Fantasy: Why is the genre so popular? by Rowena Cory Daniells

Since the Peter Jackson film of the same name, it would be safe to say that most people have heard of The Lord of the Rings, most people have a grasp of the fantasy genre. While the popularity of Tolkien’s LOTR has grown since it was released in 1954-55, spawning hundreds of imitations, fantasy has always been with us.

What is The Illiad but a fantasy quest story, with magic, gods and monsters? Beowulf, The Song of Roland, Nibelungenlied (Wagner’s Opera The Ring of Nibelung), all fantasy stories.

From the earliest myths and legends, through different cultures fantasy has been with us. Think of the Arabian Nights stories, the Arthurian Romances, Spenser’s The Fairie Queen, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lord Byron’s Manfred, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the works of Edgar Allen Poe, Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, and George MacDonald.

Whether these stories are set in our world or a secondary world where magical creatures and/or people exist, they all share a common theme: the exploration of the human condition. Even the much maligned medieval/quest fantasies offer their readers the chance to vicariously explore a wondrous world, battle evil and restore justice. Even a lowly Hobbit can change the course of the world by destroying the Ring.

That is the appeal of the tolkienesque fantasy. In our modern world where politicians prove corrupt, large corporations rip off consumers and terrorists kill ordinary people going about their daily lives, the traditional quest fantasy provides an antidote to cynicism. Fantasy, deriving from the word fantastic, exercises our sense of wonder.

Tolkien coined the word Eucatastrophe to describe this feeling:

“… which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.  … it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives – if the story has literary ‘truth’ on the second plane  – that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made.”

Thanks to Tolkien, it is the quest fantasy that the average person is most familiar with but there are many subgenres* in fantasy as well as fantasy cross-overs. This means readers can mine the fantasy subgenres for just the kind of ‘Eucatastrophic’ moment they crave. It would be true to say there are as many types of fantasy as there are authors writing it, and each author has their own view of what fantasy is and the purpose it serves.

There are many popular Australian authors who have written in the traditional fantasy genre, Trudi Canavan, Jennifer Fallon, Karen Miller and Sara Douglass to name a few. Just as there are traditional fantasy books which promise a rollicking read, there are also traditional fantasies which confront. Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy is an example of this grittier take on the genre. And there are fantasy books like Kylie Chan’s series which have, at their core the traditional battle between good and evil, but they are set in the contemporary world, where Chinese gods are real and use human beings as tools in their battles for supremacy.

While medieval/quest fantasies are often undervalued by critics, some fantasy is considered literature, such as the work of Ursula K Le Guin and Australian writer, Margo Lanagan. Lanagan’s YA book Tender Morsels has aroused heated debate. What does fantasy mean for these award winning authors? On writing in this genre Lanagan says:

“… I can use the kinds of thoughts and ideas that are normally dismissed from practical human minds because they don’t knit with reality in anything more than a dream-logical, symbolical way.”

In 2004, Le Guin gave a talk at the Children’s Literature Breakfast, where she described what she sees as the function fantasy serves in contemporary society.

“Fantasy is a literature particularly useful for embodying and examining the real difference between good and evil. In an America where our reality may seem degraded to posturing patriotism and self-righteous brutality, imaginative literature continues to question what heroism is, to examine the roots of power, and to offer moral alternatives. Imagination is the instrument of ethics. There are many metaphors beside battle, many choices besides war, and most ways of doing good do not, in fact, involve killing anybody. Fantasy is good at thinking about those other ways.”

There are many subgenres of fantasy. And there are writers who defy genre. Australian Terry Dowling writes across the speculative fiction genres, (fantasy, science fiction and horror). His work has been described as ‘creating a series of myths about contemporary humanity, pleasingly woven into Australian settings.’ It would be fair to say there is a surreal feel to his stories.

A subgenre of fantasy with a surreal feel, sometimes called new weird, is set in cities, where the reader can catch a glimpse of the ‘other’ through an apartment window. The works of  Jeff Vandermeer and China Mieville are examples of this. In a Locus interview Mieville said:

“I think the … high point of fantasy is the Surrealists – which is a tradition I’ve read obsessively, and am a huge fan of, and see myself as a product of the ‘pulp wing’ of the Surrealists ….”

