First in a two part chronological listing of fantastic works situated on the one hand by the marvelous and mythical epics, tragedies, comedies, and tales; and, on the other the slow demythologization or secularization of the marvelous into psychological, nihilistic, and other modes of the modern fantastique. Part one deals with those works up to 1900. I am indebted to Brian Stableford’s excellent The A to Z of Fantasy Literature which details out this history and its main authors from antiquity to the present.
Part One: 8th Century to 1900
- 8th century BC The Homeric epics are recorded, establishing the notion
of literary genius and launching the tradition of fantasy literature. The
works of Hesiod, including the Theogony, record the wider substance of
- 6th century BC The fables credited to Aesop are recorded.
- 5th century BC Aeschylus founds the tradition of tragic drama; his notable works include a post–Trojan War trilogy featuring Orestes, whose
tribulations are further described by Euripides. Sophocles contributes a
trilogy about Oedipus. In 423 B.C., Aristophanes’ ground-breaking humorous fantasy The Clouds wins one of his several prizes for satirical comedy.
- 19 BC Virgil’s Aeneid imports Roman ideals into a sequel to the Homeric epics.
- c10 AD Ovid compiles Metamorphoses, a theme anthology recycling
mythical tales, including the story of Perseus and Andromeda.
- c65 The wandering protagonist of Petronius’s Satyricon encounters various leftovers of classical mythology.
- c150 Lucian satirizes traveler’s tales in the “True History” and writes
“Lucius; or, The Ass,” a licentious tale.
- c165 Apuleius’s transfiguration of Lucian’s “Lucius,” The Golden Ass,
elaborates the story considerably, interpolating the original allegory of
“Cupid and Psyche.”
- c425 Longus writes the Arcadian fantasy Daphnis and Chloe.
- c725 Beowulf, written in a language ancestral to English, provides a key
example of a local hero-myth.
- c850 The Voyage of St. Brendan offers an account of an Irish expedition
to a series of marvelous islands, providing a popular exemplar of a traveler’s tale with quest elements.
- c1090 The Elder Edda provides a poetic version of the foundations of
- c1130 The earliest surviving manuscript of The Song of Roland, transfigures the defeat of Charlemagne’s army by Basque forces in 778, describing a valiant but hopeless rearguard action by Roland and his comrades.
- c1135 Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pioneering exercise in scholarly fantasy,
History of the Kings of Britain, supplies the primal seed of Arthurian fantasy. Geffrei Gaimar’s similarly imaginary History of the English includes
the story of Havelok the Dane.
- c1165 A letter is allegedly received by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, signed by Prester John, the ruler of a Christian kingdom in
India. The fake letter—an instrument of propaganda intended to drum up
support for the Crusades—is widely copied, its account of Prester John’s
kingdom provoking a good deal of scholarly fantasy.
- c1170 Marie de France produces her Breton lays, many of which employ
the Arthurian court as a backcloth; Sir Orfeo hybridizes Arthurian romance
with the classical materials that provide the other major inspiration of
French verse romance. A clerk known as Thomas writes The Romance of
Horn, an account of unjust dispossession followed by heroic exploits, culminating in eventual reinstatement. The earliest texts composing the Roman de Renart lay the foundations of modern animal fantasy in their elaboration of fabular accounts of Reynard the Fox.
- c1185 Chrétien de Troyes dies, leaving The Story of the Grail (aka Perceval) tantalizingly unfinished and awkwardly entangled with the similarly
unfinished Gawain, provoking the production of thousands of literary fantasies and hundreds of scholarly fantasies.
- c1210 Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal imports Chrétien’s account of
the grail into German, co-opting Prester John as the grail’s guardian and
making him a cousin of Parzifal’s son Lohengrin. A French Cistercian
monk expands Chrétien’s story vastly in The Quest of the Holy Grail, making the grail quest a major endeavor of Arthur’s court.
- c1220 Snorri Sturluson’s Icelandic Prose Edda, together with the Germanic Niebelunglied and Scandinavian Volsunga Saga, completes the
foundations of Nordic fantasy. The French romance of Huon of Bordeaux
introduces a chivalrous hero to the fairy king Oberon.
- c1225 Guillaume de Lorris begins composition of The Romance of the
Rose, an allegorical visionary fantasy based in classical sources.
- c1275 Jean De Meun completes a much-expanded version of The Romance of the Rose, which is extensively copied.
- c1298 The death of Jacobus de Voragine, the compiler of The Golden Legend and the inspiration of much subsequent Christian fantasy.
- c1300 The White Book of Rhydderch provides the earliest written source
for the substance of Celtic fantasy.
- c1307 13th October: Knights Templar throughout France are arrested,
charged with heresy, and tortured by crown inquisitors to force confessions, providing the seeds of countless secret histories and fantasies of diabolism.
- c1320 Dante’s Divine Comedy provides a key model for afterlife fantasy.
- c1355 The Marvellous Adventures of Sir John Maundeville exemplifies
the fantasized traveler’s tale.
- c1370 The story of Gawain and the Green Knight provides a key exemplar of English Arthuriana and a significant exercise in obscure allegory.
- c1375 The Red Book of Hergest adds the second foundation stone of
Celtic fantasy; it includes “Peredur of Evrawc,” which recycles Chrétien’s
- c1387 Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales introduces fantasy—as
well as naturalism—into the nascent tradition of English literature; the
tales display a clear understanding of the various functions of calculated
- Early 15th century The first version of the chivalric fantasy Amadis of
Gaul is written, probably in Portugal; the original is lost but serially expanded versions in Spanish and French boost the novel-length version to
- 1485 Le Morte d’Arthur, bylined Thomas Malory, refashions the massive
body of Anglo-Norman Arthuriana into a continuous and more-or-less coherent prose narrative, deemphasizing its supernatural elements but providing modern fantasy with its most important taproot text and exemplar.
