Landing : Athabascau University

History of High Fantasy - What film/novel hooked you on Fantasy?

In high fantasy, the hero usually takes an epic journey through magical worlds populated with creatures from folktale in order to save society. The hero’s honour is equal to that of the Anglo Saxon warrior, the enemy usually dabbles in black magic, and the weapon of choice is usually a sword. Though viewers have many high fantasy films to choose from now, it was not always a popular film genre. Early fantasy films focused on talking animals such as Tarzan of the Apes, (1918) or expanded fairy tales such as the Wizard of Oz (1939) (List of Fantasy, 2012). In the 1960s, fantasy and music became the mix for fantasy films such as Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (List). Audiences began developing a new taste in fantasy in the 1970s, when the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons became popular in North American teen society (Rausch, 2004). The game created an audience for sword and sorcery, influencing music, novels, cartoons and eventually film (Rausch). Filmmakers began producing films that featured medieval culture, folk creatures and heroic quests, such as Return of the King (1980), Dragonslayer (1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982), and Krull (1983). In the second half of the 1980s, high fantasy continued, but with the addition of humour. The Princess Bride (1987) by Rob Riener and Willow (1988) by Ron Howard are full of honour-bound heroics, but the sword-play and sorcery swings between suspenseful action and slapstick comedy. Both films appeal to family viewers who long for the heroic journey that ends in a fairy tale-style resolution. There are few, if any, high fantasy films created during the 1990s. But in 2001, director Peter Jackson resurrected the quest with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Jackson used horror conventions and special effects to move the fantasy villain to a new level of terror, setting the stage for fantasy films in the future. 

What films/books hooked you into the fantasy genre?


  • Mark A. McCutcheon September 23, 2012 - 2:55pm

    I’d be happy to cast two votes here, one for one of the first works I ever read in this genre - and another for one of the most recent.

    The first vote for Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy; it’s the only work in this genre that I’ve read repeatedly (meaning twice: once in adolescence, and again in my early twenties). I’m perennially struck by the trilogy’s premise in a plot to rid its world of a nearly uncontrollable weapon - a premise that seems plaintive and urgent, given the context of the novel’s production during and first publication after World War Two, the war that culminated in the atrocious exhibition of real and nearly uncontrollable weaponry.

    Fans of epic fantasy in Tolkein’s vein might really like some of the source texts he, as a medievalist, worked with: Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and other medieval Arthurian romances. (Tolkein’s own essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” is also well worth reading.)

    A text like Lord of the Rings, grounded in both contemporary politics and medieval scholarship, clearly enough connects some of the dots of genre that appear to organize this group, i.e. the conceptual dots between epic fantasy and Anglo-Saxon history. I’m unsure how some of the other sample references figure here; 300, both a graphic novel and a movie, is grounded in classical antiquity - and myth. How does that text fit or figure in this group? Its inclusion implies that western European history and lore, as well as that history and lore’s attendant politics of identity and racialization, more generally establish some of the major parameters of the epic fantasy genre.

    Which brings me to my second vote: for Minister Faust’s 2004 novel Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad. It’s the only novel I’ve yet read that is set in Edmonton. (I am aware there are others.) In this novel, images of science fiction, popular culture, and ancient Egyptian tradition get mashed up in a definitively epic quest, undertaken by two black kids from Edmonton’s north side. The genre-blending fusion of science fiction and the fantastic is a distinguishing feature of black diasporic “Afro-Futurist” work, a feature we also find in Nalo Hopkinson’s 1998 novel Brown Girl in the Ring, set in a dystopian Toronto whose mayor makes Ford look like Miller, where Orwellian futurism mixes and mingles with west Indian obeah.

    So my second vote is also an encouragement to look to the astonishing creative work being done in the epic fantasy genre by minoritized, diasporic, and/or postcolonial authors. (Hopkinson’s anthology So Long Been Dreaming offers a solid sampler.) It should be of interest in large part for how it not only develops the epic fantasy tradition, but also critically transforms it.

  • Cheryl Cowtan September 23, 2012 - 3:26pm

    Hi Mark, 

    Thank you for your intriguing suggestions. I'm certainly going to read Tolkein's essay and explore Coyote Kings...

    For me, language tempts me to 300. The rhythms and comparisons within the dialogue and storytelling narrative is rich. Which is what I also enjoy in Tolkein's works. His attention to language and patterns of speech for different cultures within his books is very enjoyable. And I believe both works follow the monomyth pattern of heroic journey to save civilization. 

    What I really enjoy with 300 is playing with the question of whether Leonidas or Dilios was the true hero. 

  • Mark A. McCutcheon September 25, 2012 - 12:03pm

    If language is one of the attractions of epic narratives grounded in classical tradition, you might well enjoy Homer's Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles, in the audiobook edition: it's read by Ian McKellen (a.k.a. "Gandalf"). The Odyssey more or less defines the epic form in western culture. And McKellen more or less redefines how to deliver an audiobook reading.

    Your local public library should have it, as will Audible (which gives you one freebie on signup). Sample it here:

    (Sorry for the barrage of "you-must-read" suggestions. It's a compulsion common among English profs.)

  • Heather Clitheroe September 25, 2012 - 12:17pm

    For me, it was Tanya Huff's 'The Last Wizard' books, which led to Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern Series...which led me to Mercedes Lackey's Heralds of Valdemar, which led me to Elizabeth Moon's 'The Deed of Pakesenarrion' books. 

    What hooked me was the presentation of strong female characters - it was around the same time that most of us were reading the 'Flowers in the Attic' books by VC Andrews in junior high, and those are anything but. 

  • Cheryl Cowtan September 26, 2012 - 3:37pm

    Just listened to The Odyssey = wow! Love it! Thanks for the link and the suggestion.

  • Cheryl Cowtan September 26, 2012 - 3:39pm

    Hi Heather, 

    The VC Andrews books went through our highschool like wildfire and I guess you're right - along with forbidden themes, there was a female protagonist who was strong. I also read the Dragonriders of Pern and again, enjoyed reading about a female. I haven't read The Deed... though.