Saturday, January 1, 2011

The 10 Greatest Works of Fantasy Fiction: An Annotated Reading List

Here’s my first attempt at generating a short reading list of the greatest fantasy literature in English. The specific purpose of this exercise was to identify the ten most fundamental books and story cycles that define our current conception of fantasy as a genre. I selected ten items in order to make reading these books a simple endeavor over a one-year time span. If you aim to slip one of these books per month into your reading queue, by the end of 2011 you should have a good foundation in fantasy fiction.
I should also say that this list is as much for me as it is for you. I have read much, but not all, of this material. Many of these works were chosen because they were repeatedly cited as being influential by acclaimed 20th century fantasy authors. I also included my own judgments in terms of what works I saw as being truly fundamental – that is, which works played a major role in defining motifs, clichés, and themes that have persisted and now define the fantasy genre. I provide brief justifications for my choices after the list.

Another thing I’ve included is a brief discussion of honorable mentions that didn’t make the list. Comments arising from reading lists almost always focus on why certain stuff was omitted. I welcome this discussion, and will kick it off myself! Feedback is invited!

NOTE: Many of the comments on this post concern the fact that Lord of the Rings isn't included. Please recall that the purpose of this list is to highlight works that established the fantasy genre as we know it today. Fellowship of the Ring was published in 1954 - 30 years after King of Elfland's Daughter, and almost 100 years after Phantastes - and was primarily influential on writers of the late 20th century. By the time Fellowship was published adult fantasy was already a fully mature genre, and while LotR may arguably be one of the best works of fantasy fiction, it was also highly derivative and offered very little that was new to the field.

The List (in chronological order):

1. George MacDonald – Phantastes
2. Andrew Lang – The Blue Fairy Book
3. H. Rider Haggard – Eric Brighteyes
4. William Morris – The Well at the World’s End
5. William Hope Hodgson – The Night Land
6. Lord Dunsany – The King of Elfland’s Daughter
7. E.R. Eddison – The Worm Ouroborus
8. Robert E. Howard – Conan (story cycle)
9. Clark Ashton Smith – Zothique and Hyperborea (story cycles)
10. Fritz Leiber - Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (story cycle)

The Justifications:

1. George MacDoanld – Phantastes (1858)
MacDonald was one of the first British authors to write fairy tale fiction for adults, and his book Phantastes arguably represents the beginning of "fantasy" as a genre. MacDonald was a major direct influence on virtually all Victorian-era fantasy writers, as well as later popular authors like Tolkien. His fiction was heavy with symbolism and metaphor. The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and Lilith (1895) were also major groundbreaking works, but I recommend Phantastes because of its early date.

2. Andrew Lang – The Blue Fairy Book (1889)
Lang was an academic who specialized in hunting down and translating fairy tales and rewriting them for modern audiences. His series of colored Fairy Books (e.g. Blue Fairy Book, Red Fairy Book, Green Fairy Book, etc.) were hugely popular and were drawn upon by contemporaries (Morris, Haggard, etc.) who integrated fantastic themes into their own adult fiction.

3. H. Rider Haggard – Eric Brighteyes (1889)
Haggard was a victorian adventure novelist who primarily wrote fiction set in colonial Africa. Eric Brighteyes is a powerful and gritty viking fantasy that was influential in terms of establishing strong nordic flavor in much subsequent English fantasy. Haggard was a friend and correspondent with British academic fantasists such as Lang.

4. William Morris – The Well at the World’s End (1896)
After George MacDonald, one of the first writers to treat fairy tale themes in the format of adult literature. Morris was a prolific writer and produced many fantasy novels. I selected The Well at the World’s End following Lin Carter’s editorial recommendation for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.

5. William Hope Hodgson – The Night Land (1912)
I would call this the single most important work of weird fantasy. The Night Land is set on a future Earth millions of years in the future after the sun has expired. All remaining humans are confined to a gigantic pyramid located in a pitch-black wasteland surrounded by weird supernatural aliens, giants, night hounds, and other monsters. The Night Land was unprecedented for its time and was heavily borrowed from by C.A. Smith and H.P. Lovecraft. While it might be too weird and genre-defying to be labeled as genre fantasy, I credit The Night Land for being a major trailblazer in terms of presenting fantasy (1) in a post-civilized setting (i.e. dying earth genre), (2) dripping with cosmic horror, and (3) incorporating scientific themes.

6. Lord Dunsany – The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924)
This is the one book that is probably most responsible for the motifs we take for granted in what we now call high fantasy. Nations of human-like elves, magic swords, etc.

7. E.R. Eddison – The Worm Ouroborus (1925)
This is the first fantasy epic set in a complex fully-imagined world with a substantial historical timeline. Interestingly, this work used the term “Middle Earth” long before Tolkien did.

8. Robert E. Howard – Conan (story cycle, 1932-1936)
The Conan story cycle is the best work by this undisputed innovator of the gritty "swords & sorcery" approach to fantasy. These American pulp stories are famous for their lurid violence, sex, weirdness, and evil wizardry.

9. Clark Ashton Smith – Zothique and Hyperborea (story cycles, c. 1930s)
These story cycles, by a poet-turned-writer, were notable and influential for how they incorporated weird, creepy, and cosmic themes, ala Hodgson, into fantasy settings. Smith wrote in a beautiful prose style that presaged major late 20th century writers like Jack Vance.

10. Fritz Leiber - Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (story cycle, beginning 1939)
I argue that Leiber’s story cycle represents the ultimate culmination of the previously listed nine works in terms of representing what most people consider to be modern genre fantasy. It is remarkable how these stories from the 30s and 40s feel completely modern in terms of pacing, themes, and characterization.

Honorable Mentions:

Edgar Rice Burroughs – A Princess of Mars (1912): Burroughs popular swashbuckling planetary romances were generally influential on American pulp writers of the early 20th century. Science fiction writers tend to cite Burroughs as a major influence more than genre fantasy writers, however.

H.P. Lovecraft – Short Stories (1917-1935): Lovecraft is one of the undisputed masters of supernatural weird horror fiction. Many stories features wizards and witches in modern settings, although his writings typically aren’t considered fantasy. Lovecraft’s approach to cosmic horror and atmospherics influenced many subsequent fantasy writers, but I believe that the most important innovations in this respect came from Hodgson.

David Lindsay – Voyage to Arcturus (1920): This bizarre supernatural interplanetary fantasy was far ahead of its time, but received little recognition when it was originally published.

Hope Mirrlees – Lud-in-the-Mist (1926): Although this book is considered a classic by modern readers, I’ve seen little indiciation that it was influential or well-known when first published. Mirrlees is also interesting for being the only woman on the reading list, sadly.

J.R.R. Tolkien – The Hobbit (1937): This book, while not particularly innovative, was a huge critical and commercial success when it was released. Most of The Hobbit's importance is derived from how it popularized fantasy among younger audiences.

T.H. White – The Sword in the Stone (1938): White’s literary realist interpretations of the Arthurian legends set the tone for most subsequent work in this major fantasy subgenre.

Jack Vance – The Dying Earth (1950): A masterwork by one of the greatest stylists in fantasy. Vance set the standard in creativity, prose quality, and conceptual content for fantasy writers of the late 20th century.