Popular Pre-1900 Fantasy Novels

The word “fantasy” wasn’t used to describe a literary genre until the mid 20th Century, when fantasy books were distinguished from other kinds (particularly from children’s literature) and gained popularity. However, many novels of the 18th and 19th Centuries had all the hallmarks of what we’d now call fantasy, or influenced later fantasy writers.

Below I’ve listed what I believe to be the 12 most significant of these works published before 1900. I’ve tried to use their original covers, or failing that, their title pages: 

(To enlarge a cover simply click on it and the image gallery will open)

 

Some of these books are now widely accepted as originators or important early examples of related genres and sub-genres – e.g. Le Morte d’Arthur for Arthurian FantasyShe: A History of Adventure and other works by H. Rider Haggard for the Lost World sub-genre (a genre that often blurs the lines between fantasy and science fiction), The Vampyre for Vampire Fiction, The Castle of Otranto for Gothic fiction, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court for Time Travel Fantasy.

Gothic and horror fiction thrived in the 1800s, and had a strong influence on fantasy, particularly paranormal and urban fantasy. In fact, the genres are so intertwined it’s difficult to divide the two.

Science Fiction also has its early roots in the 19th Century. While not included above, I’ve mentioned some key science fiction works below that undoubtedly played a role in the rise of speculative fiction as a whole.

A Few Interesting Facts

  • There were so many ‘Alice copies’ (books heavily inspired by or based on Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass – e.g. Alice in Blunderland) in the years following the publication of his famous work that Carroll even started his own collection of them.
  • George MacDonald was a mentor to Lewis Carroll and encouraged him to publish Alice in Wonderland.
  • Both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien cite George MacDonald as an inspiration.
  • Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur while in prison.
  • Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe met, and Dickens’s pet raven is said to have inspired Poe’s famous poem “The Raven”.

Other 19th Century Works and Authors

There are some works that didn’t make it into the list above for various reasons (either because they were more works of science fiction, adventure novels or short fairy tales than fantasy, or were an assortment of short stories, or simply weren’t as prominent as others), that are none-the-less worth mentioning too:

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
  • The Voyages Extraordinaires novels by Jules Verne (1863 -1905)
  • The works of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1949)
  • The works of H.G. Wells (1866-1946)
  • The works of Frank R. Stockton (1834-1902)
  • Phantasmion by Sara Coleridge (1837)
  • Phantastes by George MacDonald (1858) [this vied with The Princess and the Goblin for a place in the above list]
  • Erewhon by Samuel Butler (1872)
  • The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1883)
  • King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard (1885) [his more famous work, but I included She instead as it has more overtly fantasy elements]
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)
  • A Houseboat on the Styx by John Kendrick Bangs (1895) [inspirer of the Bangsian fantasy sub-genre]
  • The Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit (1899)
  • Collectors and writers of fairy tales such as Andrew Lang, Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.

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Are any of these books a favourite? Or do you think I’ve overlooked an important novel? Feel free to give it a mention in the comments.

< The Most Influential Fantasy Books of Each Decade (Main Post)

16 thoughts on “Popular Pre-1900 Fantasy Novels

  1. Loving this post! And thanks for the facts too.
    Am currently rereading Dracula (I don’t recall much from my first read). I read She couple years ago and hated it. Written well, hated the ideas/opinions of the characters.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks! I hope you’re enjoying Dracula. I read it a few years ago and liked finally getting to know the original story. I haven’t read She but I did see mixed reviews and heard that it expresses very colonialist Victorian ideas and also divides people over its portrayal of women. Sounds like one of those books that was popular at the time and a forerunner of its sub-genre, but doesn’t age well in many respects.

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      • So far, Dracula is pretty good. I like the gothic atmosphere, but it’s not as intensely suspenseful as I thought it would be, or maybe it will become so later.
        You’re right about She – very colonialist Victorian ideas that pissed me off as I read, but the book is well written.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember taking a course in fantasy literature in college and it was really interesting to see the natural progression. The two early titles my author cited were Treasure Island and Tarzan of the Apes, and Treasure Island was particularly interesting to me. On the surface nothing about the story is “impossible” or even “improbable”, and yet it does fit the fantasy genre rather well, the strange “other place” within which normal rules are suspended, and characters change to become “more” than they were in the “ordinary world”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sounds like great college course! I actually um-ed and ah-ed about whether to include Tarzan and Treasure Island because of the lack of that overtly “impossible” element and their reputation as adventure novels. In the end I chose other books (though I think I’ll include Burroughs’s Barsoom series for a later decade) but you’re right, they do fit well and have a fantasy feel, even if the “other place” they enter isn’t expressly magical or a new world.

      And now you mention it I should at least have put Treasure Island in the mentions at the bottom of this post, since it was so popular and influenced so many later writers. Oh well, maybe I can add it in late with a reference to your comment 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was one of my first introductions to fantasy. I ADORE it. Great addition! I love so many of these authors.

    I consider mythology key to influencing fantasy as a genre. So, Beowulf, Illiad, and Odyssey would be on my own personal list. But I can understand why they wouldn’t be included. Afterall, they all influenced the Bard and wonderful plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

    Pre-1900 there seems to be a much finer line between science fiction and fantasy. I keep coming up with books and then thinking, “Oh, wait. That’s probably science fiction…” XD Such as Tarzan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Connecticut Yankee is very high to my to-read list but I haven’t read it yet – I’m really glad to hear you loved it though since it gives me extra motivation to finally get to it!

      Yes, mythology is definitely a key influence on fantasy, esp. those three you mentioned (only not included here due to categorisation and space reasons). I hadn’t thought of A Midsummer Night’s Dream but true, it has myth and fantasy elements too.

      I had the same problem of that finer line – I really struggled with what to include/exclude for this era (and actually the next few decades are proving tricky too). So many things have a fantasy-ish feel, or influenced fantasy, but aren’t quite fantasy.

      Like

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