The fantasy genre: an attempt to explain its success

It has now been more than 50 years since J.R.R. Tolkien published the first volume of his epic trilogy - The Lord of the Rings - marking the birth of the modern fantasy genre. Tolkien's masterpiece was voted "best book of the 20th century" a few years ago, and it has been read and cherished by millions of devotees worldwide. Ever since then, fantasy books have been springing up left, right, and centre; and judging by the way they keep on selling (and selling), it seems that the fans just can't get enough of them. David Eddings' Belgariad (and others); Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time; Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth; and Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea: these are but a handful of the vast treasure trove of fantasy works, to be found on the shelves of bookshops the world over.

But just what is it that makes these books so damn popular? As I lay awake last night, having just finished reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (I'll talk about J.K. Rowling's work in a minute), I pondered this question, and I would now like to share with you all the conclusions that I came up with.

We all know that fantasy books all have a lot in common. A lot. In fact, most of them are so similar, that once you've read a few, you could read the rest of them with your eyes shut, and still be able to take a pretty good guess at what the plot is. They all follow the classic formula, which goes something along these lines:

  1. Young boy (or girl, or creature... or hobbit) grows up in rural setting, living peaceful childhood, knowing nothing about magic, dark lords, wizards, etc.
  2. Hero is forced to leave beloved home (may or may not have found true love by now), because dark power is growing stronger, and hero must go on dangerous journey to escape.
  3. Hero soon realises that his parents/ancestors (whom he never met - up until now he thought those nice country bumpkins who raised him were his closest family) were powerful wizards, or kings/queens, or something else really famous.
  4. Hero discovers that he has amazing magical powers, and that he was born with a destiny to overthrow some terrifying evil power. He is taught how to use his cool abilities.
  5. Hero overcomes all odds, battles huge monsters, forges empires, unites many nations, fulfils several gazillion prophecies, defeats dark lord (who always has some weird, hard-to-pronounce name - not that that matters, because everyone is scared to pronounce it anyway), marries beautiful princess/sorceress love of his life (who is also really brave, fulfilled many prophecies, and helped him do battle), and everyone lives happily ever after.

Fantasy books are also always set in a pre-industrial world, where by some amazing miracle, every nation on the planet has managed to stay in the middle ages for several thousand years, without a single person inventing things such as gunpowder, petrol engines, or electronics (although they have all the things that would naturally lead up to such inventions, such as steel, sulfur, etc). Instead of all these modern inventions, fantasy worlds are filled with magic. In most books, magic is a natural phenomenon that some people are born with, and that most are not. There are various magical creatures (e.g. elves, vampires, dragons), all sorts of magical artefacts, and usually various branches (or specialised areas) within the field of magic.

The common argument for why fantasy books are so popular, is because people say that they're "perfect worlds". Yet this is clearly not so: if they're perfect, then why do they all have dark lords that want to enslave the entire human race; terrifying and revolting evil creatures; warring nations that don't get on with each other; and hunger, disease, poverty, and all the other bad things that afflict us the same way in the real world? Fantasy worlds may have magic, but magic doesn't make the world perfect: as with anything, magic is just a tool, and it can be used (and is used) for good or for evil.

So fantasy worlds aren't perfect. If they were, then the whole good vs evil idea, which is central to every fantasy book, would be impossible to use as the basis for the book's plot.

Now, let's go back to that idea of a pre-industrial world. Every since the industrial revolution of the 1840s, many people upon this Earth have grown worried that we are destroying the planet, that we are making the world artificial, and that all the beautiful natural creations that make up the planet are wasting away. Fantasy worlds, which are all set before the growth of industry, are lacking this ugly taint. Fantasy worlds are always natural.

And that, in my opinion, is why people can't get enough of fantasy books. Everything about fantasy worlds is natural. The environment is natural: most of the world is untouched wilderness, and human settlements (e.g. farms and cities) do not have a noticeable impact upon that environment. It's a bit like those strategy-based computer games, where no matter what you do or build upon the terrain map, you have no effect upon the map itself: it remains the same. The people are natural: they show qualities like bravery, honour, dignity, and trust; qualities that many consider to be disappearing from the human race today. Even magic, which is not part of any natural world that we know, is a natural part of the fantasy landscape: people are born with it, people use it instinctively, and it can be used to accomplish things that are still not possible with modern technology, but in a natural and clean way.

Harry Potter is unique among fantasy books, because unlike most fantasy worlds, which are totally contrived and are alien to our own, the world of Harry Potter is part of our own modern world. This lets us contrast the fantasy environment with our own very clearly: and the result, almost invariably, is that we find the fantasy world much more attractive than our own. It may lack all the modern wonders that we have artificially created - and that we consider to be our greatest achievements - but it seems to easily outdo these things with its own, natural wonders: magic, raw human interaction, and of course, a pristine natural environment.

It's quite ironic, really, that we so often applaud ourselves on being at the height of our intellectual, social, and technological greatness (and we're getting higher every day, or so we're told), but that when it comes down to it, we consider a world without all these great things to be much more appealing. Traversing a continent on horseback seems far more... chivalric... than zooming over it in a 747. The clash of a thousand swords seems much more... glorious... than the bang of a million guns. And the simple act of lighting a candle, and reading great and spectacular works of literature in leather-bound volumes in the dark of night, seems much more... fulfilling... than turning on a light bulb, and booting up your computer, so that you can go online and read people's latest not-at-all-great-or-spectacular blog entries, in one of many sprawling big cities that never sleeps.

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Some good points, especially the last paragraph, but you're using a very narrow definition of 'fantasy' -- I think you're talking about the sub-genre called 'epic fantasy'. If you like Harry Potter, I recommend some of Diana Wynne Jones' great childrens' novels, definately fantastic, but often related to our world in some way, and much more creatively written. Also consider the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett; none but the earliest fit neatly into the framework you describe, as he has explored many aspects of fantasy over the series.

You can find fantasy detective stories, fantasy romances, fantasies set in industrialised worlds... just browse through some of the entries and subcategories at Amazon. Even many horror and scifi stories could be described as fantasy. I would define fantasy as a more extreme kind of fiction, where the author can substantially alter the nature of the world and its societies and history.

Jeremy Epstein

Yeah, epic fantasy is mainly what I was referring to in this article. They're the ones I've read the most, although I do have exposure to some other facets of the fantasy genre: for example, I have read quite a few of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, and find them to be a great read. Can't say I've read any 'industrialised worlds' type of fantasy book, though.

The Discworld books are a real asset to the fantasy genre, if you ask me, because they parody (among many other things) the "fantasy formula" that I described in this article, which gives readers a new angle that they might not have thought about just from reading books that adhere to the formula.

Jeremy Epstein

GreenAsh Webmaster


There is such thing as archetypal hunger that these books (including Dune, one of the most striking) seem to satisfy. In the world that is increasingly virtualized, the human being feels more and more distant from the roots. This is one of the reasons why MUDs are so fascinating and addictive.