As I write in the fantasy genre, I thought it would be interesting to look at the history and origins of Modern Fantasy, and how the genre developed. So let’s look back to those early days when the roots of fantasy were mere tendrils in the publishing world; next time we’ll look at how fantasy grew into the powerhouse genre it is today.
Fantasy is one of the most popular genres of books today, yet it wasn’t until the 1950’s, when J. R. R. Tolkein published The Lord of the Rings series, that fantasy truly entered mainstream publishing.
The modern fantasy genre first took root in the eighteenth century, fuelled by fantastical travellers’ tales, finally unfurling and gaining recognition as a distinct genre in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Notable authors such as Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol) and William Makepeace Thackeray (The Rose and the Ring) included elements of the fantastic in their novels, but they were still classed as fairy tales. However, it was around this time, Hans Christian Andersen initiated a new style of fairy tale.
It wasn’t until the publication of Phantastes, by Scottish author, George MacDonald, that fantasy was accepted as a genre for anyone other than children; Phantastes is widely acknowledged to be the first fantasy novel ever written for adults. Interestingly, MacDonald was a major influence on J. R. R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis.
1st edition cover of Phantastes
Another major fantasy author of this era was William Morris. In many respects, Morris’s writing was an important milestone in the history of fantasy; while other authors wrote of dream worlds or foreign lands, Morris’s stories were the first to be set in an entirely fantasy world of his own invention. This began a new trend of writing in the genre.
Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde were really the forefathers of dark fantasy. Using fantastical elements in horror tales, they greatly influenced the likes of H. P. Lovecraft, and as such, created a separate branch or sub-genre of fantasy.
However, it wasn’t until the beginning of the twentieth century that fantasy fiction started to reach larger audiences. Also published around this time were several classic children’s fantasies, like J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. At this time, fantasy was still more accepted in juvenile literature; the terminology for the genre still wasn’t settled and as such, fantasies of this era were still termed fairy tales. Even as late as 1937 when The Hobbit was published, fairy tale was still being used to classify these types of novels.
J R R Tolkein’s hand-drawn First ‘printed’ cover in 1937
cover for The Hobbit