, and Diana Wynne Jones, for instance, published some of their most beloved stories during this time. This was also a boom time for “science fantasy” hybrids, such as the Star Wars series and the works of Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Octavia Butler. And, although true fantasy had not yet broken through as a blockbuster film genre, the ‘80s and ‘90s brought a slew of wildly popular fantasy-inspired animated family films, such as Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, or the many works of Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, like Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke

Wizardry, Westeros, and the 21st Century Renaissance

Detail from the official theatrical poster of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

The late 1990s brought two major works into the realm of fantasy literature: George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones in 1996, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone the following year. Though near-polar opposites in tone and subject matter (Thrones being a bloody, sexually explicit war epic, and Philosopher’s Stone being suitable for adaptation into a LEGO playset), these two novels were perhaps as significant in popularizing fantasy as Tolkien’s works were a half-century prior. 

A Game of Thrones, the first installment in Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire,  is often credited as the progenitor of a subgenre known as “grimdark” fantasy. Though the term has become a pejorative in recent years, its original meaning is less about hamfisted “grittiness,” and more about a work’s lack of clear moral compass. As fantasy has its roots in both fairy tales and chivalric romances–both rigidly moralistic forms of storytelling–it’s historically cleaved very closely to popular standards of morality, with brave and noble heroes vanquishing unambiguously evil villains. A Game of Thrones, on the other hand, took a more amoral approach to writing its characters, recounting their stories as imagined histories rather than tales of good triumphing over evil. This moral ambiguity made Martin’s books more appealing to adult readers, an audience that the fantasy genre had struggled to capture since the late 1970s. As a result, it also broadened the possibility for fantasy to translate into more prestigious forms of media, such as cable television. The TV adaptation of Martin’s novels in the 2010s would become the most artistically acclaimed live-action fantasy series in television history, earning more Emmy Awards than any previous TV series and, in the sentiments of numerous critics, “making fantasy cool” for even the least geeky adults among us.

It may seem confusing, then, to turn around and laud a children’s series like Harry Potter for innovating the fantasy genre, given that Martin’s great contribution to fantasy was expanding it so far beyond its existing young fanbase. But the Harry Potter books diverged from typical children’s fantasy in a number of ways. Historically, the children’s fantasy stories with the most crossover into mainstream/adult audiences were of the Tolkien school of high fantasy, taking place in alternate worlds that allowed the reader to imagine them almost as myths rather than fairy stories. Low fantasy books, on the other hand, like the works of Roald Dahl (and, some would argue, the works of C.S. Lewis), were generally relegated exclusively to the children’s section of bookstores and libraries. But although the Harry Potter books are virtually always considered low fantasy, the sophistication of their worldbuilding and the increasing maturity of each subsequent installment made them appealing to both children and adults–both parents reading them to their children, and children aging into adults as the series went along. The release of the Harry Potter series also coincided with the growth of the internet, and with it, online fan culture. As a result, the books’ fan community would become, arguably, the first major speculative fiction fandom to develop largely (or even predominantly) in online spaces. All of these factors–innovation in genre, crossover appeal, and broad fan community–would breathe new life into the somewhat dormant genre of popular fantasy literature, as well as becoming the foundational text in a newly defined genre: “Young Adult Fiction.”

YA fiction, as it is often abbreviated, would become a fertile breeding ground for popular fantasy works. After Harry Potter came Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, which brought with it a new fantasy subgenre, “supernatural romance.” Other popular YA fantasy series include Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Sequence, Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart Trilogy, Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle , Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novels, and more recently, Tomi Adeyemi’s Legacy of Orisha series. Some works even straddled the line between YA and adult fantasy literature, like Philip Pullman’s deeply political His Dark Materials trilogy, or some of the works of the late Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld series encompasses both adult fantasy satire and YA comic fantasy (as in the YA-oriented “Tiffany Aching” arc in the early 2000s). 

Improvements in visual effects technology also allowed for fantasy stories to be more convincingly rendered on the big screen. The epic battles of the Lord of the Rings movies, made possible with new CGI technology, earned slew of Oscar nominations, including a win for Best Picture for Return of the King. Along with this came other fantasy film franchises, including Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Twilight, all made possible both by advancing technology and by the increasing popularity of the fantasy genre in the 1990s. Smaller, artsier productions got in on the action as well–the works of Mexican director Guillermo del Toro set a new tone for dark, mature fantasy in the new millennium, particularly Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006 and the Academy Award-winning The Shape of Water in 2017. Now, in 2020, it is clear: fantasy is no longer a quirky, niche subgenre, but a fixture of mainstream popular culture in its own right.


An image from Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

The story of the fantasy genre is, appropriately, the story of two worlds, and of the distance between them. Like the alternate universes of fantasy stories, fantasy itself was long seen as somehow separate from “real” genres of film and literature, even when compared to other forms of speculative fiction like sci-fi and horror. But as more and more fantasy novels, films, and television shows prove their mass appeal around the world, the distance between fantasy and “real” genres grows smaller by the day. And although the modern fantasy genre is a relatively new invention, it’s tied to some of the oldest roots of human storytelling tradition, speaking to something very deep and timeless within us. Fantasy, after all, appeals to our curiosity–to the childlike part of us that still wonders if unknown worlds exist, hidden from view, waiting for us to discover them. And curiosity is among the most quintessentially  human attributes there is.

But fantasy isn’t the only speculative fiction genre that plays upon our relationship to the unknown. And though many imaginary worlds may be filled with magic and whimsy, they may also contain something just a bit darker. But that’s a story for next time.

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