How did the fantasy trilogy come to be?

As a result of the marvellous discussion that arose from my post on “What is a trilogy?”, someone has sent a question: how did the fantasy trilogy come to be? What is its history? (Thanks Shawn).

So I want to pose that question to all you knowledgeable folk out there.

My answer to Shawn included the following points:

It may have stemmed from the success of Lord of the Rings. [Does anyone know of any earlier fantasy trilogies?] And the structure came out of two things:

  • the physical length of the book meant it was better broken up, especially once paperbacks came to be all the rage
  • Tolkien was fascinated by the world he created more than the story, and to build a world like that you need an awful lot of words.

This second point is why fantasies still need lots of words, especially ones that are set in worlds not earth-like. Then, with Tolkien, readers found the fascination of immersing themselves in a strange and wonderful place for 3 whole volumes and wanted more of the same…and the trilogy was on its way.

Of course stories in a series, set in the same place and with the same characters, are no new thing. The Iliad and the Odyssey, tales of the gods in the ancient world, etc. In the nineteenth century in English literature you get serials (many of Dickens’s novels were serialised) and also series of mainstream novels e.g. Trollope’s Palliser books and the Barsetshirebooks – both series of 6 or 7 books, and very popular in their day.

But I wonder what the first real fantasy trilogy was? And which was the next after Tolkien?


How did the fantasy trilogy come to be? — 15 Comments

  1. The form of the fantasy trilogy is modern, but the notion of books being printed in 3, 4, 5 or even more sections goes back at least to the late eighteenth century. This includes many books by the great Gothic novelists. I love reading these books and tehir facsimiles when I can get hold of them (they’re a very nice size and I like the typefaces) but I admit I’ve never analysed them to see if they have the same form as modern fantasy.

  2. the form of the fantasy trilogy is probably only modern because fantasy is a modern genre. People have been writing or performing things in three parts at least since the time of Ancient Greece, I think. (You could argue that everything is written in 3 parts, having a beginning, a middle and an end ;))

  3. fantasy is a “modern” genre only if you completely ignore mythology and fairy tales and all that stuff which has been dragging along in various forms since civilization began. “Fantasy” is a label. what lies underneath has been around in one avatar or another for a very VERY long time.

  4. hmm.. that’s true in a way. I think that fairytales and mythology are a seperate genre on their own however.

    Fantasy is a modern genre, it just has some extremely old roots. Have started reading Richard Mathew’s “Fantasy” for my essay and he’s very interested in the stuff that makes up fantasy. He agrues that people have been writing fantasy for almost as long as we have existed (explanations for natural phenomena, etc). Then as scientific explanations came to light, people stopped writing this “fantasy”.

    I don’t think old “fantasy” and modern fantasy are the same, because they were written by people with different mindsets. In modern fantasy people write to explore new things and old ideas, sometimes as escapism, to look at things about our world which would maybe be too painful or destructive to do in realism. They often deliberately replace scientific explainations with imagination. “Old fantasy” was written as cautionary tales, advice, things to help people keep hope, tales to inspire, etc.

  5. anghara – my apologies, from your post I thought you were some snippy little fan girl who had been criticised for reading fantasy and had consequentially started to think but wasn’t thinking enough. I found your post a sweeping statement and replied as sweepingly as I could while making my arguments. Anyone posting comments on it, please keep that in mind… plus that it’s well past midnight *wince* πŸ˜‰

    however I do stand by it πŸ™‚

    I do completely understand where you’re coming from though. A lot of people are so dismissive of modern genres, and anything modern, as if people have to live at least 100 years ago to do something worthwhile. I guess it’s a cheat way to bypass some of the rubbish that time whittles out.

  6. I might be a fangirl, there are a lot of people I am still in frank awe of, but I’ve also been a pro for a decade – and I don’t THINK I was being snippy although with a certain lack of caffeine in my system anything is possible. I do, however, think before I post.

    However, apology accepted.

