A Brief History of Modern Fantasy


Akhi Pillalamarri
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Our most recent podcast on the “Evolution of Fantasy” featured a spirited debate about our favorite genre, from how we each defined “fantasy” to what we consider its developmental timeline. One of our biggest points of disagreement was about when what is considered “modern” fantasy started. Despite this, we at least had some general agreement that the publication of The Lord of the Rings‘ first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, in 1954 marked a significant turning point for the marketing and publishing of the fantasy genre.

To bounce off of this initial discussion, I wanted to write a brief history of what happened after 1950s, with some admitted speculation on my part.

I think it’s safe to say that common literary themes such as romance, action, mystery, and others have been around for quite some time, but I argue that it was only in the past century that new novels were sorted and categorized into “genres” for marketing purposes by the publishing houses, from where they would then be placed in corresponding sections of bookstores to be advertised toward specifically-targeted demographics. For example: romance is, according to anecdote, generally marketed towards young women). I have been made aware by fellow Whisperers that the idea of literary “genres” dates back far earlier than just the 20th century, but for the sake of argument and focus, I’d like to stick within a timeline of the 1950s-present.

Therefore, I think it is necessary to write on what I see as Tolkien’s impact upon the development of the modern fantasy genre, especially in English-reading countries. The success of his works, which sold in large numbers in the 1960s, “unquestionably created ‘fantasy’ as a marketing category,” according to Martin H. Greenberg. After paperback editions of the three books of the series were released in 1965, they sold 3 million copies by 1968.

Many fantasy enthusiasts see Tolkien as having shaped the modern genre because subsequent authors borrowed features from Tolkien, especially but not limited to mythical races and constructed worlds. Tolkien did not originate these ideas but the success of his series popularized these concepts. Tolkien’s influence is often believed to have brought more to light the idea of the “secondary world,” something which, while it had been evolving for decades, he first articulated in his 1939 lecture “On Fairy Stories.” He argued that it was no longer necessary for fantasy writers to feel any lingering need to “normalize” their creations within a travellers’ tale or dream frame. Instead, he argued that fantasy should have its own domain.

In layman’s terms: a secondary world need not be a totally new world, it merely needs to be internally consistent and have a life of its own. It can, thus, be a variation of our world, as is the case of Harry Potter and its wizarding world.

For me, the fantasy genre as we know it today began to grow as a distinct movement after Tolkien.

The marketing success of Tolkien, married with the obvious fact that the possibilities of fantasy were infinite, are, I believe, a key success to the modern genre’s growth.

But it was the sudden success of The Sword of Shannara by Terry Books in 1977 that cemented the success of what I would call “modern” fantasy as a sell-able, marketable literature genre. Shannara was the first modern fantasy book to make number 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List, something had an enormous impact on the fantasy genre market, advertising, and writing styles. The plot was similar to that of The Lord of the Rings in that a reluctant hero is prompted go on an adventure that features good versus some evil dark force, et al. — but Shannara elaborated and expanded on these core points. It would seem that that’s what people wanted: a longer, deeper, more elaborate Lord of the Rings, something which  Shannara and its successors in the 1980s delivered.

But one could argue the success of Shannara was a double-edged sword. It guaranteed the growth and viability of the fantasy genre, but only to a certain extent; it also limited the genre’s literary possibilities for a couple of decades by skirting away from the complexity later found in the genre.

Fantasy would need to expand its horizons to really gain a wider audience and develop further as a literary genre.

I see The Wheel of Time, one of the best-selling fantasy series of all time–44 million copies–as effecting this necessary change in the genre. Initially, one wouldn’t think so, as its first installment, The Eye of the World (1989), was deliberately similar, according to its author, Robert Jordan, to Shannara and Lord of the RingsThroughout the course of the series, however, it matured from deliberate Tolkien-esque parallelism into a far more complex story that included political intrigue and historical realism. This complexity has come to define the realism and grittiness of another popular series, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, which began in 1996.

I argue that The Wheel of Time series metaphorically represents the journey of the fantasy genre from one point to another. Martin himself later admitted that the foundation of A Song of Ice and Fire’s success was due to the groundwork laid by Robert Jordan. It also showed that infinitely long epic book series were possible and viable: Wheel of Time‘s combined page count exceeds 10,000. Martin said:

“[Jordan] gave me a blurb when my series was starting out, an endorsement for the cover that got me a lot of readers. And his own work really made my series possible. Jordan essentially broke the trilogy template that Tolkien helped set up. He showed us how to do a book that’s bigger than a trilogy. I don’t think my series would’ve been possible without The Wheel of Time being as successful as it was. I’ve always wanted to sprawl, and Jordan, to a great extent, made that possible with his series.”

When A Game of Thrones was published, the genre began to experience another shift. This shift included the works of authors such as Steven Erickson and Tad Williams. Martin demonstrated with A Song of Ice and Fire‘s first installment that the genre was not necessarily bound to Tolkien-esque imitation, and that instead, authors could draw upon other sources of inspiration to enhance their works; they could add moral complexity to their characters, making their works more realistic and identifiable as a result.

The expansion of the genre’s themes, along with the breathtaking success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (which began in 1997,) by the turn of the millennium led to an increase in both the quality and quantity of fantasy in general (though I personally feel there are some notable exceptions to quality, like Twilight). Fantasy began growing into a phenomenon, acquiring many new fans and “going mainstream” with the help of successful cinematic and television adaptations of well-known fantasy works.

As a result, ever year we fantasy-lovers are graced with a plethora of new works that deviate from the Tolkien-Brooks model and bring previously uncharted insights into the genre. Just a few examples of these are the works of Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, and many, many others. And while I think it can be argued that some of these works overcompensated for the lack of “grittiness” in Tolkien, I also believe they are a kind of “corrective work” that seek  to combine the best of traditional storytelling with historical realism, something that can be found in Brandon Sanderson’s novels and some other works.

In short, ever since the multimedia successes of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and Lord of the Rings in the first few years of the 21st century, the fantasy genre has been doing really well, with lots of new ideas, and new works. Fantasy has, essentially, became mainstream, and many talented individuals with ideas across genres are trying their hands at it.

I believe that it is likely that in later eras, the present span of two decades as well as the next couple of decades, will be considered the “Golden Age of Fantasy, ” an era where the fantasy genre gained widespread public attention.

So, readers, what do you think? Have you noticed a significant change in the fantasy genre over time? Do you think that later readers will look at this time as a “Golden Age of Fantasy” or not?


*Nota bene: All links to books available for purchase through Amazon are affiliate links, which means Backroom Whispering Productions receive a small percentage of the sales made through that link.


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