By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
As a literary genre, fantasy is one of the oldest and most recent. Although modern fantasy only began to be recognised as a distinct genre in the late twentieth century, thanks largely to the popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien and his imitators, its roots can be traced back millennia. Indeed, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, often regarded as the foundational texts of western literature, are ‘fantasy literature’ in their incorporation of magical or supernatural elements and their focus on epic stories, perilous journeys, and mighty battles.
And moving farther afield than the West, the Arabian Nights might be described as fantasy, with their inclusion of genies, magic charms and talismans, magicians, and other fantastical paraphernalia.
The short story, by comparison, is a relatively modern phenomenon, which arose in the early to mid-nineteenth century as literary magazines and periodicals became more popular. Edgar Allan Poe – who was one of the first people, perhaps the very first, to use the term ‘short story’ – was a pioneer of the short form.
Below, we have selected and introduced ten of the very best fantasy short stories. They are drawn from a range of places and cultures, but virtually all of them are short enough to be read in less than an hour.
1. E. T. A. Hoffmann, ‘The Golden Pot’.
Before Poe, there was Hoffmann (1776-1822), who was an even earlier pioneer of the short story form as well as an influential early writer of what we now call fantasy literature. He was associated with the Romantic movement, and Hoffmann’s work shows a fascination with the romance and folklore surrounding such things as toys which come to life, witches who can grant wishes, and other ‘fantastical’ things.
And although he is probably best-known for writing the story which Tchaikovsky turned into The Nutcracker and for penning ‘The Sandman’ (creepy Gothic horror classic), ‘The Golden Pot’ may be his best story.
‘The Golden Pot’ is about a student, Anselmus, who inadvertently offends a witch one day; the witch sets about trying to destroy his life using all manner of supernatural tricks and scare tactics, but Anselmus has a guardian-spirit (who takes the form of a serpent) to watch over him. What ensues is an enchanting fantasy story, a quest of sorts, which sees Anselmus trying to overcome his nemesis and fall in love with the female spirit who is devoted to protecting him.
2. The Brothers Grimm, ‘Snow-White’.
We could have picked quite a few fairy tales collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm here, since many of their stories – which mostly have their roots in German folklore – have fantastical elements. But with its talking mirror, dwarfs, and (spoiler alert) queens who come back to life, this is perhaps the most ‘fantastic’ of the lot.
We discuss the plot to this classic tale, and analyse its meaning, in more detail in a separate post.
3. Hans Christian Andersen, ‘The Snow Queen’.
As with the Brothers Grimm, many of the tales written by the Danish Hans Christian Andersen (unlike the Grimms, Andersen tended to write his own stories rather than rework old folk tales) could qualify as ‘fantasy fiction’. This one is among his most famous, and has a very pleasing plot, so we’ve chosen ‘The Snow Queen’ (which we have analysed in a separate post) for inclusion here.
A hobgoblin has created a mirror which magnifies ugly and evil things, and shrinks good and pretty things. When this hobgoblin’s associates took the mirror up into the sky to see what the angels looked like in it, it fell and smashed into millions of pieces. Some of these pieces got into people’s eyes and distorted their view of the world; some pieces became windows; some pieces even made it into people’s hearts and turned those hearts as cold as ice.
But many pieces were left scattered about the world.
The Snow Queen, the villainess of the story, turns a young boy against his childhood friend, a girl named Gerda. With its wicked snow queen and its focus on good versus evil, the story can be viewed as an influence on C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, written more than a century later.
4. Saki, ‘Gabriel-Ernest’.
The very short stories of Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916) deserve to be better-known: Saki (the name Munro chose to publish under) penned some of the cleverest and wittiest tales of the early twentieth century. He is particularly fond of using children and animals as protagonists: another of his stories (and one of his funniest), ‘Tobermory’, features a cat which has been taught to talk.
‘Gabriel-Ernest’ fuses Gothic horror with Edwardian wit and more than a dash of homoeroticism. But it also has a touch of the fairy tale about it, with its woodland setting and its lycanthropy, recalling ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. It’s about a teenage boy who transforms into a werewolf and preys on small children. Saki was writing at the height of his powers here, and every sentence is laced with fine wit. We discuss the story in more detail here.
5. Lord Dunsany, ‘The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth’.
Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, better known as Lord Dunsany (1878-1957), was a pioneer of modern fantasy, and although he also wrote fantasy novels – such as The King of Elfland’s Daughter – he was arguably at his best when working in the short-story form.
Dunsany’s work represents a break with previous ‘fantasy’ writing, because he invented his own pantheon of gods and goddesses and his own mythology, rather than drawing on Arthurian, Norse, or Greco-Roman myths and legends. He was an important influence on J. R. R. Tolkien.
