Fantasy Literature

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Fantasy Literature


a type of fiction that ideologically and aesthetically subordinates reality to imagination by depicting a world of marvels that is contrasted to everyday reality and to accepted views of what is credible.

Fantasy literature originated in popular myths, as expressed in the fairy tale and the heroic epic. It is the product of many centuries of popular literary creativity. At the same time, fantasy literature is a continuation of that creativity, utilizing and renewing traditional mythological and fairy-tale characters, themes, and plots and combining them with elements from history and contemporary life. The result is a series of archetypes that combine fantasy and verisimilitude, that conform to the moral and aesthetic principles of an imaginary universe, and that constitute a continuously developing literary mosaic.

Fantasy literature evolved together with realistic literature and used realistic and other literary means of depicting ideas, passions, and events. The interrelationship between fantasy literature and romanticism proved to be particularly fruitful.

Fantasy literature became a distinct type of literature when folklore separated from mythology and ritual magic. The primitive world view had become inconsistent with history and consequently fantastic; it did not correspond to new concepts of reality. The inception of fantasy literature was marked by a new aesthetic manner of depicting marvels that was not typical of primitive folklore. A literary stratification took place: heroic folktales and tales about noble heroes became heroic epics, that is, popular allegories of historical events in which elements of the miraculous were of secondary importance. Elements of magic were consciously included in travel narratives and tales about historical events. For example, Homer’s Iliad is a realistic description of episodes from the Trojan War, although gods take part in the action. On the other hand, Homer’s Odyssey is first and foremost a narrative of fantasy that recounts many incredible adventures of a hero of the Trojan War that have no relationship to the epic’s plot as such. The plot, characters, and events of the Odyssey initiated Western European fantasy literature.

Similar to the Iliad and the Odyssey were the Irish heroic sagas, including The Voyage of Bran (seventh century A.D). A prototype for many fantastic voyages was Lucian’s parody True Story, in which the author sought to increase the comic effect by amassing incredible and absurd elements. The flora and fauna of the work’s “land of marvels” were depicted with vivid imagination.

Thus, the main trend of fantasy literature during the classical period was represented by works depicting travels, adventures, quests, and pilgrimages. A typical subject was a descent into hell. Ovid’s Metamorphoses introduced into fantasy literature ancient mythological themes of transformation and was the first allegory of fantasy, a genre that sought to edify by means of marvels and that was closer to didactic literature than to tales of adventure. Fantastic transformations represented an awareness of the precariousness of man’s life and of man’s subjection to the whims of chance or to a mysterious higher will.

A Thousand and One Nights was a rich collection of folktales of fantasy that had undergone extensive literary reworking; the work’s vivid exoticism influenced European preromanticism and romanticism. The fantastic plots of A Thousand and One Nights are notable for their sense of national and religious exclusiveness. Indian authors from Kalidasa to Tagore were influenced by fantastic images from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Many Chinese and Japanese works of fantasy combine folktales, legends, and popular superstitions, including Japanese tales of terror and the supernatural (Kondjaku-monogatari) and the Stories of Marvels from Liao’s Studio by the Chinese writer P’u Sungling.

Imaginative fantasy as a reflection of the aesthetics of the marvelous constituted the foundation of the medieval chivalric epic, from Beowulf (eighth century) to Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval (c. 1182) and T. Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (1469). The legend of King Arthur’s court, a setting for fantastic narratives, was later superimposed on embellished versions of the tales of the Crusades; the legend merged with the historically more accurate legend of the court of Charlemagne. Themes in these works underwent further transformation in the large-scale Renaissance narrative poems of fantasy, including Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, works that were almost devoid of the original historical and epic substratum. Together with the chivalric romances of the 14th to 16th centuries, these narrative poems constituted a distinct stage in the development of fantasy literature. A landmark in the evolution of the allegory originated by Ovid was the Roman de la Rose (13th century), by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun.

