Fantasy: Origin of the Genre and Tropes

In thinking about the fantasy genre and history, my mind circled around a few topics.  One that it kept coming back to was the origins of the genre and its tropes.  There are many scholars and others who have argued that the origins of the fantasy genre are the ancient Greek epics, perhaps even the Mesopotamian epics like Gilgamesh.  I tend to disagree on that point, in large part because the ancient epics, and the myths, were all religious in nature.  That is to say, they were considered to be part of the religious canon of their respective cultures.

I would argue that the modern fantasy genre begins with the medieval romances and epics/sagas.  These tales possess all the elements of modern fantasy, display most of the tropes, and concern many of the character types involved in the genre.

But, wait, you say . . . the romances and sagas involved God and gods.  Weren’t they religious?

Yes and no.

Although they often incorporated religious elements, whether the devotion to the Abrahamic God in the Arthurian tales or the presence of Norse deities in the northern sagas, they were not considered part of their respective cultures’ religious canon (or cultural origin stories, for that matter).

Both genres were inherently linked to history and shaping society.  The sagas and epics reinforced societal norms through tales of punishment for violations.  They also set and reflected social ideals.  Most focused on tribal warfare, whether mortal or divine.  For their part, the romances and lais focused on royal courts and proper behavior.  They were, arguably, written in an attempt to pacify the wild warriors of the early-12th century French court (and spread throughout Europe).  It is believed that the romances, and lais, may have originated in the court of Marie of France, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine.  At the very least, she was a major patron of romance writers.

I’ve chosen three examples to look at a bit more closely, and will address them in chronological order.



(10th century; trans. Seamus Heaney, Norton, 2002)

Throughout the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, we see many elements of modern fantasy.  We have the (semi-)wandering hero, who is also a prince.  We have a monster threatening civilization, in fact we have a pair of them.  In the first two thirds, the Grendel section, we have magic swords—“a sword in her armor, an ancient heirloom / from the days of the giants” (1558-9) that could slay Grendel’s mother.  In the less well known final third, we have dragons and barrows—“Then an old harrower of the dark / happened to find the hoard open, / the burning one who hunts out barrows, / the slick-skinned dragon” (2270-3).  Many of the elements found in Beowulf’s story continue to appear throughout Tolkien’s work and that of his contemporaries.


Yvain: The Knight of the Lion, Chretien de Troyes

(c. 1170; trans. Burton Raffel, Yale UP, 1987).

Chretien’s romance, written for Marie of France, is chock full of modern fantasy tropes, many of which also happen to be tropes of the medieval romance.  The questing knight, attempts to restore honor, fights with monstrous beasts, and sacrifice appear throughout the romance.  Chretien discusses giants, different from the Norse, as herdsmen and monsters.  He writes, “And I saw, / Sitting on a tree stump, a lowborn / Creature, black as a Moor, / Huge, and hideously ugly” (287-90).  Later, in order to complete his quest of honor, Yvain needs to infiltrate a castle.  He meets a woman who “gave him the little ring / And told him it had such power / That, just as bark hid the wood / Of a tree, and no one could see it, / So this ring would conceal anyone / Who wore it, as long as the stone / Sat in his palm” (1025-32).  In short, she loans him an invisibility ring, possibly the earliest appearance of one that I can recall.


The Story of the Volsungs

(13th century; trans. Douglas Killings & David Widger, Project Gutenberg, 2013)

The Volsunga Saga is one of the most well-known of the Norse sagas.  It appears throughout our culture and tales, from Richard Wagner through Rick Riordan.  But, the original features the dragon hoard as one of its primary elements, including the dragon.  “Now crept the worm down to his place of watering, and the earth shook all about him, and he snorted forth venom on all the way before him as he went” (Ch. 18).  It also includes both dwarves and elves, although the Volsunga Saga tends to conflate the two.  Some versions consider Andvari an elf, others a dwarf.  As Killings and Widger translate, “there was a dwarf called Andvari, who ever abode in that force, which was called Andvari’s force, in the likeness of a pike, and got meat for himself, for many fish there were in the force; now Otter, my brother, was ever wont to enter into the force, and bring fish aland, and lay them one by one on the bank” (Ch. 14).


