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The Fairy of the Dawn in The Violet Fairy Book (1906)

Fantasy is a genre of speculative fiction involving magical elements, typically set in a fictional universe and usually inspired by mythology or folklore. The term "fantasy" can also be used to describe a "work of this genre",[1] usually literary.

Its roots are in oral traditions, which became fantasy literature and drama. From the twentieth century, it has expanded further into various media, including film, television, graphic novels, manga, animations and video games.

Alternate terms for the genre include phantasy,[2] although this is rarely used, xuanhuan (for Chinese fantasy works with a strong emphasis on magic),[3] and qihuan (for Chinese fantasy novels that take place in fantasy worlds that combine elements from European and Chinese fantasy).[3]

Fantasy is distinguished from the genres of science fiction and horror by the absence of scientific or macabre themes, although these can occur in fantasy. In popular culture, the fantasy genre predominantly features settings that emulate Earth, but with a sense of otherness.[4] In its broadest sense, however, fantasy consists of works by many writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians from ancient myths and legends to many recent and popular works.


Skeleton Fantasy Show (骷髏幻戲圖) by Li Song (1190–1264)

Most fantasy uses magic or other supernatural elements as a main plot element, theme, or setting.[5] Magic, magic practitioners (sorcerers, witches and so on) and magical creatures are common in many of these worlds.[2]

An identifying trait of fantasy is the author's use of narrative elements that do not have to rely on history or nature to be coherent.[6] This differs from realistic fiction in that realistic fiction has to attend to the history and natural laws of reality, where fantasy does not. In writing fantasy the author uses worldbuilding to create characters, situations, and settings that may not be possible in reality.

Many fantasy authors use real-world folklore and mythology as inspiration;[7] and although another defining characteristic of the fantasy genre is the inclusion of supernatural elements, such as magic,[8] this does not have to be the case.

Fantasy has often been compared to science fiction and horror because they are the major categories of speculative fiction. Fantasy is distinguished from science fiction by the plausibility of the narrative elements. A science fiction narrative is unlikely, though seemingly possible through logical scientific or technological extrapolation, where fantasy narratives do not need to be scientifically possible.[6] Authors have to rely on the readers' suspension of disbelief, an acceptance of the unbelievable or impossible for the sake of enjoyment, in order to write effective fantasies. Despite both genres' heavy reliance on the supernatural, fantasy and horror are distinguishable from one another. Horror primarily evokes fear through the protagonists' weaknesses or inability to deal with the antagonists.[9]


Another illustration from The Violet Fairy Book (1906)

Early history[edit]

Elements of the supernatural and the fantastic were a part of literature from its beginning. Fantasy elements occur throughout ancient religious texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh.[10] The ancient Babylonian creation epic, the Enûma Eliš, in which the god Marduk slays the goddess Tiamat,[11] contains the theme of a cosmic battle between good and evil, which is characteristic of the modern fantasy genre.[11] Genres of romantic and fantasy literature existed in ancient Egypt.[12] The Tales of the Court of King Khufu, which is preserved in the Westcar Papyrus and was probably written in the middle of the second half of the eighteenth century BC, preserves a mixture of stories with elements of historical fiction, fantasy, and satire.[13][14] Egyptian funerary texts preserve mythological tales,[12] the most significant of which are the myths of Osiris and his son Horus.[12]

Myth with fantastic elements intended for adults were a major genre of ancient Greek literature.[15] The comedies of Aristophanes are filled with fantastic elements,[16] particularly his play The Birds,[16] in which an Athenian man builds a city in the clouds with the birds and challenges Zeus's authority.[16] Ovid's Metamorphoses and Apuleius's The Golden Ass are both works that influenced the development of the fantasy genre[16] by taking mythic elements and weaving them into personal accounts.[16] Both works involve complex narratives in which humans beings are transformed into animals or inanimate objects.[16] Platonic teachings and early Christian theology are major influences on the modern fantasy genre.[16] Plato used allegories to convey many of his teachings,[16] and early Christian writers interpreted both the Old and New Testaments as employing parables to relay spiritual truths.[16] This ability to find meaning in a story that is not literally true became the foundation that allowed the modern fantasy genre to develop.[16]

The most well known fiction from the Islamic world is One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), which is a compilation of many ancient and medieval folk tales. Various characters from this epic have become cultural icons in Western culture, such as Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba.[17] Hindu mythology was an evolution of the earlier Vedic mythology and had many more fantastical stories and characters, particularly in the Indian epics. The Panchatantra (Fables of Bidpai), for example, used various animal fables and magical tales to illustrate the central Indian principles of political science. Chinese traditions have been particularly influential in the vein of fantasy known as Chinoiserie, including such writers as Ernest Bramah and Barry Hughart.[17]

