There seems to be a fairly common world building method now of setting fantasy works in standalone universes, completely separate (at least explicitly) from our own world, e.g. A Song of Ice and Fire, or Sanderson's Cosmere, etc.

I previously thought the first fantasy setting to do this was perhaps Middle Earth, but according to this answer: Is Tolkien's Middle-earth in our Universe? It is the same Earth as ours, just with its history imagined differently.

What was the first fantasy setting completely set without any apparent tie to our own universe/world? (No dream frames, Narnia closets, "alternate" histories or what-if futures, or hidden/distant kingdoms/islands/lands.)

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    Although your question is far too imprecise to be sensibly answered (verging on too broad), I suspect that the answer is Lucian's A True Story from the 2nd Century AD. There are multiple scenes set in an entirely fantastical setting; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_True_Story – Valorum Sep 11 at 19:35
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    @Valorum, based on the Wikipedia article I don't think it qualifies; the protagonists started out on Earth. For example, the OP explicitly disqualified Narnia. – Harry Johnston Sep 11 at 19:57
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    Actually, Star Wars is in our universe. It is in the same universe as E.T., which is set in our universe. – SQB Sep 11 at 20:13
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    @SQB, plus, "A long time ago in a galaxy far far away". Krynn would probably be a better example. Curse of Chalion, the Black Magician series, lots of relatively recent examples. But the boundary is going to be fuzzy, I'm afraid, in the absence of Word of God there are likely to be cases, possibly a lot of cases, where some readers think a work is set on Earth and others think it isn't. (Plus it doesn't help that authors sometimes link a work to Earth late in a series, and it can be unclear whether this was planned or retconned.) – Harry Johnston Sep 11 at 21:24
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    In the beginning ... ;-) – mcalex Sep 12 at 4:47
up vote 58 down vote accepted

1884: Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, a novel by Edwin Abbott Abbott writing as "A Square", available at Project Gutenberg.

Wikipedia plot summary:

The story describes a two-dimensional world occupied by geometric figures, whereof women are simple line-segments, while men are polygons with various numbers of sides. The narrator is a square named A Square, a member of the caste of gentlemen and professionals, who guides the readers through some of the implications of life in two dimensions. The first half of the story goes through the practicalities of existing in a two-dimensional universe as well as a history leading up to the year 1999 on the eve of the 3rd Millennium.

On New Year's Eve, the Square dreams about a visit to a one-dimensional world (Lineland) inhabited by "lustrous points". These points are unable to see the Square as anything other than a set of points on a line. Thus, the Square attempts to convince the realm's monarch of a second dimension; but is unable to do so. In the end, the monarch of Lineland tries to kill A Square rather than tolerate his nonsense any further.

Following this vision, he is himself visited by a three-dimensional sphere named A Sphere. Similar to the "points" in Lineland, the Square is unable to see the sphere as anything other than a circle. The Sphere then levitates up and down through the Flatland, allowing Square to see the circle expand and retract. The Square is not fully convinced until he sees Spaceland (a tridimensional world) for himself. This Sphere visits Flatland at the turn of each millennium to introduce a new apostle to the idea of a third dimension in the hopes of eventually educating the population of Flatland. From the safety of Spaceland, they are able to observe the leaders of Flatland secretly acknowledging the existence of the sphere and prescribing the silencing of anyone found preaching the truth of Spaceland and the third dimension. After this proclamation is made, many witnesses are massacred or imprisoned (according to caste), including A Square's brother, B.

After the Square's mind is opened to new dimensions, he tries to convince the Sphere of the theoretical possibility of the existence of a fourth (and fifth, and sixth ...) spatial dimension; but the Sphere returns his student to Flatland in disgrace.

The Square then has a dream in which the Sphere visits him again, this time to introduce him to Pointland, whereof the point (sole inhabitant, monarch, and universe in one) perceives any communication as a thought originating in his own mind (cf. Solipsism):

"You see," said my Teacher, "how little your words have done. So far as the Monarch understands them at all, he accepts them as his own – for he cannot conceive of any other except himself – and plumes himself upon the variety of Its Thought as an instance of creative Power. Let us leave this god of Pointland to the ignorant fruition of his omnipresence and omniscience: nothing that you or I can do can rescue him from his self-satisfaction."

