Fantasy’s Art and Literary History

Fantasy elements in art and literature have achieved cultural success and popular acclaim in the last two hundred years. Fantasy has always been a part of the arts from the ancient tales of Mesopotamia and the publication of Arabian Nights to modern day epic fantasy, also known as “high fantasy,” in the works of J.R.R. Tolkein, and surrealistic fantasy in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. In the last fifty years, fantasy has surged to the forefront of popular American literature. It is one of the most commercially successfully genres in writing today.

The history of art has followed in step with the development of fantasy in literature. The older myths, legends, and fairy tales maintained a complicated balance of portraying their plots in real world settings, but also featuring otherworldly elements that often were not considered fictitious at all. Modern fantasy is a more direct communication to the reader that the elements involved are fictitious. Modern fantasy frequently features older folklore from 200 to 900 years old. Common folklore themes in modern fantasy are witches, warlocks, vampires, werewolves, fairies, elves, and giants. Modern fantasy isn’t just about folklore elements; it features a wide array of fantastical interpretations of the human condition or celebrated eras of the past. One of the most celebrated past eras in fantasy literature is the romantic era of chivalry. The features of magic, knights, princesses, swords, and kingdoms play heavily in the most popular tales of the ancient past, medieval era, and post-modern fantasy reader’s library.

Dark fantasy, also called gothic fantasy, is a literary and artistic subgenre that combines classic fantasy art elements with horror. Themes of gloom, demise, dread, fear, and death are commonly featured. Charles L. Grant is frequently credited with inventing the term “dark fantasy”. Dark fantasy was originally used as a term to separate the fantasy elements from what was becoming a more visceral, cruel plot and character portrayal within a typical horror book or film in popular culture. However, Karl Edward Wagner is also credited with coining the term “dark fantasy.” Wagner used it to describe his character “Kane” who is frequently compared to “Conan the Barbarian.” Wagner’s use of the term “dark fantasy” is generally understood to refer to an antihero characterization. Another use of the term “dark fantasy” is in the description of a commonly known work of what is generally considered to be the horror genre, but doesn’t entirely fit into it, such as Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.

Dark fantasy art (or gothic fantasy art) keeps in step with the topics of the books, myths, and legends it portrays whether featuring classical or modern elements. Classical fantasy art portrayal in the past has been associated with many art movements, but fantasy art illustration often has a style all its own that creates genre defying art by artists such as Gustav Dore and Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Fantasy art can be found many places from directly on the canvas, to digital art, book editions, fan sites, and even interpreted into film backdrops.