The development of the fantasy literature of the Renaissance ended with Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a parody on chivalric adventure tales of fantasy that was also the first realistic novel, and with Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, a fantastic comic epic that was both traditional and innovative in form and concepts. The chapter on the abbey of Thélème was an early example of a Utopian fantasy, although it was not typical of the genre: the first utopias, written by T. More and T. Campanella (1516 and 1602, respectively), were essentially didactic treatises. Only with F. Bacon’s New Atlantis did elements of science fiction appear. A more traditional combination of fantasy literature and a vision of a fairy-tale kingdom of justice was Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The religious and mythological concepts of the Bible were less influential on fantasy literature than were ancient mythology and folklore. The major works of Christian fantasy literature were Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, which are based on the Apocrypha. At the same time, European medieval and Renaissance fantasy literature generally contained ethical Christian elements or elements of Christian apocryphal demonology.

Distinct from fantasy literature were the accounts of the lives of the saints, in which miracles tended to be depicted as exceptional occurrences. The Christian mythological consciousness also developed a unique literature of visions. Beginning with the Revelation of St. John the Divine, the vision or revelation becomes an independent literary genre; examples were W. Langland’s Piers Plowman (1362) and Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The revelation, unlike the lives of the saints, contrasted a supernatural level of existence to earthly life.

The visionary fantasies of W. Blake constituted a type of religious revelation; Blake’s impressive and prophetic images represented the summit of the genre.

Toward the late 17th century classicism replaced mannerism and the baroque, whose setting was typically one of fantasy. An aesthetic concept of fantasy developed, and the former vivid sense of the miraculous was lost. Classicism, with its rational approach to the mythical, was alien to fantasy literature. In the novels of the 17th and 18th centuries, themes and images of fantasy supplemented the plot. The fantastic quest was treated as an erotic adventure, or conte de fée; an example was C. Duclos’s Acajou and Zirphile (1744). Fantasy was an auxiliary element in such picaresque novels as Lesage’s The Devil Upon Two Sticks and J. Cazotte’s The Enamored Devil and in such philosophical treatises as Voltaire’s Micromégas. Fantasy in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, as in works by Rabelais and Cyrano de Bergerac, was utilized for ideological satire.

In the second half of the 18th century a reaction to the dominance of enlightened rationalism took place. The English writer R. Hurd appealed for a thorough study of fantasy literature in Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762). Smollett’s novel The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom anticipated the Gothic novels of H. Walpole, A. Radcliffe, M. Lewis, and W. Beckford. Fantasy literature provided accessories for romantic plots, although it continued to play a subsidiary role. The duality inherent in the images and events of the Gothic novel became an element of preromanticism.

Among the romantics this duality was expressed in a division of the personality that led to a poetically effective “sacred madness.” J. A. Kerner’s search for “refuge in the realm of fantasy” was the goal of all the romantics. The Jena group of writers viewed fantasizing, or striving toward a distant world of myths and legends, as a lifelong goal and the way to enlightenment. This striving could be relatively felicitous and promising, owing to the use of romantic irony, as in the works of L. Tieck. The same striving could also be sorrowful and tragic, as in the case of Novalis, whose unfinished novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen was a good example of the revived allegory conceived as a search for the unattainable and unfathomable ideally spiritual world. The Heidelberg school of writers took from fantasy literature themes that imparted added interest to historical events; an example was L. J. von Arnim’s Isabella of Egypt, a fantastic reworking of a love episode in the life of Charles V. This pragmatic approach to fantasy literature was used for a long time.

In seeking to add to the resources of the fantastic, the German romantics turned to the origins of fantasy literature. They collected and rewrote such fairy tales and legends as Folktales Edited by Peter Lebrecht (1797) by Tieck and Children’s and Household Tales (1812–14) and German Legends (1816–18) by the Grimm brothers. The fairy tale became a genre of European literature and has remained the main form of fantasy literature for children. The best-known example of children’s fantasy literature is Hans Christian Andersen’s collection of fairy tales.

Romantic fantasy literature was synthesized in the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann; examples were his Gothic novel The Devil’s Elixirs, such literary folktales as Master Flea and The Nutcracker and the King of the Mice, the magic phantasmagoria Princess Brambilla, and realistic novellas with undertones of fantasy such as The Choice of a Bride and The Golden Pot.