Beowulf is among the best known of the Old English tales in the English speaking world, and has had deep influence on the fantasy genre; several fantasy works have retold the tale, such as John Gardner's Grendel.[18] Norse mythology, as found in the Elder Edda and the Younger Edda, includes such figures as Odin and his fellow Aesir, and dwarves, elves, dragons, and giants.[19] These elements have been directly imported into various fantasy works. The separate folklore of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland has sometimes been used indiscriminately for "Celtic" fantasy, sometimes with great effect; other writers have specified the use of a single source.[20] The Welsh tradition has been particularly influential, due to its connection to King Arthur and its collection in a single work, the epic Mabinogion.[20]

There are many works where the boundary between fantasy and other works is not clear; the question of whether the writers believed in the possibilities of the marvels in A Midsummer Night's Dream or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight makes it difficult to distinguish when fantasy, in its modern sense, first began.[21]

Modern fantasy[edit]

Illustration from 1920 edition of George MacDonald's novel The Princess and the Goblin

Although pre-dated by John Ruskin's The King of the Golden River (1841), the history of modern fantasy literature is usually said to begin with George MacDonald, the Scottish author of such novels as Phantastes (1858) and The Princess and the Goblin (1872), the former of which is widely considered to be the first fantasy novel ever written for adults. MacDonald was a major influence on both J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. The other major fantasy author of this era was William Morris, an English poet who wrote several novels in the latter part of the century, including The Wood Beyond the World (1894) and The Well at the World's End (1896).

Despite MacDonald's future influence with At the Back of the North Wind (1871), Morris's popularity with his contemporaries, and H. G. Wells's The Wonderful Visit (1895), it was not until the 20th century that fantasy fiction began to reach a large audience. Lord Dunsany established the genre's popularity in both the novel and the short story form. H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, and Edgar Rice Burroughs began to write fantasy at this time. These authors, along with Abraham Merritt, established what was known as the "lost world" subgenre, which was the most popular form of fantasy in the early decades of the 20th century, although several classic children's fantasies, such as Peter Pan and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, were also published around this time.

Juvenile fantasy was considered more acceptable than fantasy intended for adults, with the effect that writers who wished to write fantasy had to fit their work into forms aimed at children.[22] Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote fantasy in A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys, intended for children,[23] although works for adults only verged on fantasy. For many years, this and successes such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), created the circular effect that all fantasy works, even the later The Lord of the Rings, were therefore classified as children's literature.

Political and social trends can affect a society's reception towards fantasy. In the early 20th century, the New Culture Movement's enthusiasm for Westernization and science in China compelled them to condemn the fantastical shenmo genre of traditional Chinese literature. The spells and magical creatures of these novels were viewed as superstitious and backward, products of a feudal society hindering the modernization of China. Stories of the supernatural continued to be denounced once the Communists rose to power, and mainland China experienced a revival in fantasy only after the Cultural Revolution had ended.[24]

Fantasy became a genre of pulp magazines published in the West. In 1923, the first all-fantasy fiction magazine, Weird Tales, was published. Many other similar magazines eventually followed, including The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; when it was founded in 1949, the pulp magazine format was at the height of its popularity, and the magazine was instrumental in bringing fantasy fiction to a wide audience in both the U.S. and Britain. Such magazines were also instrumental in the rise of science fiction, and it was at this time the two genres began to be associated with each other.

By 1950, "sword and sorcery" fiction had begun to find a wide audience, with the success of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian and Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.[25] However, it was the advent of high fantasy, and most of all J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which reached new heights of popularity in the late 1960s, that allowed fantasy to truly enter the mainstream.[26] Several other series, such as C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books, helped cement the genre's popularity.

The popularity of the fantasy genre has continued to increase in the 21st century, as evidenced by the best-selling status of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series, George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen sweeping epic, Brandon Sanderson's The Stormlight Archive series and Mistborn series, and A. Sapkowski's The Witcher saga.


Several fantasy film adaptations have achieved blockbuster status, most notably The Lord of the Rings film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, and the Harry Potter films, two of the highest-grossing film series in cinematic history.

