Explore the legendary Hero’s Journey as we delve into its usage in epic fantasy. From Frodo Baggins to Harry Potter, learn how this timeless narrative structure shapes our favourite tales.
Today we’re going to explore the legendary Hero’s Journey in the world of epic fantasy.
The Hero’s Journey, or as some like to say, the Monomyth, is a storytelling template made famous by Joseph Campbell, an American scholar (here’s not the place to delve into the other story forms that exist).
It has been used by story-tellers for millennia, both consciously and unconsciously, as a way to craft a satisfying narrative.
If you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry—you’ll recognise its structure no doubt from some of your favourite books or movies.
So, grab yourself a cuppa, and let’s delve into the Hero’s Journey.
The Unexpected Invitation
The Hero’s Journey kicks off with our main character living a humdrum life. For instance, Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. One day he’s munching on second breakfast, the next, he’s burdened with the most feared piece of bling in all Middle-Earth.
Declining the Invite
Initially, our hero doesn’t find the idea of a dangerous journey as tempting as a troll’s tea party. Harry Potter, from J.K. Rowling’s famous series, spends quite some time denying his wizardry status. But a Hogwarts invite isn’t a letter you just ignore.
A Magical Helping Hand
Right when our hero’s in a dilemma, a mysterious mentor often pops up. Cue Gandalf, Merlin, and Albus Dumbledore, the all-knowing dudes with beards with a taste for obscure advice and quirky attire. They offer guidance, magical gifts, or at least some mystifying wisdom that makes sense only three books down the line.
Leaping into the Unknown
This is where our hero steps into a brave new world, owning their fate, probably with some dramatic theme music. Daenerys Targaryen from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, strides into a blaze, coming out with three newly born dragons.And with that, her path is changed forever.
Adventures, Allies, and Adversaries
Next, our hero has to get through a maze of trials, win over unlikely allies, and dodge possible foes. They might even have to rough it in a spooky forest or two. In Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, our hero Kvothe juggles all this and a magical university.
The Epic Showdown and the Spoils
In the tale’s peak, our hero faces their worst fear. They may even “die” metaphorically (or sometimes, literally) only to be reborn. Like Vin, in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, who *spoiler alert* topples the indestructible Lord Ruler. The prize? Usually a ton of power and a dollop of self-realization.
The Homeward Journey
At last, our hero comes back to their old life, bearing the gains of their journey. They’ve evolved, mastered a legendary weapon, realised they’re royalty in disguise, or perhaps, discovered the joy of home sweet home.
The Hero’s Journey has its fair share of fans for a reason.
It appeals to our innate desire to conquer, to explore, to evolve. Yes, it’s a popular route, but isn’t that part of its appeal? Each turn has its surprises.
And, of course, when author subvert this trope, it can surprise and delight…and sometimes leave us scratching our heads.
So, next time you delve into a fantasy epic, think of our brave hero. They’re doing all the heavy lifting.
Uncover the enchanting influence of mythology and folklore on the high fantasy genre. Join us on a journey through epic quests, magical realms, and prophetic tales of dragons and wizards.
Today, we shall embark on an heroic journey through the realms of mythology and folklore, delving into their influence on the high fantasy genre.
So, grab a cup of tea, settle into your favourite armchair, and prepare to be regaled with tales of dragons, wizards, and all manner of mythical beasts.
A Brief History Lesson
Before we dive headfirst into the fantastical world of high fantasy, let us take a brief detour through the mists of time to explore the origins of mythology and folklore.
From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, we humans have always had a penchant for spinning yarns about mythical beings and grand adventures.
It’s no wonder, then, that these stories have left an indelible mark on the genre of high fantasy, providing a veritable treasure trove of inspiration for authors, both old and new.
Now, let us examine some of the most well-known mythological and folkloric elements that have found their way into high fantasy literature.
Magic is as old as storytelling itself.
In the ancient myths of Greece, we see the witch Circe using her magic to transform Odysseus’s crew into pigs.
Meanwhile, in Norse tales, we have the Allfather Odin, who’s not shy about using a bit of the old magical arts, even if it involves plucking out an eye for wisdom.
Now, let’s swap our ancient scrolls for the glossy covers of modern high fantasy, where the mystical mumbo jumbo continues to enthral.