Goethe’s Faust was an attempt to counteract the attraction to the fantastic as the “abyss of the beyond.” Goethe used the traditional fantastic theme of selling one’s soul to the devil to reveal the vanity of allowing the spirit to wander in realms of fantasy; Goethe affirmed as the highest value an active life on earth that can transform the world. In Faust the Utopian ideal is devoid of fantasy and is projected into the future.

In Russia, romantic fantasy literature was represented in the works of V. A. Zhukovskii, V. F. Odoevskii, A. Pogorel’skii, and A. F. Vel’tman. Pushkin used fantasy in his narrative poem Ruslan and Liudmila, which was strongly influenced by byliny (epic folk songs) and folktales. Gogol’s fantastic images were an integral part of his folklike, poetically idealized depiction of the Ukraine, as seen in “The Terrible Vengeance” and “Vii.” Gogol’s St. Petersburg fantasies, such as “The Nose,” “The Portrait,” and “Nevsky Prospect,” are terse in style and have had no literary successors. They depicted reality in a uniquely exaggerated manner that included a strong element of fantasy; the same was true of Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades and Dostoevsky’s The Double.

With the establishment of critical realism, fantasy was again on the periphery of literature, although it was often used in certain contexts to impart a symbolical atmosphere to realistically depicted scenes, as seen in works by C. Brontë, Hawthorne, and Strindberg. The Gothic tradition of fantasy was developed by Poe, who portrayed or perceived the world beyond reality as a realm of phantoms and nightmares that rule men’s lives. Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and “A Descent Into the Maelstrom” anticipated a new type of fantasy literature, science fiction, which in the works of J. Verne and H. G. Wells was distinct from the established tradition of fantasy literature. Science fiction portrays the real world transformed by science for better or worse and revealed in a new light to the explorer. Science fiction dealing with the exploration of space involves the discovery of other worlds that are inevitably related to those of the traditional folktale, but the relationship is of minor importance.

Interest in fantasy literature revived in the late 19th century, as seen in works by the neoromantic writer R. L. Stevenson, the decadent writers M. Schwob and F. Sologub, the symbolists Maeterlinck and Blok, the expressionist G. Meyrink, and the surrealists H. Kasack and E. Kreuder. The development of children’s literature gave rise to a new type of fantasy literature that dealt with a world of toys, as seen in works by L. Carroll, C. Collodi, and A. A. Milne. Similar works in Soviet literature were written by A. N. Tolstoy (The Little Golden Key), N. Nosov, and K. Chukovskii. A. Grin created an imaginary world whose themes and images came from folktales and Western adventure fiction.

Neo-Gothic fantasy literature has been well represented in the 20th century in the works of W. de la Mare, H. P. Lovecraft, and J. Collier. In the second half of the 20th century fantasy literature has generally been confined to science fiction, although fantasy is an element of such innovative works as the trilogy by the English writer J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954–55), which is in the epic fantasy tradition, the novels and plays of Kobo Abe, and works by the Spanish and Latin-American writers A. Sastre and J. Cortázar.

Contemporary literature makes use of fantasy when an outwardly realistic narrative has a symbolical or allegorical meaning. In such works the narrative constitutes a coded system of references to a mythological plot, as in Joyce’s Ulysses, J. Updike’s The Centaur, or K. A. Porter’s Ship of Fools. M. Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita combines various aspects of the fantastic. The fantastic allegory is represented in Soviet literature by N. A. Zabolotskii’s The Triumph of Agriculture, a cycle of narrative poems dealing with the natural sciences. Other Soviet works of fantasy literature are P. P. Bazhov’s folktales and E. Shvart’s dramatized folktales.

The literary phantasmagoria and the fairy play have provided elements contributing to the development of Russian and Soviet satire, from Saltykov-Shchedrin’s novel The History of a City to Mayakovsky’s plays The Bedbug and The Bathhouse.

Fantasy literature continues to be a vital and productive literary genre.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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