— the Sphere

The Square recognises the identity of the ignorance of the monarchs of Pointland and Lineland with his own (and the Sphere's) previous ignorance of the existence of higher dimensions. Once returned to Flatland, the Square cannot convince anyone of Spaceland's existence, especially after official decrees are announced that anyone preaching the existence of three dimensions will be imprisoned (or executed, depending on caste). Eventually the Square himself is imprisoned for just this reason, with only occasional contact with his brother who is imprisoned in the same facility. He does not manage to convince his brother, even after all they have both seen. Seven years after being imprisoned, A Square writes out the book Flatland in the form of a memoir, hoping to keep it as posterity for a future generation that can see beyond their two-dimensional existence.

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    Personally I don't think this qualifies as a fantasy in the sense intended. A clever answer, nonetheless, +1. :-) – Harry Johnston Sep 12 at 19:46
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    @HarryJohnston I agree with your final conclusion, but I disagree with your first statement. This is the clearest example of a world that has no ties to the real world. Most fantasy worlds have some humanlike features in them, usually as protagonists to boot. The only ties Flatland has to the real world, is that the same maths seem to apply. – SQB Sep 13 at 5:49
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    Flatland may arguably be disqualified by the Preface to the Second Edition in which Abbott refers to the Square as "my poor Flatland friend" and affects being in communication with him. – Henning Makholm Sep 13 at 5:52
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    @SQB, I wasn't saying that it has ties to the real world. I was saying that it isn't really from the fantasy genre, except perhaps in the most technical sense. In other words, it seems unlikely to be the sort of story the OP was thinking of. – Harry Johnston Sep 13 at 6:06
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    When reading the question, I immediately thought: "Flatland". Then I scrolled down and here was this answer. +1. – Cássio Renan Sep 13 at 19:52

Edmund Spencer’s Fairie Queene, set in a magical “Fairie Land”, was published in 1590.

Though the setting is an allegorical representation of England, within the work’s fiction it is its own magical kingdom.

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    Not sure if this would count, it seemed to me like The Faerie Queene was assumed to be taking place in our world, and by my vague recollection I think Lady Britomart was supposed to be an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth. If anything it's on the same level of LotR in that it's meant to be a fictional mythology of Britain. – DaaaahWhoosh Sep 12 at 14:39
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    It's been a long time since I read it, so I took a look at III.ix - I think you're right. Merlin retells the old saw that Britain was founded by Trojan refugees, and Britomart is one of their descendants. So FQ may not count. – Jimmy Breck-McKye Sep 12 at 15:01
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    If Merlin is in The faerie Queene there is a strong probability that The faerie Queene is supposed to be in the same setting as The Historia Brittonum of "Nennius" and The History of the Kings of the Britons by Geoffrey of Monmouth - dark age Britain in our world, or possibly later in the middle ages depending on how long Merlin lives. Remember that (almost) all Arthurian stories are set in dark age Britain in our world. – M. A. Golding Sep 12 at 16:16
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    Fairie Queene is set in Fairyland, a concept that Spencer did not create, and indeed some people earnestly believed in, which might be held to be different to "our world" or not, but could be reached from ours in various ways, so in terms of the requirements of the question is either "a distant land" or analogous to Narnia in being reachable. – Jon Hanna Sep 13 at 16:13

To get things started, I'm going to nominate the 1939 novelette "Two Sought Adventure" (later revised as "The Jewels in the Forest" in the collection Swords Against Death) which was the first published story of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and is set in the fictional world of Nehwon.

Possible mitigating factor: in 1968 The Swords of Lankhmar established that Nehwon is set in a multiverse, and that our world is (at least possibly) one of those other universes. However, it isn't clear to me whether this was part of the original conception (in 1936) of the setting.


A little more speculatively, I'm also going to nominate the 1896 The Well at World's End by William Morris (not to be confused with the later novel of the same name, by Neil Gunn, which was set in Scotland). Wikipedia doesn't make the setting of Morris's novel clear, but according to Amazon it is set in a mythical world. [It appears to be available on Project Gutenberg, so I'll see if I can check it out over the weekend and update my answer, one way or the other, accordingly.]

Wikipedia mentions some other major early modern fantasy works but none of the others appear to meet your criteria.

