Historical fantasy

Last updated
Arthur Rackham's illustration for Alfred W. Pollard's The Romance of King Arthur abridged from Thomas Malory's 15th-century Arthurian medieval fantasy novel Le Morte d'Arthur 334 The Romance of King Arthur.jpg
Arthur Rackham's illustration for Alfred W. Pollard's The Romance of King Arthur abridged from Thomas Malory's 15th-century Arthurian medieval fantasy novel Le Morte d'Arthur

Historical fantasy is a category of fantasy and genre of historical fiction that incorporates fantastic elements (such as magic) into a more "realistic" narrative. [1] There is much crossover with other subgenres of fantasy; those classed as Arthurian, Celtic, or Dark Ages could just as easily be placed in historical fantasy. [2] Stories fitting this classification generally take place prior to the 20th century.


Films of this genre may have plots set in biblical times or classical antiquity. They often have plots based very loosely on mythology or legends of Greek-Roman history, or the surrounding cultures of the same era.


Historical fantasy usually takes one of four common approaches: [3]

  1. Magic, mythical creatures such as dragons or other supernatural elements, such as magic rings co-exist invisibly with the mundane world, with the majority of people being unaware of it. In this, it has a close similarity to contemporary fantasy. This commonly overlaps with the secret history trope. Alternatively, the author's narrative shows or implies that by the present day, magic will have "retreated" from the world or been hidden to all but a few initiates so as to allow history to revert to the familiar version we know. [4] An example of this can be found in Lord Dunsany's The Charwoman's Shadow , which takes place in Spain, but which ends with the magician in it removing himself, and all creatures of romance, from the world, thereby ending the Golden Age. [5]
  2. It also can include an alternative history where the past or present has been significantly changed when an actual historical event turned out differently. [6]
  3. The story takes place in a secondary world with specific and recognizable parallels to a known place (or places) and a definite historical period, rather than taking the geographic and historical "mix and match" favoured by other works of secondary world fantasy. However, many, if not most, works by fantasy authors derive ideas and inspiration from real events, making the borders of this approach unclear.
  4. Historical fantasy may also be set in a fictional world which resembles a period from history but is not that actual history. [6]

All four approaches have overlapped in the subgenre of steampunk commonly associated with science fiction literature. However, not all steampunk fantasy belongs to the historical fantasy subgenre.


Arabian fantasy

Cassim in the treasure-filled thieves' cave Ali-Baba.jpg
Cassim in the treasure-filled thieves' cave

After Antoine Galland's translation of One Thousand and One Nights became popular in Europe, many writers wrote fantasy based on Galland's romantic image of the Middle East and North Africa. Early examples included the satirical tales of Anthony Hamilton, and Zadig by Voltaire. [7] English-language work in the Arabian fantasy genre includes Rasselas (1759) by Samuel Johnson, The Tales of the Genii by James Ridley (1764), Vathek by William Thomas Beckford (1786), [8] George Meredith's The Shaving of Shagpat (1856), Khaled (1891) by F. Marion Crawford, and James Elroy Flecker's Hassan (1922). [9]

In the late 1970s, interest in the subgenre revived with Hasan (1977) by Piers Anthony. This was followed by several other novels reworking Arabian legend: the metafictional The Arabian Nightmare (1983) by Robert Irwin, Diana Wynne Jones' children's novel Castle in the Air (1990), Tom Holt's humorous Djinn Rummy (1995) and Hilari Bell's Fall of a Kingdom . [9]

Celtic fantasy

Celtic fantasy has links to historical fantasy and Celtic historical fiction. Celtic historical fantasy includes such works as Katharine Kerr's Deverry series, or Teresa Edgerton's Green Lion trilogy. These works are (loosely) based on ancient Celtic cultures. The separate folklore of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland has sometimes been used indiscriminately, sometimes with great effect, as in Paul Hazel's Finnbranch trilogy, Yearwood (1980), Undersea, (1982) and Winterking (1985); [10] other writers have distinguished to use a single source. [11]

Notable works inspired by Irish mythology included James Stephens' The Crock of Gold (1912), Lord Dunsany's The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933), Flann O'Brien's humorous At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), Pat O'Shea's The Hounds of the Morrigan (1985) and novels by Peter Tremayne, Morgan Llywelyn and Gregory Frost. [11]

