The cover of a novel by Charles DickensThe cover of a novel by Charles Dickens Literature is the art of the written word. Literature has two main forms: fiction (make-believe) and non-fiction (fact). It is written in either prose or poetry. The word literature itself means “things made from letters”. Generally referring to creative, inventive writing, literature takes many different forms, including novels (long stories in prose that describe fictional characters and events), biographies (stories of someone's life—sometimes that of the writer: an autobiography), essays (works that put across an author's opinion about something), plays and poems.


A sculpture, possibly of GilgameshA sculpture, possibly of Gilgamesh

The first literature

One of the world’s first works of literature was the Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem from Mesopotamia, written down first in the Sumerian language. It tells of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and his friendship with Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods. Other early literary works include the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a collection of magic spells to assist a dead person through the underworld, dating back to around 1700 BC, and the Rigveda, an ancient Indian collection of sacred hymns, probably dating to the 1500s BC. 

Most early storytelling was not written down at all, but spoken, and passed on from generation to generation before it was then written down much later. In the 1200s, during the Viking agethe Norse Poetic Eddas (poems about gods and monsters) and sagas (stories of heroes and their adventures) were written down. These were works of literature based on the old oral (spoken) stories.

The Libation Bearers, from the Oresteia by AeschylusThe Libation Bearers, from the Oresteia by AeschylusClick to play video

Greek literature

The founding father of Greek literature was the poet Homer, who probably lived around 700 BC. In two long poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, he tells the story of the Trojan War between Troy and Greece and the wanderings of Odysseus (Ulysses) after the wars ended. The Greek playwright Aeschylus wrote the first surviving dramas in his three Oresteia plays, introducing dialogue and characters. There may well have been earlier plays that have not survived. Aeschylus' plays were tragedies, which focus on human suffering and have an unhappy ending. 

Sophocles and Euripides later widened the scope of drama, while Aristophanes wrote the first comedies. The Greek poet Sappho wrote the world’s first lyric poetry (poetry that describes feelings, rather than telling a tale) while the philosopher Plato discussed subjects such as morality, existence and the mind in his writings.


The Tale of Genji

A scene from The Tale of Genji, made in c.1130A scene from The Tale of Genji, made in c.1130In the early 1000s, the Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji. The book contains 54 chapters and tells the story of Genji, the son of the Japanese emperor who is a good-looking young man and has many love affairs. The book is considered to be one of the world’s first novels, the first romance, and one of the classics of world literature.

Scheherazade telling a story to the Persian kingScheherazade telling a story to the Persian king

One Thousand and One Nights

One of the most important works from the Islamic world is The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (also known as the Arabian Nights). The book is a compilation of early Indian, Persian and other folk tales written down in Arabic and first published around AD 900. The stories begin with a Persian king who discovers his wife has been unfaithful and executes her. He then takes a series of wives but kills each one after a single night until there are no women left to marry him.

Finally, his vizier (chief advisor) offers him his daughter, Scheherazade, who begins to tell the king a story, but does not finish it. The king wants to know what happens at the end and so spares her life for a day. She finishes the story the next night but then begins another ... and so on for 1001 nights. The stories include love stories, historical tales, tragedies and comedies. When the book was first published in French in 1701, the translator, Antoine Galland, added several famous stories not in the original, including "Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp", "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" and "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor".


A portrait of DanteA portrait of Dante

Middle Ages

The centuries between the fall of the Roman Empire in the 400s and the Renaissance of the 1400s are called the Middle Ages, or medieval times, in Europe. The epic poem Beowulf was written by an unknown Anglo-Saxon poet in the 8th century AD. It tells the story of the hero Beowulf's fight against the monster Grendel. The monk Bede wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People in around 731, earning the title of the Father of English History. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote a History of the Kings of Britain, containing stories about King Arthur and Merlin the Magician, in the 1140s. 

One of the greatest works in English, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, first appeared in the late 1300s. This collection of stories is presented as a story-telling contest between pilgrims on their way from London to Canterbury. One of the greatest works in all literature, the Divine Comedy, is an epic poem describing the poet's journey through Hell and eventually to Paradise, by Italian poet Dante Alighieri (c.1265–1321).

