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Historical fantasy

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Historical fantasy

Historical fantasy is a category of fantasy and genre of historical fiction that incorporates fantastic elements (such as magic) into the narrative. There is much crossover with other subgenres of fantasy; those classes as Arthurian, Celtic, or Dark Ages could just as easily be placed in Historical Fantasy. Stories fitting this classification generally take place prior to the 20th century.


Films of this genre may have plots set in biblical or classical antiquity, often with plots based very loosely on mythology or legends of Greek-Roman history, or the surrounding cultures of the same era.


Historical fantasy usually takes one of four common approaches:

  1. Magic, mythical creatures or other supernatural elements co-exist invisibly with the mundane world, with the majority of people being unaware of it. In this, it has a close similarity to contemporary fantasy. This commonly overlaps with the secret history trope. Alternatively, the author's narrative shows or implies that by the present day, magic will have retreated from the world so as to allow history to revert to the familiar version we know. An example of this can be found in Lord Dunsany's The Charwoman's Shadow, which takes place in Spain, but which ends with the magician in it removing himself, and all creatures of romance, from the world, thereby ending the Golden Age.
  2. It also can include an alternative history where the past or present has been significantly changed when an actual historical event turned out differently.
  3. The story takes place in a secondary world with specific and recognizable parallels to a known place (or places) and a definite historical period, rather than taking the geographic and historical "mix and match" favoured by other works of secondary world fantasy. However, many if not most, works by fantasy authors derive ideas and inspiration from real events, making the borders of this approach unclear.
  4. Historical Fantasy may also be set in a fictional world which resembles a period from history but is not that actual history.

All four approaches have overlapped with the subgenre of steampunk commonly associated with science fiction literature. However, not all steampunk fantasy belongs to the historical fantasy subgenre.

Arabian fantasy

After Antoine Galland's translation of One Thousand and One Nights became enormously popular in Europe, many writers wrote fantasy based on Galland's romantic image of the Middle East and North Africa. Early examples included the satirical tales of Anthony Hamilton, and Zadig by Voltaire. English-language work in the Arabian fantasy genre includes Rasselas (1759) by Samuel Johnson, Tales of the Genii by James Ridley (1764), Vathek by William Thomas Beckford (1786), George Meredith's The Shaving of Shagpat (1856), Khaled (1891) by F. Marion Crawford, and James Elroy Flecker's Hassan (1922).

In the late 1970s, interest in the subgenre revived with Hasan (1977) by Piers Anthony. This was followed by several other novels reworking Arabian legend: the metafictional The Arabian Nightmare (1983) by Robert Irwin, A Noose of Light (1986) by Seamus Cullen, Diana Wynne Jones' children's novel Castle in the Air (1990), Tom Holt's humorous Djinn Rummy (1995) and Hilari Bell's Fall of a Kingdom.

Arabian fantasy examples

  • Baghdad (1985) by Ian Dennis
  • Nights of the Crusades (2011) by MJ Alishah
  • Celtic fantasy

    Celtic fantasy has links to historical fantasy and Celtic historical fiction. Celtic historical fantasy includes such works as Katharine Kerr's Deverry series, or Teresa Edgerton's Green Lion trilogy. These works are (loosely) based on Ancient Celtic cultures.

    The separate folklore of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland has sometimes been used indiscriminately, sometimes with great effect,as in Paul Hazel's Finnbranch trilogy, Yearwood (1980), Undersea, (1982) and Winterking (1985); other writers have distinguished to use a single source.

    Notable works inspired by Irish mythology included James Stephens' The Crock of Gold (1912), Lord Dunsany's The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933), Flann O'Brien's humorous At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), Pat O'Shea's The Hounds of the Morrigan (1985) and novels by Peter Tremayne, Morgan Llywelyn and Gregory Frost.

    The Welsh tradition has been particularly influential, which has its connection to King Arthur and its collection in a single work, the epic Mabinogion. One influential retelling of this was the fantasy work of Evangeline Walton: The Island of the Mighty, The Children of Llyr, The Song of Rhiannon, and Prince of Annwn. A notable amount of fiction has been written in the Welsh area of Celtic fantasy; other notable authors of Welsh Celtic fantasy include Kenneth Morris, John Cowper Powys, Vaughan Wilkins, Lloyd Alexander, Alan Garner, and Jenny Nimmo.

