These Literary Classics Prove That Isekai Isn’t Only a Japanese Thing

There's no denying that isekai as a genre has only developed as far as it has thanks to its wide success in Japanese pop fiction. After all, the vast majority of works that utilize storylines wherein a protagonist is swept away to a new land come from light novels and anime.

Nevertheless, while many critics of the device dismiss it as otaku power fantasies, they often fail to recognize that the idea was inspired by various works of Western literature. Demonstrating the origins of this fantasy subgroup is a collection of English isekai stories that have stood the test of time and proven their influence on the modern state of their Japanese successors.

Peter Pan - The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up

With its emphasis on the idyllic and carefree nature of childhood, Peter Pan creates an entire world around the idea of playing pretend. J.M. Barrie crafted one of the most iconic isekai of Western literature, filled with mermaids, feral children and pirates, to be visited by Wendy Darling and her brothers John and Michael. Although its plot may serve as a coming-of-age story, driving home the importance of growing up at some point in time, its legacy has solidified it as the image of escapism.

In essence, the dreamlike atmosphere of this tale is not unlike the wish-fulfillment distractions that fill modern isekai anime. Just as series like The Rising of the Shield Hero and That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime base their realities on the hallmarks and mechanics of fantasy roleplay games, the logic and denizens of Neverland are ruled by a kind of childlike whimsy. Both function similarly for their fans, providing a welcome reprieve from the harsh realities of society.

The Chronicles of Narnia - The Land of the Great Lion

Originating with the classic novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia is another beloved isekai series from the British Isles. Following the friends and members of the Pevensie family, each entry transports a group of adolescents to the magical realm of Narnia to thwart some malicious threat. This world is inhabited by numerous fantastical races like centaurs and nymphs, along with humans and talking animals -- the greatest of which is the Great Lion Aslan, true ruler of all.

Even though the various child protagonists of the series ended up in Narnia through accidental circumstances, the books imply that Narnia called each of them specifically because they could help in its hour of need. In a way, this could be seen as an early precursor to anime like The Rising of the Shield Hero or How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom wherein heroes are summoned to save the world from a looming evil. Indeed, with its sprawling geography and interconnected political workings, Narnia has all the key components of a thoroughly developed high fantasy isekai.

The Wizard of Oz - Follow the Yellow Brick Road

One of the first American isekai to enjoy critical acclaim and wide publication, L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of history's most important pieces of fiction. Dorothy Gale's journey through Oz spawned a myriad of iconic characters and has inspired countless adaptations and retellings. In addition to acting as a muse for many later works, its movie version marked a massive change in the film and television industry.

Although later books in the series would prolong the escapades of Dorothy and her acquaintances, the original novel was largely focused on the idea of her just trying to get back to her own world. This treatment of the fantasy adventure as secondary to the goal of returning home is something that many old school isekai implemented, such as Digimon AdventureThe Vision of Escaflowne and Fushigi Yuugi. Still, just as the Oz books eventually had Dorothy permanently relocate to Oz, today's isekai tend to leave their protagonists in another world indefinitely, either through reincarnation or by simply stranding them there with no means of return.

Alice in Wonderland - We're All Mad Here

Perhaps the most famous example of otherworldly travel in fiction is Lewis Carrol's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, as well as its sequel Through the Looking Glass. This piece of British literature is often considered the first work to ever formally use displacement in a parallel world as its central premise. As such, its introduction of the idea makes it the common ancestor of all isekai.

Due to its surreal aesthetic, Alice in Wonderland may not have much in common thematically with the more plot-based stories that came after it. However, its influence on countless anime is impossible to ignore. This can be seen in isekai titles such as Magic Knight Rayearth, with its white rabbit-like Mokona, and Inuyasha, where its protagonist literally falls down a hole to another reality. Even the gritty death game isekai Alice In Borderland borrows from the playing card symbolism, showing just how deep the love for Carrol's masterpiece runs among isekai writers.

Deku and Aoyama in My Hero Academia
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