In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, magic is a complex system of checks and balances, involving ingesting and ‘burning’ metals.
It’s not quite “eye of newt, and toe of frog,” but it sure keeps the plot turning faster than a witch’s cauldron.
In Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle, magic, or Sympathy as it’s known, is a bit like a university degree—demanding, dangerous, and very likely to leave you in masses of debt.
Whether it’s transforming spells of yore or the arcane arts in our beloved high fantasy sagas, magic continues to captivate us, sparking our imagination and making us check twice in wardrobes for secret worlds.
Ever since our cave-dwelling ancestors first etched a hunter’s journey onto a rock wall, humanity has been captivated by tales of epic quests.
After all, who doesn’t love a good yarn about some plucky hero venturing out into the unknown to slay monsters, find treasure, or pop to the shops for a pint of milk?
When it comes to ancient literature, the quest narrative is as ubiquitous as a rainy Manchester afternoon.
These quests are typically bold undertakings filled with wondrous adventures, strange creatures, and a spot of character development for our heroic protagonists.
Most importantly, they’ve served as inspiration for the modern high fantasy tales we love so dearly today.
One of the oldest examples of the epic quest narrative comes from Mesopotamia in The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Here, our eponymous hero Gilgamesh and his beefy buddy Enkidu venture into the Cedar Forest to square up against the beastly Humbaba.
It’s all for the sake of fame and glory, and it sets the stage for all subsequent epic quests.
After all, what’s a bit of casual monster-slaying between friends, eh?
Meanwhile, the ancient Greeks were not ones to be outdone in the epic quest department.
The Odyssey, one of the West’s oldest and most beloved epics, recounts Odysseus’s ten-year struggle to return home after the Trojan War. Along the way, he encounters cyclopes (who are not very fond of wine, it turns out), enchantresses, and cantankerous gods—a full roster of fantastical beings that wouldn’t feel out of place in a modern fantasy epic.
Now, fast forward a few millennia and we can see how these ancient quests inspire our beloved high fantasy narratives.
We can see these tropes in modern high fantasy tales, too.
Think of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, where numerous characters venture on epic quests, from Jon Snow’s journey beyond the Wall to Daenerys Targaryen’s path to reclaim her throne.
Not to mention her penchant for raising fire-breathing pets, which beats goldfish any day.
The point is, the epic quest, while thousands of years old, is a narrative we never grow tired of.
Perhaps it’s the sense of adventure, the battle against the odds, or just the joy of watching a character grow from zero to hero (or in some cases, zero to slightly-better-zero).
But no matter the reason, it’s clear that the epic quests of ancient literature continue to echo in our modern tales, providing a rich tapestry of inspiration for authors and a bounty of exciting tales for readers.
If there’s one thing that gets our literary pulses racing, it’s a good old prophecy.
Whether it’s foretelling the rise of a hero, the fall of a villain, or the precise moment your kettle will boil (usually when you’ve nipped to the loo), prophecies are a storytelling staple that never seems to lose its flavour.
From the mysterious riddles of the ancient world to the plot-twisting predicaments of modern high fantasy, prophecies are the Worcestershire sauce of narrative condiments.
They add a bit of zest, a dash of mystery, and a generous helping of ‘what on earth is going to happen next?’
When it comes to the classics, the Greeks really knew how to spin a prophetic yarn.
The Oracle of Delphi was a one-stop shop for all your prophetic needs. However, like the small print in a dodgy phone contract, her prophecies were often quite vague and open to interpretation.
A classic example can be found in Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex. The prophecy stated that Oedipus would end up doing in his dad and marrying his mum.
Attempting to avoid this awkward family reunion, Oedipus legs it to a different city, bumps off a stranger (who, surprise surprise, turns out to be his dad), and marries the local widow (you can guess where this is going).
The lesson? When it comes to prophecy, you can run but you can’t hide.
Fast-forward a few millennia, and the tradition of cryptic prophecies is alive and well in the realm of high fantasy. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is a smorgasbord of prophecies, dreams, and visions.
The ‘prince who was promised’ prophecy, for instance, has kept readers and characters alike guessing.
Is it Jon Snow? Daenerys? Or Hot Pie? We’re still waiting for that one to bake.
