Fantasy is characterized by imaginary and unrealistic elements. Fantasies typically involve supernatural powers, like magic and magical creatures. Fantasy stories often contain elements of Medievalism, such as castles, knights, kings, magical swords, and references to ancient spells.
The word fantasy refers to an illusion or an imaginative idea. The fantastic, a related word, also describes something that is imaginary and unrealistic. As its name suggests, the literary genre of fantasy refers to stories filled with imaginary and unrealistic elements. Events in a fantasy operate outside the laws of the real universe and typically involve supernatural elements, like magic or magical creatures. Unlike science fiction, which is generally set in the future, fantasy is commonly set in the past. Fantasy stories often contain elements of medieval life, such as castles, knights, kings, magical swords, and references to ancient spells. Characters in fantasy stories often live in a pre-industrial setting with limited technology, other than the advantages of magical power.
The basic elements of fantasy have existed for centuries, and fantasy has roots in ancient myths, legends, and fairy tales. The course toward modern fantasy, however, began in the Victorian era when writers began developing their own distinct fantastical worlds, rather than building on established cultural tradition. George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland are two of the most influential Victorian fantasies. J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, is credited with revolutionizing the genre by drawing it beyond the realm of children’s literature and winning over an adult audience.
Today, modern fantasy generally includes detailed world-building. While traditional myths and fairy tales operated within the rules of our world and often suggested that their magical elements might just be possible, modern fantasy clearly removes the reader from the reality of the modern world into a new realm, with its own laws and realities. The magical community in the Harry Potter series, for example, or the land of Dictionopolis in The Phantom Tollbooth, are intentionally distinct from the reader’s reality.
While fantasy is not strictly true, many fantasy writers argue that their stories convey truths about society and the human condition. Many fantasy stories contain elements meant to be read on a symbolic level. For instance, Sauron's ring in The Lord of the Rings represents evil and greed, and its destruction symbolizes the triumph of good over evil. Readers who attempt to escape reality in a good book may find that there are very real lessons to be learned in even the most fantastical stories.
Want to learn more? Check out our educational article on Literary Genres!
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