The 100 Best Fantasy Novels (Part 1)
Here are what I believe to be the 100 best fantasy books ever written. But keep in mind you are getting nothing more than my opinion. For most of us, the Age of Wonder occurs when we are between 13 and 20 years old. The books we read then, being our first encounter with certain imaginative motifs, often leave the greatest impression, so it should come as no surprise that my list is filled with mostly (though not all) older books.
In the last few years, I’ve been pursuing the books mentioned in Cawthorne and Moorcock’s Fantasy, the 100 Best Books. Some have been quite good, but many left me cold, and I can only attribute their inclusion in the volume as books seen through the dim haze of the authors’ younger days. Undoubtedly, you will have a similar opinion on some of the books in my list.
One other thing that you should be aware of: because I grew up reading Ballantine Books Sign of the Unicorn fantasy series during my teenage years, my expectations are that a fantasy novel should be quite different from anything I have read before. That’s hard to understand in these days where so many books follow similar premises. And it also explains why there may be a number of your favorites not listed. That, and the fact that I haven’t read everything, of course.
The books listed below are those I think fantasy readers would enjoy, and ones that those wishing to be fantasy writers should definitely be familiar with. I list them in the order they came to mind, not in any ranking.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien:
An obvious choice, but not so much as it once was. In recent years, I have encountered younger readers who don’t understand “the big deal about The Lord of the Rings.” The problem with LOTR is that it was too successful, and the host of imitations caused many readers to read Tolkien’s work only after being exposed to his plot ideas (and even his characters) in other books. To understand what Tolkien accomplished, you must realize that when many of us read his books for the first time, it was our first meeting with dragons, dwarves, and elves. The parents of my generation didn’t read their children many fairy tales. My only memory of dwarves was a vague impression from Disney’s Snow White. When I began reading The Hobbit, I entered into a totally unfamiliar world, with no frame of reference about where Tolkien was getting his ideas. The effect was wonderful and devastating.
Though I have read some of the imitations, there is no better book of its kind, so much so that it is impossible for me to enjoy the imitators. I don’t want elves and orcs and dragons; I want Tolkien’s elves and orcs and dragons. He pulled together so many concepts: Norse Myth, English fairy tales, his linguistic background, to create a story that encompasses both high and low myth. To complete his story he gave his characters, who should by all rights be pre-Christian pagans, codes of honor based on knightly chivalry. That he created an entire genre of literature speaks of his originality.
The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien:
A difficult read, but well worth the effort. Written before The Lord of the Rings, there are some beautiful images hidden away in this mythology that is the basis for Middle-Earth. Tolkien’s world works because he spent years developing its history; few other writers would have spent the time, but it was his hobby and his passion.
Red Moon and Black Mountain and The Grey Mane of Morning by Joy Chant:
These books can be read in any order—they are radically different from one another, though both are set in the same world. In my opinion, Red Moon is a fantasy masterpiece. It is also the closest anyone ever came to creating a Tolkienian fantasy without consciously imitating Tolkien. Pictured is the beautiful, original full-cover artwork by Bob Pepper.
The Grey Mane of Morning is equally good, but in an entirely different way. The setting is tribal rather than medieval, a battle between the people of the plains and the dwellers of the city, with the tribe’s gods taking part. My simple description doesn’t do the book justice.
It’s a shame these books are so long out-of-print. Find them used, but by all means find them.
Phantastes and At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald:
MacDonald was a writer of gentle, wise prose. Phantastes is difficult to describe, save as a journey through a faerie dreamland. A beautiful book I have read several times. A free ebook version is available on gutenberg.org.
At the Back of the North Wind is a children’s book, but don’t let that put you off. My hardback edition is over 300 pages long, so it’s not a “kid’s” book. The dialogue is sophisticated and filled with insights, as a small boy named Diamond meets the North Wind in the shape of a (sometimes) tall, beautiful woman. There are gorgeous passages in this book; the depictions of the god-like North Wind are truly awesome. Early in the book, Diamond becomes desperately ill and North Wind takes him to the Back of the North Wind (death). He spends time with the inhabitants there, and though he remembers little of it when he recovers, he has been touched by Heaven, and possesses wisdom beyond his years. As the book progresses, we are introduced to a little girl, Nanny, who becomes Diamond’s companion in adventure. MacDonald’s works radiate a deep respect for life, and especially, for women. This may well be his best book.
