Although other antecedents can be identified, including some of the Psalms of the Bible, the Idylls of the Greek poet Theocritus (early 3rd century BC) are generally regarded as the first works of pastoral literature. In contrast to earlier poets who focused on the exploits of Gods and Heroes, Theocritus primarily (though, unlike his followers, not exclusively) celebrated the lives, problems and diversions of common rural people, especially shepherds. Early imitators of his work include Virgil in his Eclogues (or Bucolics) and, to an extent, in the didactic Georgics, and Longus (4th or 5th century AD) in Daphnis and Chloe. Later pastoral eclogues were written by Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca Petrarch (1304-1374), Boccaccio, Edmund Spenser (The Shephearde's Calender ), John Milton (Lycidas ) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Adonais ).
The events of pastoral poetry are normally realistic, although mild forms of Magic and certain rustic gods – like Pan or Satyrs – may appear. There also developed a form of narrative, the pastoral Romance, examples of which include Ameto (1341) by Boccaccio, Arcadia (1501) by Jacopo Sannazaro (circa 1458-1530), Arcadia (final rev 1593) by Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) and the sixth book of Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590-1596). Sannazaro's and Sidney's works helped to establish Arcadia as a standard expression for an idealized rural setting. Beyond formal definition, almost any work which describes and praises the virtues of a simple agrarian life might be called pastoral, so that one could apply the term to, e.g., The Compleat Angler (1653) by Izaak Walton (1593-1683), the poems of Robert Frost (1874-1963) and, to move into fantasy proper, the novels of writers like William Morris, James Stephens, Clifford D Simak and Thomas Burnett Swann. The term is also in widespread use to describe (for instance) a Polder like Walt Kelly's Okefenokee Swamp.
In a sense, however, fantasy in the modern sense is incompatible with the pastoral world, where there is no Evil and no real conflict beyond comic misunderstandings and the like. Yet pastoral should not be seen as a projection of youthful innocence or childish delights; its inhabitants understand, and perhaps recall, evil perfectly well, but dwell in an environment where they have chosen – or managed – to remove evil. This is not a child's world but an old man's world; its characteristic figure is a wise old man, much like Walton's Piscator, who passes on his memories and knowledge to the younger men who will someday follow in his footsteps.
Pastoral is, therefore, not the setting of fantasy but rather the goal of fantasy, a world from which evil is finally banished, all tasks are accomplished, and necessary Healing has occurred; and the "happy endings" of virtually all fantasies constitute a brief but powerful evocation of a newfound pastoral world. As a realm without dramatic conflict, it is not a place where a narrative striving only for drama can long remain, which is why many modern fantasies – particularly Genre Fantasies – often rush through their conclusions; but J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) interestingly lingers in this final stage (see Eucatastrophe), describing at length both the contented family life of Sam and the ongoing discontent of Frodo, and thus conveys the bittersweet spirit of true pastoral, the satisfaction of hard-earned achievements and the regret of dreams left unfulfilled. [GW]