    You said:
    “I do completely understand where you’re coming from though. A lot of people are so dismissive of modern genres, and anything modern, as if people have to live at least 100 years ago to do something worthwhile. I guess it’s a cheat way to bypass some of the rubbish that time whittles out.”

    I think that a lot of what you might be thinking of as “modern genres” were inventions which were implemented to make booksellers’ lives easier, and that more and more books are fighting to get out of the artificial ghettoes that has been producing over the years – if the current crop of “Genre-bending” or “genre-busting” novels is anything to go by. I don’t think you can trammel story permanently – sooner or later it escapes and goes grazing in forbidden paddocks. I can see how it can make for commercial headaches, but as a writer I’m rather gleeful at it all. I”m kind of sitting here on the story side of the barricades yelling “freedom or death” with the best of them…

    however, now it’s MY bedtime, so I’m going to leave it at that…

  7. When I said modern genres I meant Fantasy and Scifi… I’m not sure if there are any others. (I made a concious decision when I was 16 that I wanted to be a fantasy writer and have been trying to conquer the genre ever since! So I’m not terribly knowledgable outside fantasy at the moment.)

    –before anyone says that I should keep my mind open, it is open, I’m just specialising currently. Also when I say I want to be a Fantasy writer, I only mean that as far as wishing to write stories set in worlds that I have imagined, usually with some form of magic.

    I agree completely that writers and stories shouldn’t feel that they are being limited by their genre(s).

  8. I believe that is was Del Rey with the Brooks Shannara books that started the ‘modern’ fantasy publishing boom, with first trilogy then series of books with purely fantasy elements. The next big name that springs to mind is Eddings. I can’t think off hand which publisher started him, but I think it was DR again. McCaffrey, DR, although the Pern books were nominally SF, appealed to the fantasy crowd with dragons … and we were off to the races.

    This was in the 70s.

  9. Karen – that’s about how I remember it, too. Strange, isn’t it, that LOTR didn’t have a more immediate influence. As I recall it was published in 1947?

  10. Sorry I’ve come in late on this one: I’ve been moving house:-) But this is a topic I find fascinating.

    A lot of modern fantasy sneaked in under the doors of Sci Fi and the historical novel, but it was definitely fantasy, even if most of the books were stand alones. There were exceptions, however: L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt hail from the 1940s and many of their stories involved the same characters and settings: “The Incomplete Enchanter” and “The Castle of Iron” were collections marketed as what we would now call a duology. And Ursula LeGuin’s first Earthsea book came out in 1968 and eventually became a quartet. (Of course, books tended to be much shorter in those days. Forex, Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, which can be found today as a single volume, was published in 10 parts betweem 1971 and 1985.)

    Arthurian spin-offs have been around for yonks – T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” was copyrighted in 1938, (although I don’t think it was published then). “The Crystal Cave”, the first book in Mary Stewart’s Arthurian trilogy, came out in 1956. Do we read these as fairy tales or fantasy?

    Fantasy as we know it does seem to be a C20 phenomenon, and the trilogy a development that dates from Tolkien’s publisher’s inability to fit LOTR into one volume. (It took Tolkien a while to take off: when I was at Uni in the 1960s he had a cult following but little popular appeal.) Yet is there really so much difference between the “cautionary tales” of folklore, satirical novels such as “Gulliver’s Travels”, works of religious allegory from Bunyan to C.S. Lewis and modern stories such as Glenda’s, which, as she has pointed out, contain picaresque themes that we might see as harking back to “Robinson Crusoe”?

    Regarded in historical perpective, fantasy’s line of succession is not easy to divide into periods with distinct styles. There has, I believe, rather been a steady development from the fairy tale to The Isles of Glory and beyond.

    May it long continue.

  11. Some interesting stuff there that I had forgotten, Satima. It’s almost as if Tolkien was just fitting in with the trend that was already developing, and all it needed was a slight push to really get going in the latter part of the century.

  12. ‘…I was asked to edit out all the SF that was in my second fantasy novel before it was published…’

    Now that’s just absurd.

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