The Welsh tradition has been particularly influential, which has its connection to King Arthur and its collection in a single work, the epic Mabinogion . [11] One influential retelling of this was the fantasy work of Evangeline Walton: The Island of the Mighty , The Children of Llyr , The Song of Rhiannon , and Prince of Annwn . A notable amount of fiction has been written in the Welsh area of Celtic fantasy; [12] other notable authors of Welsh Celtic fantasy include Kenneth Morris, John Cowper Powys, Vaughan Wilkins, Lloyd Alexander, Alan Garner, [13] and Jenny Nimmo. [14]

Scottish Celtic fantasy is less common, but James Hogg, John Francis Campbell (The Celtic Dragon Myth, 1911), Fiona MacLeod, William Sharp, George Mackay Brown and Deborah Turner Harris all wrote material based on Scottish myths and legends. [13]

Fantasy based on the Breton folklore branch of Celtic mythology does not often appear in the English language. However, several noted writers have utilized such material; Robert W. Chambers' The Demoiselle d'Ys (from The King in Yellow , 1895) and A. Merritt in Creep, Shadow! (1934) both drew on the Breton legend of the lost city of Ys, [15] while "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun" (1930) by J. R. R. Tolkien is a narrative poem based on the Breton legend of the Corrigan. [16]

Classical fantasy

Classical fantasy is a subgenre fantasy based on the Greek and Roman myths. Symbolism from classical mythology is enormously influential on Western culture, but it was not until the 19th century that it was used in the context of literary fantasy. Richard Garnett ( The Twilight of the Gods and Other Tales , 1888, revised 1903) and John Kendrick Bangs ( Olympian Nights , 1902) used the Greek myths for satirical purposes. [17]

20th-century writers who made extensive use of the subgenre included John Erksine, who continued the satirical tradition of classical fantasy in such works as The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1925) and Venus, the Lonely Goddess (1949). Eden Phillpotts used Greek myths to make philosophical points in such fantasies as Pan and the Twins (1922) and Circe's Island (1925). [17] Jack Williamson's The Reign of Wizardry ( Unknown Worlds , 1940) is an adventure story based on the legend of Theseus. [18] Several of Thomas Burnett Swann's novels draw on Greek and Roman myth, including Day of the Minotaur (1966). [19] The Firebrand (1986) by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Olympic Games (2004) by Leslie What are both classical fantasy tales with feminist undertones. [17] Guy Gavriel Kay who has made a career out of historical fantasy, set his two novels in The Sarantine Mosaic series in a parallel world heavily mirroring Justinian I's Byzantium.

Fantasy of manners

Fantasy of manners, aka "mannerpunk," is a subgenre that takes place within a strict, elaborate, and hierarchical social structure. Inspired by the social novels and the comedy of manners of such authors as Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde, fantasy of manners involves class struggles among genteel characters in urban environments, and while duels are permitted, witty repartee often substitutes for physical conflict. Examples of fantasy of manners include Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

Fantasy steampunk

Fantasy steampunk is another subgenre of historical fantasy, generally set in the Victorian or Edwardian eras. Steam technology, mixed with Victorian or Gothic-style architecture and technology, is the most widely recognized interpretation of this genre. One of the most popular characteristics of steampunk is the appearance of naked clockwork, rusty gears, and engines. Some works in this genre are alternate history.

Gaslamp fantasy

Gaslamp fantasy is a subgenre to both steampunk and historical fantasy that takes place in an alternative universe based on Victorian or Edwardian eras. However, magic plays a more important role than the era's mechanical technology.

Gunpowder fantasy

Similar to steampunk, gunpowder fantasy is considered a step below its more popular cousin. Gunpowder fantasy combines elements of epic fantasy (magic, mythical creatures, elves, epic scale) with rifles and railroads. It is a relatively new subgenre, but has been picking up popularity. It varies from steampunk in that it stays away from the fantastic inventions (airships, machines, etc.) that are common in steampunk. It is also sometimes called "muskets and magic". Gunpowder fantasy is generally set in a world with roughly equivalent technology to the world in the 17th through 19th centuries, particularly the latter eras. Typically, gunpowder fantasy also includes elements of real-world technology such as steam power, telegraphy and in some cases early telephones or combustion engines.

Gunpowder fantasy examples include Monster Blood Tattoo Series by D. M. Cornish (20062010), Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa (20012010), Terrarch Tetralogy by William King (2011), and The Powder Mage trilogy , Brian McClellan (20132015).

Medieval fantasy

The Master Sword from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, named Excalibur in its French version, a medieval fantasy video game. Master Sword.png
The Master Sword from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past , named Excalibur in its French version, a medieval fantasy video game.