Fantasy role-playing games cross several different media. Dungeons & Dragons was the first tabletop role-playing game and remains the most successful and influential. According to a 1999 survey in the United States, 6% of 12- to 35-year-olds have played role-playing games. Of those who play regularly, two thirds play D&D.[27] Products branded Dungeons & Dragons made up over fifty percent of the RPG products sold in 2005.[28]

The science fantasy role-playing game series Final Fantasy has been an icon of the role-playing video game genre (as of 2012 it was still among the top ten best-selling video game franchises). The first collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering, has a fantasy theme and is similarly dominant in the industry.[29]


By theme (subgenres)[edit]

Fantasy encompasses numerous subgenres characterized by particular themes or settings, or by an overlap with other literary genres or forms of speculative fiction. They include the following:

By the function of the fantastic in the narrative[edit]

In her 2008 book Rhetorics of Fantasy,[31] Farah Mendlesohn proposes the following taxonomy of fantasy, as "determined by the means by which the fantastic enters the narrated world",[32] while noting that there are fantasies that fit none of the patterns:

Portal fantasy
In "portal-quest fantasy" or "portal fantasy", a fantasy world is entered, behind which the fantastic elements remain contained. A portal-quest fantasy typically tends to be a quest-type narrative, whose main challenge is navigating the fantastical world.[33] Notable examples include L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950),[34] and Stephen R. Donaldson's late-1970s series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.[35] In Japan, the genre of portal fantasy is known as isekai (Japanese: 異世界, transl. "different world" or "otherworld"), which has developed its own set of conventions.
Immersive fantasy
In "immersive fantasy", the fictional world is seen as complete, its fantastic elements are not questioned within the context of the story, and the reader perceives the world through the eyes and ears of viewpoint characters native to the setting. This narrative mode "consciously negates the sense of wonder" often associated with science fiction, according to Mendlesohn. She adds that "a sufficiently effective immersive fantasy may be indistinguishable from science fiction" as the fantastic "acquires a scientific cohesion all of its own". This has led to disputes about how to classify novels such as Mary Gentle's Ash (2000) and China Miéville's Perdido Street Station (2000).[36]
Intrusion fantasy
In "intrusion fantasy", the fantastic intrudes on reality (unlike portal fantasies), and the protagonists' engagement with that intrusion drives the story. Usually realist in style, these works assume the default world as their base. Intrusion fantasies rely heavily on explanation and description.[37] Immersive and portal fantasies may themselves host intrusions. Classic intrusion fantasies include Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897) and Mary Poppins (1934) by P. L. Travers.[38] In French-speaking countries, it is considered as a genre distinct from fantasy, the fantastique.
Liminal fantasy
In "liminal fantasy", the fantastic enters a world that appears to be our own. The marvelous is perceived as normal by the protagonists at the same time as it disconcerts and estranges the reader. This is a relatively rare mode. Such fantasies often adopt an ironic, blasé tone, as opposed to the straight-faced mimesis more common to fantasy.[39] Examples include Joan Aiken's stories about the Armitage family, who are amazed that unicorns appear on their lawn on a Tuesday, rather than on a Monday.[38]


Avon Fantasy Reader 18

Professionals such as publishers, editors, authors, artists, and scholars within the fantasy genre get together yearly at the World Fantasy Convention. The World Fantasy Awards are presented at the convention. The first WFC was held in 1975 and it has occurred every year since. The convention is held at a different city each year.

Additionally, many science fiction conventions, such as Florida's FX Show and MegaCon, cater to fantasy and horror fans. Anime conventions, such as Ohayocon or Anime Expo frequently feature showings of fantasy, science fantasy, and dark fantasy series and films, such as Majutsushi Orphen (fantasy), Sailor Moon (urban fantasy), Berserk (dark fantasy), and Spirited Away (fantasy). Many science fiction/fantasy and anime conventions also strongly feature or cater to one or more of the several subcultures within the main subcultures, including the cosplay subculture (in which people make or wear costumes based on existing or self-created characters, sometimes also acting out skits or plays as well), the fan fiction subculture, and the fan video or AMV subculture, as well as the large internet subculture devoted to reading and writing prose fiction or doujinshi in or related to those genres.

According to 2013 statistics by the fantasy publisher Tor Books, men outnumber women by 67% to 33% among writers of historical, epic or high fantasy. But among writers of urban fantasy or paranormal romance, 57% are women and 43% are men.[40]


Fantasy is studied in a number of disciplines including English and other language studies, cultural studies, comparative literature, history and medieval studies. For example, Tzvetan Todorov argues that the fantastic is a liminal space. Other work makes political, historical and literary connections between medievalism and popular culture.[41]

