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).


Biology of Shapeshifting

The question of biology and shapeshifting is, as one might expect, largely a modern concern.  More specifically, it tends to be a greater concern for urban fantasy and paranormal romances than for more “traditional” fantasy as the former two genres bring in more modern scientific views and foundations.  Some, of course, dodge the question entirely, such as Jack Williamson, in Darker Than You Think (1948), who used lycanthropy as psychic projection—though it is unclear whether the body remains behind, is transformed, or something else, especially as the story progresses.

That said, the earliest exploration of the biology of shapeshifting that I’m aware of was produced by G. Havers in 1664.  Havers published an English translation of A General Collection of Discourses of the Virtuosi of France, Upon Questions of all Sorts of Philosophy, and Other Natural Knowledge, Made in the Assembly of the Beaux Esprits at Paris, by the Most Ingenious Persons of that Nation (hell of a title).  The “virtuosi of France”, according to Havers, argued, “[f]or otherwise, how should the Sorcerer reduce his Body into so small a volumn as the form of a Rat, Mouse, Toad, and other such Animal into which it sometimes is turn’d” (204).  In other words, in the mid-17th century, they were arguing from a position that employed the law of conservation of mass (before said law had been codified).

Among others, Philip Jose Farmer built on this question in his short story “Wolf, Iron, and Moth” (The Ultimate Werewolf, ed. Byron Priess, 1991).  He writes, “Only the moon saw his hair and skin melt until he looked like a mass of jelly that had been formed into the figure of a man [. . .] The furious metabolic fires in that jelly had already devoured some of the fat that Varglik had accumulated so swiftly” (59).  Nina Kiriki Hoffman does something similar in her story “Unleashed” (The Ultimate Werewolf, ed. Byron Priess, 1991), “Change gripped her breasts, flattening them against her chest, her body shifting to absorb and redistribute tissue” (76).  Obviously, both authors are concerned with the mass and tissue changes involved in changing from a human to wolf shape, and vice versa.

Farmer’s story also touches on the scientific question of energy requirements and use to change.  He writes, “The furious metabolic fires in that jelly had already devoured some of the fat” (59).  Charlaine Harris also plays with this briefly in her Southern Vampire series.  Other approaches have included a strong urge to eat after changing shape, particularly repeatedly in a short span of time, as food and fat reserves are burned to fuel the transformation.

Some authors go a few steps further in linking biology and shapeshifting.  For example, Ilona Andrews states that, at least for Lyc-V (Lycos virus) shifters, there are only mammalian shifters (Magic Bleeds).  The implication is that because humans are mammals, they can only transform into mammals.  Some exceptions are included later, but appear to be either a) non-human species (lamassu) or b) incredibly ancient or mis-identified (an apparent were-croc, which might not actually be a were/lyc-V case).  Others have used this as well, including the webcomic Peter is the Wolf (it’s title a play on Peeter Stubbe, the infamous German werewolf, and “Peter and the Wolf”).

The last element that comes to mind for shapeshifting and biology is the actual reshaping of the body.  Many authors choose to gloss over the change (ex. Pratchett) or gloss over it for some shifters (ex. Rowling for animagi).  But, a few use the change for dramatic or horror effect.  Charlaine Harris, for instance, writes, “It was a sort of gloppy sound.  Sticky.  Like stirring a stiff spoon through some thick liquid that had hard things in it, maybe peanuts or toffee bits.  Or bone chips” (Dead to the World, Ace, 2011, p. 158).  The painful bone reorientation is the key element here.  Likewise, J.K. Rowling describes, in broad strokes, a similarly painful change as Remus Lupin is chained to Ron Weasley and Peter Pettigrew, emerging from under the Whomping Willow.  The change is described as being highly painful previously as well, when Lupin describes his childhood transformations.  These painful shifts are in contrast to the instant, silent, and painless transformations undertaken by the animagi.  I suspect the difference is that in Rowling’s world lycanthropy is essentially a disease (although she switches back and forth between talking about it as an illness or a species), while animagi use a transfiguration spell.