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    Your second one is correct. Well at the World's End has no connection to our world, but was not that author's first book in this regard. The House of the Wolfings (1889) is probably a historical romance, with lots of references to Germanic gods and culture, but The Wood beyond the World (1894) is definitely a fantasy. There is also The Story of the Glittering Plain (1891), which Wikipedia also says is a fantasy, but I haven't read that so I can't say for sure. – kingledion Sep 12 at 11:59

One early example may be The Princess and the Goblin (1872), by George MacDonald. It was probably the best known English-language fantasy novel for children before the publication of The Hobbit, although its fame has waned a great deal since the early twentieth century. It is available from Project Gutenberg.

The plot summary, per Wikipedia:

Eight-year-old Princess Irene lives a lonely life in a castle in a wild, desolate, mountainous kingdom, with only her nursemaid, Lootie, for company. Her father, the king, is normally absent, and her mother is dead. Unknown to her, the nearby mines are inhabited by a race of goblins, long banished from the kingdom and now anxious to take revenge on their human neighbours. One rainy day, the princess explores the castle and discovers a beautiful, mysterious lady, who identifies herself as Irene's namesake and great-great-grandmother. The next day, Princess Irene persuades her nursemaid to take her outside. After dark they are chased by goblins and rescued by the young miner, Curdie, whom Irene befriends. At work with the rest of the miners, Curdie overhears the goblins talking, and their conversation reveals to Curdie the secret weakness of goblin anatomy: they have very soft, vulnerable feet. Curdie sneaks into the Great Hall of the goblin palace to eavesdrop on their general meeting, and hears that the goblins intend to flood the mine if a certain other part of their plan should fail. He later conveys this news to his father. In the palace, Princess Irene injures her hand, which her great-great-grandmother heals. A week later Irene is about to see her great-great-grandmother again, but is frightened by a long-legged cat and escapes up the mountain; whereupon the light from her great-great-grandmother's tower leads her home, where her great-great-grandmother gives Irene a ring attached to a thread invisible except to herself, which thereafter connects her constantly to home.

When Curdie explores the goblins' domain, he is discovered by the goblins and stamps on their feet with great success; but when he tries to stamp on the Queen's feet she is uninjured due to her stone shoes. The goblins imprison Curdie, thinking he will die of starvation; but Irene's magic thread leads her to his rescue, and Curdie steals one of the goblin queen's stone shoes. Irene takes Curdie to see her great-great-grandmother and be introduced; but she is only visible to Irene. Curdie later learns that the goblins are digging a tunnel in the mines towards the king's palace, where they plan to abduct the Princess and marry her to goblin prince Harelip. Curdie warns the palace guards about this, but is imprisoned instead and contracts a fever through a wound in his leg, until Irene's great-great-grandmother heals the wound. Meanwhile, the goblins break through the palace floor and come to abduct the princess; but Curdie escapes from his prison room and stamps on the goblins' feet. Upon the goblins' retreat, Irene is believed a captive; but Curdie follows the magic thread to her refuge at his own house, and restores her to the king. When the goblins flood the mines, the water enters the palace, and Curdie warns the others; but the goblins are drowned. The king asks him to serve as a bodyguard; but Curdie refuses, saying he cannot leave his mother and father, and instead accepts a new red petticoat for his mother, as a reward.

I do not remember any references in the book to anything about the real world, although I have not pored over the text to make sure of that fact.

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    I considered this, but was there anything obvious in it to suggest that it wasn't set on (a fantasy version of) Earth? – Harry Johnston Sep 12 at 6:08
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    If this is valid, then most fairy tales should qualify. Some are older than writing. – Rad80 Sep 12 at 10:11
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    @Chris, by that reasoning, any fantasy would qualify, even something as extreme as the Dresden Files set in modern-day Chicago. It can't really be the real Chicago, after all, if there are vampires. – Harry Johnston Sep 12 at 19:37
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    ... the distinction I'm drawing is whether the author intended the user to believe (in the "suspension of disbelief" sense) that the story happened "long ago and far away" ... but still, by implication, in our world. As @Rad80 already pointed out, this was a staple of fairy tales, like, forever. The obvious problem is that in most cases we can only guess at what the author intended. So IMO there ought really to be something like two moons or a setting in a major continent that clearly isn't any of ours (and not Atlantis either!) in order to unambiguously qualify. – Harry Johnston Sep 12 at 19:44
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    @Chris, but that's the point - traditional fairy tales clearly are set on Earth, whereas Game of Thrones clearly isn't. The Princess and the Goblin sounds more like the former than the latter, though I can't say for certain as I haven't read it. Perhaps Valorum was right and the question is too subjective. – Harry Johnston Sep 13 at 8:51

"A New Wonderland, Being the First Account Ever Printed of the Beautiful Valley, and the Wonderful Adventures of Its Inhabitants" by L. Frank Baum was published in 1899 and was republished in 1903 as "The Magical Monarch of Mo". The first chapter begins with Baum explaining to the readers what Mo is and where it is located:

But I can not find the Valley of Mo in any geography I have examined; so I suspect the men who made these instructive books really know nothing about Mo, else it would surely be on the maps.