- 1492 Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World demonstrates that not all traveler’s tales are ludicrous.
- 1494 Matteo Boiardo dies, leaving his epic poem Orlando Innamorato
- 1515 The lifestyle fantasist styling himself “Nostradamus” publishes his
first set of quatrains, laying down a rich vintage for future scholarly fantasists.
- 1516 Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso picks up where Boiardo left
off, taking chivalric romance to new extremes of elaboration and exoticism, spicing them with sophisticated wit.
- 1532 François Rabelais’s Pantagruel begins a series of parodic satires
that provides a crucial exemplar for Swiftian satire and Voltairean contes
philosophiques, and for lifestyle fantasists avid to adopt the guiding motto
of the Abbey of Thelema (“Do As Thou Wilt”).
- 1550 Gianfrancesco Straparola’s Nights offers literary versions of 20
folktales, including texts of Puss-in-Boots and Beauty and the Beast.
- 1587 Johann Spies publishes a fantasized account of the career of an obscure German scholar, founding the genre of Faustian fantasy.
- 1590 Edmund Spenser publishes the first part of The Faerie Queene, allegorizing contemporary culture in the form of a fairy romance. Sir Philip
Sidney performs a similar allegorical service for the myth of Arcadia.
- 1593 Christopher Marlowe is murdered, leaving behind The Tragical
History of Dr. Faustus, a transfiguration of Spies’s Faust Book.
- 1595 William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream offers a new
blueprint for English fairy literature.
- 1605 Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote pillories chivalric romance as
a kind of folly, but concedes that if nostalgia is a mental disease there is a
tragic dimension in its cure.
- 1611 Shakespeare’s The Tempest produces a key model of the figure of
the Enchanter—an important archetype of philosophically inclined wizards—and supplies him with an equally influential exemplary household.
- 1634 Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone recycles many folktales
recorded by Straparola and adds many others, including versions of Snow
White, Cinderella, and Rapunzel.
- 1654 Justus van den Vondel’s epic drama of the rebellion in heaven, Lucifer, is couched as a complaint against Puritanism.
- 1667 John Milton’s epic account of the rebellion in heaven, Paradise
Lost, turns the ideological tables on Vondel.
- 1668 Jean de la Fontaine’s Fables recycles works by Aesop and Pilpay,
supplementing them with many new examples in a more cynical and satirical vein.
- 1678–79 The first part of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress revives and
modernizes the tradition of medieval Christian allegory.
- 1691 Robert Kirk writes his account of The Secret Commonwealth of
Elves, Fauns and Fairies, which languishes unpublished until 1893.
- 1696–98 Madame d’Aulnoy’s sophisticated satirical fairy tales found a
fanciful tradition in French literature.
- 1697 Charles Perrault’s collection of moralistic tales adapts folklore to
the function of “civilizing” children.
- 1701 Antoine Galland’s translation of the adventures of Sinbad the
Sailor adds a vital new element to Madame d’Aulnoy’s brand of fantasy.
- 1704–16 Galland’s Thousand and One Nights provides the foundation
stone of Arabian fantasy.
- 1707 Alain-René Lesage’s Asmodeus; or, The Devil on Two Sticks displays considerable sympathy for the eponymous devil and provides an important model for supernaturally assisted tours.
- 1726 Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver sets a crucial precedent for English satirical fantasy.
- 1730 The posthumous publication of tales by the exiled Count Anthony
Hamilton—who had died in 1720—provides significant exemplars for
French writers of Gallandesque satires and entertainments.
- 1746 Voltaire’s “The World as It Is” pioneers the tradition of fanciful
- 1752 Sir Francis Dashwood establishes the Friars of St. Francis of
Wycombe (nicknamed the Hell-Fire Club by its detractors) at Medmenham Abbey, setting an important precedent for modern lifestyle fantasists.
- 1757 Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our
Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful considers the venturesome exercise of
the imagination as a psychological necessity.
- 1764 James Ridley imports Gallandesque fantasy into English in Tales of
the Genii, bylined Charles Morell. Horace Walpole represents the moralistic Gothic fantasy The Castle of Otranto as a translation of an Italian manuscript.
- 1765 Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry provides a
classic compendium of English ballads.
- 1768 Voltaire’s “The Princess of Babylon” leavens a conte
philosophique with fantasy for entertainment’s sake.
- 1772 Jacques Cazotte’s The Devil in Love provides a crucial example of
sympathy for a seductive devil.
- 1782 Johann Musäus issues the first volume of his collection of German
Folktales, prompting the brothers Grimm to start their collection.
- 1785 Rudolf Eric Raspe’s Baron Münchhausen provides the tall story
with its literary paradigm.
- 1786 William Beckford’s Vathek gives Arabian fantasy a decadent twist.
- 1787 Charles Garnier’s collection of Imaginary Voyages is launched,
providing a library of philosophically informed traveler’s tales.
- 1793 William Blake publishes the first of his “prophetic books.”
- 1795 Johann von Goethe publishes his Märchen, providing a key model
for the “art fairy tale.”
- 1797 Ludwig Tieck’s “The Faithful Eckhart” transfigures material from
Musäus to create a new German hero-myth.
- 1798 Nathan Drake’s Literary Hours describes the “sportive” element of
Gothic fiction. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner appears in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, exemplifying the
fantastic aspect of British Romanticism.
- 1799 William Godwin’s St. Leon introduces moralistic alchemical romance to the medium of the three-decker novel.
-Stableford, Brian. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. (Scarecrow Press, 1989)