Hallmarks of Fantasy: A Brief History of the Genre

By Amanda Pagan, Children's Librarian
May 18, 2020
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)
Then the dragon made a dart at the hunter, but he swung his sword round and cut off three of the beast's heads

Then the dragon made a dart at the hunter, but he swung his sword round and cut off three of the beast's heads. Art and Picture Collection, NYPL (1900 - 1909). NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 1698228

The history of fantasy is as old as humanity itself. Every culture around the world has their own myths and folklore that they use to impart lessons or carry on pieces of their history. Some of the oldest works of classical fiction are fantastical stories passed on through the centuries and across international borders such as One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, and Journey to the West. Greco-Roman, Egyptian, and Norse mythology are among the most popular and most recognizable collections of stories read on an international level. 

The 1800s saw the publication of the German-inspired fairy tale collections by The Brothers Grimm as well as the Scandinavian-inspired collections of Hans Christian Andersen. In these collections, readers were introduced to Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Rapunzel, Greta from “The Snow Queen”, etc.. While these original fairy tales were much darker and used to impart harsh lessons, no one can deny the impact they have had on popular culture in the centuries since their release. 

Fantasy novels are not bound by our rules of reality and can therefore take place at any time or location, however, most western fantasy novels are heavily influenced by European folklore and history. Castles, kingdoms, princesses, knights, dragons, quests etc. are the most easily recognizable images associated with the genre. This is due in no small part to the long-lasting popularity of European medieval poetry and fiction such as the epic of Beowulf and the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. 

The Divine Feminine in the Mabinogion

In 1838, Lady Charlotte Guest was the first to publish the English translation ofThe Mabinogion, a collection of some of the earliest pieces of British literature. These stories predate the Arthurian legends and were first published in Welsh. Lloyd Alexander drew inspiration from this collection while writing his Newbery award-winning series, The Chronicles of Prydain (1964). These classical works of fiction basically laid the groundwork for the typical hero’s journey as well as the hallmarks of fantasy stories for centuries to come. 

The Victorian age saw the publication of one of the most groundbreaking and influential fantasy novels of all time, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland(1865). Not only did this novel introduce a female protagonist who is not punished for venturing out on her own adventure without a male guardian or companion during the repressive Victorian age, but the entire premise of entering a new world of fantastical creatures through a mystical doorway has become its own subgenre. (For more information, check out our Beginner’s Guide to Isekai). 

Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Alice was joined by Dorothy Gale in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), as well as Wendy Darling in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904). The works of Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and others were highly influential and helped create new sub genres such as “The Lost World”, where characters accidentally stumble across an ancient world hidden beneath our own.

With few exceptions, fantasy novels of the 19th and early 20th centuries were primarily aimed at and marketed towards children, however, adults can still enjoy them.  These were the stories that inspired future fantasy writers, and these were the stories that had profound impacts on the development of the genre as a whole. 

While this list is by no means exhaustive, we felt these titles serve as sufficient guidelines for any traveler interested in learning more about the key tropes and iconic moments of the fantasy genre. Most of the tropes, plots, and even story frameworks of modern fantasy novels borrow heavily from these novels. These titles have inspired countless forms of media from film to television to board and video games. Their heroes and villains have captured the attention of audiences for centuries, and there is no indication that they will fade from the public consciousness any time soon. 

With that said, saddle up your trusty steed and start your journey into the fantabulous world of fantasy today! The books below are available to read in digital formats.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll; illustrated by Sir John Tenniel and with sixteen plates coloured by John Macfarlane

A timeless heroine, Alice is quick-witted, determined and resourceful. In her extraordinary adventures she meets a series of unforgettable characters, from the bossy White Rabbit to the grinning Cheshire-Cat and the Mad Hatter, all of whom are as famous as Alice herself. Illustrated with the original line drawings by John Tenniel, colour plates, and with a foreword by Hilary McKay, this edition of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was first published by Macmillan in 1865.

Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights translated and edited by multiple authors

The Stories contained in Arabian Nights have been handed down from generation to generation and are just as compelling today as they were when first told. This collection, specially selected and edited by Andrew Lang is a wonderful anthology, and will delight readers young and old.


Beowulf: A Graphic Novel by Santiago García and David Rubín; edited by Image Comics ; [...] translation, Sam Stone and Joe Keatinge.

