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What is Modern Fantasy Literature? - Definition, Authors & Novels

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  • 0:01 Definition of Modern Fantasy
  • 3:22 Example: His Dark Materials
  • 4:00 Example: Harry Potter
  • 4:34 Example: Sookie Stackhouse
  • 5:23 Example: A Song of Ice…
  • 6:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Wizards, werewolves, and all manner of wondrous places wait for you in this lesson! Come discover modern fantasy literature and meet some of the authors and their works that have made the genre what it is today.

Definition of Modern Fantasy

Did you obsess over the Twilight series, or did you maybe wait in line to see the latest Hobbit film? If so, you're probably a fan of fantasy literature, a genre depicting abilities, creatures, or settings not found or feasible in the real world. You might have been able to guess that already, but what makes stories like these modern?

The truth is, fantasy has been around about as long as humans have been telling stories. In fact, some of the earliest stories (i.e. Sumerian and Greek epics) we know of could be classified under this genre because they involve infeasible characters and feats. However, for the longest time, epic poems and other sources of traditional mythological material were indeed fantasy's only refuge.

Many toyed with myths and folklore in literature over time, but the true synthesis of these traditions into the literary genre we know and love didn't happen until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Of all the contributors to this literary fusion, perhaps the most influential and well-known is J.R.R. Tolkien. With the publication of The Hobbit in 1937, and its sequel, The Lord of the Rings, between 1954 and 1955, Tolkien fueled a fascination that has lasted to the present day. Many of the characteristics of the fantasy genre today owe their foundations to Tolkien, so let's take a look at some of these features while using his work as an example.

First, there are mythic origins. The majority of the qualities we associate with fantasy (i.e. magic and mystical beasts) in some way have their roots in our oldest mythologies and folklore. Tolkien, for instance, derived much of his own inspiration from Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian mythologies. Like its predecessors, The Hobbit is also epic in scope and scale, involving characters who often face potentially world-altering situations.

Second, there is paranormality. One of the cornerstones of the fantasy genre is its reliance on preternatural creatures and abilities. We're all familiar with Gandalf's expert use of magic and the terrible Wraiths in The Lord of the Rings. Also, the rings themselves contribute to the story's fantastic nature, as mystical items (i.e. wands, jewelry, swords, etc.) frequently figure into the genre, as well.

Lastly, there are exotic Locales. In order to make sense of all the abilities and creatures they've imagined, many fantasy authors feel the need to construct entirely different worlds than our own. When this happens - as in the case of Tolkien's Middle Earth - the work is known as high fantasy.

Other lower forms of fantasy (i.e. C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia) may connect our world and another via portals of some kind, or another realm may exist inside our own, such as Camp Half-Blood in the Percy Jackson series. Other real-world locations may also be made exotic by the events and individuals that inhabit them (i.e. witches in Salem, Massachusetts).

Now that we've seen what modern fantasy is and how it works, let's explore some examples that you're sure to recognize and meet the people who followed in Tolkien's footsteps!

Example: His Dark Materials

He's been knighted in the UK for all of his literary accomplishments, but Philip Pullman's most notable success has come from the fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials. Set in a world similar to ours, the three books in this collection follow the young girl Lyra as she journeys between her universe and those that lie beyond, in an effort to struggle against the Magisterium's oppressive theology. Accompanied by her 'daemon,' an outward manifestation of a person's inner self, this young heroine literally fights to preserve her soul and those of all the creatures she's encountered from the tyranny of the religious elite.

Example: Harry Potter

Now considered the best-selling series of all time, the Harry Potter books have gained J.K. Rowling great acclaim and, like Pullman, high British honors. Rowling and Pullman also share the fact that their works have won awards for children's literature. However, as is often the case with fantasy, their books have grabbed the attention of readers both young and old. That's because stories like those surrounding Harry Potter and his friends (and enemies) at the Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry appeal to all of our imaginations, as well as to the more contemplative sides of older audience members.

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