History of Fantasy

What we today relate to as “Fantasy stories” is basically a tradition of storytelling which stems from ancient times, when people in groups, villages and tribes all over the world gathered around campfires every evening and listened as someone told fables of how the good (generally the community in question) defeats evil (such as a feared natural phenomenon, a dangerous creature of myth or perhaps the rival nation next door, often represented as a vile beast in the stories). A reoccurring theme is how a small group or person is challenged by an overwhelming opponent but still manages to come out victorious in the end – just the kind of reassurance you might need when everyday life was a lot more volatile than these days.

Common ingredients in any fantasy tale, old or modern, are for example dragons of various hues, huge trolls, reclusive elves, nasty goblins, sturdy dwarves, dazzling magic and so forth.

Many of these components have often once been conceived in some altogether different context but as the genre of fantasy is quite widespread today, most people think of dragons as a large, fire-breathing beasts rather than associate them with the historical, political conflicts or lumbering lizards in the tropics.

Ask someone on the street today what pops up in their mind when they hear the term fantasy, and there’s a good chance that they’ll answer “Tolkien” or “Lord of the Rings”. And that’s no wonder: no other work of literature has had such an impact on modern storytelling. Since the release of JRR Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” back in the fifties, the setting and the creatures Tolkien fashioned (itself much inspired by old folklore and myths) has come to dictate unwritten rules for other author’s works in the subsequent decennia.

Much of today’s works of fantasy have its roots in books of the fantastic written in the 19th century, many of which were written for an adult audience. While complex both in structure, setting and narrative (much as many fantasy books are still today), these books were generally not classified as fantasy (a much more recent term) but stories of the extraordinary. And who is to say where the line is drawn; if Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was published today it would occupy the shelves labeled “Fantasy” in any bookstore.

In the 70’s an interesting blend of fantasy and improvised (script-less) theatre emerged known as role playing games (or RPG’s). An RPG is basically a game where one person (sometimes referred to as “the game master”, “the dungeon master” or simply “the GM”) acts as a mix of a story teller, judge, opponent and director. The game master verbally describes what a group of players can see, hear and feel and so on, and the players can then interact with the world and the beings described by the GM. The game was an instant hit among teenagers all over the US and it didn’t take long before people all over the world were sitting up late at night, slaying flaming dragons, disarming deadly traps and looting evil temples.

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