It’s pretty easy to see why the fantasy genre is so popular. Menacing ogres, stunning unicorns and hypnotic vampires adorn their pages along with a myriad of other fantasy creatures. There are so many to choose from – many inspired by folklore and ancient legends passed down throughout history. It’s difficult to narrow down, but there are certain fantasy creatures that show up time and time again, probably speaking to the popularity that they have achieved. Let’s take a look at some of fantasy’s most fantastic beasts and where to find them.
Here be Dragons. The phrase used originally by cartographers back in the day, and has become widely known as sort of a blanket warning to explorers and the like. Unsurprisingly, this intrigued the writers of the world enough to begin to incorporate these massive fire breathing beasts into their stories. While the majority of ancient legends showcasing these fantasy creatures had them as more water based serpent type monsters (think the Loch Ness Monster), the more modern iterations have relegated them to land and given them fire breath and massive wings.
Interestingly, the differences between Eastern and Western dragons is quite striking. Typically Eastern dragons are a symbol of luck and wisdom – much less frightening than the sinister creatures that we’re more familiar with in this part of the world. Whatever the case may be per story, there’s no denying these massive beasts have captured the attention of readers throughout the years. They’ve rightly taken their place in the most popular fantasy creatures, and I completely agree – the idea of giant reptile-like creatures who breathe fire is fascinating. I don’t see them disappearing from literature any time soon, and I can’t wait to discover my next fantastical dragon read.
Dragons to Read About: Smaug (The Hobbit), Saphira (Eragon), Eustace Scrubb (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), the Dragon (The Paper Bag Princess) & Ramoth, Canth & others (Dragonriders of Pern)
These creatures of the night are right up there with werewolves for me. Stalking victims at night, drinking blood to survive, and so much different lore out there to choose from. What’s not to love? Many cultures throughout history have spoken of some iteration of vampiric creatures, from the Pishacha of ancient Hindu folklore to the Estries, female demons from Hebrew folklore who drink blood. The more common modern interpretation of vampires got its start in Eastern Europe, with countries like Albania passing down legends of the shtriga and of course Romania with its moroi.
While not the most popular of the vampire stories, John Polidori published The Vampyre in 1819, a short story that he came up with on the now infamous vacation weekend with Lord Byron and the Shelleys (this vacation is most often attributed to Mary Shelleys’ invention of Frankenstein). Sheridan Le Fanu would follow with Carmilla in 1872, which gave readers their first look at a female vampire, who was also a lesbian – quite the taboo thing at the time. Then came the juggernaut. In 1893, Bram Stoker published Dracula, catapulting vampire fiction to fame and creating the bloodsucking image we all recognize today.
Nowadays, vampires exist in many shapes and sizes. Some are still dark and sinister, while others are interpreted as more polished, with a certain type of sensual allure to them. With all of the different interpretations throughout history, it’s no wonder that these fantasy creatures are seen in literature, films, you name it. Time and time again authors and readers alike are fascinated by these “undead” beings, seduced by their power and the promise of eternal life.
Vampires to Read About: Count Vlad Dracula (Dracula), Lestat, Akasha and the gang (The Vampire Chronicles), Thomas Raith (The Dresden Files), Kurt Barlow (Salem’s Lot) & Shori (Fledgling)
Fairy. Pixie. Sprite. Nymph. The Fae people and all of their variations have existed in fantasy literature for generations. Whatever you call them, it’s safe to say that you’ve read about several versions of them throughout your life. Beginning as far back as ancient Greece with the nymphs mentioned in mythology, fairies have existed in some form over time. Some are tiny diminutive creatures with wings, others appear as dwarf characters hiding in the woods, while more are tall and graceful with porcelain skin. There are tons of sprites to choose from, and many writers have showcased these ethereal fantasy creatures to full effect.
Incredibly popular in old Celtic folklore, the term fairy first came into existence some time in the Middle Ages. Once this happened, the fae folk took their place in the fantasy hall of fame, and authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and JM Barrie cemented their popularity in the world, and our hearts. They exist in everything from classic to urban fantasy novels, and always with a slightly different lore or ability. They’re such a versatile species, and with so many interpretations out there it’s a fantasy trope that I don’t think will ever go away. And anyway, who would want it to?
Fairies to Read About: Puck (A Midsummer’s Night Dream), Morgan Le Fay (Le Morte D’Arthur), Nuala (Sandman Series), Fairy Godmother (Cinderella) & Arwen (The Lord of the Rings)
Witches & Wizards
Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble. One of the most iconic witch lines in literature, which still exists today and has become a staple of any potion making scene in anything ever again. Starting way back in Greek mythology, characters like Circe were major staples, normally female, who enchant and seek to disrupt the lives and tasks of the male protagonists of their stories.
Female power was feared for a long time, and so in much older literature these fantasy creatures were seen as evil manipulative beings trying to overthrow men in various situations, and egging them on to give into their dark desires – think The Odyssey and Macbeth. Not too difficult to see why the witch hunts and trials took place looking at this literary selection…
By the time the Middle Ages rolled around, we were gifted a major male player in the magic game: Merlin. Merlin became the gold standard for the wizards that would follow. Along with the Weird Sisters from the Scottish Play – see quote above – witches and wizards have had quite the transformation over the years. They’ve slowly become major protagonists spawning a vast array of literature for every generation.
It’s no surprise that their popularity has persevered. Who wouldn’t want to be able to conjure items, cast spells and make potions that actually work? I know this reader would be more than happy to do all of that. Naming favourite witches, wizards, or even warlocks would take an eternity, but know that you won’t need to look very far to find them.
Witches & Wizards to Read About: Gandalf the Grey (The Lord of the Rings), The White Witch (The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe), Harry Dresden (The Dresden Files), The Grand High Witch (The Witches) & Harry Potter (I know, I know, goes without saying really).
Mermaids & Sirens
Folklore coming from the high seas? Yes please. Mermaids, mermen, sirens, half-fish half-human fantasy creatures who were said to lure sailors to their deaths. They were used as tools to warn people not to cross borders, not to venture further than they decided was appropriate. The depths of the ocean still has parts that haven’t been explored, which I think adds to the fun mystery surrounding mer-folk and whether or not they exist.
Because of the lack of land living, these creatures are left up to an awful lot of imagination and interpretation. Do you see them as more human or more fish? Do they want to destroy man because of how we’ve polluted the oceans? Are they simply hiding far down on an ocean floor minding their own business? All of these questions can be explored in mermaid literature in detail. So fascinating, and so many avenues to head down with your reading material.
Nowadays they’re seen in a much kinder and more pleasant light, thanks in large part to Disney. However, that doesn’t mean that everything is sunshine and rainbows. The film differs quite a bit from its source material which is much more tragic than we’re led to believe based on its pop culture counterpart. While the literature is a little more scarce than others on this list, when a good story is found it is very much worth your time.
Mermaids to Read About: Doris Thalassia Waters (The Sea Lady), The Little Mermaid (The Little Mermaid), Evie (Sea Witch), Lira (To Kill A Kingdom) & Amelia (The Mermaid)