J.K. Rowling also serves up a fresh prophecy in her Harry Potter series. Professor Trelawney’s prediction that a boy born at the end of July would be the one to vanquish Lord Voldemort sets the stage for the entire series.
Spoiler alert: it’s not Neville. Though let’s be honest, Neville had his moments…
These prophecies, like their ancient predecessors, work because they create suspense and drive the narrative.
They offer a tantalising glimpse of what might come to pass, without giving the game away.
In a nutshell, prophecies are like that friend who hints at a surprise birthday party but refuses to give any details.
It’s maddening, exciting, and keeps us on our toes.
They’ve been a part of storytelling for thousands of years, adding spice to our myths, folklore, and high fantasy tales.
Otherworldly realms have mystified mankind since time immemorial.
From gloomy underworlds to luminous fairylands, these magical domains have played pivotal roles in mythology and folklore, and continue to captivate us in the realms of modern fantasy.
First on our itinerary is the underworld, a staple in many mythologies.
Arguably the most famous is the Greek underworld, ruled by the god Hades. Yes, that’s right, even in the afterlife there’s still bureaucracy.
But, bear in mind, if you’re planning a visit, be sure to avoid the local cuisine—Persephone can attest to the unfortunate side effects of indulging in a seemingly innocent pomegranate seed snack.
In Nordic mythology, we have Valhalla, the eternal feasting hall where Viking heroes spend their afterlives in a continuous cycle of fighting and feasting.
It’s sort of like a never-ending stag do, but with more axes and less curry.
Then there’s Fairyland, a realm full of magic and mischief, traditionally accessed via portals in the natural world, like rings of mushrooms or ancient hawthorn trees.
Be wary of their hospitality, though, or you might find yourself stuck there for a few centuries.
Now, let’s step through the wardrobe (mind the coats) into the world of modern fantasy.
First off, there’s the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, which takes the concept of other realms to a whole new level with the idea of parallel universes.
Here we see everything from our own recognisable world to the eerily beautiful realm of Cittàgazze, a city haunted by soul-eating spectres.
It’s like Venice, but with fewer gondolas and more terror.
And let’s not forget the mystical lands in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia.
Through a humble wardrobe, we’re transported to a land where animals talk, witches have a worrisome obsession with Turkish Delight, and wardrobes are definitely larger on the inside.
And no exploration of other realms in fantasy would be complete without mentioning the realm of Faerie in Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince series.
In these books, we encounter a realm both breathtakingly beautiful and chillingly brutal, reminding us that other realms, like people, have their dark and light sides.
Other realms serve as reminders of the infinite possibilities of the human imagination.
They give us space to explore complex ideas, confront our deepest fears, and maybe even encounter a unicorn or two.
Just remember, if you do decide to venture into another realm, be sure to read the small print, respect the local customs, and whatever you do, don’t eat the food.
Gods and Demigods
Gods and demigods are powerful beings whose exploits have coloured our narratives from the earliest myths to the most recent fantasy yarns.
First off, we have the gods, our divine heavyweights.
From the chiselled Olympians of ancient Greece, to the Norse pantheon chilling in Valhalla, these celestial beings wield power that can shape the earth, command the elements, and, apparently, complicate the lives of mortals.
Next up, the demigods—the result of divine dalliances with mortals.
These half-god, half-human hybrids often find themselves in the middle of epic quests, world-saving, and a lot of identity crisis.
From Hercules to Perseus, these guys are proof that having a god for a parent isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Gods, in their majestic might, have found a cosy home in stories like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, where they tackle the peculiar nuances of modern life. I
Demigods, meanwhile, have stamped their heroic mark in series like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books.
Whether it’s the awe-inspiring power of gods, or the relatable struggles of demigods, these divine figures from ancient lore continue to cast their influence on our modern high fantasy tales.
What’s the first image that pops into your head when I say “witch?”
A cackling crone with a pointy hat, a warty nose, and an affection for cats and broomsticks?
Perhaps an eye of newt and toe of frog recipe?
Or, if you’re more aligned with modern high fantasy, a powerful and complex figure with a deep understanding of the arcane arts?