Johannes Gutenberg and his printing pressJohannes Gutenberg and his printing press


The development and manufacture of movable type by German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg in about 1450, together with the process of printing using a press, changed literature forever. Books could now be mass-produced and distributed cheaply, bringing literature into the hands of all those who could read. The plays of William Shakespeare, for example, were performed in theatres between 1589 and 1614, but it was their publication in the First Folio in 1623 that brought them to a wider audience.  

An illustration from the novel Don Quixote An illustration from the novel Don Quixote

Early novels

A novel is a long prose work that describes fictional characters and events, usually in the form of a story, or narrative. In 1605, Miguel de Cervantes published Don Quixote de la Mancha, considered to be the first modern European novel. In England, John Bunyan published The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), which set out to convey the writer's strong Christian beliefs through the characters and events of the story. Jonathan Swift wrote satirical novels such as Gulliver’s Travels (1726), encouraging his readers to think about the weaknesses and strengths of human nature through the different characters he invented. Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) is noted for its use of ordinary, everyday words instead of highbrow, intellectual language. In the 19th century, the English-language novel developed enormously through the works of Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens and many others.


Colombian novelist Gabriel García MárquezColombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez

Modern literature

Some modern literature is noted for its experimentation. In novels such as Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), James Joyce developed a technique know as stream of consciousness, in which the numerous thoughts and feelings which pass through a person’s mind are put down straight on the page. Another experimental style is magic realism, which introduces magic elements into an otherwise realistic environment. Among its masters are Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014) and Salman Rushdie (born 1947).

A page from Lewis Carroll's Alice in WonderlandA page from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland

Children's literature

It is hard to know which was the first book that was written specifically for children. A collection of folk tales, the Panchatantra, was written down in India around AD 200, but many contend that it was really aimed at adults. The first ever picture book appeared in 1658. Orbis Pictus, written by Czech writer Jan Amos Comenius, had a picture on every page followed by the name of the object in both Latin and German.    

Children’s literature flourished in the 19th century as printed books became cheaper and more children learned to read. Hans Christian Andersen and the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm produced collections of fairy and folk stories. Lewis Carroll’s fantasies Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Alice Through the Looking Glass (1871) were extremely successful.


Consultant: Philip Wilkinson

Literary terms

  • Autobiography
    Story of someone’s life as told by them
  • Biography
    Story of someone’s life told by someone else
  • Drama
    Story composed in verse or prose that is intended for theatrical performance
  • Essay
    Short piece of writing that reflects the author’s point of view about the subject
  • Fable
    Story that reveals a truth
  • Fairy tale
    Story about fairies or other magical creatures, often written for children
  • Fiction
    Writing concerned with the imagination
  • Folklore
    Songs, stories and myths about a people and their history handed down through the generations
  • Genre
    A particular type of literature
  • Legend
    A story, often about a national or folk hero, that has some basis in fact
  • Mythology
    Legend or story, often based on historical events or concerning gods, that describes human behaviour or the workings of the natural world
  • Non-fiction
    Writing that deals with facts or real events
  • Novel
    Long prose story that describes fictional characters and their lives; a short novel is known as a novella
  • Poetry
    Creative writing in rhythmic and/or rhyming verse
  • Prose
    Any piece of writing other than poetry
  • Saga
    Lengthy historical or mythological story
  • Story
    Short prose work about an event or person
  • Verse
    Part of a poem or song

French author Georges Perec’s 1969 novel La disparition (The Void) was written without using a single word that included the letter "e". Perec then published Les revenentes in 1972, in which "e" is the only vowel used.

Earlier titles put forward by the author Lewis Carroll for Alice in Wonderland included Alice's Adventures Under Ground, Alice Among the Fairies, and Alice's Golden Hour.

Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein (1818) was written after the author had a dream about a scientist who created life and was horrified about what he had done. Her book was inspired by the work of Italian scientist Luigi Galvani, who made the limbs of dead animals twitch when applying an electric current to them.

Some novels are written entirely in the form of letters between the characters. Called epistolary novels, notable examples include Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748) by Samuel Richardson.

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