A Journey Beyond the Veil of Reality

Definition of Fantasy Novel: A Journey Beyond the Veil of Reality

Guest blogger Dr. Lee Carroll (AKA EL Whitehorse)


Fantasy literature embarks on a journey through time, tracing its roots from ancient myths to modern narratives. This article defines fantasy, explores how each era has expanded the definition of fantasy novel, and introduces new 21st century subgenres that reflect evolving cultural trends and the unlimited scope of human imagination.

From the epic tales of antiquity to the nuanced worlds of contemporary fantasy, we will examine the milestones that mark the genre’s growth.

L. Ron Hubbard’s Definition of Fantasy vs. Sci-Fi

L. Ron Hubbard, in the introduction to Battlefield Earth, provides a pivotal distinction between fantasy and science fiction that serves as a cornerstone for understanding the essence of fantasy literature. He states:

“‘Fantasy,’ so far as literature is concerned, is defined in the dictionary as ‘literary or dramatic fiction characterized by highly fanciful or supernatural elements.’ Even that is a bit limited as a definition.

“So fantasy could be called any fiction that takes up elements such as spiritualism, mythology, magic, divination, the supernatural, and so on. The Arabian Nights was a gathering together of the tales of many, many countries and civilizations―not just of Arabia as many believe. Its actual title was A Thousand and One Nights of Entertainment. It abounds with examples of fantasy fiction.

“When you mix science fiction with fantasy you do not have a pure genre. The two are, to a professional, separate genres. I notice today there is a tendency to mingle them and then excuse the result by calling it ‘imaginative fiction.’ Actually they don’t mix well: science fiction, to be credible, has to be based on some degree of plausibility; fantasy gives you no limits at all. Writing science fiction demands care on the part of the author; writing fantasy is as easy as strolling in the park. (In fantasy, a guy has no sword in his hand; bang, there’s a magic sword in his hand.) This doesn’t say one is better than the other. They are simply very different genres from a professional viewpoint.”

This delineation underscores the liberating essence of fantasy―the freedom to explore beyond the constraints of our known reality, where the only limits are those of the imagination.

Fantasy 101: A Journey Through HistoryFantasy 101: A Journey Through History

The origins and evolution of fantasy novels can be traced through a timeline of seminal works, each contributing uniquely to the genre:

  • Circa 2100 BC: The Epic of Gilgamesh. Often considered the earliest piece of literature, this epic poem introduces elements like the quest for immortality and the interaction with gods and mythical creatures, setting a precedent for fantasy centered around epic journeys and battles against cosmic forces.
  • 9th Century: One Thousand and One Nights. A collection of Middle Eastern folk tales, including stories of magic lamps and flying carpets, highlighting the fantastical and magical realism that would become central to fantasy literature. Its imagined worlds have inspired countless fantasy tales.
  • 5th–15th Century: Arthurian legends. These stories, revolving around King Arthur and his knights, blend historical events with mythology, magic, and chivalric romance, contributing to the fantasy genre’s fascination with heroic quests, enchanted objects, and battles between good and evil.
  • 1954: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. This series popularized the high fantasy genre and introduced detailed world-building, including constructed languages, intricate histories, and maps, setting a new standard for fantasy novels.
  • 1950–1956: The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. These books combined Christian allegory with fantasy, exploring themes of redemption, sacrifice, and the battle between light and dark, influencing the genre’s integration of moral and philosophical questions.
  • Beginning in 1996: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. Martin’s series brought political intrigue, moral ambiguity, and realism to fantasy, emphasizing complex characters and a willingness to subvert traditional fantasy tropes.
  • 19972007: The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. This young adult series combined magic, mythical creatures, and sorcery with the relatable struggles and challenges of adolescence.
  • Since 2005: Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere Universe. Sanderson’s interconnected series have pushed the boundaries of world-building and magic systems, introducing the concept of “hard magic” with clear rules influencing how fantasy stories conceptualize and utilize magic.
  • Since 2007: The Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy by Patrick Rothfuss. Known for its lyrical prose and deep character exploration, this series has contributed to the genre’s focus on storytelling itself with a narrative that is as much about the power of stories as it is about the adventures of its protagonist.
  • 2010: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor. Integrating African mythology into a post-apocalyptic setting, Okorafor expands fantasy literature’s geographical and cultural scope, highlighting the genre’s capacity for diversity and exploring contemporary issues through a fantasy setting.

The timeline of fantasy literature reveals several vital patterns that have shaped the genre’s evolution:

  • Expansion of Mythological and Cultural Influences: Starting with the ancient epics like The Epic of Gilgamesh and moving through One Thousand and One Nights to modern works influenced by diverse cultures (e.g., Nnedi Okorafor’s integration of African mythology), fantasy literature has consistently broadened its sources of inspiration. This expansion reflects a growing inclusivity and exploration of different mythologies, histories, and cultures, enriching the genre’s thematic and imaginative scope.
  • Complexity in World-Building and Themes: From the detailed landscapes of Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings to the intricate political and social systems in A Song of Ice and Fire, there’s a clear trend toward more complex world-building and nuanced exploration of themes such as power, morality, and identity. This complexity allows readers to immerse themselves in fully realized worlds that mirror their real worlds while exploring philosophical and ethical questions.
  • Evolution of Character Archetypes and Moral Ambiguity: Early fantasy often featured clear-cut heroes embarking on quests against unmistakable evils, as seen in Arthurian legends. Contemporary fiction, however, tends to favor characters with moral ambiguities and complex motivations, such as those in George R.R. Martin’s, J.K. Rowling’s, and Patrick Rothfuss’s works. This shift reflects a broader trend toward realism in the genre, acknowledging the complexity of human nature and the multifaceted nature of good and evil.

