In my mind, fantasy literature is one of epochs: periods of time in which the genre experiences a surge in relevance and exposure for mainstream popular culture. These epochs have both defined and redefined the genre in so many ways, and it is something I think about a lot. So I thought I would share my thoughts with you, if you would be so kind as to indulge me for a moment or two.
THE MYTHIC AGE
This is that period of time far, far back in recorded history, when fantasy was not only relevant, but revered. Myths and legends of gods and heroes permeated the human subconscious, and it was there that the first seeds of the genre were planted: the Quest, the Hero's Journey, even the Dark Lord Archetype first emerged here. Whether or not myths have any basis in fact is irrelevant, because for a lot of fantasy authors, this was the foundation that an entire genre of literature was founded upon. Many of the moral questions of characters that are posed to our most well-known modern fantasy heroes were first asked in the Mythic Age of fantasy. Heracles, Odysseus, Achilles, Thor, Beowulf, these figures, these fantasy heroes, endure to this day because they were relatable and they allowed us, as humans, access to a world beyond our own through both written and oral tradition.
THE PREMODERN "JUVENILE" AGE
This was the era when fairy tales became popular and relevant, from the time of the Renaissance through the late 19th-early 20th centuries. The Brothers Grimm saw great influence, and Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory was really the impetus behind modern epic fantasy, especially in its romantic elements. But the genre was juvenile, and as a result much of fantasy during this time was geared towards children, but it retained the "morals of the stories" if you will of the Mythic Age fantasies.
THE EARLY MODERN (PULP) AGE
While fantasy stories never went out of style, there are periods when the genre itself is not the genre of choice for the mainstream. And here we have, from the late 1920s-30s, the emergence of "pulp" science fiction and fantasy. H.P. Lovecraft, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert E. Howard saw considerable popularity because of the pulp appeal of their works. Also, the original King Kong that debuted in 1933 saw an increase in adventure fantasy, and lo and behold in 1937 the seeds of the next era are planted with the publication of a children's fantasy book called The Hobbit. This was also the age of the magazine, where authors would fragment their stories into episodic installments, and readers would voraciously wait for the next after reading.
THE TOLKENIAN AGE
From 1939 through the early '40s, fantasy did not have a huge impact on popular culture. This was the age of science fiction, with the rise of Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, these were (and still are) the influential authors of the day. It was not until 1954, with the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring, that fantasy took center stage. And in 1955, in which Tolkien's epic tome THE LORD OF THE RINGS completed its publication with The Return of the King, fantasy was indelibly associated with the word epic. It wasn't just about the stories anymore, fantasy had become a genre of worlds, where the setting of the story was almost as important as the story itself. And the authors who succeeded Tolkien knew this: LeGuin, Williams, Pratchett, all the way down to George R. R. Martin's A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series, retain the key ingredient to modern Epic Fantasy: a world worthy of the word.
THE MODERN AGE
But after the 1980s, fantasy did see a decline. But then, in the mid 1990s, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone hit bookshelves, and we saw the birth of a wholly new type of epic fantasy, one that didn't just take us out of our own world, but made us wonder what could be behind the veil of our own world. Now, Rowling didn't intend to define an entire era of fantasy literature, but like it or not Harry Potter has defined the modern fantasy era. A children's book who's major theme is death? Right from the first book, that's what we know, and at the end of the series we find that both the protagonist and the antagonist are defined by this one central theme.
But what's next? What will keep fantasy from falling into another era of obscurity and irrelevance? What do we, as authors (and I do include myself in this, meaning I ask myself this question as I continue to write The Mavonduri Trilogy) do to keep what we love about this genre fresh?
Sometimes, it's a toughly ironic question to answer, because we can't always find the words. But from myths all the way down to Harry freaking Potter, fantasy is all about conveying a message, spreading a silver breath of a universal truth that speaks to both the generation it's written for and generations to follow, to guide us through this world by taking us out of it and beyond it. I don't think there's another genre of literature, or even art, as unique unto itself, so diverse and complex and yet universally impacting as fantasy.
I guess it's not just up to the authors anymore, it's also up to the readers. So if you read this article, comment and tell me where you think the fantasy genre is going to go next. I look forward to hearing from you!