Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Voyage on the Oceans of Fantasy

I came somewhat late, as a reader, to the fantasy genre. In grade school I had, unfortunately, bought into the notion that Fantasy was for geeks and I was a very self conscious adolescent. I didn't want anyone to think I was even less cool than I already was. So although I had read and loved all of the Chronicles of Narnia as a child (no self respecting Christian home would be complete without them even if all other media with "magic" is utterly rejected) and though I had voraciously consumed (in the privacy of my bed room while no one was watching) a short story by Ursula Le Guin that I found in the back of my English book one year, I was careful not to delve into the genre too deeply for fear of being "uncool".

When I was 16 I was caught off guard by an acquaintance who told riddles. They were very clever and I asked him where they came from. "The Hobbit", he told me. I was irrevocably lost to the ranks of the "cool". I could no longer deny my curiosity as it pulled me toward tales of magic and made up worlds. I checked out The Hobbit from the library. I read it quietly in my room. It was good, but not as good as I expected. Still, my appetite was whetted and I knew there were more that followed it. I picked up The Fellowship of the Ring from the library and I was never the same again.The chapter "Shadows of the Past" was a point of no return for me. I'd never read anything like it and I wanted more.

Oh how I cursed myself for not getting the other two books at the same time! How I cursed our house out in the country and the need to get a ride from my parents to the library. When I finally had access to the library again, I didn't make the same mistake twice. I took both The Two Towers and The Return of the King. It was an experience that transformed me and made me into the fantasy reader and writer that I am today.

Back then, I wanted to read more fantasy, but I had no idea where to start after reading The Lord of the Rings. I didn't know anything about the genre. And it wasn't until several years later, when I met my future husband who is a fantasy reader as well, that I was finally able to get into it. He introduced me to many fantasy authors and many new books and series. Still, the more I read the more I continually become aware of how much I still don't know about the deep waters of modern fantasy. And in particular, about its origins and development.

But as a fantasy writer it's important for me to know as much about my genre as possible. Every writer should know what has come before them, what has been done too much and what hasn't been explored enough. And so, as a reader and as a writer, I have decided to made a grand expedition into the turbulent waters of the modern fantasy genre to explore its far reaches and become better acquainted with its currents.

I'm going to start at the beginning (roughly) and travel decade by decade reading as many of the well known and influential fantasy offerings as I can (without prolonging the journey too much) until I reach the present day. And along the way I will blog about my reading experiences and how I think the genre was influenced, for better or worse, by the books I am reading. I will be focusing in particular on how the genre has changed and developed over the last century plus and whether or not the changes were good. (Spoiler: I'll probably think they're bad. I'm a traditionalist.) But I will try to maintain as objective an outlook as possible along the way.

My reading list begins in the 19th century at what is (arguably) the beginning of the modern fantasy genre. Works before this time and before these authors were tended to either be new fairy tales (like John Ruskin's The King of the Golden River), parodies or satires (like Gulliver's Travels) or written as children's stories (like Alice in Wonderland). My selections will not fall into those categories. I will try to cover ever sub-genre as they develop. The first stage of the journey will cover:

George MacDonald~ Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women (1858)

William Morris~ The Wood Beyond the World (1894)
                          The Well at the World's End (1896)

I would sincerely appreciate any suggestions for authors and books that a true fantasy devotee must read. I have done some research, but I'm sure there will be plenty that I miss. Particularly any from those early years in the 19th century that I'm not aware of. I'll report my findings soon!


  1. This should be interesting. Not to avoid answering your call for suggestions, but Lin Carter's Imaginary Worlds gives a great history of fantasy (or at least secondary world fantasy), so it would have all the roadmap you need up to maybe the beginning of the 70s.