These patterns illustrate the genre’s dynamic nature and how fantasy literature continues to evolve. This evolution reflects changing societal values and interests and underscores the genre’s appeal.

The Expansion of Fantasy: New Subgenres and TrendsThe Expansion of Fantasy: New Subgenres and Trends

The fantasy genre has evolved significantly in the 21st century, creating new subgenres reflecting reader preferences and societal trends. Each subgenre brings something fresh and innovative to fantasy, often blending traditional elements with new themes and settings. Here are some notable examples:

  • Urban Fantasy: This subgenre combines magical elements with modern urban settings, offering stories where the fantastical exists alongside the mundane. A prime example is Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, which transforms London into a city with a dark, magical underbelly, introducing readers to a world where the familiar becomes eerily unfamiliar. What’s new about Neverwhere is its use of a contemporary city as the gateway to an ancient and magical world, seamlessly blending reality with fantasy.
  • Grimdark: Known for its moral ambiguity and darker tone, Grimdark presents a grittier, more realistic view of fantasy worlds. The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie exemplifies this subgenre, focusing on flawed characters in a world where the lines between good and evil are blurred. The novel’s innovation lies in its emphasis on character flaws and the absence of traditional heroes, challenging the conventional fantasy story.
  • Steampunk: Merging Victorian-era technology and aesthetics with fantastical elements, Steampunk offers an alternate history where steam power dominates. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville is a standout, featuring a city teeming with bizarre creatures and steam-driven inventions. Its uniqueness comes from the intricate world-building that combines industrial technology with magic, creating a visually rich and imaginative setting.
  • Paranormal Romance: This subgenre fuses elements of romance with the supernatural, often featuring love stories between humans and magical or mythical beings. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer has been pivotal in popularizing Paranormal Romance, focusing on the relationship between a teenage girl and a vampire. The novel introduced a new wave of fantasy romance, highlighting the emotional and forbidden love between species and redefining the boundaries of romantic fantasy.
  • Romantasy: A blend of romance and fantasy, Romantasy highlights explicitly the romantic plot within a fantasy setting. A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas is a crucial example where a human girl becomes entwined in the politics and romance of a magical realm. The freshness of this new subgenre lies in its integration of high fantasy world-building with the core elements of a romance novel. It offers readers an immersive escapade into both love and magic.
  • Science Fantasy: Combining science fiction and fantasy, this subgenre incorporates advanced technology and scientific concepts alongside traditional magical elements. The Broken Empire series by Mark Lawrence showcases a post-apocalyptic world where remnants of ancient technology coexist with magic, blurring the lines between science and sorcery. The novelty here is the fusion of post-apocalyptic science fiction with epic fantasy that challenges the boundaries of both genres.

These examples illustrate the dynamic nature of fantasy literature in the 21st century. Each of these new subgenres expands the fantasy genre and mirrors contemporary cultural and societal dynamics. They offer readers diverse and engaging experiences that resonate with their current lives.


Fantasy literature taps into our inherent urge to dream and explore beyond our everyday lives. It provides a gateway to worlds where the only limits are those we set on our imagination. In this vast universe of magic and adventure, fantasy invites us to envision not just the world as it is but as it could be, challenging the limits of our creativity and wonder.


Abercrombie, J. (2006). The Blade Itself. Gollancz.

Carey, J. (2001). Kushiel’s Dart. Tor Books.

Feist, R. E. (1982). Magician (The Riftwar Saga, Book 1). Doubleday.

Gaiman, N. (1996). Neverwhere. BBC Books.

Jordan, R. (1990). The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time, Book 1). Tor Books.

Lawrence, M. (2011). Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire, Book 1). Harper Voyager.

Martin, G. R. R. (1996). A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1). Bantam Books.

Maas, S. J. (2015). A Court of Thorns and Roses. Bloomsbury Children’s Books.

Meyer, S. (2005). Twilight. Little, Brown and Company.

Miéville, C. (2000). Perdido Street Station. Macmillan.

Okorafor, N. (2010). Who Fears Death. DAW Books.

Rothfuss, P. (2007). The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, Book 1). DAW Books.

Sanderson, B. (2010). The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive, Book 1). Tor Books.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1954). The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, Book 1). George Allen & Unwin.

EL WhitehorseDr. Lee Carroll (AKA EL Whitehorse)

Working abroad in 10 countries of Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, both as a doctor and teacher, has shown me life through a prism of viewpoints. That experience has enriched my writing to the point where I enjoy showcasing the admiration I feel for varied cultures.

For example, my WOTF Semi-finalist entry is published for Kindle as Death Clearinghouse: The Novelette, featuring Apache ingenuity.

When I’m not writing, I’m yanking swords out of stones around the world.

Amazon author page: https://www.amazon.com/stores/author/B07TRC1F4V/about

1 reply
  1. Nick Broadhurst
    Nick Broadhurst says:

    I would state that reading science fiction and science fantasy stimulates imagination. Imagination to the mind, is like exercise is to the body. If there are beyond socially agreed normal abilities for homo sapiens, and there are, they will become stronger the more you imagine them. Reading such a genre is one of those tools for such exercise.


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