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).

Magic Items Revisited, Part 2


A related topic to availability is how long the magic in magic items persists. Generally speaking, the less an item can be used, the easier it is to create tends to make sense. If Great Weapons or Rings were common, everyone would have one and Dragaera and Middle-Earth would be very different places. On the other hand, easy availability of limited use Skele-Gro isn’t so bad. On the whole, there are three broad categories of magic item durability:


These are single use items, such as potions, that expend all their magic in one use. Often such items are consumed when used, or disposed of in some other way (ex. the single use Portkeys used for the Quidditch World Cup in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Cheap, single use, disposable items makes for a strong market for creators and sellers, if they are common. If usage is widespread, then people will be looking for replacements frequently.

Limited Use

These items retain their magic for months or years but eventually the magic wears off. This is the magical equivalent of the home appliance or car and shares a similar place in a magical economy. They are items that might be moderately expensive initially, but can be used for a significant amount of time. Most of the items in Rowling’s world and Pratchett’s Discworld fall into this category.


These devices never lose their magic regardless of how old they are or how often they are used. Obviously, this would not be a good level to build an economy around, as they’d be bad for business. Once they’re sold, there’s no more income to be made off them. But, this level is excellent for rare and exceptionally powerful items such as Excalibur, Glamdring, Spellbreaker, and the One Ring.

In short, how long magic items will continue to work has a profound effect on society and its relation to such devices both economically and socially.


How magical devices are made, and how quickly they can be produced, also has a notable effect on the world. Unique items that take considerable time to make won’t be widespread. Mass produced items can be produced quickly and will be found everywhere, usually.


Rick Riordan’s Camp Half-Blood is home to many, mostly unique, items created by the Hephaestus kids or the gods (and their cyclops minions).

J.K. Rowling’s Magical England has items that are presumably both easy to make and mass produced (those sold in Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes) alongside handcrafted, labor intensive items (wands & brooms) and unique, powerful object (horcruxes & the Potter family invisibility cloak).

Pratchett’s Discworld also includes both mass produced objects (iconographs, disorganizers) and unique items of great power (Hex).

Unique items that are slow to make become the goals of quests and carry great value. This is true even if their powers are weak—ex. the Staff of Magius in Dragonlance’s Krynn is a rather weak item, but its history and reputation make it desirable. On the other end, mass produced items become common household items that everyone in the setting is likely to have access to—ex. Floo Powder in Rowling.

There is a lot of room in between the ends of the spectrum. If the creator desires a world with widespread items and an item making industry, then mass produced and fast are effectively necessities. A full scale industry cannot be built and produce widespread devices if it takes a month to create one saleable item—they can create a specialty industry catering to select clients, though.

The choice really depends on the desired level of magic use in the setting. The above categories can be used as a way to limit the effects of magic on societies—either the magic system is limited in, or unable to, creation of items or national laws restrict creation (ex. mages need licensing to make items and/or must only do so in certain places to avoid blowing up the neighbors).

Myths & Legends in Worldbuilding

Genre fiction, particularly the fantastic and speculative genres, is a fertile ground for myths and legends. In fact, the genres seem to be intrinsically tied to myth and legend. Tolkien, for one, built his primary work of fiction around the myths and legends of the Valar, once he developed the languages. So, what should we consider with these topics?

There is a huge variety of myths and legends out there, but first it may prove helpful to define the two terms:

Mythology—Fictitious tales that explain something (an event, phenomenon, cultural practice), involve divine agency, and are part of religious belief. Ex. Ovid’s tale of Lycaon explains why human sacrifice is not practiced (it angers the gods).

Legend—Fictitious tales that explain cultural practices, cultural history, or origins but are apart from religious beliefs and practices. Ex. the Arthurian legends explain a cultural Golden Age but are not religious in nature.

Myths tend to cover creation of the world, explanations of natural phenomena, cultural traditions, and origins of natural elements or places. Ovid’s Metamorphoses covers a wide range of origin stories and cultural traditions including the origin of the seasons (Persephone) and hospitality traditions (Baucis and Philemon).

