Legends of Fantasy

Overview of the Great Contributors of Fantasy

Robert E. Howard, creator of "Conan the Barbarian"

Robert E. Howard, creator of "Conan the Barbarian"

Through each era of fiction writing, there have been those who have used the pen as a way of escaping from our world of predictability. Yet, through escapism, we still manage to deal with the every day problems of life at some level even when laws are shattered and worlds of innumerable possibilities emerge. There are many sub genres of Fantasy and there are many eras of its existence. Take a moment and ponder with me the ages and realms of this work.

What is fantasy? Fantasy is a a form of fiction that deals with things that most likely could not happen within the arena of known science. This usually takes a form of a type of magic or the supernatural. However, magic alone does not make fantasy. The magic must be balanced and those balances are bolstered by weapons, warriors, armies, and heroes. The most traditional fantasy cannot be complete without a dragon or some other terrible beast or creature to deal with. These types of works are ripe with magic, swords, and beasts.

The fantasy hero may be the unlikely person or one of the bravest warriors in the realm who has to overcome difficulties to perform his duty. The hero’s world is usually a made up world that may obey different laws than our own. In some cases it may be another version or time of our own world where the axioms we all understand are tested.

Sub-Genres of Fantasy

How many sub-genres are there? How many writers are there? You can define as many as you want but I try to keep things basic so here is my view on the major categories of fantasy, but certainly not all of them.

  • High Fantasy, normally medieval style fantasy with traditional good vs. evil plots involving knights, castles, kingdoms, princes and princesses, and classical mythology dabbled with a touch of magic. Though the world resembles our world in many ways, it is a mythical place that usually contains things such as elves, gnomes, fairies, dwarves, and trolls. This form of fantasy has a lot of overlap with epic fantasy. The Lord of the Rings falls into both high and epic fantasy categories.
  • Epic Fantasy, a form that makes someone into a hero who must go against impossible odds against highly formidable forces to fulfill a quest or defeat an enemy at the end of a long journey. In epic fantasy, the stakes are usually very high and the difference between success and failure of the protagonist may mean the continuation or the end of the world as the hero knows it. Every decision and every effort is linked to the final outcome — a massive battle, an impossible journey, or an incredible confrontation.
  • Dark Fantasy, a type of fantasy that delves into the arena of black magic, demonology, and the nightmarish elements of fantasy. The genre may cross over into horror and toy with the human mind. Many times the protagonist struggles with morals and there is no clear sign whether he fits a model archetype you might find in high fantasy. He will endure struggles with his decisions and may have horrible habits or practices that go beyond the normal flaws you see in a hero. Michael Moorcock’s Elric character embodies a complex dark personality which he constantly struggles with and his demon sword commits numerous awful acts on enemies and friends that feed him the energy he needs to survive.
  • Modern Fantasy, is a broad form that simply takes place in more modern times than traditional fantasy. It might be on our current earth or it might also be in strange modern world where magic or paranormal activities can exist. This is a wide open sub-genre that might include swords and sorcery or it might deal with paranormal spirits but they occur in modern society. Many in this arena are what has been termed “urban fantasy” where the backdrop is a large city with dark Gothic plots and bizarre creatures frightening the masses.
  • Swords and Sorcery Fantasy, is a sub-genre that embodies tales of sword swinging warriors or barbarians who do not rely heavily on magic or even spurn it as they tackle a world of dark magic. The hero may be more concerned with his own goals than those of the world he lives in embarking on great quests to find legendary treasures, hidden truths, or absolute power, even if he becomes embroiled with the greater struggles that exist. I generally think of swords and sorcery as a personal journey of an independent minded individual even though there may be epic plots hanging in the balance. Think Conan the Barbarian or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

Ages and Legends

I tend to group the legendary contributors of fantasy into three groups, Primitive, Early Modern, and Late Modern. To understand these, I pretty much define the early age and the other two just fall on either side. I define early pretty broadly between 1800 and 1970 because it is through these years that modern fantasy was born and defined. Everything afterward is pretty much an extension of what the early writers invented.

