Humans have told stories of fantasy since we could first talk. We have been writing down fantasy tales since the invention of writing. Let’s look at this long and fascinating history.
Era of Mythology
Every culture has myths and legends, myths that told stories of magic and mystical creatures, of beings of immense power and unfathomable mystery. From these ancient stories comes heroes, wizards, dragons, unicorns, magic rings, and potions.
The Iliad, along with The Odyssey, are perhaps the best known of the ancient world’s works of fantastical literature. Written presumably by Homer sometime in the 8th century B.C.E.. The Iliad chronicles the ten year siege of the city of Troy. What at first seems like a war story is seasoned with superhuman warriors and divine interventions.
The Odyssey is a sequel to The Iliad telling the story of the hero of the Trojan War, Odysseus and his ten year return home. He and his men are targeted by the god Poseidon, held captive by a witch, do battle with the cyclops, Polyphemus, and elude the six-headed beast Scylla and the whirlpool monster Charybdis. Then he has to deal with the mess at home…
In Roman times, with the author Virgil, comes another sequel to The Iliad, the Aeneid. Twelve books, the first six tell the story of Aeneas and his wanderings after the Trojan War. Eventually, he ends up in Italy where he sets the foundations of Rome.
One Thousand and One Nights (as we have posted about before) was probably first written down in the 9th century. A collection of folk tales it added and removed stories through the ages. Magic and paranormal elements are peppered throughout the tales.
British literature, let alone fantasy literature, began with the epic poem Beowulf (even though the poem but is set in Scandinavia). The manuscript was written some time between 975 and 1025. It tells the story of Beowulf and his battles with the monsters Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon.
From Wales came the compilation of Celtic mythology, the Mabinogion. The stories are replete with heroes and magic, adventure and romance.
Chivalric romance was by far the most popular form of literature during the late medieval period. Knights in shining armor, damsels in distress, wizards, dragons, and other fantasy tropes were developed during this period. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table grew out of this tradition.
The Arthurian cycle continued into the Renaissance with the book Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (c.1408–1471). A work so important that it continues to influence fantasy literature to today.
In Spain Amadis de Gaula (1508) was wildly successful spawning many imitators. It tells the tale of Amadis and how he overcomes the challenges of the enchanted Insola Firme, including passing through the Arch of Faithful Lovers.
Fantasy threads its way through many of Shakespeare’s plays, from the witches in Macbeth, to the wizard Prospero in The Tempest, but most in particular A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Dante Alighieri’s satire Divine Comedy sees Dante being guided through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. It’s an allegorical fantasy.