Regardless of your witchy vision, there’s no denying that these spellbinding ladies have left an indelible mark on literature and folklore, from the ancient world to Terry Pratchett’s beloved Discworld series.
Our earliest witchy wanderings take us back to ancient Greece, where the witch-goddess Circe made a name for herself in Homer’s Odyssey.
Circe had a penchant for turning men into pigs.
However, she wasn’t all about the porcine transformation; she also helped our hero Odysseus on his epic journey home, showing us that witches can be just as helpful as they are harmful.
Skipping ahead a few centuries, we meet the witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Weird Sisters.
With their eerie chants of “Double, double toil and trouble,” they whip up a storm of trouble for our ambitious antihero.
They’re a classic example of the trope of witches as foretellers of doom and spreaders of chaos. And let’s face it, they’ve got a cracking recipe for disaster soup.
Now, hold onto your hats, folks, because we’re hopping on our broomsticks and soaring into the modern realm of high fantasy.
One needn’t look further than the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series for some of the most iconic and subversive witches in fantasy literature.
Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick (later replaced by the adorably feisty Tiffany Aching) are the witches of the ramshackle kingdom of Lancre.
They don’t fit the stereotypical mould of cackling, evil hags. Instead, they use their headology (a sort of folk-psychology-meets-common-sense approach), their knowledge of herbs and the human heart, and their innate grit to solve problems.
Granny Weatherwax, with her iron will and no-nonsense attitude, is the antithesis of the evil witch trope.
Nanny Ogg is the bawdy, jovial matriarch we all wish we had, while Magrat and Tiffany represent the idealistic, modern young witch trying to find her place in the world.
Pratchett’s witches are fully-realised characters, complete with strengths, weaknesses, and wonderfully quirky habits (we’re looking at you, Nanny Ogg and your naughty songs).
Over the year, witches have evolved from malicious spell-weavers and fortune-tellers into complex, multi-faceted characters.
They’ve gone from the sidelines of myth and folklore to the forefront of modern high fantasy, casting a spell that continues to enchant readers of all ages.
Whether you picture a bearded old man in a pointy hat or a bespectacled boy with a lightning bolt scar, there’s no doubt that wizards have cast a spell over our literary imaginations.
From their beginnings in ancient folklore to their lofty status in modern high fantasy, these magical maestros have had quite the journey.
Our first stop is in ancient Egypt, where we meet the high priest Djedi, who was said to be able to bring a decapitated animal back to life.
Now, I’m not sure about you, but I’d say resurrecting a goose definitely earns you a spot in the wizarding hall of fame.
Returning to ancient Greece, we encounter Medea. his enchantress, who appears in the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece, certainly knew her way around a spell or two.
She could mix potions, control the elements, and generally bewitch anyone who got in her way. Although technically a witch, Medea’s powers and influence over the narrative can be seen as a precursor to our modern understanding of a wizard.
Moving on to the Medieval era, the figure of Merlin emerges in Arthurian legends.
Now, here’s a bloke who truly embodies the classic image of a wizard.
With his long beard, mysterious origins, and propensity for prophecies, Merlin set the standard for wizard-kind for centuries to come.
The mighty Gandalf from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a wizard par excellence.
He’s old, wise, and can put on a fireworks display to put New Year’s Eve in London to shame.
Plus, he’s got that killer line, “You shall not pass!” which is handy not only when facing demon Balrogs but also when dealing with queue jumpers at the local chippy.
On the flip-side of a Merlin or Gandalf, we have Terry Pratchett’s wizard Rincewind from the Discworld series.
Now, Rincewind’s not your typical wizard—in fact, he’s rather rubbish at magic.
His true talent lies in running away and surviving against all odds, demonstrating that sometimes, it’s not the strength of the magic that matters, but the strength of the character.
And who could forget the wizarding world’s most famous teenager, Harry Potter?
This bespectacled boy wizard has undoubtedly left his mark (much like that pesky lightning bolt scar of his) on the world of fantasy literature, bringing magic and wizardry to a new generation of readers.
From elves to pixies, and gnomes to dwarves, these small humanoids may be lacking in height but are positively brimming with character.
Our first stop is ancient Ireland, where we encounter the mischievous leprechaun.