Medieval fantasy encompasses works where aspects of medieval history such as legends from the Middle Ages, and aesthetics such as medievalisms, overlap with fantasy. [22] According to the Getty Museum, it is contrasted from folklore which is set in a "familiar world with stock characters and plots". [22] Subgenres of fantasy such as Gothic fiction, sword and sorcery, fairy tales, high fantasy, and low fantasy, can also overlap with medieval fantasy. [22]

The broad genre of medieval fantasy is common among role-playing games and high fantasy literature. Notable examples of medieval fantasy games the Getty Museum has listed include the Legend of Zelda series (1986-) and Dungeons & Dragons (1974). [21] [23] Examples of literature listed include the Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-1955) and A Song of Fire and Ice (1996-). [24] [25]

Prehistoric fantasy

Stories set in prehistoric times and depicting the lives of prehistoric people. Prehistoric fantasy examples include the Earth's Children series by Jean M. Auel (1980-2011) and the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver.


Wǔxiá, literally meaning "martial (arts) heroes", is a subgenre of the quasi-fantasy and martial arts genre in literature, television and cinema. Wǔxiá figures prominently in the popular culture of Chinese-speaking areas, and the most important writers have devoted followings.

The wǔxiá genre is a blend of the philosophy of xiá (俠, "honor code", "an ethical person", "a hero"), and China's long history in wǔshù ("kung fu" or "martial arts"). A martial artist who follows the code of xiá is called a swordsman, or xiákè (俠客/侠客, literally "chivalrous guest"). Japan's samurai bushidō traditions, England's knight chivalry traditions, and America's gunslinger Western traditions all share some aspects with China's swordsman xiá traditions. The swordsman, however, need not serve a lord or hold any military power and they are not required to be from an aristocratic class.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fantasy film</span> Film genre

Fantasy films are films that belong to the fantasy genre with fantastic themes, usually magic, supernatural events, mythology, folklore, or exotic fantasy worlds. The genre is considered a form of speculative fiction alongside science fiction films and horror films, although the genres do overlap. Fantasy films often have an element of magic, myth, wonder, escapism, and the extraordinary. Prevalent elements include fairies, angels, mermaids, witches, monsters, wizards, unicorns, dragons, talking animals, ogres, elves, trolls, white magic, gnomes, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, demons, dwarves, giants, goblins, anthropomorphic or magical objects, familiars, curses and other enchantments, worlds involving magic, and the Middle Ages.

High fantasy, or epic fantasy, is a subgenre of fantasy defined by the epic nature of its setting or by the epic stature of its characters, themes, or plot. The term "high fantasy" was coined by Lloyd Alexander in a 1971 essay, "High Fantasy and Heroic Romance", which was originally given at the New England Round Table of Children's Librarians in October 1969.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sword and sorcery</span> Genre of fantasy fiction

Sword and sorcery (S&S) is a subgenre of fantasy characterized by sword-wielding heroes engaged in exciting and violent adventures. Elements of romance, magic, and the supernatural are also often present. Unlike works of high fantasy, the tales, though dramatic, focus on personal battles rather than world-endangering matters. Sword and sorcery commonly overlaps with heroic fantasy.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fantasy world</span> Imaginary world created for fictional media

A fantasy world is a world created for/from fictional media, such as literature, film or games. Typical fantasy worlds involve magic or magical abilities, nonexistent technology and, sometimes, either a historical or futuristic theme. Some worlds may be a parallel world connected to Earth via magical portals or items ; an imaginary universe hidden within ours ; a fictional Earth set in the remote past or future ; an alternative version of our History ; or an entirely independent world set in another part of the universe.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Campaign setting</span> Fictional environment setting for a role-playing game

A campaign setting is usually a fictional world which serves as a setting for a role-playing game or wargame campaign. A campaign is a series of individual adventures, and a campaign setting is the world in which such adventures and campaigns take place. Usually a campaign setting is designed for a specific game or a specific genre of game. There are numerous campaign settings available both in print and online. In addition to published campaign settings available for purchase, many game masters create their own settings, often referred to as "homebrew" settings or worlds.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Arabic epic literature</span>

Arabic epic literature encompasses epic poetry and epic fantasy in Arabic literature. Virtually all societies have developed folk tales encompassing tales of heroes. Although many of these are legends, many are based on real events and historical figures.