Sometimes fantasy takes the familiar, like the Victorian era, and gives it a new twist as in the genre Steampunk, which is very popular with the readers.

Australian author, Richard Harland is currently on a US and UK tour to promote his YA steampunk book Worldshaker. For those interested in Harland’s take on writing steampunk see this article.

Gail Garriger’s books are a comedy of manners set in Victorian London, combining steam punk with dark urban fantasy, (stories set in this world with a twist, or in an invented urban society). Then there are dark urban fantasy books like those written by bestselling Australian author Keri Arthur . Her books have a level of sensuality and often contain a love story but the protagonist doesn’t end up with the love interest. This kind of dark urban fantasy veers towards romance until it meets the cross-over genre, paranormal romance. Nalini Singh’s hugely popular Psy-Changeling series would be described as paranormal romance because, although there is a continuing larger story unfolding, each book ends with the resolution of the primary love story.

For a glimpse at what is new in dark urban fantasy by Australian authors, take a look at Trent Jamieson and Tansy Rayner Roberts. The first books of their new series are due out this year. Jamieson’s books are set in an alternate Brisbane where Death is a business. Roberts’ books are set in a world which combines elements of ancient Rome with the roaring twenties. This may appear an unlikely combination but fantasy gives writers the freedom to make these connections.

As Australian fantasy and science fiction author, Sean Williams says:

“(fantasy) gives me a means to write more closely to theme, unfettered by the constrictions of the real world (more or less), enabling  me to make my own constrictions that will guide the story down thematic paths. It allows the combining of things that don’t normally fit, like Australian landscapes, magic, and a post-apocalyptic society in the Books of the Change, or the same Australian landscapes, Darwinist theism, mirror twins and multi-world theory in the Books of the Cataclysm. The genre of fantastic fiction allows these things to meet in a way that wouldn’t be possible in realist fiction.”

Best selling writer, Terry Pratchett, uses the fantasy setting of his discworld series to parody the contemporary society. When asked if fantasy is escapism Pratchett says:

“Fantasy IS escapism, but wait…why is this wrong? What are you escaping from, and where are you escaping to? Is the story opening windows or slamming doors? The British author G. K. Chesterton summarised the role of fantasy very well. He said its purpose was to take the everyday, commonplace world and lift it up and turn it around and show it to us from a different perspective, so that once again we see it for the first time and realise how marvellous it is. Fantasy—the ability to envisage this world in many different ways—is one of the skills that makes us human.”

The fantasy genre, gives writers the freedom to explore ideas unfettered by the restrictions of writing stories set in the real world. This is the appeal for writers. But fantasy is also very popular with readers. Tolkien’s books have been selling steadily for over fifty years now with sales over 250 million and Rowling’s series about a boy wizard going to boarding school has sales of over 400 million copies, (according to Wikipedia).

Australian author Kate Forsyth writes fantasy for both children and adults. (There are several well researched and interesting articles on fantasy on her web site). When discussing fantasy and its popularity she says:

“For most of the latter part of the 20th century, writers have responded to a sense of alienation and existential angst by focusing on the grim, the grungy and the grotesque. Literary movements have had names like “the lost generation”, “angry young men”, and “dirty realists”. We have had despair and disillusionment; we have had Derrida and deconstructionism. God is dead, and so is our innocence.

One major consequence of this ontological maze of mirrors is that somewhere in there, twentieth century literature lost its emphasis on story and, one can argue, lost its way. The emphasis on dismemberment and disintegration of text and character has made much contemporary fiction dense, dull and downright depressing.

It should come as no surprise then, that heroic fantasy fiction has had a slow, inexorable rise in both popularity and critical recognition. For several years, best selling lists have been dominated by epic fantasies by writers.”