  • Primitive (circa 2000 BC to 1800) – The first contributions to the fantasy genre are said to be works such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad and the Odyssey, Beowulf, and the Arthurian legends all make up this massive span of epic fantasy tales and adventures. These legends are more about the stories than the authors and creators.
  • Early Modern (1800 to 1970) – In the mid 1800’s, there were a couple of works credited with the beginning of modern fantasy. These are John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River and George MacDonald’s work including The Princess and the Goblin. Fantasy was still relegated to a minor niche or children’s tales but when the twentieth century came around and printing became cheaper the era of modern fantasy came into full swing. Kipling, Dunsany, and Burroughs became well known fantasy writers in the early part of the 20th century. However, when Robert E. Howard began writing about his hero named Kull around 1926, that  eventually led him to create Conan the Barbarian and the genre took off like lightning. With the development of pulp fiction such as Weird Tales magazines and others, there came to be a lot of writers entering the market as well as the genre. Fritz Leiber unveiled his swords and sorcery world of Nehwon and it’s figures, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, in 1936. Two years later the world was introduced to J.R.R. Tolkein’s Hobbit and it all kept rolling afterward. The sub-genres were becoming more well defined. After the 1950’s, fantasy was well established and a host of other authors made their mark on the field. C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books became popular; Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings rolled off presses; later Michael Moorcock’s Elric and the Eternal Champion hit a unique gap in the market with his own dark anti-hero theme. By 1970, the genre was firmly implanted into literature and it was left up to a new crop of authors to continue the tradition and attempt to build unique worlds and heroes.
  • Late Modern (1970 – Present) – You know their names, Terry Brooks, George R.R. Martin, just to name a couple. Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books became popular from 1968 onward. Roger Zelazny was an author who started his Amber series in 1970 carrying the flare and style of those from his past. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Piers Anthony’s Xanth, and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time work became extremely popular in this time. Some authors in this period have been accused of being Tolkien clones for their subjects, characters, and settings seemed so similar. Many authors have done due diligence to ensure they keep the genre fresh while still paying homage to those who came before. Some  branched into comic fantasy to lighten things up such as Robert Asprin, Terry Pratchett, and Piers Anthony in varying dosages. Others have created bizarre worlds such as Zelazny’s Amber, Pratchett’s Discworld, and Moorcock’s Multiverse theme. Some continue to push the limits with darker fantasy containing heroes with rather questionable morals. The uprising of fantasy and role playing games drew from many works of the modern era and some of these games have fed back into the fantasy literature market with writers such as Tracy Hickman and R.A. Salvatore writing Dungeons & Dragons themed books.

This just names a few of the great authors and stories we have seen over the ages. I don’t have the time or space to name them all here but I thought I would give a nutshell insight into the fantasy genre for those who are thinking about reading fantasy.

When I write my fantasy, I attempt to bring the reader something fresh and something they can’t get any where else. I have put extensive thought into what powers my universe, its unique physics, and what drives my characters to do what they do. This brings about great conflicts and plot elements that spice up the story lines. I have also strayed from the idea of creating massive novels that require a huge commitment of time but rather I impart my work in smaller doses for those who like to read in spurts.

Most fantasy readers will find their particular flavor and stick with it and that is a good thing because fantasy is so broad it has something for everyone.

– by J.Wade Harrell, author of Shadows of Siernod


About J. Wade Harrell

A native of rural SW Oklahoma, I currently write swords and sorcery fiction which I publish in electronic format on Amazon. My interests and hobbies include shooting, riding motorcycles, fishing, watching college football, playing games, and most of all, spending as much time as possible with my better half, Kathy. I hope you enjoy my blog and that it might lead you into my fantastic worlds of swords and magic. -J. Wade Harrell
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