Heroic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy in which events occur in a world where magic is prevalent and modern technology is nonexistent. The setting may be entirely fictitious in nature or based upon Earth with some additions. Unlike dark fiction, it provides a setting in which "all men are strong, all women beautiful, all life adventurous, and all problems simple". This means that adventures based in heroic fantasy are unlikely to mention any wider problems that cannot be fixed by a quest. Characters within heroic fantasy are likely to be underdogs of humble origin who are placed in situations forcing them to act in a heroic manner, past what is expected of them.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fantasy literature</span> Literature set in an imaginary universe

Fantasy literature is literature set in an imaginary universe, often but not always without any locations, events, or people from the real world. Magic, the supernatural and magical creatures are common in many of these imaginary worlds. Fantasy literature may be directed at both children and adults.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fantasy tropes</span> Type of literary tropes that occur in fantasy fiction

Fantasy tropes are a specific type of literary tropes that occur in fantasy fiction. Worldbuilding, plot, and characterization have many common conventions, many of them having ultimately originated in myth and folklore. J. R. R. Tolkien's legendarium for example, was inspired from a variety of different sources including Germanic, Finnish, Greek, Celtic and Slavic myths. Literary fantasy works operate using these tropes, while others use them in a revisionist manner, making the tropes over for various reasons such as for comic effect, and to create something fresh.

Low fantasy, or intrusion fantasy, is a subgenre of fantasy fiction in which magical events intrude on an otherwise-normal world. The term thus contrasts with high fantasy stories, which take place in fictional worlds that have their own sets of rules and physical laws.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of fantasy</span>

Elements of the supernatural and the fantastic were an element of literature from its beginning. The modern genre is distinguished from tales and folklore which contain fantastic elements, first by the acknowledged fictitious nature of the work, and second by the naming of an author. Works in which the marvels were not necessarily believed, or only half-believed, such as the European romances of chivalry and the tales of the Arabian Nights, slowly evolved into works with such traits. Authors like George MacDonald created the first explicitly fantastic works.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Japanese science fiction</span> Genre of speculative fiction

Science fiction is an important genre of modern Japanese literature that has strongly influenced aspects of contemporary Japanese pop culture, including anime, manga, video games, tokusatsu, and cinema.

Hard fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy literature that strives to present stories set in a rational and knowable world. Hard fantasy is similar to hard science fiction, from which it draws its name, in that they all aim to build their respective worlds in a rigorous and logical manner.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Early history of fantasy</span>

Elements of the supernatural and the fantastic were an element of literature from its beginning, though the idea of a distinct genre, in the modern sense, is less than two centuries old.

Epic is a genre of narrative defined by heroic or legendary adventures presented in a long format. Originating in the form of epic poetry, the genre also now applies to epic theatre, epic films, music, novels, stage play, television series, and video games. Scholars argue that 'the epic' has long since become "disembedded" from its origins in oral poetry.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fantasy</span> Artistic genre

Fantasy is a genre of speculative fiction involving magical elements, typically set in a fictional universe and sometimes inspired by mythology and folklore. Its roots are in oral traditions, which then became fantasy literature and drama. From the twentieth century, it has expanded further into various media, including film, television, graphic novels, manga, animations and video games.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fantasy cartography</span> Study and creation of maps of imagined places

Fantasy cartography,fictional map-making, or geofiction is a type of map design that visually presents an imaginary world or concept, or represents a real-world geography in a fantastic style. Fantasy cartography usually manifests from worldbuilding and often corresponds to narratives within the fantasy and science fiction genres. Stefan Ekman says that, "a [regular] map re-presents what is already there; a fictional map is often primary - to create the map means, largely, to create the world of the map."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gaslamp fantasy</span> Fantasy fiction set in Victorian era

Gaslamp fantasy is a subgenre of both fantasy and historical fiction. Generally speaking, this particular realm of fantasy employs either a Victorian or Edwardian setting. The gaslamp fantasy genre is not to be confused with steampunk, which is often set in the same historical era but usually has more of a super-science edge and uchronic tone. Nor is it the same as fantasy of manners, which is typically low-tech, often comedic, and involves social conflicts. Gaslamp fantasy also differs from classical Victorian/Edwardian faerie or pure fantasy in the J. R. R. Tolkien or Lewis Carroll style or from historical crime-novels in the Anne Perry or June Thomson style by the supernatural elements, themes, and subjects it features. Many of its tropes, themes, and stock characters derive from Gothic literature—a long-established genre composed of both romantic and horrific traits and motivated by the desire to rouse fear, apprehension, and other intense emotions within the reader—and could be described as an attempt to modernize literary Gothicism.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Outline of fantasy</span> Overview of and topical guide to fantasy