This little green chappie, with his propensity for shoe-mending and rainbow-hoarding, is a cornerstone of Irish mythology.
But be warned, if you’re planning on nabbing his pot of gold, remember this: leprechauns are not to be trifled with.
Journeying northwards, we find ourselves amid the Viking sagas and their hardy dwarves.
These stout fellows were renowned for their craftsmanship, forging legendary items such as Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir.
Then, there’s the realm of the fairy folk, sprinkled throughout European folklore.
Ranging from the delicate, fluttery-winged beings of English lore to the more elusive and sometimes sinister entities found in Scottish and Irish tales.
Fast forward to the modern era of high fantasy, and we find J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits of The Lord of the Rings.
These pint-sized heroes, with their love for second breakfasts and their big, hairy feet, have won the hearts of millions.
Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin remind us that even the smallest person can change the course of the future. Just don’t ask them to share their elevenses.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series also boasts a delightful array of smaller humanoids.
The Nac Mac Feegle (also known as the Wee Free Men) are a rowdy, boisterous group of blue-skinned, red-haired pictsies who enjoy fighting, stealing, and drinking.
As Pratchett so astutely puts it, they are “the most feared of all the fairy races, even before you get to the point of mentioning that they’re all six inches tall.”
From the early folklore of leprechauns and dwarves to the modern imaginings of hobbits and house-elves, small humanoids have always been a big part of our storytelling tradition.
They remind us of the power of the underdog (or undergnome, or underpixie), the potential for magic in unexpected places, and the truth of the old saying: good things come in small packages.
A time comes in every man’s life where you have to sit down and say, “let’s talk unicorns.”
These majestic beasts, with their singular spiralling horns and penchant for purity, have trotted through tales from ancient India to Medieval Europe.
Many a noble knight was said to have wasted his days chasing these elusive creatures, presumably because they had an aversion to practical pursuits like jousting or crocheting.
This majestic creature, boasting the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle, has been a mainstay in mythology since the ancient Greeks first said, “you know what our stories need? More flying lions.” And frankly, who are we to disagree?
Next on our list is the ever-rising phoenix.
Hailing from ancient Egyptian and Greek mythology, this fiery bird had the rather handy trick of bursting into flames and being reborn from its own ashes.
Next up, we have Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology.
Born from the blood of the slain Medusa, this high-flying steed had quite the dramatic entrance into the world.
He later served the hero Bellerophon, until a fall from grace—or rather, a tumble from the horse—sent Bellerophon back to the ground.
Then, we come to the centaur: half-human, half-horse, and all-around fascinating.
They trotted their way from ancient Greek lore to the fantastical world of Narnia and beyond, forever raising questions about where exactly they buy their trousers.
Moving from ancient lore to the realm of modern fantasy, we continue to see these magical creatures and their kin popping up all over the place.
Our beloved unicorn has evolved from the unattainable symbol of purity into magical creatures found in the pages of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.
They still carry the ethereal quality of yore, but with added layers of depth and pathos that leave us reaching for the tissues.
Then there’s the griffin.
Pegasus, the flying horse, inspired J.K. Rowling’s winged beasts in the Harry Potter series, from Buckbeak the Hippogriff to Fawkes the Phoenix.
Our magical tour continues to reveal the rich tapestry of mythical beasts that have galloped, flown, and trotted their way from ancient mythology to the heart of modern fantasy.
They add a pinch of the extraordinary to our stories and continue to ignite our sense of wonder. And who knows, next time you spot an unusually large bird in the sky or hear a rustle in the forest, you might just start to wonder…
Let’s begin with the not-so-gentle giants. They’ve stomped their way through folklore from Jack’s beanstalk to the tales of David and Goliath.
Always towering over us mere mortals, they have a knack for making us feel like Lilliputians on a bad day.
Next on our parade of peculiarities are the goblins.
These mischievous miscreants of the night have their roots in European folklore.
Not exactly known for their good looks, they’re usually trotted out to serve as a warning to children who misbehave.
I imagine it’s like saying, “eat your peas, or the goblins will get you.”
And let’s not forget the brutish ogres.
This lot have been the stuff of nightmares since their first mention in the epic French poem “La Chanson de Roland”.
Traditionally depicted as large, ugly and fond of human snacks, these creatures would make terrible dinner guests.
