What folks call dark fantasy — that niche within fantasy of bloody tales full of morally grey people, supernatural forces and a distinct lack of happy endings — has become incredibly popular over the last few years.
But who are the progenitors of the dark fantasy movement? What are their key works?
Here’s a thought-provoking list from io9 of some of the landmark titles that have helped define dark fantasy. It contains some interesting entries.
One readers of Tolkien will certainly recognise is The Children of Hurin — a grim read if ever there was one. Beowulf and The Kalavela were also key inspirations for Tolkien. Victorian proto-fantasy author William Morris was too, although Tolkien’s letters cite influence from The House of the Wolflings and The Roots of the Mountains rather than Williams’ archaically-styled magnum opus The Well at the World’s End.
A couple of peculiar omissions: Mervyn Peake’s Gormeghast is a giant work of dark, Gothic fantasy if ever there was one while Gertrude Barrows Bennett (writing in the early 20th century as Francis Stevens) has been hailed as “the woman who invented dark fantasy”. China Meiville, whose dystopic masterpiece Perdido Street Station pretty much floored me when I read it, is another I would have expected to see on such a list.
I’m sure you have your own suggestions in addition!
Click through the link at the bottom to read the entire list.
Landmarks novels in the history of Dark Fantasy
Dark fantasy is more popular than ever. Game of Thrones is rocking our TV sets. Tons of authors have moved to the genre. We’re obsessed with bloody tales of morally gray people and supernatural forces. But where does dark fantasy come from? And how did it become so huge? ere’s a brief history of dark fantasy’s greatest moments.
The Odyssey (8th Century BCE)
The Odyssey is about a dude who went to war, and now he wants to get home to see his wife. Zeus decides to be a dick and try to block him at every path. Despite Zeus’s dickishness, Odysseus eventually does get home, where all these guys who want to sleep with his wife are hanging out and have been hanging out for years. Pissed, Odysseus kills them all, plus any of his maids that slept with them.
The Odyssey is full of mythical creatures. Witches, sirens, and a six-headed beast are all staples of fantasy fiction. And one could argue that The Odyssey has influenced pretty much all of Western literature since its creation. However, if we look at the narrative tone of the story, one where everything seems absolutely hopeless, as obstacles get worse and worse for Odysseus as Zeus throws everything he’s got at him, we can definitely see the hallmarks of dark fantasy taking shape.
Beowulf (8th-early 11th century)
Beowulf is the story of a warrior who volunteers to kill Grendel, a monster who is terrorizing a local kingdom. He does so, and for good measure decides to kill Grendel’s mother, too.
For a long time, Beowulf was looked upon primarily as a historical artifact — but this changed when Tolkien wrote the book on the critical analysis of Beowulf as a poem, not as an artifact. This book is used to this day as a resource for scholars of Beowulf. The biggest impact of this short epic poem was in its influence on Tolkien when writing his own books. Tolkien stated, “Beowulf is among my most valued sources …” This cements Beowulf as one of the greatest contributors to not just the fantasy genre. But its bloodthirsty themes also make it a key influence on dark fantasy.
Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy (circa 1308)
Basically, a man is guided through Hell and Purgatory by the poet Virgil, and Heaven by the idealized woman Beatrice.
This is first and foremost a religious allegory — but the important thing to recognize here is the scale in which Dante built three worlds. While the worlds are based, intrinsically on folklore, Dante devised a logic to them all. This book is recognized one of the most important book of not only Italy but also Western Civilization. So as with the Odyssey, no list of modern dark fantasy influences would be complete without it.