Related genres[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Fantasy". The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 3 May 2023.
  2. ^ a b "fantasy". Encyclopedia Britannica. 28 November 2022. Retrieved 3 May 2023.
  3. ^ a b Bai, Jeremy (2020). Understanding Chinese Fantasy Genres: A primer for wuxia, xianxia, and xuanhuan. Independently published. ISBN 979-8577559489.
  4. ^ G., Saricks, Joyce (2001). The readers' advisory guide to genre fiction. American Library Association. pp. 36–60. ISBN 0-8389-0803-9. OCLC 46769544.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ "fantasy - Students". Britannica Kids. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 3 May 2023.
  6. ^ a b ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, ISBN 0-521-72873-8
  7. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Fantasy", p 338 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  8. ^ Diana Waggoner, The Hills of Faraway: A Guide to Fantasy, p 10, 0-689-10846-X
  9. ^ Charlie Jane Anders (24 December 2015). "The Key Difference Between Urban Fantasy and Horror". io9. Retrieved 11 February 2017.
  10. ^ Grant, John; Clute, John (1997). "Gilgamesh". The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. London, England: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 410. ISBN 0-312-19869-8.
  11. ^ a b Keefer, Kyle (24 October 2008). The New Testament as Literature: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. Vol. 168. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. pp. 109–113. ISBN 978-0195300208.
  12. ^ a b c Moscati, Sabatino (9 August 2001). The Face of the Ancient Orient: Near Eastern Civilization in Pre-Classical Times. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. pp. 124–127. ISBN 978-0486419527.
  13. ^ Wilkinson, Toby (3 January 2017). Writings from Ancient Egypt. London, England: Penguin Classics. ISBN 978-0141395951.
  14. ^ Hart, George (2003). "Tales of fantasy". In Warner, Marina (ed.). Egyptian Myths. World of Myths. Vol. 1. London, England and Austin, Texas: British Museum Press and University of Texas Press, Austin. pp. 301–309. ISBN 0-292-70204-3.
  15. ^ Hansen, William F. (1998). Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. p. 260. ISBN 0-253-21157-3.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Mathews, Richard (2002) [1997]. Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination. New York City, New York and London, England: Routledge. pp. 11–14. ISBN 0-415-93890-2.
  17. ^ a b John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Chinoiserie", p 189 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  18. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Beowulf", p 107 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  19. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Nordic fantasy", p 691 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  20. ^ a b John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Celtic fantasy", p 275 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  21. ^ Brian Attebery, The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature, p 14, ISBN 0-253-35665-2
  22. ^ C. S. Lewis, "On Juvenile Tastes", p 41, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, ISBN 0-15-667897-7
  23. ^ Brian Attebery, The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature, p 62, ISBN 0-253-35665-2
  24. ^ Wang, David Dewei (2004). The Monster that is History: History, Violence, and Fictional Writing in Twentieth-century China. University of California Press. pp. 264–266. ISBN 978-0-520-93724-6.
  25. ^ L. Sprague de Camp, Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy, p 135 ISBN 0-87054-076-9
  26. ^ Jane Yolen, "Introduction" p vii–viii After the King: Stories in Honor of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed, Martin H. Greenberg, ISBN 0-312-85175-8
  27. ^ Dancey, Ryan S. (7 February 2000). "Adventure Game Industry Market Research Summary (RPGs)". V1.0. Wizards of the Coast. Retrieved 23 February 2007.
  28. ^ Hite, Kenneth (30 March 2006). "State of the Industry 2005: Another Such Victory Will Destroy Us". Archived from the original on 20 April 2007. Retrieved 21 February 2007.
  29. ^ ICv2 (9 November 2011). "'Magic' Doubled Since 2008". Retrieved 10 November 2011. For the more than 12 million players around the world [...] The "twelve million" figure given here is used by Hasbro; while through their subsidiary Wizards of the Coast they would be in the best position to know through tournament registrations and card sales, they also have an interest in presenting an optimistic estimate to the public.
  30. ^ Walton, Jo (29 August 2008). "My love-hate relationship with fantasy".
  31. ^ Mendlesohn, Farah (2008). Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 978-0819568687. Project MUSE book 21231.
  32. ^ Mendlesohn, "Introduction"
  33. ^ Mendlesohn, "Introduction: The Portal-Quest Fantasy"
  34. ^ Mendlesohn, "Chapter 1"
  35. ^ Senft, Michael (19 March 2020). "From Wonderland to Outlander, Your Guide to Portals to Other Worlds". Phoenix New Times. Retrieved 20 August 2022.
  36. ^ Mendlesohn, "Introduction: The Immersive Fantasy"
  37. ^ Mendlesohn, "Introduction: The Intrusion Fantasy"
  38. ^ a b Mendlesohn, "Chapter 3"
  39. ^ Mendlesohn, "Introduction: The Liminal Fantasy"
  40. ^ Crisp, Julie (10 July 2013). "SEXISM IN GENRE PUBLISHING: A PUBLISHER'S PERSPECTIVE". Tor Books. Archived from the original on 30 April 2015. Retrieved 29 April 2015.
  41. ^ Jane Tolmie, "Medievalism and the Fantasy Heroine", Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2 (July 2006), pp. 145–158. ISSN 0958-9236

External links[edit]