Fantasy and Historical Realism

Oddly enough, the question of historical realism seems to crop up with a degree of regularity in the fantasy genre.  I’m not entirely certain why (as I’ll explain below), but suspect it has to do with the Eurocentric medieval roots of the genre.  That said, the entire genre has a sliding scale from utterly non-realistic to hyper-realistic that cover the classics (Tolkien, Moorcock, Leiber, Howard, Moore, Bradley) to more modern names (G.R.R. Martin, Rothfuss, Jemisin).  But, even the medieval roots—ex. Chrétien’s Yvain and Lancelot, Gawain & the Green Knight, Beroul’s Tristan, William of Palerne, Marie de France’s “Yonec” and “Bisclavret”—weren’t exactly realistic beyond a certain point.

More often than not, it seems that claims or cries of “historical accuracy” are used to justify rampant sexism or racism in a work.  This appears to be more of a fan thing than an author thing in most cases, though there are exceptions (as shown by some of the so-called Sad/Rabid Puppies).  But, most of these appeals to “historical accuracy” are based on outdated or outright false history.

All said, I’m not entirely certain that “historical accuracy” has a place in the fantasy genre as a whole, at least in most sub-genres.  It is certainly important in historical fantasy (although differences in history can be explained away as the influence of magic), some urban fantasy, and, of course, alternate histories.  But, in epic fantasy, sword & sorcery, and other secondary world fantasies . . . no, Earth’s history has no bearing on the secondary world.  “Historical accuracy” in the case of a secondary world fantasy should never refer to Earth’s history (even if the world is based, however loosely, on Earth), but rather to the secondary world’s history, much of which the reader does not know (exception: Middle-Earth, thanks to the posthumously published Silmarillion, but even that is not a complete history).

Although speaking of the RPG industry in general and D&D in particular, I think Forgotten Realms guru Ed Greenwood put this best for the entire fantasy genre: “But D&D has half-orc, and half-dragons, and half-elves, and has magic items that specifically change gender, right there in the rules.  Surely if you can handle the basic notion of cross-SPECIES sex, having a full variety of gender roles should be something that doesn’t blow your mind” (Facebook post, 5 April 2016).

Eurocentrism in Fantasy

Anyone who’s been following the fantasy genre and authorship has probably noticed that Eurocentrism has become a major issue in the industry over the last decade, especially. There have always been a few non-Caucasian authors and non-Eurocentric works out there in the fantasy and fantasy adjacent genres (ex. Octavia Butler’s Patternist series seems appropriate), but they’ve been token-ish in many respects. And, of course, the industry has been very Caucasian heavy and very male heavy for most of its existence.

Thinking about the issue and my own writing, I understand the reluctance of Caucasian authors to address non-European themes and settings. Both can be tricky to pull off, particularly in uncertain hands. A few have, I think, managed it, such as Max Gladstone and Robert Jackson Bennett, but far too many others have fumbled in the attempt. The balance between trying to write from an unfamiliar perspective, trying to understand another perspective, versus accidental stereotyping can be a problematic one. That said, I think the unfamiliar perspective is something that the fantasy genre does fairly well, after all none of us are sorcery wielding masters of magic schools or dragon riding elven knights, in certain contexts. Add that the line between appreciation of another culture and appropriation of that culture can be a thin one and the option to write fantasy from a different real world cultural, ethnic, or racial perspective can become daunting at best.

For instance, Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson) was once asked if he would ever do a Hindu themed series like he’s done Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Norse. He responded, initially, with, “A sarcastic white guy writing about that? What could possibly go wrong?”

In his follow up, Riordan took what I think is exactly the correct route to fix the issue of Eurocentrism in the genre. He used his fame and position with his publisher to encourage Disney-Hyperion to bring in more non-Caucasian authors and create more resources to help non-Caucasian writers through the publishing stage. The result is Rick Riordan Presents, created in early 2017, that will be publishing three non-Eurocentric works of mythology based urban fantasy and sci-fi later this year (Hindu, Mayan, and Korean).

“Production” Plan, of a Sort

Back to writing stuff this week.

I’ve gotten some feedback on a few stories, both the “Between” one posted here and a rather longer one.  So, I’ve started working on revising those.

But, looking ahead, I have two current large projects.

