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Fantasy at the Dawn of the 21st Century

By Anne Besson

From the expansion of the great book series to the arrival of the internet, the final two decades of the twentieth century left their mark on the history of fantasy. With a more noticeable presence than ever in mass culture, fantasy established itself as a genre to be reckoned with, in both contemporary literature and film.

In the 1980s and 1990s, literary fantasy continued to expand along the path laid down by the successes of the 1970. It was the era of the great “post-Tolkienian” series that came almost to define the genre’s identity. Then, at the turn of the twenty-first century, the phenomena that Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling, 1997-2007) and the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003) represented, meant that production was significantly ramped up, enabling it to diversify spectacularly.

“Thanks to the success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, fantasy entered into a new dimension in the late 1990s.”

The Series or Cycle Model

Starting in 1977, with the launch of Terry Brooks’s Shannara series, the idea of long-term book sets began to flourish. Whether they went by the name of “cycle,” “saga,” or “chronicle,” these multi-volume creations established fantasy’s recurrent conventions. Following in Tolkien’s footsteps, a publication model spanning ten, twenty or even thirty years, with an ever-increasing number of volumes, expressed a desire to gradually provide coherence and consistency to fictitious worlds designed to be both complete and autonomous.


The model appeared in the 1980s, with David Eddings’ Belgariad (1982-1984) and Malloreon (1987-1991) series, as well as Raymond Feist’s Riftwar Cycle (since 1982). It evolved quickly, with the Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry (1984-1986), and continued to develop into the 1990s, with Robert Jordan’s monumental Wheel of Time (1990-2013, 14 volumes, including three posthumous ones), Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth (1994-2015), and George R.R. Martin’s now legendary Song of Ice and Fire (since 1996).


A true unity of genre that has been identified and is easily recognizable emanates from this style of creation, which intertwines major Tolkienian motifs and American popular fantasy’s aesthetic and narrative codes. So while each of the authors mentioned has  created a clearly distinct world, their narration is always well-paced, their style straightforward and low on description, and the stories all tend to be action-packed.

Comment écrire de la fantasy et de la science-fiction (How to Write Science-Fiction and Fantasy), by Orson Scott Card (2018) Éditions Bragelonne, 2018
Le Gambit du magicien (Magician's Gambit), La Belgariade, 3 (The Belgariad, 3), by David Eddings (2007) Éditions Pocket, 2007

Recurrent Themes

Even though each work from that era displays its own personal variations, a clear genre identity became established as certain features reappeared repeatedly, like signs of “membership” in fantasy. The conventions of fantasy series from that time included characters travelling though secondary worlds that skewed towards the magical-medieval. They met the peoples devised by Tolkien, although sometimes under different names.

The hero, often at the heart of a hastily thrown together group of companions for his quest, is almost always a teen or a young man from a low social class, a seemingly insignificant character who will be revealed to have an exceptional destiny. There are many examples of that trope, including Garion, from David Eddings’s Belgariad, who was raised on a farm although he is actually the hidden heir to the Kingdom of Riva and must become the Guardian of the Orb of Aldur; and the hero of Orson Scott Card’s Tales of Alvin Maker (since 1987), who grows up to be a powerful wizard, but never stops speaking with the country twang he is proud of.

Le Septième Fils (Seventh Son), Les Chroniques d'Alvin le Faiseur, 1
(The Tales of Alvin Maker, 1)
, by Orson Scott Card,
illustrated by Vincent Madras (2020) Éditions L'Atalante, 2020

Canonically, the group’s mission consists in confronting, with the help of their allies, a recently re-awakened evil power that had been slumbering – in the image of Morgoth and Sauron in Tolkien: the gods in The Belgariad; Rakoth Maugrim, the Unraveller, in The Fionavar Tapestry; the White Walkers beyond the wall in A Song of Ice and Fire, and the powerful tyrant wizard Darken Rahl in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth. Thus the idea of an old conflict being restarted, of returning to a past that has become legendary within the secondary world, can be found in most of those examples – the title of Jordan’s series, The Wheel of Time, hints at the cyclical time of an eternal return.

The Darkest Road, The Fionavar Tapestry, 3, by Guy Gavriel Kay, illustration by John Howe (1992) John Howe, 1992

Eventually, the genre’s characteristics had become sufficiently established to be able to lend themselves to parody, which needs recognizable clichés to satirize. Terry Pratchett launched his famous Discworld series in 1983, and comic fantasy has been a key element in the genre ever since, with, among others, the French series Noob (Fabien Fournier, since 2008) and Le Donjon de Naheulbeuk (John Lang, since 2001). Fantasy fans not only enjoy spotting references to their favorite works, they also posses the critical distance needed to appreciate the book’ seriousness and nobility.

The 2000s and the Fantasy Boom

Thanks to the success of Harry Potter and of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, fantasy entered into a new dimension in the late 1990s. At the same time, the massive arrival of the internet in homes brought about a revolution in cultural practices. The first people to feel at home on line were “geeks” – who, in addition to being technophiles, were often fans of pop culture and speculative genres. That formerly marginal group’s tastes soon went mainstream.


Sosince the turn of the century, we have witnessed a quantitative explosion in literary and media production in the genre, which has become omnipresent, both on bookstore shelves and on screen. This has led to tremendous diversification, both in the number of sub-genres and in the cultural settings represented. The formerly systematic medieval European context has yielded to other places and cultures, enriching the story-telling with their own forms of enchantment.


Asian lands have begun to make appearances: Japan (in Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori, since 2002), China (Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven and River of Stars, 2010 and 2013), and Burma (Emory or Mynmari, the Land of Dragons, in Elisabeth Vonarburg’s Reine de Mémoire (Queen of Memory) series, 2005-2007). The East is often an imaginary space identified as part of a wider world, like the continent of Essos in George R.R. Martin’s oeuvre, or Krasia and its sovereigns, Ahman Jardir and Inevera The Demon Cycle (Peter V. Brett, 2008-2017).


Franco-American author Aliette de Bodart wrote an “Aztec noir” trilogy, Obsidian and Blood (2010-2011). Shamanism in many forms is an appealing kind of magic, for both its exoticism and its strong rooting in existing cultures. Native American (North and South) rites are also important in Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy (2005-2007), and African witchcraft gets pride of place in Nnedi Okorafor’s Zahrah the Windseeker (2005) and Akata Witch, since 2011.

La Lance du Désert (The Desert Spear), Le Cycle des Démons, 2
(Book 2 of the Demon Cycle)
, by Peter V. Brett (2015) Éditions Bragelonne, 2015

Finally, although most of the examples listed above were written in English, the massive quantitative development during that phase of fantasy’s history also enabled the genre to spread practically around the world, and particularly in France, where local production is now quite prolific.

Le Dictionnaire de la fantasy, under the direction of Anne Besson (2018) Vendémiaire Éditions