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When Dreams of Yith Went to The Swap Hole

50 Essential Epic Fantasies (Part 1: 8th Century BC - 1982)

Liz Bourke, Justin LandonTansy Rayner Roberts and I have challenged one another to write and compare our lists of "Essential" Epic Fantasies. The result is a multi-blogger liststravaganza! (For a previous challenge with SF, see here.)

The rules are as follows:

  • No more than one book or series from each author. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien could go in for The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings series, but not both.
  • No anthologies.
  • You can only list books that you have read
  • Definitions of "essential", "epic" and "fantasy" are left to personal interpretation.

Tthat third rule limits me to things that are in English, which means this is an extremely Anglo-American list. Sorry about that - as always, please leave feedback and suggested reading in the comments.

I've defined "essential" as "gives or informs a useful perspective on the category". I've also tried to cover as much of a range as possible with the fifty picks. So the "essential" list should be a holistic view of the category. Favouritism is unavoidable, but I've balanced out some of those picks with books I really dislike. Only fair.

Specifically, because I'm a nutball, I'm interested in how the epic fantasy category has progressed, or, in many cases - stayed fairly static. There are some strands of epic fantasy that seem, well, completely unchanged over two thousand years. There are other strands in which the category actively pulls in tropes and themes from other genres. This first part of the list - Homer to the early 1980s - focuses on establishing these strands. The second part of the list (coming Monday) is more about progression (and the lack thereof).

As with all lists, I look forward to the debate. Please share your own "essential" books in the comments, and don't forget to check out what the others have done: Liz, JustinTansy

Enough of that. Here's the first half of my personal list of "essential" epic fantasies:

Arthur: The original hooded manHomer's Odyssey (8th century BC): Homer's Odyssey has it all - one man's travels across the world, battling and outwitting monsters, encountering sorceresses and beasties, getting moral lessons and/or having ridiculous sexual conquests. His reward? To (re)marry a princess and (re)claim his rightful throne.

Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (1485): It would be very easy to clutter this list with Arthurian folklore, so I'll just use Malory.

Wu Cheng'en's A Journey to the West (1592): Like the Odyssey but with more humour, a better party dynamic and an overarching larger moral theme.

The King James Bible (1611): I'm not going to start a theological argument by referring to the Bible "epic fantasy", but I do think it is essential reading for the appreciation of epic fantasy. In the same way as, say, Dungeons & Dragons. (I'm going to hell.) So many of the themes of Anglo-American epic fantasy stem from this one book: the sense of moral consequence, personified Good and Evil battling for the fate of ordinary people and, of course, apocalyptic eschatology ("of course"). Plus, stylistically, I think there's something to be said for how the florid prose of the King James version has infected the genre.

Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924): Very pretty; very questy. There's an ethereal high fantasy strand that, as far as the 20th century goes, seems to begin here.

H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" (1926): If we're following threads, Lovecraft's mystical "Dream-Quest" follows on quickly from Dunsany. Although some of his Dream Cycle stories predate Elfland, this one follows the same mold of the ethereal fairy-tale. Dreamy wanderings and astral messengers and, you know, Nyarlathotep.

Robert Graves' I, Claudius (1934): A great book, and, as Sophia McDougall once pointed out, actually a fantasy. There's a prophecy and a chosen one and everything. Truly epic as well - this is about good and evil emperors, an overlooked hero that goes from (virtual) orphan to king and, above all, the rise, fall and reclamation of one of the most fantastic empires in fiction. Or, you know, history. Let me have it: this is the one nod to historical fiction on the whole list.

C.L. Moore's Jirel of Jorey stories (1934 - 1939): Here comes the sword and sorcery! Moore's stories came to Weird Tales after Robert E. Howard's Conan, but I think the haughty Jirel is a more interesting character, whose quests had slightly more scale than Howard’s one note barbarian. Plus, a female protagonist with strength and agency?! Having her very own adventures!? Ridiculous

C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia (1950 - 1956): Spoiler: Aslan is Jesus.

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954 - 1955): Odd that the light-hearted story of a gardener’s voyage to see an elephant has been so badly misinterpreted over the years.

Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth (1961): The whimsical children's epic fantasy / metaphorical epic /one of the greatest books ever written. It was this or The Neverending Story, and Michael Ende didn't get Jules Feiffer illustrations.

Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn (1968): How many epic fantasies are there from the monster’s point of view? Granted, this monster is a pretty little unicorn/analogy that’s eventually voiced by Mia Farrow, but… if you need an example of extremely Sixties (flower) fairy tale interpretations of the fantasy epic? Here you go. Now let’s get out of this decade.

Dragon!M. John Harrison's Viriconium (1971): Instead of Peake’s Gormenghast or Vance’s Dying Earth. In its own nebulous way, I think Viriconium is the best combination of “it looks epic when the the lights are off” and “rule-bending, uncontrollable Weirdness”. (It reminds me of an interview with China Miéville, in which he talks about the possibility of a Viriconium RPG: “Roll against ennui!”) (We should make that a t-shirt…)

Michael Moorcock's Elric (1972 - 1977ish): I subscribe to the theory that Elric began as an over-the-top pastiche of epic fantasy – and more interesting because of it. This demonstrates a self-awareness that won’t be seen in again in the field until, well, not for a while at least. (I also think Elric eventually jumped the shark. Then he made love to the shark. Then he killed the shark. Then he wrote poetry about the shark. Then he stared into the void, cursing the universe for a while.)

Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence (1965 - 1977): Weird that a series that essentially fuses Christian and Celtic mythology (two things I don’t really care about) could be so compelling. But this is a great series and belongs here as a demonstration of a contemporary epic, a young adult epic, multiple Chosen Ones, brains-not-brawn conflicts, secret worlds, etc. etc. etc.

Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea (1968 - 2001): In the spirit of the television adaptation, I’m going to change the type to white: Essential for: seductively non-systemisable magic, non-white and/or non-male heroes, harrowing magical apocalypses and, in The Tombs of Atuan, one of the best examples of role reversal ever. The ‘princess in the tower’ is the one with the agency, the power and the central narrative. 

Richard Adams' Watership Down (1972): Fantasy should've just stopped here. The Lord of the Rings with psychic rabbits. How do you top that? "We're done, guys - Richard went bunny."

Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax's Dungeons and Dragons (1974): If I were doing my list March Madness style, the four number #1 seeds would be the Bible, The Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons and one more that I’ll get to in a moment. D&D (and I’ve sort of arbitrarily chosen one edition here) gave us the rules for epic fantasy. What, statistically, it means to be Chosen, the ideal party structure for narrative progress, what character development looks like on a level-by-level basis and exactly how viciously you have to skewer the Evil One with the Sword of Whoopity-whack.

ArnoldAnne McCaffrey's Harper Hall trilogy (1976 - 1979): I did a piece for Adventure Rocketship on music in fantasy. The gist of which is that a) it is everywhere, b) it owes a lot to Tolkien’s interpretation of the ‘bardic tradition’ and c) it owes even more to LARPers, who use poetry and music to approximate ‘magic’ whilst ducking wooden swords. Anyway, music and magic. Two things that, by definition, are difficult to describe with the printed word. Which hasn’t prevented every fantasy hack for fifty years from shoving a mandolin and some poetry in their Lord of the Rings knock-off. McCaffrey, by contrast, did it really nicely. She uses the ‘much appreciated but not, like, useful’ position of the musician to great effect, writing an interesting fantasy saga about class, society and problems-that-aren’t-resolved-with-swords. Plus, dragons.

Dave Sim's Cerebus (1977 - 2004): I lied. Here’s another self-aware epic fantasy. (A little too self-aware at times.)

Tanith Lee's Tales from the Flat Earth sequence (1978 - 1987): Epic fantasy evolving by poaching (style and substance) from other genres, in this case, romance, horror and the Gothic.

Lyndon Hardy's Master of the Five Magics (1980): Another genre overlap. Hardy’s book is an oft-overlooked example of fantasy imitating science fiction. Five Magics is all about the ‘science’ of magic. Hardy builds a rigorous and internally consistent set of rules, world-building focused on the system, not the setting. If "any sufficiently advanced, etc”, than any “tediously over-explained magic is indistinguishable from science fiction”. Replace “magic” with “fusion” and you’ve got Asimov.

John Milius and Oliver Stone's "Conan the Barbarian" (1982): My fourth #1 seed. (/watches Howard fans explode) For one, the movie is a great example of the fusion of epic fantasy and sword and sorcery. Whereas, arguably, most of Howard’s original stories are purely the latter. The epic/S&S blend is a trend that’s been dominating the category since then, and is everywhere today. There’s a distinctly progressive, linear plot arc, but also moral ambiguity and a focus on character development. Questioning whether the ends are worth the means, etc. Also, incredibly influential. We owe much of the post-Tolkien fantasy resurgence to the commercial success of this ridiculous film. And by that, I don’t just mean within our cosy genre bubble, but beyond it. When you say “fantasy”, a whole generation thinks of Arnold strutting about in furry underwear. We like to pretend the genre is better than this film, but…

David Eddings' Belgariad (1982 - 1984). "Neo-Tolkien" - and Eddings could just as easily be be Tad Williams, Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist or any of the other authors that churned out sagas of teenage stableboys, discovering their specialonesness and stomping off to fight the big evil and avenge their parents’ death. Pros include surprisingly moreish character-focused narrative. Cons include the unfortunate tendency to make sweeping stereotypes, whereas every single member of a race or nation looks and acts exactly the same (often with uncomfortably problematic real-world analogues). (Another legacy of D&D, come to think of it…)

Stephen King's The Dark Tower series (1982 - 2012): What began as the self-indulgent, faux-literary meta-fantasy epic of an 18 year old actually turned into a really interesting faux-literary meta-fantasy epic that combined the quest narrative with tropes and influences from a hundred different non-traditional sources, from Westerns to musicals. Well played, Mr. King.

That's the first 25! The listing continues on Monday with 1983 through to the present day... Please leave a comment with suggestions, recommendations and criticism - and hop over to Liz, Justin and Tansy's sites to see how their lists compare.