The Between-Earth

  • Story featuring Alestair Garnes (2/3-ish drafted)
  • Second story featuring Alestair Garnes, several years later
  • Story of the Daymar Institute of Magic, featuring a character from story 1, contemporary with story 2
  • Story of the Circle of Thoth, featured in story 1, contemporary with story 2
  • Story of Night City (in the Beyond), following story 2
  • Story of the Aspi Sea (in the Between), probably contemporary with story 2, but it doesn’t really matter
  • Story of the Labyrinth of Minos (in the Between), as story 6.
  • Story of Peakwatch Keep (in the Beyond), as story 6


The Codex Arcanum

This is my fictional work of non-fiction, a sort of field guide to an Earth-based urban fantasy setting, as written (or edited) by a pair of characters in-world.  I’ve gotten a lot done on it, but still have to draft:

  • History
  • Nine Important Places
  • Brief profiles/bios of a couple dozen important people (Who’s Who)
  • Appendix on Witches
  • Appendix on Witchcraft
  • Appendix on some safe havens for one sect
  • Possibly a References/Works Cited page of fictitious texts cited by the “authors” throughout the piece.

Between 2 (2017)

What is the Between?

It is migraine inducing, if you think about it too much.

But, I’m sure you’d like a more serious, less flippant, answer.

It appears to be a realm, a place of pure magic that exists as a buffer between Earth and the Shadow and Spirit Realms.  It consists of scores, hundreds of regions that both occupy the same space simultaneously and are next to each other.  The metaphysics and geography are maddening.  It’s best not to think about that part.

The Between is home to many societies and creatures.  It is host to the places of Earth’s legends: Irem of the Pillars, Shangri-La, the Goblin Market, the Mirror Roads, Sunken Atlantis.  It is home to humanity’s greatest fears and archetypes, like the Shadow Paths and Werwood.  It is, in some ways, both platonic and Jungian, the place of forms and archetypes made manifest.

—Hunter Bradley, explorer, Shan Tzu Institute, Hong Kong, The Institute


I’ve updated the previous story PDF and added this piece to it as well

Shadow Earth (VI) (2017)

Salmagundi: A heterogeneous mixture

—Merriam-Webster Dictionary


Welcome to Salmagundi, crossroads of the multiverse.  If you can’t find it here for sale, it doesn’t exist.  All worlds, all realms meet here.

—Garvindis the Great, self-proclaimed master of tourism, Salmagundi


Beyond these doors, two things will happen.  First, you will take an oath to defend Salmagundi and its laws with your life.  This oath is taken before all the gods, so do not take it lightly.  If you feel the slightest doubt about devoting your life to the Order, turn away now.

<pause to let people leave>

Second, you will approach Chaplain Thurian and draw a stone from her bag.  This stone will guide your training.  Each has one of four divine sigils.  Among civilians, they say magic has many branches.  We don’t have that luxury.  We only care about: communicators, healers, scryers, and warriors.  The gods will tell us your talents and place through the stones.

—Marec Hassan, Training Director, Bronze Guard, Salmagundi


Many centuries ago, visitors arrived from a distant land.  They were dismayed by the rule of the dragon lords.  Thus, they taught the secrets of sorcery to those outside the Magisterium, including knowledge the dragon lords forbid.  In time, the sorcerers trained by the strangers built three towers to which they anchored powerful spells that enclosed and shielded the land.  This became a haven for the people under the reign to a family chosen by the sorcerers, who knew they would be too busy to govern.  The new land attracted priests worshiping the gods of the First Men, hunted by the dragon lords.  the gods granted knowledge of the divine language to their priests, who sanctified the ruling family and supported the sorcerers’ efforts.

—from The Chronicle of Thyure, Dragonland

Shadow Earth (V) (2017)

Welcome to Paradise . . . Resort at the St. Kadesh Islands.  It is a magical place, unlike Tahiti.  Your every wish is our command, simply say the word.  Please follow the dock to the left and inform the attendants as to which island is your destination.

—Padma Hamdan, Paradise Resort


The St. Kadesh Islands are an anomaly.  They are not unique in this, but we have no information on them and attempts to scry the location continually fail.  Attempts to so much as locate the islands have been unsuccessful.  However, we are certain they exist, through significant anecdotal evidence.  Similar fruitless searches in the past, for other sites, have indicated the presence of powerful magical devices or beings.  Current recommendation is to take a hands off approach, but passively monitor any information that comes to our attention.

—Septimus Gottwald, intelligence report to the Demjan Chantry elders, NYC