With the few remaining store shelves groaning under the weight of fantasy series whose authors must crank them out with the regularity and efficiency of a printing press (and with the same lack of originality), not much room is left for preserving the classics of the genre. Over the last several decades, fantasy has gone from a niche market to mass acceptance, and with the success of such series as Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, it’s also gone mainstream. Unfortunately, interest in those series hasn’t translated to interest in other fantasy worlds. Potter and Thrones have their fans but those fans seem to be parochial in their tastes, refusing to explore beyond the walls of Hogwarts or come out from behind the Iron Throne.
But fantasy is about more than dragons, swords, spells, and now sex. It’s also about the craft of writing and somehow capturing a sense of wonder and of faraway lands and climes that readers may not even be aware that they’re yearning to experience. It’s that deep, unsuspected tugging against the bonds of the here and now that the best works of fantasy create. And (dare I say it?) once upon a time writers did succeed in doing that when fantasy written for the older person (as opposed to children) was somewhat rare in a late nineteenth and early twentieth century era of limited media coverage and that frowned upon the man or woman who refused to let go of what were considered childish things.
However, those childish things began as somewhat serious tales told around Grecian campfires before they metamorphosed into mythology. But what is understood as modern fantasy, that is, fantastic stories meant for entertainment and that no one is expected to actually believe, began in the nineteenth century when authors such as William Morris and George MacDonald formalized the genre. It was they who took elements of myth and folklore and transformed them into extended-length novels that could be enjoyed by both children and adults. And through their skill with the written word they molded individual statements on the fantastic, creating worlds that spoke to the human heart in voices with which readers could identify.
In those worlds, combat and strife were often relegated to the background or were non-existent, and though there could be magic, it was limited. Most important to these authors was the human element, often expressed in the form of a quest which was actually a search for love, wisdom, or understanding — elements that will largely be the criteria upon which the following top 10 fantasy novels and series have been judged.
(Note: many of the books listed here have been reprinted as paperbacks in the late 1960s/early 1970s Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series and are still available at decent prices.)
The only “modern” fantasy on this list, Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni Chronicles antedates such newer fantasies as Game of Thrones with their palace intrigues and veiled diplomacies. Published in 1970, Deryni Rising was the first of a long series of books (usually written in threes) chronicling the history of the kingdom of Gwynedd, a medieval land roughly akin to Great Britain. There, two-faced diplomacy, palace intrigue, arranged marriages, warfare and the occasional regicide are further complicated by the existence of a race known as the Deryni. Possessed of various powers from mind reading to psychic healing, the Deryni were once powers in the land until the Church and its secular allies declared them tools of the devil. They are driven underground, and most of the series is about the Derynis’ struggle to survive and regain their legitimacy. It is told in a straightforward, extremely detailed, but engaging style. The Chronicles of the Deryni is likely the most fully realized, convincing fantasy world created in the modern era.
“I write, not for children,” wrote George MacDonald, “but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” Be that as it may, his novels could include much to ponder over, especially Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women. Published in 1858, the story follows one Anodos who stumbles into Faerie with the help of a fairy who pops out of his desk. That’s usually how these things happened in classic fantasy novels!
There, he embarks on a number of adventures all connected by Anodos’ search for the ideal which he’s prevented from finding due to his own inflated sense of self-worth. Only when our hero realizes that “I am what I am, nothing more,” is Shadow dispelled, the weight of false expectation lifted from him, and he returns to the real world. Delicately written and easily accessible to the modern reader despite its paucity of dialogue, Phantastes is hugely rewarding for any seeker of the fantastic.
Okay, not in the strict sense fantasy (there’s no magic, dragons, or spell casting), but the Gormenghast trilogy, made up of Gormenghast, Titus Groan, and Titus Alone, surely is one of the towering achievements of the fantastic imagination. Written by Mervyn Peake and published between 1946 and 1959, each volume in the series follows the story of Titus Groan, last heir of Gormenghast, a gigantic castle so big, few have ever had any need to leave it for the outside world. The castle has miles of passages, secret rooms, and in-built fiefdoms. Dozens of complex and often grotesque characters roam the dark halls of the castle. Trapped beneath the weight of tradition, they seem more like cogs in some vast perpetual-motion machine. That is, until one day Steerpike comes along, an unscrupulous kitchen urchin who escapes the bonds of routine and rises to power by mastering the castle’s arcane rules and regulations, enabling him to manipulate the life of the castle and its hidebound residents.
Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, or Lord Dunsany for short, was the 18th baron of Dunsany and a dabbler in the written word. Dunsany wrote a number of plays and many short tales of the fantastic including his dazzling and delicate Gods of Pegana prose poem cycle. In between, however, he managed to pen a number of fantasy novels, with 1924’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter being the best. In it, the mortal Lord of Erl travels to Elfland to woo and wed the Elf king’s daughter, Lirazel. She bears him a child but longs for and returns to Elfland. Erl embarks on a quest to find her. In the end, Lirazel yearns to return to her husband and in response her father adds the lands of Erl to Elfdom, granting its inhabitants immortality. Told in Dunsany’s unique and poetic style, The King of Elfland’s Daughter as well as his other fantasy tales became a big influence on early American fantasists such as H.P. Lovecraft and others.
