The first thing to get straight is the definition of fantasy. It’s not science fiction whose stories are based around scientific concepts and devices; it’s not horror whose stories depend on emotion and the supernatural; and it’s not mystery whose plots demand logic and deductive reasoning. Fantasy involves ordinary people in tales that take place within an essentially irrational milieu but who manage to keep hold of their humanity even in the face of the impossible.
What modern readers take for granted as a fictional pastime however, previous generations once accepted as reality. From the pantheons of Greek, Norse, and Egyptian gods to more down to earth champions such as Gilgamesh, Hercules, or St. George, tales of larger-than-life heroes and their struggles against monsters and dragons were to different extents, believed and accepted as fact by people through most of human history.
The fact is, men needed such heroes to make them feel safe in a world that was largely inscrutable or worse, seemed to deliberately target human beings for destruction be it by flood, earthquake, disease, or frightful creatures with which imagination populated the unknown darkness beyond the campfire. More than anything else, it was man’s insecurity and helplessness against the forces of nature that compelled him to create heroes who could confront those dangers.
For centuries, the assumed existence of heroes like Beowulf comforted mankind until they were rudely taken away with the advent of the Renaissance and the subsequent rise of science. But science and reason didn’t remove the need for the heroic ideal. Where the cold logic of science failed to move the human spirit, the example of the hero who struggles against great odds and winning through still possessed its power to inspire.
Modern fantasy might be said to have its beginnings on the Continent with what are known today as “fairy tales,” frequently dark stories of trolls and witches intended mostly to frighten children into staying in bed at night. And from France in particular, were popular tales of King Arthur that gradually spread across the Channel to England. Eventually, various stories about Arthur were collected by Sir Thomas Mallory as Le Morte d’Arthur from which modern “adult” fantasy can be directly traced.
Le Morte d’Arthur‘s origins in England might explain why most modern “adult” fantasy that has been written has been a product of Great Britain where such writers as William Beckford, William Morris, and George MacDonald began to contribute to the genre in the mid to late 1800s. Through their efforts, the hero as a figure in the popular imagination, made a comeback. Embodying the qualities of courage, intelligence, morality, and charisma, heroes dominated most tales of fantasy literature. And so, the following list of the top 10 fantasy heroes of all time.
10) Dorothy of Kansas
Just to prove that not all fantasy heroes need be brawny sword wielders, or even male for that matter, one of the greatest of all time must be Dorothy Gale, heroine of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum. Unlike some qualities that might be peculiar to male heroes, Dorothy embodies those particular to the female of the species: she’s brave sure, and persevering when faced with great odds, but she’s also kind, caring, understanding, and sympathetic too. Qualities that lift Dorothy above most other heroes both male and female into the top ranks of the immortals of fantasy lit!
9) Thomas Covenant
In addition to facing the challenges of the fantasy world within which he finds himself, Thomas Covenant, hero of Stephen R. Donaldson’s series Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever (1977) must also struggle in the real world with the ravages of leprosy. A disease which has stripped him of any positive outlook on life and that in the fantasy world, leaves him to deal with such inner demons as cynicism and self loathing and lack of faith. In many ways, Covenant represents the modern concept of the anti-hero but the psychological and spiritual battles he may or may not have won by the time he returns to the real world are no less heroic than those faced by his more illustrious forebears.
8) Johnny Black
Though some might not consider L. Sprague DeCamp’s Johnny Black strictly fantasy (the four short stories he starred in all appeared in Astounding Science Fiction from 1938 to 1940), once past the character’s origin as the subject of a science experiment, it might as well be. For, you see, Johnny Black is the sobriquet of an ordinary black bear whose intelligence was boosted to human levels. In his first story “The Command,” Johnny succeeds by overcoming his own natural impediments of having no hands with fingers and no voice with which to speak human words, both necessary in performing the tasks needed to save the world. Although Johnny appeared in only a handful of tales, DeCamp showed great imagination in telling stories from the bear’s POV and making him the unequivocable hero of his adventures.
7) Solomon Kane
The first of the many heroes sprung from the fertile imagination of Texas pulp master Robert E. Howard, the somber Puritan Solomon Kane wanders the world fighting everything from highway robbers to vampires with nothing but his sword and his faith. Howard dreamed up Kane while still a high school student and sent him on enough adventures to fill a volume of short stories. Introduced in “Red Shadows” (1928), Kane moved amid relentlessly dark and moody landscapes that serve to accentuate his stern moral code as well as his cynical world view, a set up that has made the character ever more popular as the years since the Great Depression have rolled on.