Beowulf tells of the tale of a Scandinavian hero in lands that would become what is now Denmark and Sweden: A monster, Grendel, has arrived in the kingdom of the Danes, devouring its men and women for 12 years until Beowulf arrives to save them. Garcia and Rubin faithfully follow the original story for a new version that is neither revisionist nor postmodern, but captures the tone and important details of the poem, translating its potent, epic resonance and melancholy into a contemporary comic that isn't standard swords and sorcery or heroic fantasy fare, but rather an ancient story with a modern perspective that remains respectful of the source material.

Book of Three

The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain #1)  by Lloyd Alexander 

Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper to a famous oracular sow, sets out on a hazardous mission to save Prydain from the forces of evil.


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl,  illustrated by Quentin Blake

Each of five children lucky enough to discover an entry ticket into Mr. Willy Wonka's mysterious chocolate factory takes advantage of the situation in his own way.



Grimm's Fairy Tales

Grimms' Fairy Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

(also available via Project Gutenberg

Collections of classic fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. 

Hero and the Crown

The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley

Aerin, with the guidance of the wizard Luthe and the help of the Blue Sword, wins the birthright due her as the daughter of the Damarian king and a witchwoman of the mysterious, demon-haunted North.


Hobbit, Or, There and Back Again

The Hobbit, Or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien 

Bilbo Baggins, a respectable, well-to-do hobbit, lives comfortably in his hobbit-hole until the day the wandering wizard Gandalf chooses him to take part in an adventure from which he may never return.

Journey to the West

The Journey to the West originally attributed to Wu Cheng'en with multiple translations by different authors.

The fantastic tale recounts the sixteen-year pilgrimage of the monk Hsüan-tsang (596-664), one of China's most illustrious religious heroes, who journeyed to India with four animal disciples in quest of Buddhist scriptures. For nearly a thousand years, his exploits were celebrated and embellished in various accounts, culminating in the hundred-chapter Journey to the West, which combines religious allegory with romance, fantasy, humor, and satire.

Le Morte D'Arthur

Le Morte d'Arthurby Sir Thomas Malory

(also available via Project Gutenberg)

Although many versions of the Arthurian legends exist, Malory's remains the classic telling. The tales, steeped in the magic of Merlin, and the powerful cords of the chivalric code.


The Mabinogion translated with an introduction and notes by Sioned Davies 

(The original translation released by Lady Charlotte Guest is available online here)

The Mabinogion is one of the great epics of medieval literature. Weaving together Celtic mythology and Arthurian romance, the eleven Welsh tales include stories of dragons and giants, kings and heroes, and shape-shifters and magicians. This lively translation re-invests the tales with the power of performance.

Magician's Nephew

The Magician's Nephew (The Chronicles of Narnia #1) by C.S. Lewis; illustrated in color by Pauline Baynes

When Digory and Polly try to return the wicked witch Jadis to her own world, the magic gets mixed up and they all land in Narnia where they witness Aslan blessing the animals with human speech.


Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Womenby George MacDonald 

(available online through Project Gutenberg

C.S. Lewis said that upon reading this astonishing 19th-century fairy tale he "had crossed a great frontier," and numerous others both before and since have felt similarly.

In MacDonald's fairy tales, both those for children and (like this one) those for adults, the "fairy land" clearly represents the spiritual world, or our own world revealed in all of its depth and meaning. At times almost forthrightly allegorical, at other times richly dreamlike (and indeed having a close connection to the symbolic world of dreams), this story of a young man who finds himself on a long journey through a land of fantasy is more truly the story of the spiritual quest that is at the core of his life's work, a quest that must end with the ultimate surrender of the self.

Princess and the Goblin

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

A little princess is protected by her friend Curdie and her newly-discovered great-great-grandmother from the goblin miners who live in caves beneath the royal castle.

The Well at the World's End: A Tale by William Morris

(Available online in Volumes 18-19 through the The Collected Works of William Morris. Also available through Project Gutenberg

The Well at the World's End was among the very first of its kind--it is an epic romance of duplicity, machination, passion, and wizardry, and is, in short, a vast odyssey into the weird. It is a beautifully rich fantasy, a vibrant fairy tale without fairies. It is the most entrancing of William Morris's late romances--part futuristic fantasy novel, part old-fashioned fairy tale. Morris writes his magic love story with a sense of color and pattern, and the sheer imaginative fervor of one of the most brilliant decorative artists that has ever lived.

Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

(also available via Project Gutenberg)

After a cyclone transports her to the land of Oz, Dorothy must seek out the great wizard in order to return to Kansas.






Summaries provided via NYPL’s catalog, which draws from multiple sources. Click through to each book’s title for more.

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