The speculative fiction genre is also popular in movies. Of the twenty top grossing films only Titanic isn’t from this genre. Fantasy and science fiction are also popular genres in computer games. Terry Dowling’s PhD dissertation The Interactive Landscape: New Modes of Narrative in Science Fiction, examined the computer adventure game as an important new area of storytelling. See this post by Leanne C. Taylor, for an overview of the history of fantasy in games. Taylor, a games writer and lecturer says there are many reasons for fantasy’s popularity with gamers. Among them is one that also strikes a chord with fantasy readers. “Fantasy lets us believe we can make a difference, and shows us that we can.”

The fantasy genre is rich and varied. It means different things to different people. Writers love the freedom the genre gives them to explore themes and ideas. Readers love the sense of wonder, and the assurance that one small person can make a difference.

As Kate Forsyth says:

“Fantasy fiction does not deny or diminish the existence of sorrow and pain, as so many people seem to think. The possibility of failure is absolutely necessary for the “piercing sense of joy” one feels when victory is finally and with difficulty won. Like a candle-flame, fantasy casts a shadow at the same time that it illuminates. Yet it is the illumination that is important. Fairy-tales all offer the hope that a happy ending is possible – and we need to believe this. Fantasy denies ultimate despair. It holds out the hope for a better world, and signposts the way.

For the very best fantasy enlightens as well as beguiles, passing on the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors, mapping the boundaries of behaviour, and challenging our preconceptions of what is right and true.” 

If this article has failed to mention your favourite author it is not through a lack of appreciation but a lack of space.

*For a list of the various sub genres of fantasy see this link or this link (you’ll need to scroll down). If a sub genre takes your interest, you can link through to authors from the Wikipedia site. Please note, no list is exhaustive as definitions vary and people invent new subgenres.

For the most popular fantasy series, see these sites. The lists vary because opinions vary.

Top 10 fantasy series

Top 25 fantasy series

For a glimpse of the breadth of talent in Australian speculative fiction writers, see the Aurealis Awards for Australian Speculative Fiction .

Here is a (non definitive) list of Australian Spec Fic writers.

And here is a list, which also includes science fiction writers.

And I am sure here are still writers I have not managed to include. To those people I apologise.


Rowena Cory Daniells is a writer of rollicking adventure fantasy. Her trilogy King Rolen’s Kin is published by Solaris.


The Australian Literature Review

The King's Bastard (King Rolen's Kin)

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19 Responses to Fantasy: Why is the genre so popular? by Rowena Cory Daniells

  1. This is a great discussion on fantasy – very thorough and informative. Thanks so much for including all of these excellent links.

    • Cassandra Jade, it took me around 10 hours to put together. I had to email writers for quotes, search websites, find links. And then I had to cut it back.

      It was so hard to know what to include. Glad you found it interesting.

  2. Couldn’t agree more, Cassandra!
    Rowena, I learned more about fantasy writing from this post than I ever have before. Good one! 🙂

    • Hi Sheryl,

      I tried to make it informative, so that someone who didn’t know the genre would find it interesting, without getting overwhelmed by detail.

      I couldn’t mention all the wonderful Australian writers of this genre. Sad face.

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  4. chrisbongers says:

    In the world of fantasy, Story is King – a lesson many ‘literary’ novelists would do well to heed. Thanks for such a comprehensive and fascinating post.

  5. Chrisbongers — absolutely. I believe Story is King.

    This is one of the phrases I use when I run workshops.

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  11. mesmered says:

    I’m just in the process of reading Ann Swinfen’s In Defence of Fantasy which was written a number of years ago and defines all the inherent values of the genre as you have discussed. Thanks for writing such a good article with such great links. As a writer new to the genre since 2008, its enlightening to read how many established Australian fantasy authors there are.

  12. Laarnie Lozada says:

    Do you have a email I could contact you with, for more expert information? I am currently undergoing research for my Society and Culture Major Work, and my focus is fantasy Fiction.

    Much Appreciated.

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  15. Suman Rao says:

    I have started reading fantasy fiction again.and I found your blog post very informative. Gave me an insight into fantasy fiction as a genre today. Appreciations for a well-researched piece.

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