A mathematician and chess enthusiast, Lewis Carroll used both interests as the underlining framework of his most famous novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865. It was Carroll’s fascination with language that infused much of the novel with its playful use of the written word that some have described as “literary nonsense.” That playfulness is illustrated no better than in the author’s featured poems “Jabberwocky” and “The Hunting of the Snark.” The book is filled with iconic characters that have since become part of the English language as metaphors, analogies and whatnot. It’s hard to come up with other fantasy novels that have been as influential and loved as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass.
Extremely pointed in his satirical commentary on modern society and mankind in general, James Branch Cabell yet managed to keep his criticisms couched within an elaborate fantasy land called Poictesme, a medieval French province wholly created by himself. Cabell’s most famous (or infamous) fantasy is Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, published in 1919. In it, Jurgen travels through a fantasy landscape that includes heaven and hell and much in between. Along the way, the author satirizes contemporary societal mores, in particular those regarding sexual behavior. Often told in Cabell’s humorous double entendres, Jurgen manages to seduce every woman he comes across, from scullery maids to queens. For his efforts, he was rewarded with a lawsuit intended to have Jurgen declared obscene, one that ultimately failed.
Textile manufacturer, wallpaper designer, poet, novelist, translator, historical preservationist, and social activist — William Morris did it all. But mostly, he’s remembered today as a fantasist of the highest order. From his pen flowed a dozen novels and novellas, all written in a meticulous pseudo-medieval style that makes his work difficult for the average reader to access. However, with patience, it rewards greatly.
Among his toppflight works of fantasy are The Sundering Flood, The Wood Beyond the World, and The Water of the Wondrous Isles. But his masterpiece must be The Well at the World’s End. Published in 1896, the story introduces Ralph of Upmeads and his quest to drink of the well at the world’s end and thus gain immortality. Along the way he falls in love, has a number of adventures, and performs many a good deed. Finding the well, he and his sweetheart must decide whether to return to the Upmeads or remain footloose, helping people wherever they can. In form and style, the novel resembles Morris’ other work but on a grander scale. It posed a clear challenge to anyone following him in the field of fantasy lit.
E.R. Eddison adopted an eclectic writing style for his works of high fantasy (with passages often cribbed from throughout English and classical literature), beginning with The Worm Ouroboros about love and war among the inhabitants of Witchland and Demonland on the planet Mercury… a designation that was completely arbitrary and unrelated to the actual planet. But Eddison’s real triumph in the field of fantasy was his Zimiamvia Trilogy (published between the years of 1935 and 1958), comprised of Mistress of Mistresses, A Fish Dinner in Memison, and The Mezentian Gate, all of which take place in the realm of the gods of the people of Mercury. Filled with outsize characters concerned with great loves and rivalries, the high point of the series is definitely the fish dinner of the second book’s title at which the gods create the Earth over conversation involving philosophy and metaphysics. For a time, some of them even live there among humans before dismissing the world out of existence when the meal is over. What to the humans has been the passing of millions of years is only a few minutes of dinner conversation to the gods. Together with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Zimiamvia Trilogy is surely the second leg supporting the entire fantasy genre to follow.
Primarily known as a writer of sea stories and horror, William Hope Hodgson also dabbled in fantasy, first crossing the line between horror and the fantastic in his second novel The House on the Borderland. Four years later, in 1912, he did the same when he published The Night Land, his masterpiece of the imagination. Written in an archaic, difficult-to-wade-through, faux medieval style, the extra-length work is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially with an often mawkish romance between its two principals.
However, more than making up for all that is its truly bizarre and outlandish version of Earth in a far distant future after some ill-defined catastrophe has extinguished the sun. A catastrophe perhaps connected to an invasion of monstrous, uncaring creatures from another dimension or universe; creatures that continue to populate the Earth’s dead landscape, lit only by the intermittent fires of volcanic activity. Meanwhile, the last vestiges of mankind are trapped in a massive metal pyramid called the Last Redoubt, forever under siege by the monsters outside their locked gates. Into this nightmare landscape our unnamed hero ventures, determined to pass through untold dangers to reach his sweetheart living in a smaller pyramid miles away called the Lesser Redoubt. Like the Deryni Chronicles, though, The Night Land is not strictly a fantasy in the traditional sense (it has no supernatural elements such as magic or spells). Its outlandish setting, strange beasts, and a framework consisting of quest and the search for an idealized romantic love all fit into the classical definition of the genre. For that, the brilliance of its execution, and its sheer inventiveness, The Night Land has to be included at the top of any list of the greatest fantasy novels of all time.
Oh, heck! No surprise here! The author of possibly the most famous and most enduring of all fantasy tales, J.R.R. Tolkien at first had no intention of becoming a major literary fantasist. His first fantasy novel, The Hobbit, began as a loose tale told to his children at bedtime before he finally put it down in book form. Its success was such that he was encouraged by his publisher to come up with something else and eventually he embarked on a more ambitious tale that would incorporate elements laid down in The Hobbit while enlarging upon themes only hinted at there. What emerged between 1954 and 1955 was the The Lord of the Rings trilogy made up of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King.
Tolkien, like his predecessors in the field of British literary fantasy, gave his tale a symbolic foundation of human frailty and ultimate redemption and salvation that was based on his own Christian faith. The trilogy is peopled with sympathetic characters and told in a straightforward style that made his work easily accessible to modern readers. This is likely the secret of the trilogy’s staying power even as other top-flight fantasists such as Morris, Eddison, and Hodgson have fallen by the pop-culture wayside. Not for nothing was the The Lord of The Rings trilogy voted the greatest book of not just the twentieth century, but of the millennium!