Published in 1908 in his collection The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories, ‘The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth’ is in some ways an early example of what became known as ‘sword and sorcery’. A hero undertakes a quest into the dark ‘Fortress Unvanquishable’, a magical structure built by the evil wizard Gaznak, in order to find the one thing that will vanquish the fortress: the sword name Sacnoth.
6. J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Leaf by Niggle’.
Although he’s universally known for two novels, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (which, technically, is one novel divided into six rather than three smaller ‘books’, so isn’t a trilogy), Tolkien also wrote shorter works. ‘Leaf by Niggle’, written shortly after the publication of The Hobbit in the late 1930s, is perhaps Tolkien’s most famous short story, and is often interpreted as an allegory for Tolkien’s own struggles as a writer.
Niggle, a painter, is constantly thwarted in his artistic ambitions by those around him, who insist he perform menial labour, ask for his help, or otherwise prevent him from painting his beautiful leaves. Although Tolkien disliked allegory (he was critical of his friend C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books for this reason), this story is widely viewed as an allegory for Tolkien’s own life.
7. Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Circular Ruins’.
The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) never won the Nobel Prize for Literature, nor did he write a novel. But he is widely regarded as one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century, was a considerable influence on magic realism, and penned some of the most original, clever, and thought-provoking short stories ever written.
First published in 1940, ‘The Circular Ruins’ is one of his most richly symbolic short stories, and has the force of a modern myth. One of his most powerful and suggestive explorations of the nature of reality and dreams, ‘The Circular Ruins’ can variously be interpreted as a story about artistic creation or about the world, and our place in the world, as we perceive it.
It’s also rather fantastical both in content and setting. A man travels to the circular ruins of an ancient temple in order to dream another man into existence – but there’s a twist at the end of this short tale which will see the man stepping into flames …
8. Robert E. Howard, ‘Red Nails’.
Sword and sorcery, pioneered by Lord Dunsany, would really come into its own as a subgenre with the work of Robert Ervin Howard (1906-36), the Texan pulp fiction-writer who wrote in a range of genres. But it’s for his work in what we now call fantasy fiction that Howard is chiefly remembered, and he left behind several iconic fantasy creations, including King Kull and, chief of all, Conan the Barbarian.
We could pick any number of Howard’s Conan stories here (and disagree with Stephen King, who in Danse Macabre dismissed all of Howard’s non-Conan writing), but we’ve opted for ‘Red Nails’ because it has many of the features which make Conan such fun: exotic settings, a beautiful and spirited female love-interest, an encounter with Aztec-like tribes who live in a vast indoor city in the desert, and even a fight with a dragon.
Some of Howard’s depictions of other races and cultures may be problematic from a twenty-first-century perspective, but with this caveat borne in mind, one can marvel at the fantastic inventiveness of Howard’s imagination and the sheer energy of his prose.
9. Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’.
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) wrote both science fiction and fantasy, although some of her short stories are perhaps best labelled as ‘speculative fiction’, because they rely less on hard science than on imagined places and landscapes. These places are then used to explore some intriguing and troubling philosophical and ethical issues.
This story, from 1973, is a good case in point. Given its imaginary setting – a city named Omelas (Le Guin saw ‘Salem, O.’ – as in Oregon – reflected in her car’s rear-view mirror and liked the name) – and the symbolic depiction of sacrifice, the story can also be labelled as ‘fantasy’. In her characteristically brilliant prose, Le Guin paints a picture of an ideal society in which everyone is happy.
Or almost everyone – for the people of Omelas are housing a dark ‘secret’: their happiness is dependent on the suffering of a scapegoat, a child who is kept incarcerated in miserable conditions so that the rest of the city can enjoy health, wealth, and happiness. We discuss the rich symbolism of this story in more detail in our longer analysis of it.
10. Angela Carter, ‘The Snow Child’.
Angela Carter (1940-92) is perhaps best-known for her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, which retell various fairy tales with a greater emphasis on their gory, misogynistic, and downright dark elements. This tale from the collection has its roots in various snow-themed fairy tales, including ‘Snow-White’, so it’s the ideal choice to conclude this pick of classic fantasy short stories.
A Count sees snow on the ground while out for a ride with his wife, and wishes for a child ‘as white as snow’ (so far, so Snow-White). He makes the same wish when he sees a hole in the snow containing a pool of blood, and a raven, whereupon a woman ‘as white as snow’ appears before him.
The Count is fascinated by his wish being granted like this, and neglects the Countess – who exacts a revenge upon both of them. We won’t say what else happens, but Carter’s stories are known for being dark and for not shying away from taboo elements.