Legends tend to focus more on culture heroes, a previous Golden Age, family history, and cultural foundations. The Arthurian legends are a good example of culture heroes. Shakespeare’s Richard III can, arguably, be seen as a legend about the founding of the Tudor dynasty (family history). The Brut Manuscript presents a foundation story of England that connects it to Troy via a manufactured Trojan named Brutus.

Inclusion of myth and legend in secondary worlds can add a layer of reality to a fantasy setting. However, they often seem to be limited in their usage. We commonly see creation myths, whether Tolkien’s Valar or Martin’s legends of Bran the Builder, but other types of myth seem to be less commonly included. Legends about places crop up regularly as do some regarding culture heroes. Only rarely does the tradition of phenomena myths—source of lightning, cause of earthquakes—seem to appear.

In urban fantasy, the use of real myths and legends has been used to connect the paranormal to the real or to inspire the paranormal elements of the world. This takes some research and a significant amount of reading and familiarity, but there are a lot of resources available out there. Including real myths and legends can spawn plots, places, objects, species, and even inspire entire paranormal societies (ex. Rick Riordan). Rowling’s use of Nicholas Flamel, Merlin, and Archimedes as wizards (Chocolate Frog Cards) is a play on this idea. Jaye Wells builds her entire paranormal society around tales of Cain and Lilith. Ilona Andrews mines Mesopotamian lore and Eastern European legends and folk tales on a regular basis.

Even in science fiction’s innumerable sub-genres, the use of myth and legend has its place. Often, they are employed in the same way as the fantasy genre does, for non-Earth based sci-fi or as urban fantasy does, for Earth-based. Legends often come into play in the form of the legendary inventors of technology or products or stories like rumors of rogue AIs on the net. The 2004 Battlestar Galactica (BSG) reboot constructed its entire plot arc on mythology, for example. The Jedi of Star Wars were surrounded by legends, living (Yoda) and otherwise, and myth. Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda often mentioned legends of Tarn Vedra and its disappearance, evoking Atlantis in some ways. Firefly includes many references to “Earth That Was” in almost reverential tones. R.A. Heinlein’s Job: A Comedy of Justice is built around Christian mythology. Mike Resnick’s Santiago makes exceptional use of legend as well.

In short, myth and legend are very useful for all sorts of genre fiction as inspiration or flavor for the setting.

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My Brother’s Friend’s Sister’s College Roommate: Family & Genealogy in Worldbuilding

Family and family lineage are a relatively common feature in fantasy and, to a somewhat lesser extent, urban fantasy. They also play some role in science fiction. Some of the major examples include George R.R. Martin, Tolkien, Rowling, George Lucas, and Frank Herbert. Why are these elements widespread? What purpose do they serve? And how do they fulfill their purposes?

In the fantasy tradition, the use of family lines seems to originate in legend, medieval romances, and myths. The tropes of the hidden prince and divine lineage of heroes are easily recognizable throughout the genre. Thus, family line can provide a link to royalty, governance, and status for a character. Following that path, it provides a link to both potential plotlines and resources through family allies and family enemies. Family lines can also yield abilities, talents, and other inheritances. These inheritance can include the ability to use magic, or to use certain kinds of magic. For example, Garth Nix’s Sabriel can use positive necromancy due to her father’s line and the royal line of the country has its own magic. Likewise, Michael Moorcock’s Elric has a special connection to myriad elementals and the quasi-divine Lords of Chaos through contracts made with his ancestors.

Urban fantasy, arguably, continues this tradition. The prevalence of mixed species characters could be seen as an extension of the ancient Greek demigods and the divine kings of Mesopotamia. As with the fantasy genre, family lineage can provide access to powers (Riordan’s demigods and Egyptian mages; Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels). The family genetic inheritance can also be linked to the ability to use magic (Rowling’s wizards and Riordan’s magicians). These associations can also connect a character to politics (Jaye Wells’s Sabina Kane, granddaughter of the leader of Earth’s vampires). Mythological elements can be harnessed by the story and characters through lineage (Riordan’s demigods), as can legends and magic items (Rowling’s invisibility cloak handed down to Harry from his father).

