ccording to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “fantasy” is derived from the Greek ϕαντασία, or phantasia, which means, “to make visible” [1]. A common thread among today’s definitions of the word “fantasy” is the idea that it stems from the imagination and because of that, it is not real. Psychologically speaking, the idea of fantasy implies a pleasant experience for the fantasizer.

In printed matter, the greek root and the psychological definition merge to create “literature which contains elements that do not or cannot exist in reality” and transfers the pleasure of the fantasy to the reader [2]. Fantasy literature is hallmarked by the use of supernatural elements such as magic, imaginary worlds, unnatural creatures, and the plot line is generally driven by some type of external quest, adventure, or war (Carter).


The beginnings of fantasy as a genre in literature was initially publicized during the European Medieval period through romance novels. It was Medieval Romance that founded the tradition of combining folklore, fable, and mythology (which were then generally regarded as true, although romance was not meant to be factual) with epic conventions, resulting in today’s notion of knights fighting dragons and rescuing princesses with a witch, wizard, or fairy thrown in for good measure. Because of the lasting effect that the Medieval Romance continues to have upon modern fantasy fiction, the retroactive application of the term “fantasy” to Medieval Romance sees little to no controversy in today’s popular usage. Although according to fantasy author Dave Berry contemporary fantasy writers’ reliance on ancient mythology is not without its drawbacks because fantasy is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the audiences are enthralled with the themes and characters of fantasy for thousands of years and many more to come [3]. But, “on the other hand lurks the problem of creativity: how can a writer generate a new variation on a story that already exists in a thousand versions?”

During the Renaissance, the romance novel’s popularity continued to grow, especially fantasy fiction. Fairy tales were popular early in this time period, particularly in France with Charles Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Puss in Boots. Although fantasy was adored in the medieval period and the Renaissance, those in The Enlightenment period heavily criticized fantasy and fairy tales. Due to this very little fantasy was written during this time period. While adult literature still had some fantasy during The Enlightenment, children’s literature exemplified very little (if any) level of fantasy element because children’s literature of the time was to edify, not tell lies as fairy tales were believed to do. Even though many derided the fantasy genre, that very eschewal lent fantasy fiction a firmer identity, and a more solid foundation to stand as its own genre, separate from realistic literature [4]. While The Enlightenment movement shunned fantasy, Romanticism of the late 18th and early 19th century thoroughly embraced it for its supernatural imagination, and tradition. The gothic novel during Romanticism, while dealing mainly with horror and darkness did have element of fantasy, like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Along with the gothic novel, a resurgence of interest in fairy tales, such as E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Golden pot and The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.

The modern fantasy genre is believed to have taken off in the 19th and early 20th centuries. George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, published in 1872, is widely considered to be the very first fantasy novel. During this time an emergence of children’s fantasy like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderlandand J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Here we see the beginning of fantasy literature featuring young adult or juvenile characters, although with the intent of drawing adult audiences in order to ensure success. Shortly after, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’ fantasy novels emerged, setting the ultimate standard for the adult, modern fantasy novel with such works as The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. C.S. Lewis believed that in the earlier 20th century, fantasy was more accepted in juvenile literature, thus, a writer wrote for a particular audience even though fantasy was mainly for adults (“History of Fantasy”). However, fantasy was still looked down upon as not being suitable for children or young adults to read. Although fantasy wasn’t viewed as suitable for young adults, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series, and Lois Lowry’s The Giver were popular fantasy novels among young adults.

It wasn’t until the Harry Potter series that we see a great surge in young adult fantasy literature. The Horn Guide Book “reviewed 135 [young adult] fantasy novels in 1998 and 415 in 2010. Even more meaningfully, at least 309 of those 415 were sequels or books in series” (Sutton). The Google Ngram Viewer shows an enormous leap in young adult fantasy literature in 1998, right when Harry Potter was in publication. A CNN article credits “J.K. Rowling’s well-timed “Harry Potter” series exploded the category and inspired a whole generation of fantasy series novelists” (Strickland). Thus, due to the Harry Potter series young adults and adults “tended to be more receptive to the idea of reading fantasy for pleasure” [5].


