The folktale occupies a deep place in any society; by its very nature it predates print and harkens back to a time when the world had more mysteries than explanations. The publication of Children's and Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm in 1812 began the process of bringing into print the stories that had so long been a part of the oral culture of European society. Part of bringing these stories into print included the addition of flourishes by the skilled author which gradually developed into the full-fledge fantasy novel, though the process developed slowly over the course of nearly a century. For the development of the fantasy story in the English language, the important points in this development start with Ruskin's The King of the Golden River, include Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, progress in Morris's novels before finding their ultimate expression prior to Tolkien in the writings of Lord Dunsany.

Ruskin's The King of the Golden River stands as the beginning of the tradition of fantasy literature in English; as such, it departs very little from the traditions and tropes of standard fairy tales or the simple style suitable for a children's story. A moralistic fable, it chronicles the lives of three brothers, two vicious and miserly and one good-natured (if a bit simple); the mean brothers go on a quest, have various encounters, behave poorly, and receive their just reward; the younger brother goes on the same quest but, thanks to his good nature and kindness, lives happily ever after. Ruskin's doesn't spin a bad tale and can keep children and adults interested, but, for all the value he puts on imagination, his "Fairy Land" lecture, delivered forty years after writing The King of the Golden River, makes it quite clear that he feels fantastical writing suits itself uniquely to satisfying children, grown minds finding ample satisfaction in depictions of the natural world, specifically landscapes of California by Moran (328). By the time he gave this lecture in the middle 1880s, there were still no counter-examples to his claim, the most notable fantastic publication since his own consisting of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

Lewis Carroll wrote <span class="book">Alice in Wonderland as a work for children; even so, the shift from the style Ruskin wrote in and the use Ruskin expected for fantasy literature has already begun to drift, with Carroll's book — and particularly its sequel — possessing many references and implications no child could be reasonably expected to grasp, even if they appreciate it. Published in 1865 with a sequel in 1861, Alice in Wonderland bears very little resemblance to The King of the Golden River in its basic character while employing some similar methods. The firm foundation in traditional fairytales has been replaced by nonsense with no foundation in any mythology, and the firm moral foundation has also vanished; Alice's adventures are arbitrary — she eats a cake which makes her grow, then fans herself until she swims in a sea of her own tears — as are the punishments of the characters around her, most famously from the vindictive Queen of Hearts, and the story ends in anticlimax as it reveals itself as a dream. Still, although the nonsense fulfills itself as an entertaining story, references such as the Caucus Race (everyone runs around in circles for a bit, then wins) indicate some kind of expectation that the work will be of interest to an older audience as well. The departure from Ruskin's model of fantasy literature had not yet widened, though it did not have long to wait.

William Morris began publishing adult fantasy novels with A Tale of the House of the Wolfings in 1889, and in these Ruskin's views on fairy tales were solidly crossed. Written as an attempt to revive the medieval romance, Morris's novels use archaic language written at a level children could not be expected to understand, and present problems more akin to the Odyssey than those found in Grimm's Tales; the protagonist winds up far from home, willfully on a quest or to avoid trouble, and typically finds romantic fulfillment on the road to happily ever after. Some details of the novels would have been mildly scandalous at the time — the female protagonist of The Water of the Wondrous Isles spends a significant portion of the story nude. Though coming at it from a different angle, Morris turns stories of fairy land into a vehicle for ideas previously kept from what would have been considered a kind of children's literature. Operating in the tradition of chivalric romances, they might be exempted from violating Ruskin's theories on the grounds of their allegiance to the older form; even if that were so, what followed Morris only moved farther from the conception of fairy stories as tales from children.

Lord Dunsany's tales of wonder contain nothing explicit to frighten children, nor do they use language so cumbersome as to evade comprehension. Any child could, presumably, read the stories, but understanding is a different matter; the problems are not those immediate and universal ones of hunger and thirst, but problems of the future and the past, problems of scale and problems of futility. Though using patterns familiar and present even in The King of the Golden River (compare "Their hoard is beyond reason; avarice has no use for it" from "The Hoard of the Gibbelins" from The Book of Wonder to the gold-covered floor of the Black Brothers), their points are grimmer than the Grimms' — the hoard of the Gibbelins gets distributed occasionally as a bread-crumb trail of bait to stock the larders with men. His stories exist far from the moral quests of Ruskin's typical imagining, and also draw on a Japanese influence most obvious in the names (Mana-Yood-Sushai, Kai, Inzana, etc.) where Ruskin spefically criticizes a book of Japanese stories in his "Fairy Land" lecture (336-7). Dunsany's stories are so strongly removed from Ruskin's theory of fairy tales — and so successful — that by the time of their publication any expectation that their primary use might remain as children's entertainment was demolished.

Ruskin made a mistake about the future of fairy tales specifically in his belief they would continue as a medium solely for children; in his more general belief in the power and necessity of imagination he was quite correct. As with any worthwhile form, the scope and variety of works contained in the fantastic genre expanded over time, the general course of their development away from their roots towards the unexplored fairy lands for adults, though there has never been a lack of new fairy stories for children either. The Victorian developments did not follow a linear progression by any means; by kicks and starts individual authors provided precedents and departures from The King of the Golden river that established the many kinds of fantasy fiction recognized today.


Ruskin, John. "Fairy Land" in Works . The Library Edition. Eds. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 39 vols. London: George Allen, 1903-1912.

Ruskin, John. The King of the Golden River in Works . The Library Edition. Eds. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 39 vols. London: George Allen, 1903-1912.

Dunsany, Lord. The Book of Wonder. Project Gutenberg.

Last modified 16 May 2008