Definition of Fantasy

Fantasy is a genre in literature that includes magical and/or supernatural elements as part of the plot, setting, or theme. Mythology and folklore often play a strong part in fantasy literature. There must be an internal consistency to the magical elements in a work of fantasy and a logic that, if not completely explicable, is understood to be reality by the characters. However, fantasy works can often combine the real world with a second fantastical reality, such as in the Harry Potter series where the protagonist grows up in contemporary England and is only introduced to the world of magic at the age of 10.

The word fantasy comes from the Greek word phantazein, which means “to make visible.”

Difference Between Fantasy and Science Fiction

Fantasy and science fiction are subsets of a genre of literature called speculative fiction. Speculative fiction refers to any work of literature that includes imagined elements that could not occur in real life. The author of one of these works of literature must create a world separate from the real world with its own consistent rules and logic. There can certainly be overlap between different subsets of speculative fiction (which also contains horror, alternate history, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic, superhero, utopia, and dystopia as subsets). Indeed, there can be examples of science fantasy, which combine aspects of both science fiction and fantasy. The main difference, however, is that fantasy creates a world that never could have existed, while science fiction looks forward to a future that has not yet come to pass.

Common Examples of Fantasy

Some people like the landscape portrayed in examples of fantasy novels so much that they try to recreate these in reality, such as in Renaissance Fairs and modern-day “Medieval Banquets.” There are many famous movies that are examples of the fantasy genre, such as the following:

  • The Princess Bride
  • Labyrinth
  • Pan’s Labyrinth
  • How to Train Your Dragon
  • Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Snow White and the Huntsmen
  • Beauty and the Beast

Significance of Fantasy in Literature

The definition of fantasy in contemporary literature often means a work that portrays characters in a medievalist setting, which is to say that there are elements often associated with medieval legends such as kings, queens, princesses, dragons, knights, unicorns, and so on. Though there are works from before the mid-1800s that are sometimes classified as fantasy (William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sometimes held forth as an example of fantasy), the Scottish author George McDonald is generally considered to be the first modern author of fantasy literature for adults. He published The Princess and the Goblin and Phantastes in 1872 and 1858, respectively. Since then, there have been numerous works of literature that have adopted the some of the many medievalist elements that qualify a narrative as fantasy.

As contemporary fantasy author George R.R. Martin wrote,

The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real … for a moment at least … that long magic moment before we wake.

Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

Examples of Fantasy in Literature

Example #1

Tink was not all bad: or, rather, she was all bad just now, but, on the other hand, sometimes she was all good. Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time. They are, however, allowed to change, only it must be a complete change.

(Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie)

In his novel Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie includes many fantasy elements, not least of which is the character of a fairy named Tinker Bell. Barrie creates many truisms about fairies in his book, such as the above idea that fairies are too small for more than one feeling. Barrie’s alternate world of Neverland exists concurrently with the modern world, yet has different magical rules that govern it.

Example #2

At that moment Gandalf lifted his staff, and crying aloud he smote the bridge before him. The staff broke asunder and fell from his hand. A blinding sheet of white flame sprang up. The bridge cracked. Right at the Balrog’s feet it broke, and the stone upon which it stood crashed into the gulf, while the rest remained, poised, quivering like a tongue of rock thrust out into emptiness.
With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools! ‘ he cried, and was gone.

(The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series is one of the most famous examples of fantasy of all time. There is a plethora of magical characters, including Wizards like Gandalf, as well as made up beasts such as the Balrog. The fantasy involves many common themes such as an adventure quest, a fight between good and evil, and mythical creatures including elves, dwarves, and hobbits.

Example #3

The tethered dragon let out a roar, and a gush of flame flew over the goblins; The wizards fled, doubled-up, back the way they had come, and inspiration, or madness, came to Harry. Pointing his wand at the thick cuffs chaining the beast to the floor, he yelled, Relashio!

(Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling)

There are numerous examples of the fantasy genre in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In just the short paragraph above we can see a few at work, including the presence of a dragon, as well as goblins and wizards and the use of magical spells. In fact, this scene takes place during an adventure quest in which Harry and his friends raid a special bank for wizards in search of a particular piece of enchanted treasure.

Example #4

“How can you still count yourself a knight, when you have forsaken every vow you ever swore?”

Jaime reached for the flagon to refill his cup. “So many vows…they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.”

(A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin)

George R.R. Martin’s current series of novels, A Song of Ice and Fire (more commonly known as Game of Thrones), includes many traditional fantasy elements. There are kings, queens, chivalric knights, and the presence of magic and mythical beasts like dragons and “White Walkers.” The Game of Thrones series is the most medievalist of all of the examples of fantasy given here.

Test Your Knowledge of Fantasy

1. Which of the following statements is the best fantasy definition?
A. A work of fiction that exists on a different planet.
B. A piece of literature that uses futuristic science and technology as themes.
C. A narrative that incorporates magical and supernatural elements.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following plot lines could be from a fantasy example?
A. A man travels back in time where he finds out he is a prince and must kill a dragon.
B. After an illness kills off most of society, a teenage girl must fend for herself.
C. Humans begin to populate Mars and encounter many unexpected problems.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following lines do you think comes from a fantasy novel?

He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe.


He wanted it because it was a ring of power, and if you slipped that ring on your finger, you were invisible; only in the full sunlight could you be seen, and then only by your shadow, and that would be shaky and faint.


“Just open the damn door, Christian.”
He opens the door and stands back to let me in. I gaze at him once more. I so want to know what’s in here. Taking a deep breath I walk in.
And it feels like I’ve time-traveled back to the sixteenth century and the Spanish Inquisition.

[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. It is from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. A is from Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road and C is from E.L. James’s book Fifty Shades of Grey, which can perhaps be called romance.[/spoiler]