Essential High Fantasy

Over at io9, they have assembled some links to several fantasy authors’ lists of essential lists of works of “high fantasy”. There’s no definitive definition of what, exactly, that is, so there are some odd choices, but it’s certainly worth looking at. There are also some more links to additional lists in some of those links.

Now, I do have something very specific in mind when it comes to high fantasy, and have a list of my own. I don’t claim it to be definitive, essential, or exhaustive, but here ’tis, in no particular order. I don’t include what I call “sword and sorcery” or science fiction, and my list also includes books, television, and movies.

The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings. I’d include both the books and the Peter Jackson films. The changes between the books and the films honestly don’t bother me one whit; both are terrific and stirring in their own ways, and both work for what they are.

A Game of Thrones. I haven’t read the books yet, so I can’t rightfully include them in my list. But these are certainly epic in scope, and deal with themes of fighting evil (even if in some cases that evil is relative).

Dragonlance. Say what you will about the impact of Dragonlance on the development of D&D, the books themselves were quite decent (especially the early ones), and the quest to defeat evil was certainly epic. I found the characters very compelling, and the setting was certainly well detailed.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Not your typical high fantasy epic thanks to the nature of the anti-hero Thomas Covenant, but this series of books influenced my own gaming and writing for years, and still does.

The Mists of Avalon. This might well be the first book that self-consciously tried to conform to the tropes of heroic fantasy, but it’s still good for all of that.

Excalibur. This film version of the Arthur legend can drag at times, especially in the final third, but man does it have gravitas. And a score by Richard Wagner for crying out loud.

Hawk the Slayer. Yes, it’s schlocky, but the overarching theme of vengeance and the fight between good and evil place it firmly in the high fantasy category for me.

Conan the Barbarian. I place the original film in the epic fantasy category, but I wouldn’t include either the stories or the other films. Complaints of the REH purists aside, there is something utterly magnificent in the cinematography, the score, and the primal theme.

Elric. This is a toughy, as there are so many elements of Elric that could legitimately be said to be firmly within the realm of swords and sorcery. The theme here is not so much good vs. evil as it is man vs. destiny, which in its own way is just as powerful a motivation as the most pure-hearted paladin could bear.

The Winter of the World. This little-known series of books deals with a prehistoric civilization that sortakinda retells the Norse myths, but against the backdrop of an impending ice age. Really worth checking out.

The Dark Crystal. Yes, the film by Jim Henson. When you realize the film isn’t about the trials and travails of the Gelflings at all, but is really about the restoration of the UrSkeks, it takes on a whole new flavor.

Clash of the Titans. It doesn’t get more high fantasy than this. Dashing hero out to save the princess from the evil prince cursed by the Gods.

Lacunae: In preparing this list I discovered just how many foundational works of high fantasy I have never read. Shanarra, The Belgarion, The Wheel of Time, the Riftwar Saga, the Chronicles of the Necromancer, etc. Time to stock up for some summer reading, methinks.

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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

12 thoughts on “Essential High Fantasy

  1. ++ for including Excalibur, Clash of the Titans, and Conan the Barbarian movies. I would add the Shannara books in there (at least Elf Stones) as well.

  2. Wheel of Time is definitely worth reading (but will take a while).

    With the Moorcock series, I always preferred Corum over Elric, Erekose and Count Brass.

    Excalibur – great choice, but the score wasn't just Wagner – Orne's "Fortuna" is the music for the classic scene of knights riding through the orchard.

    I'm slightly surprised not to see Tanith Lee mentioned.

  3. Winter of the World is a GREAT series that I'm always surprised that people don't know about. It isn't based on Norse myths, though – it's mostly Finnish, from the Kalevala.

    I would also add:

    The Prince of Nothing by R Scott Bakker – Tolkien written by a psychologist, basically.

    The Sword of Shadows, by JV Jones. Terrific world-building.

    The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson – redefines the term epic.

    The Legion of Videssos by Harry Turtledove – roman legion in a fantasy world. Gotta love that.

  4. A lot of Winter of the World comes from the Norse myth-cycle surrounding Weyland the smith. I'm sure it's a mish-mash of a lot of stuff, but I saw a lot more Norse in there than you did, apparently.

  5. There is a little norse there, I suppose, and a little greek (daedalus, particularly, in the 3rd book), but really – check out the Kalevala, specifically the Ilmarinen cycle. Weyland is from a later period, and likely derived, in whole or part, from Ilmarinen.

  6. I'm envious that you have yet to read the Shannara, Belgarion, and Riftwar series.

    The first trilogy of each series is probably the best written, although some of the one-off books in the "Riftwar" world are also very good.

    The Wheel of Time series was very gripping for the first 5 or 6 books (even at 800-1000 pages per book). After that, the wheels kind of fell off for me. The series became too sprawling, with too many side quests and minor characters gumming up the works.

  7. For myself – I would add a number of Tad William series's – Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn; and the ShadowMarch series. Both have a truly epic feel to them.

    There's also Glen Cook's "Chronicles of the Dread Empire" series, although I have had a very hard time starting the series. But I've heard its excellent.

  8. I was going to comment on how cool it was you included Winter of the World only to find an on-going discussion.

    Also, I had no idea it had Finnish or Norse origins. I read it mainly as an attempt to render the standard Tolkein tropes in a pre-Ice Age Americas (mostly until the third book).

  9. Damn you, sir. Now I'm going to have to go grab a copy of Winter of the world and slot it into the already over crowded "need to read" pile.

  10. Jeremy's right; there's more Finnish stuff in Winter of the World than Norse stuff. But the Weyland/Volund story is certainly there too. Michael Scott Rohan makes excellent use of Scandinavian/Baltic smith mythology.

  11. I read the Winter of the World as largely Finnish as well, with additions. I'm not sure how available it is in the US; I bought the trilogy when I was on vacation in the UK, and bought subsequent books via Amazon UK and had them shipped, or brought over by a friend. (So yes, I've read all six).

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