Magical worlds filled with wizards, centaurs, fairies and elves sound like something from the latest Harry Potter book. But J.K. Rowling and other authors owe much to traditional literature -- including fairy tales, legends and folk tales -- that paved the way for their fantasy worlds. Both types of literature share some common elements that make them readily identifiable to modern readers.
Traditional literature began as an oral tradition, and the tales of the Brothers Grimm count among the most well-known of these tales. While fairy tales fall within the category of folk tales, as the University of Tennessee website points out, not all folk tales are fairy tales. Fairy tales are a subset of folk tales, fables, urban legends, myths and legends. Many of these tales are the foundation for fantasy literature. For example, stories about King Arthur are legend, and the basis of many novels and movies.
Magic plays an important role in fantasy literature as well as in traditional literature. Whether it's Jack and his magic beans or Gandalf in "The Lord of the Rings," the ability to conjure up supernatural powers counts as a common thread that runs through these stories. Very often these themes also center around the effect that magic has on its bearer and to those around him, instead of solely on the interesting things that the magic can do. For example, in "The Lord of the Rings," the magic of the One Ring gives Sauron great power, but has a devastating effect on the races of men, elves and hobbits who try to wield its power.
Supernatural and Extraordinary Beings
Despite the fact that not all traditional literature has characters such as elves and fairies, it's still a very common element. Modern fantasy literature borrows from this tradition as well. For example, in "The Lord of the Rings," elves, dwarfs, trolls, orcs, goblins and hobbits all inhabit the world of man. The advantage using supernatural beings is that like the superhero comics, they allow the reader to explore difficult themes of self and society, but at a distance that feels safe.
Magical objects such as goblets belching fire, wands changing people into toads and powerful armies felled by even more powerful rings appear in fantasy literature. However, the use of almost sentient and magical objects and animals also has its roots in traditional literature. Excalibur in Arthurian myth provides such an example. This talisman put power into the hands of the person who held it, and through it and other objects like it, the reader explores difficult questions. These objects also provide plot devices that reveal the destiny of the hero. This usually occurs when the reader learns that these important objects chose the hero instead of the other way around.
Reading fairy tales and myths is like stepping into another world. In traditional literature such as the Persephone myth, the heroine delves into the Underworld, where she must remain for half the year. In fantasy literature, other worlds exist as well. In Harry Potter, the world of magic exists side-by-side with the real world, but there also exist places that only the magician's eye can see, such a Diagon Alley. These world often have their own rules and while in them, characters can perform feats of magic or encounter mystical beings that they would not otherwise see.