The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson:
Since I have spent considerable effort rewriting this novel into more modern prose, I’ll only say that it is one of the most remarkable books in existence. The original work is available in various editions and formats, some for free, on Amazon and other sites. For more information about The Night Land, go to Andy Robertson’s website: http://nightland.website/
The Man Who was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton:
Chesterton was a brilliant writer in theology, fantasy and mysteries. Thursday is the story of a man infiltrating a fantastic spy organization. Any more would spoil the plot. Along that line, if you happen to get your hands on the rare Ballantine edition edited by Lin Carter, Lin puts a spoiler in his introduction. I have often wondered how the book would have struck me the first time through if he hadn’t.
Titus Groan and Gormenghast by Mervyn Peak:
These books, though I have only read them twice, have had a tremendous influence on my work in ways I can’t even explain. Set in a ruined castle in a mysterious kingdom, it is the strange, macabre characters that make the story a fantasy. The villain is arguable the most well-drawn bad guy in all of literature. Be warned: this is a difficult read, and some of the sub-plots are less interesting, but it is worth the time spent on the books, one of those where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The Curse of the Wise Woman by Lord Dunsany:
Lord Dunsany was one of the great fantasy writers of the past century. Most people tend to list The King of Elfland’s Daughter as his greatest novel. I disagree. Though it is certainly a good book, it isn’t one of my favorites. Wise Woman, though short on the fantasy element, is a lovely book that makes one understand and even empathize with the English love of wandering the fields hunting game, living the life Baron Dunsany was intimately familiar with.
Tales of Three Hemispheres; The Book of Wonder, Time and the Gods; Tales of Wonder; The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories; A Dreamer’s Tales by Lord Dunsansy:
Even though they aren’t novels, I must also list Dunsany’s compilations of short stories. Dunsany was unsurpassed in the short form, one of the the world’s great, stylistic writers—inimitably simple prose—no one writes like Dunsany. Most of these books are available in various editions, including free editions at Project Gutenberg. I’ve listed the names of the original books, which Wildside Press has done a nice job of reprinting. Although it’s difficult to call one collection better than any of the others, the stories in Tales of Three Hemispheres or The Book of Wonder are two that stand out for me. Dip into Dunsany and you dip into the heart of fantasy.
The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison:
This book begins with a quirk. Lessingham, looking up at the stars, finds himself transported to Mercury, where he witnesses the war between the kingdoms of Demonland and Witchland. The problem with the beginning is that Lessingham, the observer, plays no part at all after the introduction of the other characters around page 10. He is never mentioned again, though he does play a role in Eddison’s other books.
The second problem to be overcome is the names Eddison uses. Other than small horns on the tops of their heads, the people of Demonland are mortal men; the same is true for Witchland, Impland, etc. And the land of Mercury is filled with earthly animals and vegetation. For the reader, it is best to ignore the connotation of the names and plunge into one of the most heroic stories ever written. No deep psychology here. These are warriors fighting noble battles.
If you prefer to listen to this book on MP3, Jason Mills of England does a wonderful job reading the book. Worm is in the public domain, and the reading can be downloaded for free at www.librivox.org a terrific website manned by volunteer readers. Jason makes the prose sound even better than it is, and that’s saying a lot. I liked it so much I convinced Jason to read my rewrite of The Night Land for the audio book edition.
A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay:
This book is a mystery I never intend to solve–not in the detective sense, however. It’s filled with allegory on the author’s own peculiar religious beliefs, none of which I understand, but I find the story fascinating, as the hero, Maskull, is transported to a world surrounding the star, Arcturus. As he travels through the world, his sense organs keep changing, and each change causes a change in his character. Don’t expect to understand the meaning of it all, but the ride is worth it.