Next on our monster menu are the harpies. These winged women of Greek mythology, known for their screeching cries and unsavoury habits, were once considered the personifications of wind.
Of course, over time they’ve become less wind goddess and more flying fury.
Next up, we have the infamous Minotaur.
This half-man, half-bull chap was known for his residence in a labyrinth on Crete and his penchant for the occasional human snack. If ever there was a case for carrying a ball of string and avoiding suspicious mazes, it’s this fellow.
Lastly, we have the trolls of Norse folklore. These behemoths, known for their strength, slow wits, and aversion to sunlight, were not the sort of creature you’d want to stumble upon on a late-night hike.
Switching on the lantern of modern fantasy, we can see the shadows of these monsters stretching out into some of our favourite tales.
The giants have been reinvented by J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series. Here, they range from the sympathetic and slightly dense Hagrid to the less appealing and significantly more violent Golgomath.
Goblins, with their green skin and industrious nature, find a home in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
They may be miners and metalsmiths, but their union rights leave much to be desired, and their customer service skills are truly something to wince at.
And then, there’s Shrek, our favourite ogre from William Steig’s book and the beloved DreamWorks film series.
He might have a face only a mother (or Fiona) could love, but he shows us that even ogres can have layers, just like onions.
The harpies, with their shrill cries and chaotic nature, can be found in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.
In these stories, they’ve been repurposed as punishment for those who overstay their welcome in the underworld.
It’s like being told to move along by a terrifying, shrieking bird-woman.
Our bull-headed friend, the Minotaur, also makes an appearance in the Percy Jackson series, where he’s quite miffed about being beaten by a young lad with a piece of string all those years ago.
And finally, trolls. They’ve found a new home under J.R.R. Tolkien’s bridges and within J.K. Rowling’s magical world.
Now it’s time to dive into into the ocean’s depths, exploring the mysteries and myths of sea monsters. From the mighty Kraken to the enchanting merfolk and deadly sirens, we’ll traverse the tumultuous tides of ancient legends to the calmer seas of modern fantasy.
First on our maritime itinerary is the colossal Kraken.
This legendary sea monster, hailing from Norse sagas, was reputedly large enough to envelop entire ships with its giant tentacles.
Next, we have the merfolk.
These aquatic creatures with the upper body of a human and the tail of a fish are prevalent in folklore from all over the world.
They might seem inviting, but their whimsical nature hides a propensity for causing shipwrecks.
Lastly, we’ll listen for the captivating call of the sirens.
These Greek mythological creatures, often confused with mermaids, were said to lure sailors to their doom with their irresistible songs.
Now, let’s surface into the realm of modern fantasy, where these sea monsters continue to make waves.
The terrifying Kraken appears in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, proving that even demigods should be wary of what lurks beneath the ocean’s surface.
Merfolk, in all their alluring mystique, have swam into the hearts of modern readers in stories like Sarah Henning’s Sea Witch. These aren’t your Disney princesses, mind you. They’ve got more bite than you’d expect from fishfolk.
And who can forget the sirens? Their enchanting melodies have echoed through the pages of countless fantasy novels, including the Watersong series by Amanda Hocking.
Next, we’re lifting the lid on the coffin of undead mythology, from the spectral ghosts to bloodthirsty vampires and shambling zombies.
These timeless terrors have been chilling our spines from ancient legends to modern fantasy, so grab a garlic necklace, and let’s dig into the details!
First up, we have our friendly neighbourhood apparitions, the ghosts.
From Ancient Egypt to Shakespearean England, these ethereal beings have been haunting our narratives, often sticking around due to some unfinished business.
Next, let’s sink our teeth into vampires.
These undead aristocrats, originating from Eastern European folklore, are famed for their penchant for a liquid diet—type O, please, hold the garlic.
Lastly, we’ve got the ever-persistent zombies.
With roots in Haitian folklore, these undead folk don’t let a little thing like mortality get in the way of a good walk.
Ghosts float through many of our favourite stories.
From the mournful spirits in Susan Dennard’s Witchlands series to the helpful ghosts of Hogwarts in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, they’re as much a part of the scenery as the cobwebs in an old house.
