A Introduction to the Fantasy Genre

Part Three of Magic, Fantasy and Hyperrealism in Art & Literature Trilogy


“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.” -Author Lloyd Alexander


The Mermaid, Howard Pyle, oil on canvas, 1910.



A Glance at the History of the Fantasy Genre

Since the dawn of humanity, fantasy has been a device for all who have lived before us: it is present in the cave wall paintings, in the mythological accounts and folkloric stories, prominently in literature, and in many forms of visual arts. From Greek classics, Egyptian myths, Norse mythology, Hindu legends and every other culture, fantasy is spun at the core of every culture’s structure. Literary devices, paintings and linguistic expressions have kept these ancient fantasies alive, while other forms of fantastical creatures and settings were added through history.



Fantasy Art

Fantasy in visual arts manifest with supernatural themes, creatures, settings and elements are woven together in a moralistic story. Portrayal of divine interventions, ancient legends, mythological characters and even contemporary fantasy in a husk of magical abilities are among the most common elements of the fantasy genre. In essence, fantasy artwork is inseparable from fantasy fiction; they often borrow scenes, dramatic expressions and personas from fantasy literature.


Conan The Destroyer, Frank Frazetta, oil on canvas, 1971.


However, despite the very well developed talent of the performing artist and technical excellence, fantasy art is not categorized under the class of Fine Arts. The closest relations of fantasy art among the canonical art genres are surrealism and magic realisms. And again, the difference only lies with the strong affinity of fantasy art to fantasy literature, while surrealism, per se, is liberal in its adaptation of scenery and depictions.


Fantasy as a Literary Device

Unlike arts, fantasy is a literary genre where the story takes place in a world where its rules differ from those of ours. It may be witchcraft or venturing off to a world of unknowns. The plot takes form by using otherworldly elements with queer engineering, language or unseen architectures. Talking objects, and animals, wizards and sorcerers and resurrection of ancient myths mark the most interesting factors in fantasy literature. Whatever the plot, freedom of expression and morals stand at the core of every story. Fantasy in literature provides a medium for going beyond the ordinary; it breaks the rules of our reality with the freedom of taking place in any time, location and by any character.


Modern fantasy literature in Europe and western countries is mostly rooted in the archetypes of European folklore, combined with history, teh same adaptations are seen in the eastern fantasy. According to structures, there are several types of literary fantasy, including; Modern Folktale or fairy tale adaptations, Mystery and Supernatural Fantasy or your usual ghost story, Science fiction where undiscovered science and technology combine with fantasy, and Victorian Fantasy. There is no need to mention the original meets as the spring source of all the later fantastical stories.



Mabinogion, Ancient Welsh Myths & Modern Fantasy


Mabinogion is perhaps the earliest form of British literature and Arthurian legends, and named after a major hero who was a young boy. The book’s title, Mabinogion, translates to boyhood and amiably refers to a rather heroic boyhood. As a classical fiction, these stories are the base for many modern works in the fantasy genre, whether in literature or visual arts. These influences are strong in the literary creations of Lloyd Alexander, especially the Newbery series.


During the Victorian era, fantastic stories were once more popularized to mainstream literature, producing exceptional works including Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The peculiarity of this novel does not end with its ethereal setting and magical creatures; it portrays a heroine when protagonist roles were almost constantly occupied by male characters. Moreover, she neither has a male guardian or companion as an accepted protocol in Victorian storytelling and culture. The rabbit hole of Alice had such a powerful impression that it became a metaphor on its own and subgenre without the rest of the story.


“But it’s no use now,” thought poor Alice, “to pretend to be two people! Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!” —Chapter 1, Down the Rabbit-Hole


Salvador Dalí’s Illustrations, inspired by the fantasy story by Lewis Carroll in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,1969.


Another example of these groundbreaking and culturally transformational fantasy stories is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum. In this story, another female protagonist, Dorothy Gale, is highlighted for its feminine characteristics which promote universal morals.


“Oh, I see;” said the Tin Woodman. “But, after all, brains are not the best things in the world.”
"Have you any?" enquired the Scarecrow.
"No, my head is quite empty," answered the Woodman; “but once I had brains, and a heart also; so, having tried them both, I should much rather have a heart.”

― L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz


The fantasy genres in the 18th to 20th century were mainly targeted as children, though there is no age limit to enjoy a good story and a dose of imagination pique. Similar to the past stories that have enticed the fantasy of Victorian writers, works of contemporary fantasy writers shall be the inspiration of the future artists.


With many stories to hear and artworks to marvel at, embark on a journey of imagination and fine expression whether high in the skies with tornado or down the rabbit hole.





Image Sources:

My Modern Met, Salvador Dalí’s Rarely Seen ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Illustrations Are Finally Reissued

By Jessica Stewart on July 31, 2017.

Daily Art, Painting of The Mermaid, Howard Pyle, courtesy of Delaware Art Museum.

Best Paintings for Sale, Frank Frazetta Conan the Destroyer Painting, 2021.



References:

Amanda Pagan, Hallmarks of Fantasy: A Brief History of the Genre, Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL), May 18, 2020.

Mark Fabrizi, Fantasy Literature: Challenging Genres, Eastern Connecticut State University, January 2016

Gloria Lee Mcmillan, What Science Fiction / Fantasy Art owes to Fine Art, The University of Arizona, October 2016.

Author Photo

Pourandokht Mazaheri

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