There do not appear to be any connections to the real world from this particular fairyland, and Mo is not connected to any of Baum's other fantasy worlds, either.

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    It seems to me that this passage actually obliquely suggests that Mo is a place on Earth, since Baum says that if the men who made geographies knew anything about Mo, it "would surely be on the maps." – sumelic Sep 12 at 17:28

A possible answer is The Rose and The Ring (1854), by William Makepeace Thackeray (available at Project Gutenberg—another one of the first thousand books on the site). Like Edwin Abbott Abbott's Flatland, the fantasy world in the story is there as much to enable the story's elements of social satire as to tell an interesting tale.

What makes it debatable whether this qualifies as independent of the real-world Earth is that many of the proper names in the story are based on real names from the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East. For example, one of the main kingdoms in the story is called "Crim Tartary," which was obviously inspired by the real-world homeland of the Crimean Tatars (a location that was probably on the mind of Thackeray and his readers because of the ongoing Crimean War).

Per Wikipedia:

The plot opens on the royal family of Paflagonia eating breakfast together: King Valoroso, his wife, the Queen, and their daughter, Princess Angelica. Through the course of the meal it is discovered that Prince Bulbo, heir to the neighbouring kingdom of Crim Tartary, and son of King Padella is coming to visit Paflagonia. It is also discovered, after the two females have left the table, that King Valoroso stole his crown, and all his wealth, from his nephew, Prince Giglio, when the prince was an infant.

Prince Giglio and Princess Angelica have been brought up together very closely, Princess Angelica being considered the most beautiful and wisest girl in the kingdom and Giglio being much overlooked in the household. Giglio, besotted with his cousin, has given her a ring belonging to his mother, which, unknown to them, was given to her by the Fairy Blackstick and which held the power to make the wearer beautiful to everyone who beheld them. After an argument with Giglio, about the arrival of the long-awaited Prince Bulbo, Angelica throws the ring out of the window and can be seen for her own, less attractive self.

Prince Bulbo, in his turn, possesses a magic rose, with the same power as the ring and coming from the same source: the Fairy Blackstick. Upon his arrival, this causes Angelica to be madly in love with him.

Angelica's governess, Countess Gruffanuff, finds the magic ring in the garden and, whilst wearing it, convinces Giglio to sign a paper swearing to marry her. She then gives the ring to Angelica's maid, Betsinda, an orphan discovered by the family with a torn cloak in her possession. The maid, however, is actually Rosalba, the only child of the true king of Crim Tartary. When Betsinda wears the ring to take the warming pan around the bedrooms, Princes Bulbo and Giglio immediately fall in love with her, along with King Valoroso. This excites the rage of The Queen, Angelica and Gruffanuff, and causes Betsinda to be driven from the house.

In response to Giglio's rudeness, Valoroso orders him to be executed, but his Captain of the Guards, Count Kutasoff Hedzoff, takes Bulbo to the scaffold instead, where he is reprieved at the last moment by Angelica, who takes his rose, returns to her former beauty and marries him.

Giglio is forced to flee and, with some help from The Fairy Blackstick, disguises himself as a student. In the meantime Rosalba has returned to Crim Tartary and discovered her heritage by means of the torn cloak, which is reunited with its other half to make the words "Princess Rosalba". King Padella, after his offer of marriage is refused, orders Rosalba to be thrown to the lions. Giglio, upon hearing this, takes back his throne in Paflagonia and leads his army to rescue Rosalba, using the captured Bulbo as a hostage.

When Padella refuses the exchange, Giglio decides that he had better keep his word and put Bulbo to death as threatened. However, the lions set upon Rosalba happen to be exactly the same lions which she grew up with in the wild, prior to being found by Princess Angelica, and carry her on their backs to Giglio's camp, where the pair are reunited.