    Scottish Celtic fantasy is less common, but James Hogg, John Francis Campbell's The Celtic Dragon Myth, published (1911), Fiona MacLeod (William Sharp), George Mackay Brown and Deborah Turner Harris all wrote material based on Scottish myths and legends.

    Fantasy based on the Breton folklore branch of Celtic mythology does not often appear in the English language. However, several noted writers have utilized such material; Robert W. Chambers' The Demoiselle d'Ys (from The King in Yellow,1895) and A. Merritt in Creep,Shadow! (1934) both drew on the Breton legend of the lost city of Ys, while "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun" (1930) by J. R. R. Tolkien is a narrative poem based on the Breton legend of the "Corrigan".

    Celtic fantasy examples

  • Deryni novels, Katherine Kurtz (1970–)
  • Deverry cycle, Katharine Kerr (1986–)
  • Green Lion trilogy, Teresa Edgerton
  • Wuxia

    Wǔxiá (Traditional Chinese: 武俠, Simplified Chinese: 武侠, Mandarin [ùɕjǎ], Cantonese Pinyin: mów hàb), literally meaning "martial (arts) heroes", is a subgenre of the quasi-fantasy and martial arts genre in literature, television and cinema. Wǔxiá figures prominently in the popular culture of Chinese-speaking areas, and the most important writers have devoted followings.

    The wǔxiá genre is a blend of the philosophy of xiá (俠, "honor code", "an ethical person", "a hero"), and China's long history in wǔshù ("kung fu" (pronounced gong fu, despite popular misconceptions) or "martial arts"). A martial artist who follows the code of xiá is called a swordsman, or xiákè (俠客/侠客, literally "chivalrous guest"). Japan's samurai bushidō traditions, England's knight chivalry traditions, and America's gunslinger Western traditions all share some aspects with China's swordsman xiá traditions. The swordsman, however, need not serve a lord or hold any military power and they are not required to be from an aristocratic class.

    Wuxia examples

  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee (2000)
  • Classical fantasy

    Classical Fantasy is a subgenre fantasy based on the Greek and Roman myths. Symbolism from classical mythology is enormously influential on Western culture, but it was not until the nineteenth century that it was used in the context of literary fantasy. Richard Garnett (The Twilight of the Gods and Other Tales, 1888, revised 1903) and John Kendrick Bangs (Olympian Nights, 1902) used the Greek myths for satirical purposes. Twentieth century writers who made extensive use of the subgenre included John Erksine, who continued the satirical tradition of Classical Fantasy in such works as The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1925), and Venus, the Lonely Goddess (1949). Eden Phillpotts used Greek myths to make philosophical points in such fantasies as Pan and the Twins (1922) and Circe's Island (1925). Jack Williamson's The Reign of Wizardry (Unknown Worlds, 1940) is an adventure story based on the legend of Theseus. Several of Thomas Burnett Swann's novels draw on Greek and Roman myth, including Day of the Minotaur (1966). The Firebrand (1986) by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Olympic Games (2004) by Leslie What are both Classical fantasy tales with feminist undertones.

    Classical fantasy examples

  • The Night Life of the Gods, Thorne Smith (1931)
  • Les Mémoires de Zeus (translated as The Memoirs of Zeus), Maurice Druon (1963)
  • Aksaranger, Aksara Project (2012)
  • Exiles of Arcadia series, James Gawley (2013–)
  • Murder In Absentia, Assaph Mehr (2015)
  • Steampunk

    Fantasy Steampunk is another subgenre of historical fantasy, generally set in the Victorian or Edwardian eras. Steam technology, mixed with Victorian- or Gothic-style architecture and technology, is the most widely recognized interpretation of this genre. One of the most popular characteristics of steampunk is the appearance of naked clockwork and rusty gears.

    Some works in this genre are alternate history.

