Being evangelical about genre fiction, I have a tendency to make long mental lists of 'must reads'. What follows are 35 books* that I consider essential fantasy.
I don't think the books on this list are the best - in fact I downright loathe a few of them (I'm looking at you, Tigana). However, I do feel these all reflect some aspect of the genre that I think is important to understand - if not necessarily enjoy.
I'm also a bit of a stickler on definitions of "Fantasy". I get really wound up by over-thought lists that include things like Moby Dick - that always feels like a passive-aggressive way of defending the genre. When I'm talking about "fantasy", I mean elves, talking swords, dragons & chainmail bikinis, dammit.
Here were the rules:
I divided Fantasy into four broad and incredibly subjective categories (Modern, High, Classics & Unclassifiable). Each author was only allowed one entry (although I stretched this a bit - justifiably - with Eddings, Gygax & Tolkien).
What'd I get right? Wrong? Tell me in the comments. If there's any sort of interest, I can add some vague annotations. But, right now, it seems more fun to provoke wild speculation (and hopefully some heated debate).
Marion Zimmer Bradley - The Mists of Avalon
Edgar Rice Burroughs - Tarzan of the Jungle (Tarzan)
Arthur Conan Doyle - The Lost World
H.R. Haggard - King Solomon's Mines
M. John Harrison - The Pastel City (Viriconium)
Robert E. Howard - "Beyond the Black River" (Conan)
Sax Rohmer - The Insidious Doctor Fu Manchu
J.R.R. Tolkien - The Lord of the Rings (All three)
Jack Vance - Tales from the Dying Earth
T.H. White - The Sword in the Stone
Stephen Donaldson - Lord Foul's Bane (Thomas Convenant)
David Eddings - The Belgariad (All five of 'em)
Tracy Hickman & Margaret Weis - Dragons of Autumn Twilight (Dragonlance Chronicles)
Robert Holdstock - Mythago Wood
Guy Gavriel Key - Tigana
Ursula LeGuin - The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea)
Fritz Leiber - Swords in the Mist (Lankhmar)
Michael Moorcock - Elric of Melnibone (Elric)
J.K. Rowling - Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone (Harry Potter)
Philip Pullman - Northern Lights (His Dark Materials)
Joe Abercrombie - The Blade Itself (The First Law Trilogy)
Terry Brooks - The Scions of Shannara (The Heritage of Shannara)
Susanna Clark - Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Scott Lynch - The Lies of Locke Lamora
George R.R. Martin - A Game of Thrones (Song of Ice & Fire)
China Mieville - Perdido Street Station
K.J. Parker - Colours in the Steel (Fencer Trilogy)
Tim Powers - Last Call
Andrezj Sapkowski - The Last Wish
Jonathon Stroud - The Amulet of Samarkand (Bartimeaus Chronicles)
Douglas Adams - The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
Robert Asprin - Another Fine Myth (Myth Adventures)
Gary Gygax - Player's Handbook & Dungeon Master's Guide (1st Edition)
Ian Livingstone - The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
Terry Pratchett - The Colour of Magic (Discworld)
*31 books, 2 series, a pair of rulebooks and 1 short story.