Fantasy stories have come to life since the earliest days of man, being carried through the generations through spoken tales and eventually continuing through writings. These tales of high adventure have been on the silver screen since the first days of filmmaking and carry on to this very day.
While other genres may capture a greater amount of attention and followers, fantasy worlds have generated a loyal following that does not diminish in the face of other popular trends. The many stories that are brought to life that all share a common DNA, featuring aspects and tropes that still excite despite having been told for literally thousands of years. While new worlds and fresh takes may reinvigorate the genre and give new perspective, no fantasy story can truly be deemed “fantasy” without several elements coming into play.
But what separates great fantasy stories from the forgettable ones? And what inspires the adoration of fans generation after generation? For a genre that was once one and the same as the religion of many cultures, fantasy has had a grip on the imaginations of people for far longer than any science fiction novel, spy story, or comic book.
Romance and High Adventure
While many people try to lump together the science fiction and fantasy genres into one larger category, the two deserves to be looked at separately. Yes, both genres explore strange worlds, one typically in the past and one in the future, and create concepts that are impossible in the real world, one with magic and one with science, but the difference are more than cosmetic.
Science fiction stories often take the issues of today and cast them into a more extreme scenario in order to explore what people are currently struggling with. Fantasy stories are throwbacks to a simpler time with a focus on adventure and romance. But that is not to say that fantasy stories are devoid of depth.
Rather, they focus on more basic human issues, such as greed, loyalty, friendship, family, etc. These are still issues today, which inform many of the more complex and specific issues tackled in science fiction.
Most importantly, fantasy narratives are about adventure! Bands of heroes, armies, or even lone individuals strike out on epic quests, looking to save the world/defeat evil/get treasure by battling all manner of warriors and monsters. There can be parrallels to modern times and current issues, but most important is the epic sweep, imagination, and excitement that comes from these tales of grand adventure, romance, and even terror in worlds that make fans wish they could be in a far distant land.
One of the key elements of fantasy fiction is that the world is populated with far more races than what fill the world today. Rather than new animals or monsters (more on this in a minute), these are sentient beings who stand shoulder to shoulder with humans in controlling the world.
Whether the narrative takes places in the distant past or on a different world entirely, these races have their own cultures, beliefs, weapons, and capabilities. While these people groups may take on very different roles or interpretations within a story, there are certain elements that come into play time and time again.
Dwarves – Short creatures with big beards and bigger axes, dwarves are obsessed with treasure and any activity that will get them more. They may be naturally greedy, but that doesn’t necessarily make them evil, just difficult to work with.
Elves – While they may change from story to story, elves are the most linked with the supernatural and nature itself. With heightened physical capabilities and fierce combat skills, they are equal parts warrior and mystic.
Giants – They’re big, they’re strong, and they’re often dumb. Giants are simple and intimidating, but they can be both great allies and enemies.
Goblins/Orcs/Ogres/Trolls – While these types of creatures can all have their own unique traits, they are most often grotesque creatures that are very dangerous. Ranging from the miniature goblins to the enormous trolls, these races are dangerous and often dwell in the dark places of the world. Think of them as the opposite of elves and the ultimate enemies to man.
Halflings – Small people who are most like a mix between men and dwarves. Known as Hobbits in J.R.R. Tolkien’s world, they are mild mannered and live in quaint towns, but can rise to great feats.
Men – Most like people that lived centuries ago, the men of fantasy are not far removed from real history, except that they live in a heightened world and wield magic. These characters most often make the case for fantasy stories being real tales lost to time.
Creatures Beyond Belief
No fantasy story is complete without an encounter with the wildest and most dangerous creatures and monsters imaginable. Since most fantasy stories revolve around a quest of some type, it is only reasonable that our heroes most battle mystical creatures that pose extreme dangers.
In the cycle of the heroic myth, these beasts often pose great challenges on the road to achieving the goal or prize that is the purpose of the quest. Some may be minor encounters while others may pose the ultimate challenge. In fantasy stories revolving around war, such as The Lord of the Rings or World of Warcraft, these creatures can comprise entire evil armies, threatening to envelope the entire world.
Sphinx – A beast with the body of a lion and head of a human, a sphinx poses riddles to its prey, with those who fail often eaten or otherwise punished by the creature.
Dragons – Enormous, fire-breathing and flying lizards that can either be dangerous enemies or powerful allies. These beasts may guard treasure hordes or be simpler wild creatures.
Griffins – Half eagle, half lion, griffins are wild and dangerous beasts that no one would want to encounter unprepared, but they can be tamed and trained to aid in the fight against evil.
Demons – While not always a mainstay of fantasy stories, all manner of hellish beasts may make up evil legions threatening to conquer the world. This can include the mighty Balrog from The Lord of the Rings and any other fiery creature that is shown to be pure evil.
Unicorns – These are beautiful creatures that are not to be messed with. While they can be mighty steeds for heroes, they are just as likely to kill you while farting a rainbow.
Lycanthropes – While the most common is the werewolf, any human that is cursed to turn into an animal is a lycanthrope. Such as the werepanther, wereram, and wererabbit. Intimidation factors may vary from type to type.
Liches – These undead creatures are more than just zombies, they are magicians and kings who have overcome death through dark magic to continue living in their corpses. They can also create undead armies and are typically frightening in any interpretation.
New and Old Ages
Like any genre that hopes to stay relevant, fantasy has had to reinvent itself and provide fresh takes on well-worn ideas in order to continue capturing the imaginations of modern audiences. While the elements that make people love fantasy must stay in place to some degree, the best modern stories bring something exciting that makes all the other elements far more interesting.
Games have long sparked interest in fantasy. From Dungeons & Dragons to Magic: The Gathering, low tech role playing games mix well with the ancient ages that players cast themselves into. But video games transcend the stigma that these games often find themselves saddled with. The Elder Scrolls series, particularly Oblivion and Skyrim have made loyal followers out of people who may not follow other fantasy interpretations. And, of course, the Warcraft series has long stood as the banner fantasy franchise in video games.
While fantasy films are incredibly hit and miss, especially since so few are produced from year to year, there have been enough entries in the genre to keep it viable and relevant. From elements of fantasy that twist modern narratives to epic stories that dive into ancient worlds, there is something incredibly exciting about fantasy films, so long as they are done well. Otherwise, they risk being absolutely terrible.
Finally, television has become home to some of the most popular fantasy stories in decades. Game of Thrones is one of the most popular shows in the world right now, creating legions of fans that are constantly rocked by the many shocking developments in the narrative, yet somehow don’t realize that all of these things took place in the book series years before. Adventure Time is steeped in fantasy, taking heroes Finn and Jake through adventures inspired by Dungeons & Dragons while creating its own fascinating myths in The World of Ooo, a post-apocalyptic land filled with insane creatures and history.
These new takes that not only find new ways to bring the fantasy genre to life, but succeed beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations, show that these tales of ancient mystical lands have more life in them than ever.