    Steampunk examples

  • Last Exile, Gonzo (2003–)
  • The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello, Anthony Lucas (2005–)
  • Gunpowder fantasy

    Similar to Steampunk, Gunpowder Fantasy is considered a step below its more popular cousin. Gunpowder Fantasy combines elements of Epic Fantasy (Magic, Mythical Creatures, Elves, Epic Scale) with Rifles and Railroads. It is a relatively new subgenre, but has been picking up popularity.

    It varies from Steampunk in that it stays away from the fantastic inventions (airships, machines, etc.) that are common in Steampunk. It is also sometimes called Muskets & Magic.

    Gunpowder fantasy is generally set in a world with roughly equivalent technology to the world in the 17th through 19th centuries, particularly the latter eras. Typically, gunpowder fantasy also includes elements of real-world technology such as steam power, telegraphy and in some cases early telephones or combustion engines.

    Gunpowder fantasy Examples

  • Terrarch Tetralogy, William King (2011–)
  • Commonwealth Chronicles, A.S. Warwick (2011–)
  • Fullmetal Alchemist, Hiromu Arakawa (2010–)
  • Griffins & Gunpowder Universe, Joshua K Johnson (2012–)
  • Monster Blood Tattoo Series, D. M. Cornish (2006–2010)
  • The Powder Mage trilogy, Brian McClellan (2013–2015)
  • Prehistoric fantasy

    Stories set in prehistoric times and depicting the lives of prehistoric people.

    Prehistoric fantasy examples

  • Earth's Children series, Jean M. Auel (1980-2011;)
  • Examples

  • Poul Anderson has written many novels mixing northern mythology with the historic events of the Viking age: The Broken Sword, Hrolf Kraki's Saga. War of the Gods, and Mother of Kings. More historical with only slight fantasy elements are The Last Viking series.
  • Hiroshi Aramata's Teito Monogatari (Tale of the Imperial Capital Saga): different novels in different time periods of Japan spanning from Bakumatsu to Showa Era
  • C. J. Cherryh's The Russian Stories: Medieval Kievan Rus' and The Paladin: China of the Tang Dynasty
  • Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories: Napoleonic England
  • Lynne Ellison's The Green Bronze Mirror about a teenage girl who goes back in time to the Roman Empire and meets a Roman witch and a magic-wielding druid.
  • C.C. Finlay's Traitor to the Crown: American Revolution
  • David Gemmel's Lion of Macedon: Ancient Greece
  • Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori: feudal Japan
  • Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana: Renaissance Italy, A Song for Arbonne: Medieval Occitania, The Lions of Al-Rassan: Moorish Spain, The Sarantine Mosaic: Byzantine Greece, and The Last Light of the Sun: Viking England
  • Katherine Kurtz's Deryni novels: Medieval British Islands (specifically, Wales)
  • Juliet Marillier's The Sevenwaters Trilogy: Ninth Century Ireland
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke about a warrior prince in 14th-century Japan, who travels to the West in order to remove a demon curse from him by a Forest Spirit.
  • Peter Morwood's Prince Ivan trilogy: Russia just before and after the coming of the Golden Horde
  • Naomi Novik's Temeraire series: England during the Napoleonic Wars
  • Tim Powers's The Drawing of the Dark: Renaissance Europe, On Stranger Tides: early 19th century Caribbean, and The Stress of Her Regard: early 19th century Italy
  • Delia Sherman's The Porcelain Dove: Revolutionary France
  • Harry Turtledove's Thessalonica: (Byzantine Greece) and War Between the Provinces: (American Civil War)
  • Paula Volsky's Illusion: French Revolution
  • Gene Wolfe's Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete: Ancient Greece, and Soldier of Sidon: Ancient Egypt
  • Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Saint-Germain vampire novels: various eras
  • S.J.A.Turney's Interregnum and Ironroot: Late Imperial Rome
  • Assaph Mehr's Murder In Absentia: Rome-based fantasy world
  • James Gawley is a classical scholar who writes Classical Fantasy based on the civil wars of the late Roman Republic.
  • Philip Tolhurst's George and the Dragon mixes Arthurian legend, dragons and World War 2.
  • Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age includes fantasy versions of many historical countries and peoples.
  • References

    Historical fantasy Wikipedia

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