Science fiction often maintains the tradition in space opera or science fantasy, but also has its own unique uses. Family lines are important to sci-fi politics, alliances, and the history of nations. The hidden prince and Chosen One archetype continue in segments of the sci-fi genre, looking at the Jedi (whether Anakin’s “virgin birth” or Luke’s family line, depending on which one sees as the Chosen One) or Dune with its warring houses and genetic mingling. But, sci-fi adds other uses such as family or generation ships for both trade and colonization. C.J. Cherryh presents a perfect example of the family ship with the traders in much of her Earth-based space opera, particularly Merchanter’s Luck.

How can family lines and genealogy be applied in worldbuilding and narrative? There are a variety of methods, some more subtle than others. Harry Potter and the Skywalkers have their family lines incorporated with references to their respective parents throughout, though not appearing too strongly—aside from continued references to Harry’s eyes. George Martin tells his readers the complete lineages and blood relations between all of his characters, their houses, their sub-houses, and the castles they hold. Tolkien does something similar in the Silmarillion and the hobbits’ interest in genealogy and is more subtle in Lord of the Rings. There, he uses genealogy to connect Aragorn to the Ring, Elrond to Aragorn via Arwen and their half-elven bloodline, and Gimli and Frodo serve as family links between The Hobbit and LotR via Gloin and Bilbo. Frank Herbert is more subtle than Martin, but shows an equally complex and important relation of noble houses and family alliances. Herbert adds, though, the importance of family lines in the Bene Gesserit’s manipulation of bloodlines to produce the Kwisatz Haderach and generally guide human evolution.

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A Multitude of Multiverses

History is full of theological ancestry for the multiverse trope in fantasy and science fiction. As we look around the world’s mythologies and legends, we find innumerable examples. Some of the most well-known include:

 Buddhism—The tradition of the Dhatus realms introduces multiple worlds.

European, General—The Celtic Tir na Nog; Arthurian Avalon; Faerie.

Greek/Roman—The mix of Asphodel, Elysium Erebus, Hades, Olympus, Tartarus, and Earth.

Hinduism—The Puranic literature includes potentially innumerable universes.

Mesopotamian—The mix of Abyss, Godhome, Irkalla, and Earth.

Norse—The nine worlds cosmology, perhaps one of the most direct and developed examples.

Why should a writer or worldbuild consider the multiverse concept?

There are a variety of reasons. As noted, it is an elements of various theologies, mythologies, and cosmologies in our own history and can add depth to a fictional belief system. Multiverses also open up access to myriad settings, for example Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series, and Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase (using Norse cosmology). The concept can also create possibilities for species origins, especially for non-humans on Earth. It can also be used to explain the plethora of tales about lost lands, such as Atlantis and Shangri-la; perhaps they exist but do so on other planes of existence rather than on Earth.

How do we use the multiverse?

The whys of using a multiverse really determine the hows. If the multiverse exists as Earth and a variety of afterlives, then it becomes a theological concept. As theology, the multiverse should appear in religious texts, myths, and related stories. Perhaps it could be the source of good and evil entities in the core world as well or the location of a quest to return a deceased spirit or acquire information.

The ease and methods of travel between the multiversal worlds is also important in terms of how we use the multiverse. Rick Riordan makes travel between the worlds relatively easy for supernatural beings, which allows him to include quests that span multiple worlds and cultures. In most of Neil Gaiman’s work, crossing the boundaries between Earth and other lands is as easy as crossing a low stone wall (Stardust) or falling through the cracks (Neverwhere). Jaye Wells (Sabina Kane) makes travel between the worlds—Earth, Liminal, and Irkalla—rare and difficult, unless the individual is a demon, is dead, or is a Chthonic mage.

 In every case, the multiverse is employed to add depth and variety to the world in question.

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