Although difficult to define, fantasy fiction can be said to encompass books, films and TV shows set in alternative realities based on imagined fantastical elements, such as magic or supernatural phenomena. While many commonly associate sword & sorcery with the genre, it also includes contemporary (urban), superhero and humorous fantasy. A lot of fiction may contain elements of fantasy while also overlapping with the science fiction and horror genres. A general term used to describe all three genres is 'speculative fiction'.

Fantasy fiction can trace its roots back to ancient mythology, in particular Homer's Odyssey written in the 9th century BC. It chronicles the fictional adventures of a hero returning to Ithaca after the capture of Troy. Beowulf (ca 700AD), the earliest surviving epic poem written in English, is another early work containing fantasy elements - such as witches, monsters and dragons. Perhaps more recognisable to modern audiences, the legend of King Arthur has been told and re-told many times over. Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur (ca 1470; printed 1485) is recognised as the earliest definitive account of the legend.

William Shakespeare's comedy
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595-96) depicted a wild and fantastical world of fairies, while Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726) is a biting social satire told in four distinct parts - each set in their own fantasy world. Also of note is the literature of German origin, probably beginning around 1785, focusing on the caricature of Baron Münchausen - an aristocratic scoundrel known for telling tongue-in-cheek lies and incredible stories. Many children's fairy tales, particularly those published from 1812-15 by the Brothers Grimm, have also contributed to the development of the fantasy genre. The Brothers Grimm travelled from village to village for thirteen years collecting fairy tales such as 'Cinderella', 'Snow White' and 'Rumpelstiltskin' - and prided themselves on making accurate transcriptions of the stories they were told.

Although many stories containing large doses of fantasy were published in the interim, the next that was to have a major impact was Lewis Carroll's
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The young heroine finds herself in a bizarre world of pure imagination, full of surreal characters and nonsensical events. The genre well and truly came of age with the publication William Morris' The Wood Beyond the World (1894). A simple romance set in a medieval never-never land, the hero flees his loveless wife and eventually ends up battling a dwarf to free the maiden he loves. Also of note from this period, although far less typical of the genre, is the seminal gothic horror Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker.

Whilst a handful of fantasy greats were published in the early-20th century, fantasy truly came of age in 1937 with the publication of
The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien, followed by the landmark Lord of the Rings in 1954. Along with C S Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea series, Tolkien's books helped forge a distinctive identity for the fantasy genre. Fantasy short fiction, often regarded as an adjunct in sci-fi magazines, also got a boost with the first issue of the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1949.

By 1977 with the publication of Terry Brooks'
Sword of Shannara, fantasy novels were finally making an impact on bestseller lists. Throughout the late-80s and early-90s sword & sorcery books by David Eddings, Robert Jordan and George R R Martin continued to sell well. In more recent times authors like Guy Gavriel Kay, the boundary-shattering China Miéville and humorists Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman are helping to ensure that fantasy literature will have plenty of life left in it for years to come.

Film & Television
Fantasy filmmaking got its start - albeit a very short one - in 1897 with the release of Georges Melies
The Bewitched Inn. Although little more than a snippet, it is about a traveller who gets a fright when a candle moves, a chair collapses and his clothes come to life. By 1930 Spanish-born filmmaker Luis Buñuel had released the controversial surrealist fantasy L'Âge d'Or  amidst public outrage. The film has a vaguely identifiable plotline about a couple who have their attempts at consummation thwarted by society at every turn.

While horror films featuring strong fantasy elements were also making their mark in the 1930s (e.g.
King Kong), by the latter part of the decade the genre had become closely associated with family films produced by the Walt Disney Studios - most notably the animated Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs (1937). The adventure fantasy genre managed an auspicious debut with the spectacular The Thief of Bagdad (1940). With its genie and flying carpets - the film showed the way for a host of exciting special effects extravaganzas that would follow. The master of special effects, Ray Harryhausen, stunned moviegoers in 1958 with his Dynamation stop-motion SFX featured in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

Following the remarkable success of the
Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game released in 1974, the 1980s saw a sword & sorcery boom that was also closely associated with the popular fantasy literature of the day. In 1981 movies like John Boorman's Excalibur and the campy Conan the Barbarian starring Arnold Schwarzenegger kicked off the craze, which peaked in the middle of the decade before reaching its artistic pinnacle with the release of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03) many years later. As with literature, modern fantasy films come in all shapes and sizes - from arthouse, to fantastic comedies, romantic fantasies and contemporary urban dramas.

Although there have been a few notable exceptions, fantasy television has been largely confined to low-budget early morning/after-school children's shows - many of them animated. Early sci-fi TV anthologies such as
The Twilight Zone (1959-64) and The Outer Limits (1963-65) frequently featured episodes containing large doses of fantasy, but the cost of producing such shows meant that fantasy concepts rarely made it to regular weekly primetime status. Most of them that did usually relied on a few simple gimmicks, like the trick photography used on Bewitched (1964-72) and I Dream of Jeannie (1965-70) - or the gothic settings and costumes on The Munsters (1964-66) and The Addams Family (1964-66). Superhero shows often owed more to sci-fi than fantasy, although with its bizarre villains and surrealistic sets Batman (1966-68) is an outstanding exception. The offbeat British fantasies The Prisoner (1967-68) and Randall & Hopkirk [Deceased] (1969-70) are also worth mentioning here.

Successful pure fantasy primetime shows include
Hercules - The Legendary Journeys (1994-99) starring Kevin Sorbo and spin-off Xena - Warrior Princess (1995-2001) starring Lucy Lawless. Also of note are Joss Whedon's hit supernatural fantasies Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Angel (1999-2004).

Although it has changed with the times, fantasy continues to thrive as a distinctive genre encompassing the arts and popular culture.

Brief History of Fantasy
A quick overview of fantasy fiction throughout the ages
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