Giglio and Rosalba return to Paflagonia along with Bulbo, now wearing the fairy ring. When they sit down to breakfast on their wedding day, Gruffanuff produces the paper pledging Giglio to herself. Wishing to put him in his place for his earlier arrogance, the Fairy Blackstick refuses to help at first and Giglio is forced to take Gruffanuff to the church in Rosalba's place. However, when they reach the building, The Fairy Blackstick transforms the doorknocker back into Gruffanuff's real husband, long believed dead after being bewitched by the fairy herself many years before. Giglio and Rosalba are then free to marry and do so. The Fairy Blackstick then leaves, never to be heard of again.

I may be wrong but I believe that at least most of Dr. Seuss stories don't refer to any real country in our world and is indeed a closed world with its own countries, kingdoms, flora and fauna.

According to Dr Seuss' Bibliography Wikipedia page, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938) could be one of his first stories happening on a fictional world. And Horton Hatches the Egg (1940) features characters that appear in later works, much of them sharing the same universe.

An early fantasy novel set completely in an imaginary world is The Wood Beyond the World (1894) by William Morris, whom L. Sprague de Camp describes as "perhaps the first modern fantasy writer to unite an imaginary world with the element of the supernatural, and thus the precursor of much of present-day fantasy literature." It is considered a major influence on Tolkien. I distinctly remember it as not taking place in the real world; even the place where the hero journeys from ("a great and goodly city by the sea which had to name Langton on Holm") is non-Earth. Wikipedia summarizes the plot:

When the wife of Golden Walter betrays him for another man, he leaves home on a trading voyage to avoid the necessity of a feud with her family. However, his efforts are fruitless, as word comes to him en route that his wife's clan has killed his father. As a storm then carries him to a faraway country, the effect of this news is merely to sunder his last ties to his homeland. Walter comes to the castle of an enchantress, from which he rescues a captive maiden in a harrowing adventure (or rather, she rescues him). They flee through a region inhabited by mini-giants, and eventually reach the city of Stark-wall, whose custom, when the throne is vacant, is to take the next foreigner to arrive as ruler. The late king having died, Walter and his new love are hailed as the new monarchs. The two are married and presumably live happily ever after.


The novel is available for free at The Gutenberg Project in various formats.

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    Could you clarify what makes it clear that this is set in an imaginary world? – Harry Johnston Sep 13 at 8:52
  • I remember that from reading it. – Klaus Æ. Mogensen Sep 13 at 11:43

I'd like to put the name of French Author Charles Perralt into the ring, with his Histoires ou contes du temps pass Tales of Mother Goose, containing original versions of modern fairy tales like "Little Red Riding Hood", "Sleeping Beauty", and "Cinderella".

Les contes contains tales that are well-known, have retained their popularity since publication, and have been repeatedly modified since the late 17th century.2 The volume achieved considerable success with eight reprints in Perrault's lifetime. With Louis XIV's death at the beginning of the 18th century the lifestyle of the précieuse faded, as did the popularity of the literary salons and the fairy tales at the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment. Perrault's tales, however, continued to be sought after with four editions published in that century.

These works were told by French peasantry as early as the 10th century, and were put into a written form in 1697 after Charles Perrault lost his job as a secretary. Note, many of Perrault's works were cleaned for novelization from a conversationalist style written earlier in the same year by Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d'Aulnoy in her salon book Les Contes des Fées, although these were written in a more conversationalist style.

Unlike the folk tales of the Grimm Brothers, who were born some 135 years later than d'Aulnoy, she told her stories in a more conversational style, as they might be told in salons.

Finding information on fairy tales written during this time is tough to pinpoint however. The distinction lies in the form of the writing, the novelization being more prominent:

The stories written for the 1697 edition were "The Sleeping Beauty", "Little Red Riding Hood", "Bluebeard", "The Master Cat, or Puss in Boots", "Cinderella", "Riquet with the Tuft", "Hop o' My Thumb", "Griselidis" (La Patience de Grisélidis), "The Ridiculous Wishes" (Les Souhaits ridicules), "Donkeyskin" (Peau d'Ane) and "Diamonds and Toads" (Les Fées). Eight were newly written prose stories and three were stories previously written in verse. Each story ended with a rhymed, well-defined and cynical moral Moralitè. Three were published earlier in the literary magazine Mercure galant: "Griselidis" and "Suhait" in 1693, and "Sleeping Beauty" in 1696. Others may have been published in additional literary magazines, however it is unknown whether they appeared in the magazines before the book's publications or whether they were later pirated editions.

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