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to fantasy:


  1. Shanoes, Veronica (26 January 2012). "20: Historical Fantasy". In Edward James; Farah Mendlesohn (eds.). The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature. Cambridge University Press. p. 236. ISBN   978-0-521-42959-7 . Retrieved 9 May 2013.
  2. Sinclair Frances, "Historical Fantasy", Riveting Reads plus Fantasy Fiction (UK: School Library Association), 69.
  3. "What is historical fantasy?". Tor.com. 2009-07-31. Retrieved 2017-07-12.
  4. John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy , "Thinning", p 942 ISBN   0-312-19869-8
  5. "What is Historical Fantasy? – Steven Till – Author of medieval fiction". 5 February 2008. Retrieved 2017-07-12.
  6. 1 2 Sinclair Frances, "Historical Fantasy", Riveting Reads plus Fantasy Fiction, (UK: School Library Association), 69.
  7. Frances Mannsåker, "Elegancy and Wildness:Reflections of the East in the Eighteenth Century Imagination", in George Sebastian Rousseau and Roy Porter, Exoticism in the Enlightenment, Manchester University Press , 1990 ISBN   0-7190-2677-6 (pp. 175-196).
  8. Kenneth Wayne Graham, Vathek and the escape from time: bicentenary revaluations. AMS Press, 1990 (p. 39).
  9. 1 2 David Langford, "Deserts",in Westfahl, Gary, ed. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005. ISBN   0-313-32951-6, (pp. 187-189).
  10. John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Hazel, Paul" p 458, ISBN   0-312-19869-8. Clute comments that the Finnbranch books "operate at a level of originality rare in fantasy".
  11. 1 2 3 John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Celtic fantasy", p 275 ISBN   0-312-19869-8
  12. Michael Moorcock, Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy p 101 ISBN   1-932265-07-4
  13. 1 2 Brian Stableford, The A to Z of Fantasy Literature,"Celtic Fantasy", p 65-7. ISBN   0-8108-6829-6
  14. Donna R. White, A Century of Welsh Myth in Children's Literature, p 5 ISBN   0-313-30570-6
  15. E. F. Bleiler, "A.Merrit", in Bleiler, ed. Supernatural Fiction Writers. New York: Scribner's, 1985, pp.835-844. ISBN   0-684-17808-7
  16. Paul Harold Kocher, Master of Middle-earth:the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien Del Rey, 2001, ISBN   0345465601 (p. 18, 167-176).
  17. 1 2 3 Stableford, The A to Z of Fantasy Literature ,"Classical Fantasy", pp. 79-80.
  18. Fred Smith, Once There Was a Magazine: A Personal View of "Unknown" and "Unknown Worlds". Beccon Publications, pp. 17-20. ISBN   1-870824-45-8
  19. John Clute, "Thomas Burnett Swann" in: E.F. Bleiler,.ed. Supernatural Fiction Writers. New York: Scribner's, 1985. pp.1097-1104.
  20. Nintendo Entertainment Analysis & Development (September 24, 1992). The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Super Nintendo Entertainment System). Nintendo. Excalibur retrouvera, préservant la pureté de la lignée des Chevaliers.
  21. 1 2 Grollemond, Larisa; Keene, Bryan (19 July 2022). The Fantasy of the Middle Ages: An Epic Journey through Imaginary Medieval Worlds. J. Paul Getty Museum. p. 106. ISBN   9781606067581.
  22. 1 2 3 Grollemond, Larisa; Keene, Bryan (19 July 2022). The Fantasy of the Middle Ages: An Epic Journey through Imaginary Medieval Worlds. J. Paul Getty Museum. p. 21. ISBN   9781606067581.
  23. Grollemond, Larisa; Keene, Bryan (19 July 2022). The Fantasy of the Middle Ages: An Epic Journey through Imaginary Medieval Worlds. J. Paul Getty Museum. p. 79. ISBN   9781606067581.
  24. Grollemond, Larisa; Keene, Bryan (19 July 2022). The Fantasy of the Middle Ages: An Epic Journey through Imaginary Medieval Worlds. J. Paul Getty Museum. p. 73. ISBN   9781606067581.
  25. Grollemond, Larisa; Keene, Bryan (19 July 2022). The Fantasy of the Middle Ages: An Epic Journey through Imaginary Medieval Worlds. J. Paul Getty Museum. p. 32. ISBN   9781606067581.