    After that, it gets tougher, but I'd suggest (in no particular order):
    Tanith Lee - The Flat Earth stories
    Karl Edward Wagner - the Kane stories/novels
    Gene Wolfe - the Book of the Sun New Sun
    Roger Zelazny - The Chronicles of Amber
    China Mieville - the New Crubozon novels
    George R.R. Martin - A Song of Ice and Fire
    Neil Gaiman - American Gods, Sandman
    Guy Kay Gavriel - I like A Song for Arbonne, but that's probably not his most "important" work.

    And some others, but I'm trying to think "important" works. Also, I'm probably not particularly versed in urban fantasy or magic realism sort of stuff, so I bet I'm leaving out some seminal things there.

  2. i really wish i could help you, but the strange thing is, even though i enjoy writing fantasy, i don't read much of it. of course, i loved the Narnia books, but i'd rather watch the Lord of the Rings movies than read the books. i'm weird. i know. best wishes on your quest to read as much fantasy as you can.

  3. Trey, the husband here. Sarah's read about half of those authors. We've got two children with names from the Amber Chronicles, for instance. I, myself, am on a frantic Wolfe binge right now, but I don't think I was able to get her to finish Shadow of the Torturer. She'll no doubt come along and correct me on that. Though I'm not sure if she'd include that in her list, as it's more sci-fi, even if it reads a bit like fantasy. (Soldier novels were also a bust. Maybe I should try the old "I don't know if you're ready for this" tactic that worked with Dune. And maybe I should just throw a book at myself and save her the time.)

    Michelle, run. Save yourself. I, for one, am going to pretend I didn't read your comment, to silence the black purist demons that live inside my shriveled heart.

  4. Terry Brooks! You have to read the Shannara books. Those, and The Hobbit, are what sparked my interest in fantasy.

  5. Oh this theme/journey is just fantastic. I'm building my reading list off of this - looking foward to see what you post next.

  6. Yay for old time fantasy! Has anyone mentioned HP Lovecraft yet? Or Lord Dunsany?
    But the best thing you can do is get George Anderson's Tales Before Tolkien anthology.
    I read Morris and MacDonald because of Tolkien and Lewis too :-)

  7. Trey, thanks for the suggestions. Imaginary Worlds sounds very helpful, I'll have to check it out. I'm also not very familiar with Urban Fantasy and other similar sub genres, but part of this exercise is to correct that.

    Michelle, I'm going to pretend you didn't say that, lest my readers be subject to thousands of words detailing how the books are infinitely superior to the movies. ;)

    Brian, dear, you are correct. I couldn't get through the first volume of the Book of the New Sun. A book told in first person where the main character is cold, distant, vague and has no personality? No thanks. I'll try the Soldier books and the Wizard Knight books when I get to Wolfe in the timeline.

    Alex, don't remind me. I once tried to read Sword of Shannara and gave it up as the worst fantasy book ever written (yes, ever worse than Wheel of Time!), but I know I'll have to force myself to finish. Brooks was too big an influence over fantasy in the last few decades to ignore.

    EastCoaster, I hope you'll enjoy it. I'll be creating a page with my list of books and a short review as well as links to the longer posts as I go along.

    Deniz, Lovecraft and Dunsany are both on my list. Actually, I've been cheating and reading Dunsany even though he's farther down in the timeline than MacDonald or Morris. I really like his work.

  8. Very cool idea! Can't wait to see your updates.

    If you haven't read Anne McCaffrey, Ursula LeGuin and Lois McMaster Bujold - definitely add them to the list. I love Bujold's Chalion novels.

  9. Wonderful idea! I'll definitely be back to read what you have to say.


  10. That's an admirable quest! Goodluck and I'll be looking forward to your report. :)

  11. What an awesome idea. I shall be following your journey with keen interest!

    Ellie Garratt

  12. This is a pretty epic undertaking. Really looking forward to hearing about what you find :D

  13. Thanks for the suggestions, Nicole. I think all of those authors will be on the final list.

    I'm glad folks find this mission interesting. I just wish I could find more time to dedicate to reading! At my current rate I won't have my next installment up for at least a week.


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