Hobbits and More: A Cursory Exploration of Fantasy Literature

Benjamin Baruch Woody

Any conversation about fantasy literature must begin with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. There are earlier practitioners, but Tolkien is almost single-handedly responsible for many of the familiar tropes of fantasy literature. Tolkien was the Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College, Oxford. He was considered a worldwide expert on Norse, Germanic, and Celtic mythology. He also was a well-known philologist of Old English and Middle English. Tolkien has stated that he began to invent several types of Elvish (notably Quenya and Sindarin) and then needed a world for his languages to exist. This is a key detail in the development of fantasy literature. Tolkien established the cornerstone of fantasy, world-building. Speaking of world-building, I highly recommend all of the histories of Middle-Earth carefully put together and edited by Tolkien’s son Christopher.

I will now give the reader a list of some of my favorite fantasy series. I say series, because fantasy (and sci-fi, but to a lesser degree) really lends itself to multiple volume sets. It takes longer to build a fantasy world. There are trilogies and series in “normal” fiction, but not as many as in fantasy. A writer just doesn’t have to spend a lot of time building  the “real” world in regular fiction. This is not a comprehensive list. These are books and authors that I have read (most of them multiple times). They are in no certain order other than a vague attempt at a chronology based on when they wrote.

1. David Eddings- The Belgariad, The Mallorean, The Elenium, and more.  The Belgariad and the Mallorean are pure epic fantasy. They take place in a world that seems like an amalgam of our own; as if Eddings cherry-picked civilizations from our real history and different time periods and staged them on a make-believe planet. There is a rich history, a pantheon of almost human gods and goddesses (think Greek Mythology), the best explanation and use of a system of magic that I have read in fantasy, some great, memorable, characters, and an epic sense of space and time and real importance. The struggles of these characters matter.  I highly recommend.

2. Terry Brooks- the Shannara books. There are many Shannara books by now and I must admit that I dropped out after about 7 or 8. These books are not quite great imitators of Tolkien. They do have the usual underdog who is guided by an almost all-powerful wizard to defeat the all-powerful Evil. What makes me recommend these books is just pure entertainment value. They have great characters. You meet the characters in, different books, different stages in their lives, which is interesting. I can still picture some of the side characters in my mind. Terry Brooks is a very good fantasy entertainer.

3. Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman- This amazing duo has many different series and I recommend them all. The most well-known (especially for role-playing gamers) is the Dragonlance series. This series is sometimes criticized for its genre cliches but I, while acknowledging the faults, just love the four main characters. They meet up in a tavern and go save the world. This is why we have fantasy literature. Sometimes a cliche feels warm and makes the reader feel good. There is nothing wrong with that.

4. Raymond Feist- the Riftwar Cycle. Feist is a master of world-building. It would take many pages to describe the dual worlds he has created. I’ll just say that one world is based largely (like many fantasy worlds) on a vaguely European Medieval period and the other is based on Feudal Japan (this is much less likely in fantasy literature). There is also a pair of almost immortal boyhood friends, Pug and Tomas, who populate almost all of the books. You want to meet these two fellas. Highly recommended.

5. Steven Erikson-the Malazan books. I consider these the War and Peace of fantasy. I will just quote Wikipedia because I could not say it any better, “Erikson’s series is extremely complex with a wide scope, and presents the narratives of a large cast of characters spanning thousands of years across multiple continents”. If you go down this road, there is no going back. I dedicated 3 years of my life (I did do a couple other things) to this series. It is for the hardcore only. I cannot recommend it more highly; it will enrich your life.

6. Robert Jordan- the Wheel of Time series. This is one of the all-time greats. A huge, sprawling series (14 books). It grew so big that Brandon Sanderson (whom we will talk about soon) had to finish it because Jordan died. This series has everything any fantasy fan could ever want. An amazing history, a huge cast of colorful characters, a truly remarkable magic system, the fate of the world, and that’s just for starters. I predict that it will become the next Game of Thrones. It has been picked up as a TV series and, if executed well, will really take off. I do not have the space here to adequately sing the praises of the Wheel of Time. If you are a fantasy fan, or want to become one, you HAVE to read this series.

7. George R.R. Martin- Game of Thrones. Loosely based on the historical War of the Roses, I don’t have much to say about this series. The immensely popular TV show has brought this series (and fantasy in general) into the mainstream. I know that Lord of the Rings did this as well, but it feels different somehow. That will have to be the subject of a different blog post because I haven’t found the source of this half-baked theory. If you like your fantasy a lot more gritty and “realistic”, than this series is for you.

8. Brandon Sanderson- The Stormlight Archive series. Sanderson is a very good writer. He has many different fantasy series but is probably best known for finishing the Wheel of Time series when Robert Jordan died. I think he did a masterful job with that very difficult project. The Stormlight Archive is one of the two best current fantasy worlds going. The world-building in this series is mind-boggling. Sanderson is especially adept at creating amazing female characters. One of the lead protagonists is a truly interesting woman. Any reader looking for a series that is ongoing can rest here comfortably.

9. Patrick Rothfuss- The Kingkiller Chronicle. Patrick Rothfuss is a genius. The only drawback to this series is the interminably long time that the third book has taken with publishing. The main character Kvothe is just one of the great literary characters of all-time. The two books that are already out are simply magical. Every fantasy fan needs to read these books.

I am now going to include three series for younger readers. I do not mean to suggest that these are for younger people only. I recently re-read the Earthsea series and it is still wonderful and powerful. These books are responsible for me being a life-long fantasy fan and, more generally, addicted to reading. I cannot stress enough how these books affected me as a child.

10. Ursula Le Guin- Earthsea books. They are simply masterpieces. The story of a young man who gradually becomes a wizard (it just occurred to me that Rowling might have been inspired by the wizard school present in these books) and becomes a power in his world is still very special. Adults and children alike need to read these books.

11. C.S. Lewis- Chronicles of Narnia. If you are reading this then chances are you know about this series. Lewis is one of our great writers and thinkers and here he is at his best. Not strictly an allegory, but certainly representative of Lewis’ worldview, these books will break your heart.

12. Lloyd Alexander- The Chronicles of Prydain. Heavily drawn from Welsh mythology, these books are classics. They are the first fantasy books I ever read and I have been hooked ever since. This is textbook High Fantasy. The child who seems lowly and plain but is actually more than he seems. Just outstanding.

An important note: I purposely did not cover Harry Potter in this blog. Harry Potter, in some ways, changed the world of literature. It brought literally millions into the world of reading. I know it is a fantasy, but I feel that Potter is such a huge world that it deserves its own blog written by someone else.

I hope you enjoyed this blog and it showed you some new fantasy to read. Happy Reading!!