6) Osberne Wulfgrimsson
A true hero in the classic tradition of high fantasy, Osberne Wulfgrimsson is the central character in William Morris’ The Sundering Flood (1897). An ordinary farm boy who falls in love with the beautiful Elfhild, the two lovers are forever kept apart by an impassible river. Determined to find a way across, Osberne, with the help of his magic sword Boardcleaver, joins an army of knights going to war down river. There, he wins a reputation as a mighty warrior, unites with Elfhild, returns home, lays down his sword for the plowshare, and lives happily forever after. Unlike many of today’s fantasy heroes, Osberne didn’t battle his way continuously across multiple volumes but was featured in only one, but that one was choice in its perfect encapsulation of the archetypal fantasy hero.
Where the strength of Dorothy of Oz lay in her sympathetic nature, that of Alice from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), was her childlike logic as she penetrates the nonsensical world of Wonderland. Time after time, the unflappable heroine encounters some stuffed shirt denizen of that world only to cut them down to size with penetrating questions. In Alice, the heroic ideal is again attained in other qualities than the ability to deal out violence and for that, she and Dorothy will always remain at the top of any list of fantasy heroes, male or female!
4) King Kull
Robert E. Howard strikes again with the second of his trio of deathless fantasy heroes. King Kull first appeared in a 1928 tale called “The Shadow Kingdom” which first told of how Kull, a barbarian boy from the isle of Atlantis fled his tribe and became a mercenary soldier in the armies of a Rome-like Valusia. There, by virtue of his strong right arm, he rises in the ranks to general and eventually king after he slays the corrupt occupier of the throne. And that’s where Kull’s real story begins as he finds the responsibility of a ruler weighs far more heavily than the lighter burden of soldiering. It’s Kull’s struggle to retain his sense of right and wrong amid a corrupt and decadent society that seeks at every turn to drag him down to its own level that makes the character one of the best realized fantasy heroes of all time.
3) King Arthur
Although the legend of King Arthur was taken as something of fact by the Anglo-Saxon people who lived in Britain in the dim years between Rome’s retreat and the Norman invasion of 1066, he had long since become a figure of heroic fantasy even by the time Thomas Mallory collected all of the stories told about him in Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). Since then, the heroic ideal of King Arthur and the legends of Lancelot, Guenevere, Mordred, the Round Table, et al have not only become touchstones in the genre but genuine archetypes upon which the entirety of epic fantasy is based.
The third and final great fantasy character invented by Robert E. Howard is easily his most successful. Fittingly for one of the most iconic fantasy heroes of all time, Conan the Cimmerian was born on a battlefield and followed much the same career path as his literary predecessor, King Kull (his first starring feature, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was even a rewritten Kull story). But for some reason (maybe Howard managed to cut closer to the archetypal bone) Conan struck a chord with readers that Kull never did. He outnumbered Kull in the stories that initially appeared in Weird Tales Magazine and broke into book publication before the Atlantian as well. It was Conan too, who was optioned by Marvel Comics to star in his own comic title for years, making him a virtual household name. From there, he broke into films, headlining three movies and spawning spin-offs.
Helping too, was the art of Frank Frazetta who contributed covers to a best-selling line of paperbacks that brought back into print Howard’s original stories in the 1970s. Those stories have not been out of print since. Conan himself, a towering, cynical, force of nature who battled and lusted his way across a fantasy landscape fighting demons, monsters, and mad sorcerers alike, has managed to strike a chord deep in readers’ psyche, perhaps left over from our own primitive past or a deep-seated yearning to return to those simpler times without the complicating factors of feminism and political correctness. Whatever the case, Conan has surely become one of the top fantasy creations of all time.
1) Frodo Baggins
The ideal fantasy hero should be able to combine all the best qualities of both heroes and heroines; that is, courage, intelligence, resourcefulness, sympathy, kindness, etc. But where to find such a superman? Well, the good news is that you don’t have to look too far. No farther than the greatest novel of the twentieth century in fact: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954). We speak of Frodo Baggins naturally, whose courage and perseverance in the face of incredible odds made him the most qualified to resist the siren song of the ring of power and take it all the way across Middle Earth to Mount Doom where it could be destroyed. Frodo is more three dimensional than Howard’s heroes, more pro-active than Alice or Dorothy, more immediate and timely than King Arthur, more optimistic than Thomas Covenant, more accessible than Johnny Black, and more unlikely than Osberne Wulfgrimsson. But as it does in real life, heroics did not come easy for Frodo who, as with most people, was a reluctant hero. Introspective and self-sacrificing, all he wanted to do was to return to the shire and live a normal, happy life. And who among us can’t identify with that? Frodo, for taking it to the limit of human endurance, overcoming the temptations of evil, loving his friends and family, retaining his humanity, and remaining true to himself, is the ultimate fantasy hero.
image illustration via shutterstock / Kiselev Andrey Valerevich