Vampires, with their impressive canines and nocturnal habits, have swooped into the likes of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series.
For some unfathomable reason, there’s something tantalising about a brooding, eternally young fellow who only comes out at night.
And let’s not forget the zombies, those steady if somewhat slow, pursuers of the living.
In novels like World War Z by Max Brooks, they serve as a stark reminder that the slow and steady can indeed win the race, especially if the race is to devour brains.
As the old saying goes, “Here be dragons!” But what are dragons, really?
Not the scaly blighters who keep nicking the BBQ sausages off your grill.
No, we’re talking about the fire-breathing, gold-hoarding, riddle-spouting creatures that have haunted the nightmares and fantasies of many a culture around the world.
Dragons are fascinating creatures.
They’re the Beyoncés of the mythological world—everyone’s heard of them, and they come with a full range of talents.
Breath of fire? Check.
Shapeshifting, telepathy, riddles? All present and correct.
They’re multi-talented, to say the least, and it’s not difficult to see why they’ve captivated the imaginations of authors and readers alike in the realm of high fantasy.
One of the main reasons we’re so drawn to dragons, I suspect, is because they’re wildly different depending on who you ask.
In much of Western mythology, dragons are usually the baddies.
They’re the embodiment of chaos and destruction, a menace that needs to be sorted out by our brave knight in shining armour.
St. George and the Dragon, anyone?
Meanwhile, some Eastern mythologies give us a different perspective.
Here, dragons are often benevolent, symbols of wisdom and power, the kind of being you wouldn’t mind having around for a cuppa and a chat.
They’re associated with water, agriculture, and the heavens, embodying harmony rather than chaos.
So, one dragon’s fiery chaos is another dragon’s spot of tea.
This diversity offers authors a fantastic toolbox when they’re crafting their high fantasy novels.
Whether a dragon is a fearsome antagonist, a wise ally, or an intriguing mixture of the two, it’s the dragon’s character that adds depth and colour to a tale.
It’s the one creature where the sky isn’t just the limit—it’s a mere starting point.
But these mythological fire-breathers didn’t simply pop up overnight.
Dragons have been slithering around in the imaginations of humans for millennia.
From their ominous roles in ancient religious texts to the great epics of early literature, let’s set our time machine back a bit and explore some of these beastly origin stories.
The Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, introduces us to the rather marvellous Tiamat, a chaos sea-dragon.
She’s one of the earliest dragon-esque beings in mythology.
With her, we’re in serious trouble. I mean, she’s the embodiment of chaos. Nice lass, I’m sure, but not one for a quiet pint down at the local.
Fast forward to ancient Greece and we encounter a plethora of dragon-like creatures.
There’s the Hydra, a water serpent with nine heads, slain by our friendly neighbourhood demigod, Hercules.
And let’s not forget about Python, a dragon-serpent slain by the god Apollo, which even had a prophecy-telling gig at the Oracle of Delphi.
Over in the Bible, we have the well-known serpent from the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis, often interpreted as a dragon in early Christian art and literature.
And don’t get me started on Revelation, where dragons and serpents are all the rage, particularly one “great red dragon” with seven heads.
Even the ancient Chinese had a spot for dragons, who were often considered as deities associated with water and weather.
These dragons were vastly different from their Western counterparts – they were symbols of power and luck, rather than monstrous beasts.
They even had a Dragon King, who was in charge of rain and water. So, if you had a water leak, you knew who to blame.
Whether they were feared or revered, dragons have been an integral part of cultural lore across the world, shaping tales and myths for thousands of years.
Even today, in our high fantasy novels, we see echoes of these ancient dragon tales, reminding us of our enduring fascination with these legendary beasts.
The Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey, or monomyth, is a common template found in many stories from cultures around the world.
Proposed by Joseph Campbell, it illustrates the cyclical journey undertaken by the protagonist—the hero—in a transformative adventure.
From the trials and tribulations of Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey to the adventures of Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon, the hero’s journey is a tried and true formula that continues to capture the imaginations of readers the world over.
After all, who doesn’t love a good underdog story?
The Hero’s Journey in The Lord of the Rings
The Ordinary World: This is the hero’s regular life before the story begins. For Frodo Baggins, the hero of our tale, this is his peaceful existence in the Shire.
