Warning: Some spoilers ahead
Advancing a claim that something is the “first” anything is daring a slippery slope, but saying a book is the “first fantasy” is rather like taking a leap onto a Slip and Slide greased with the gelatin exudate of Cthulhu. George MacDonald’s Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women (1858) could be the first fantasy story … but then, what about Shakespeare’s The Tempest, or Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene, or the Epic of Gilgamesh, or … you get the picture. I happen to agree with Black Gate's Matthew David Surridge that Phantastes is likely not the first pure fantasy novel, for the fact that, although it involves another world, it “never quite [leaves] the real world behind.” It’s the stuff of dreams, with a clear path back to earth.
Regardless, Phantastes is without question one of the cornerstones of the genre, and stands poised at the cusp of early works containing fantastic elements, to those that feature fully developed, independent secondary worlds.
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