Fantasy is a genre that uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary element of plot, theme, and/or setting. Many works within the genre take place in fictional worlds where magic is common. Fantasy is generally distinguished from science fiction in that it does not provide a logical (or pseudo logical) explanation for the scientifically impossible events that occur, though there is a great deal of overlap between the two (both are subgenres of speculative fiction).
In popular culture, the genre of fantasy is dominated by its medievalist form, especially since the worldwide success of The Lord of the Rings books by J. R. R. Tolkien. In its broadest sense however, fantasy comprises works by many writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians, from ancient myths and legends to many recent works embraced by a wide audience today.
Beginning perhaps with the Epic of Gilgamesh and the earliest written documents known to humankind, mythic and other elements that would eventually come to define fantasy and its various subgenres have been a part of some of the grandest and most celebrated works of literature. From The Odyssey to Beowulf, from the Mahabharata to The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, from the Ramayana to the Journey to the West, and from the Arthurian legend and medieval romance to the epic poetry of the Divine Comedy, fantastical adventures featuring brave heroes and heroines, deadly monsters, and secret arcane realms have inspired many audiences. In this sense, the history of fantasy and the history of literature are inextricably intertwined.
Many works are unclear as to the belief of the authors in the marvels they contain, as in the enchanted garden from the Decameron
There are many works where the boundary between fantasy and other works is not clear; the question of whether the writers believed in the possibilities of the marvels in A Midsummer Night's Dream or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight makes it difficult to distinguish when fantasy, in its modern sense, first began.
Although pre-dated by John Ruskin's The King of the Golden River (1841), the history of modern fantasy literature is usually said to begin with George MacDonald, the Scottish author of such novels as The Princess and the Goblin and Phantastes (1858), the latter of which is widely considered to be the first fantasy novel ever written for adults. MacDonald was a major influence on both J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. The other major fantasy author of this era was William Morris, a popular English poet who wrote several novels in the latter part of the century, including The Well at the World's End.
Despite MacDonald's future influence with At the Back of the North Wind (1871), and Morris's popularity with his contemporaries, it wasn't until the turn of the century that fantasy fiction began to reach a large audience. Lord Dunsany established the genre's popularity in both the novel and the short story form. Many popular mainstream authors also began to write fantasy at this time, including H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs. These authors, along with Abraham Merritt, established what was known as the "lost world" sub-genre, which was the most popular form of fantasy in the early decades of the 20th century, although several classic children's fantasies, such as Peter Pan and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, were also published around this time.
Indeed, juvenile fantasy was considered more acceptable than fantasy intended for adults, with the effect that writers who wished to write fantasy had to fit their work in a work for children. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote many early works verging on fantasy, but in A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys, intended for children, wrote fantasy. For many years, this and successes such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), created the circular effect that all fantasy works, even the later The Lord of the Rings, were therefore classified as children's literature.
In 1923 the first all-fantasy fiction magazine, Weird Tales, was created. Many other similar magazines eventually followed, most noticeably The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The pulp magazine format was at the height of its popularity at this time and was instrumental in bringing fantasy fiction to a wide audience in both the U.S. and Britain. Such magazines were also instrumental in the rise of science fiction, and it was at this time the two genres began to be associated with each other.
By 1950 "sword and sorcery" fiction had begun to find a wide audience, with the success of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian and Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. However, it was the advent of high fantasy, and most of all the popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the late 1960s, that allowed fantasy to truly enter the mainstream. Several other series, such as C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books, helped cement the genre's popularity.
The popularity of the fantasy genre has continued to increase in the 21st century, as evidenced by the best-selling status of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. Several fantasy film adaptations have achieved blockbuster status, most notably The Lord of the Rings film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson.
Criticism of fantasy includes its being called "second rate" literature; but author Terry Brooks rebutted this when he answered a question on his official website:
People who view fantasy as second rate or childish are usually people who don't read or understand it. I like to tell them that good fantasy is social commentary combined with good storytelling - Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, the Oz stories and so many others. Sure, the stories take place in an imaginary world. But those worlds mirror our own and tell us things about ourselves that need to be said and understood. I also like to tell them how often other forms of literature use fantasy as the bedrock of their own stories. Fantasy transcends its own form in wider scope than any other type of writing.