Fantasy Literature is a genre of fiction heavily influenced by folklore, legend and myth. Set in ancient times or alternative universes, it is considered a form of writing centered on the impossibilities rather than the realities of human life. Although literary history is littered with fantastical storytelling and tales of gods and monsters, the genre as we know it today began to take shape in the 19th century with emerging elements figuring in the fantasy and science fiction work of writers such as Mary Shelley, Jules Verne and George MacDonald. Indeed fantasy and science fiction literature are often considered complementary genres.
The genre we recognize today with its tales of wizards, dragons and quests, is sometimes called high fantasy and was popularized in the first half of the 20th century with the success of J.R.R Tolkien's epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, published in 1954 and 1955 and following on from his 1937 adventure story The Hobbit. Works of fantasy are set in an alternative world or "secondary universe" often taking the form of a timeless, ancient land populated with tribes and communities of human and inhuman creatures, sometimes harmonious, sometimes living in conflict. So well-imagined was Tolkien's "Middle Earth" that some students of the genre consider it "extra literary" – despite its fantasy setting, it is so convincing as a story as to be utterly believable. Tolkien himself said: "The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them."
Once these highly detailed secondary worlds are established they can become a continual source of inspiration for the author, who may elaborate the characters or realms in a series of books – often trilogies. Although generally written for a younger audience a good fantasy novel can appeal to all ages. Tolkien has spawned many imitators. Some of the foremost authors and works in the fantasy literature cannon have successfully transcended the genre to enjoy major mainstream success. These include C.S Lewis's Narnia Chronicles; Terry Pratchett's Discworld series; George R.R. Martin's collection A Song of Ice and Fire; Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and J.K Rowling's Harry Potter series. Not only have each of these authors sold millions of books but they have seen their work adapted for film and television (A Song of Ice and Fire became HBO series Game of Thrones).
In the essay Folklore and Fantastic Literature C.W. Sullivan III writes: "High Fantasy in general will take place in a familiar western European, medieval landscape and will be acted out by people in familiar roles: knights, ladies, villains, wizards, elves, dragons, trolls, and the like." There is an epic adventure element to fantasy literature, and stories will often take the form of a heroic quest and an ultimate battle between good and evil. The Marchen structure is the name given to this familiar device, that of plucking a seemingly ordinary protagonist from their unremarkable everyday lives to embark on an extraordinary adventure – for example The Hobbit's Bilbo Baggins or Harry Potter, who lives a miserable existence before being called to Hogwarts to become a wizard. Indeed, magic is the unique element that sets fantasy apart from other genres. Spells, conjuring and tricks become an everyday occurrence for the characters – and a lifesaver. Supernatural foes and dark forces such as orcs, wizards and trolls, will be faced by warrior heroes. Some stories may combine elements of Christian allegory, Arthurian legend, or science fiction.
As well as entertaining readers around the world the fantasy genre is increasingly fertile ground for academic study. Entire degree courses can now be dedicated to the study of fantasy literature. In Fantastical Literature: A Critical Reader (2004) David Sandner argues its thriving popularity coincides with "an increasing disbelief in but continued fascination with the supernatural." Sandner is among many people who suggest readers are turning more to the otherworldly from the secular world. As a result, the successful fantasy novel must offer readers a convincing escape from reality. In his 1980 book The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature Brian Attebery says: "Fantasy is a game of sorts, and it demands that one play whole-heartedly, accepting for the moment all rules and turns of the game. The reward for this extra payment is an occasional sense of unexpected beauty and strangeness."