Call to Adventure: The hero is presented with a challenge or quest. In Frodo’s case, this comes when he inherits the One Ring from Bilbo and learns of its dark history from Gandalf.
Refusal of the Call: Often, the hero will initially refuse the call due to fear or uncertainty. While Frodo is anxious about the dangerous journey, he understands the necessity and takes up the mission.
Meeting the Mentor: The hero encounters someone who provides guidance or training. Gandalf serves as Frodo’s mentor, imparting knowledge about Middle-Earth, the Ring, and the dangerous quest ahead.
Crossing the Threshold: The hero leaves their ordinary world and embarks on their quest. Frodo, accompanied by his friends, leaves the Shire to take the Ring to Rivendell.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The hero faces a series of challenges while making friends and encountering foes. Frodo and his companions – the Fellowship of the Ring – encounter numerous obstacles, from Orcs to the treacherous Gollum.
Approach to the Inmost Cave: The hero approaches the goal. For Frodo, this is his arduous journey towards Mount Doom, the only place where the Ring can be destroyed.
The Ordeal: This is a major challenge that the hero must overcome, usually facing death or severe danger. Frodo faces many ordeals, notably the climactic struggle at Mount Doom, where he battles the influence of the Ring and Gollum’s treachery.
Reward (Seizing the Sword): After overcoming the ordeal, the hero receives a reward or accomplishes their goal. Frodo’s reward is the destruction of the Ring, leading to the defeat of Sauron and the liberation of Middle-earth.
The Road Back: The hero must return to their ordinary world. Here, Frodo and his companions return to the Shire.
Resurrection: This is the final test, where the hero must face the consequences of their journey. For Frodo, this is the scouring of the Shire, where he and his companions defend their home one last time.
Return with the Elixir: The hero returns to the ordinary world but is transformed by their journey. Frodo, forever changed by his journey, ultimately decides to leave Middle-earth with the elves, passing on his story (the ‘elixir’) to Sam to continue in the Shire.
Ten High Fantasy Books Inspired by Mythology and Folklore
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Blending elements of American folklore, Norse mythology, and modern-day life, Gaiman’s tale follows ex-convict Shadow Moon as he becomes embroiled in a war between the old gods and the new.
Circe by Madeline Miller
This enchanting novel tells the story of Circe, the daughter of the Titan Helios and the nymph Perse, who is banished to a remote island where she hones her witchcraft and encounters legendary figures from Greek mythology.
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
Drawing upon European folklore and mythology, Beagle’s novel tells the story of a unicorn who sets out on a journey to discover why she is the last of her kind, encountering a cast of colorful characters along the way. The novel is known for its beautiful prose and poignant exploration of themes such as love, loss, and mortality.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Set in medieval Russia, Arden’s novel draws upon Russian folklore and Slavic mythology to tell the story of a young girl named Vasilisa who must protect her village from dark forces.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
In this epic fantasy tale, Rothfuss draws inspiration from various mythologies and folklores to create a richly detailed world filled with magic, music, and adventure.
The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
In this beautifully crafted series, Jemisin weaves together elements of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern mythology to create a captivating tale of gods, mortals, and the power struggles that bind them.
The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin’s classic series is set in a world of magic and dragons, drawing inspiration from various folklores and myths, including Norse, Celtic, and Taoist traditions. The story follows the wizard Ged as he journeys through the islands of Earthsea, confronting ancient evils and learning the true meaning of power and wisdom. The series is known for its vivid world-building, complex characters, and exploration of themes such as balance, identity, and the power of language.
The Broken Empire Trilogy by Mark Lawrence
This dark, gritty series follows the rise of a ruthless prince named Jorg Ancrath as he battles demons, both internal and external, in a world shaped by ancient myths and legends.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
A love letter to storytelling, Morgenstern’s novel draws inspiration from a wide array of mythologies and folklores to create a mesmerizing tale of a hidden, magical world beneath the surface of our own.
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
In this standalone epic fantasy, Shannon weaves together elements from Eastern and Western mythologies, creating a world filled with dragons, magic, and complex political intrigue.
Each of these stories offers a unique perspective on the timeless themes and archetypal characters that have captivated readers for centuries. Happy reading!
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