A Brief History of the Fantasy Genre

by Jason Block

Aug. 1, 2009

To try and understand what’s happening in the fantasy genre we love, here and now, we have to first look at it’s history. We can divide the recent history of the Fantasy genre into three distinct periods. These divisions are arbitrary and aren’t meant to exclude many of the fine books that don’t fit in to the main thrust of the individual eras, they just reflect a general trend.  At the same time, they don’t really indicate revolutionary change,  and certainly can’t be construed as organized ‘movements’.

The ‘Sword and Sorcery’ era, from the late 50’s through late 70’s:

This era started with the Gnome Press reprints of Conan and petered out by the mid eighties. The stories were most often about individual heroes or antiheroes in an alternate world, a parallel world, or a completely fantastic setting. Conan set the mold by showing an individual overcoming a series of obstacles. The readership was dominated by men and boys, who enjoyed predominantly linear quests.

conanelricgor flashing swords amber witch world  shea kane

The ‘Epic Fantasy’ era, from the late 70’s through late 90’s:

Starting with the publication of ‘Sword of Shannara’ and continuing to the present day,  gradually diminishing in importance, the Fantasy of this era was typified by the Tolkienesque plot of a group of heroes on a quest to save the world. At the same time  this standard plot was reinforced by the first wave of group role-playing games. The importance of ‘world-building’, the creation of believable, distinct fantasy worlds, increased and became a goal in and of itself. Concurrently, the importance of twentieth century literary character increased, and dialogue became less stylized. Most cross-media projects failed or found only a small market, and fantasy remained mostly a literary and gaming phenomena.

Meanwhile, women and young girls slowly came to be the larger share of the fantasy reading demographic (and the reading demographic altogether). Over time the content of the Fantasy genre changed to reflect this, to encompass female protagonists exploring interior, emotional challenges that in the 1970’s were largely ignored. The linear ‘quest’ style of S&S took refuge in video games, a market dominated by males.

malazan riftwar shannara tolkien anthony belgariad dnd jordan

The ‘Crossover’ era, from the late 90’s and continuing into the 21st century:

Beginning with the publication of ‘Harry Potter’ and the television airing of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, there has been a return of focus to the individual character within a fantasy world that has a series of adventures, however that individual is often a child or a female. The fantasy world is often grounded in a ‘magicalized’ version of our own world, and this takes precedence over Tolkienesque world-building. A lot of the emphasis is again focusing on the individual and his/her relationship to a mythological, or mythologized world. Media tie-ins have risen in importance and books often take their inspiration from television and film as well as influencing those media.

The current market, according to the Publishers Weekly and Locus bestseller lists, is dominated by crossovers as well as a few remnants of the 80’s style Epic Fantasy market. There is a continuing crossover in the YA and Children’s category, more so than ever before. Due to continuing trends away from realism towards ‘magical realism’ and ‘postmodernism’ in the academic fiction genre, there is a growing acceptance of SFF in academic circles and no small crossover between SFF and ‘literary fiction’ as well. Females continue to be the consumers mainly targeted by publishers, and there is a tremendous crossover between ‘romance’ and fantasy.

Driven by a publisher’s marketing ambition to have bigger ‘hits’, or the desire of writers to break down old barriers, a lot of the genre distinctions from decades past are fading away, as different ‘types’ of stories combine. One of the most prevalent memes from the last decade has been about elements of the fantasy world seamlessly and unsurprisingly residing in our own world. In a very real way, that’s exactly what’s happening to the genres, as they continue to blend together, creating new and exciting offspring.

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Then and now:

Sword and SorceryUrban Fantasy

The history of the genre is reflected in the covers of the books themselves, in the 60’s and 70’s the standard on potboilers was to have the bloodied male hero hovering over a dominated woman, now the potboiler standard is usually a secretive, lone heroine seen from behind.

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