It is interesting to note that the publication of the Harry Potter series ignited the popularity of young adult literature from within an existing fantasy tradition. The idea of a school of wizardry was not a new one. It had actually long since been explored in fantasy literature with such works as the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, and A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuinn which is also a young adult novel. What made Harry Potter such a success, contends Danielle Gurevitch,is “that for the construction of her plots, Rowling draws on a global, value-oriented symbolic language (reason and ethics) associated with the cultural codes of the new religious movements that appeal to the modern secular mind. This patterning, whether conscious or not, is indicative of the contemporary mood in the Western world.” [6] What Rowling did well, according to Gurevitch, was creating a uniting foundation of purpose — a struggle between globally accepted Right and Wrong. This multi-cultural commonality combined with a strong element of unknown, or newness — i.e. fantasy — allowed a shared experience between all readers and the books, an experience that began in a new, unfamiliar setting, but with familiar and comforting guiding principles. What Gurevitch and others who have conjectured about the popularity of Harry Potter (Giselle Liza Anatol [7] and Elizabeth E. Heilman [8], among others) sometimes gloss over is the unifying power of new experience, which can be effectively manufactured through means of fantasy surroundings. The impossible becomes possible, and solutions to sticky problems can present themselves in a much more feasible light.

This power exploded the young adult literature scene as discussed above, and was quickly snatched up and run with by many other authors, each seeking a niche in a new and quickly growing market, resulting in the off-shooting of such sub-genres in young adult fantasy as paranormal romance, steampunk, dystopian, apocalyptic, urban fantasy and high fantasy. These sub-genres have gained such popularity in their own rights that many readers consider them to be separate genres entirely, with their own unique conventions [9]. Whatever the consensus, the fact remains that all these categories make use of “elements that do not or cannot exist in reality” in order to convey, teach or guide the reader through some important aspect of life unique to the young adult experience. In speaking of Robin McKinley’s novels Beauty and Rose Daughter, Evelyn Perry notes how McKinley’s characters progress through Jacque Lacan’s last two stages of adolescent development:

“…the Mirror stage, in which the young adult is inducted into the adult community while still lacking an autonomous sense of self, is most significant. In McKinley’s retellings, the Mirror stage actually takes place literally, without reflective devices: there are very few mirrors, glasses, or pools of still water. As a result, in McKinley’s retellings of fairy tales, the adolescent comes of age without an autonomous sense of self. Therefore, the protagonists of McKinley’s reworkings are spared the pain of seeing (and ultimately, of referring to) themselves until they have come of age.”[10]

The coming-of-age progression of the characters from adolescent to adult is greatly eased by the fantasy setting of the tale. The magical, isolated castles with no mirrors in which McKinley placed her heroines provided an environment in which they could grow into adulthood without the pressure of body image, and exemplifies for adolescents how much easier it would be to move through these formative stages and construct their own identities if they could just stop caring about how they look. The exemplary journey of McKinley’s heroines would not have been possible.without the fantastical settings, which in turn exemplifies the usefulness of fantasy in self-definition and other components of the adolescent age. The raging popularity of fantasy in every era from the earliest of writings to our current day — from Gilgamesh to George R. R. Martin — is evidence of its power and usefulness in reflecting the society which produces it, and the enjoyment that that society gains from consuming the literature. Whether in seeking an origin (as with Greek and other mythologies) or to provide some other insight into the nature of man, the application of fantasy in literature has a documented power of lending palatability to uncomfortable topics.
Works Cited
Berry, Dave. “The Treatment of Mythology in Children’s Literature.” The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Children’s Literature 9.3 (2005). Web. [11] 30 Jan. 2015.

Bond, Ernie. “Is ‘Harry Potter’ Young Adult Literature?” College Inc. -. 19 Nov. 2010. Web. 16 Feb. 2015. [12]

“Fantasy.” Oxford English Dictionary. Np. Web. 4 Feb. 2015 [13].

“Fantasy.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 4 Feb. 2015.[14]

Fitzgerald, Meghan. “Young Adult Fantasy Fiction in Recent Years: A Selective Annotated Bibliography.” 1 Apr. 2008. Web. 4 Feb. 2015. [15]

Gurevitch, Danielle. “Fantastic Literature at the Beginning of the Third Millennium: Terror, Religion, and the Hogwarts Syndrome.” 17.1 (2013). Web.. 30 Jan. 2015. [16]

“History of Fantasy.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 4 Feb. 2015. [17]

Perry, Evelyn. “Reflection and Reflexion: Female Coming-of-Age, the Mirror Stage, and the Absence of Mirrors in Robin McKinley’s contemporary retellings of Folk and Fairy Tales.” The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children’s Literature 7.3 (2003). Web. [18]. 30 Jan. 2015.