Five Pillars of Fantasy Literature

Must-Reads for Aspiring Fantasy Writers

by J. M. Pressley
First published: August 24, 2007

Whether you want to catch up on your fantasy reading or you want to be a fantasy writer, there are five names with which you should be intimately familiar. These masters have indelibly shaped the direction of popular contemporary fantasy.

Whether you want to catch up on your fantasy reading or you want to be a fantasy writer, there are five names with which you should be intimately familiar. This is in no way a comprehensive list; fantasy as a genre encompasses far too many authors, styles, and works for that. Any list is also up to subjective interpretation.

The five authors detailed below, however, comprise a succinct survey of masters that have indelibly shaped the direction of popular contemporary fantasy. At the very least, you'll never be considered well versed in the literature until you've read them all. And if you want to make any kind of impact as a writer, you'll need to understand exactly what comparisons with your writing will be drawn and why.

J. R. R. Tolkien

As author of the most famous modern work of fantasy, Tolkien's impact on his genre is comparable to Bram Stoker's impact on vampire fiction. Lord of the Rings is the elephant in the room (or on the shelf, if you prefer) for any fantasy writer. Whatever your feelings about this seminal trilogy, you can't ignore it. The sheer volume of posthumous works based on the professor's notes, starting with 1977's The Silmarillion, is an ongoing testament to the respect and influence Tolkien still commands decades after his death.

Robert E. Howard

Howard practically invented the "swords and sorcery" fantasy genre, and as the author of its best-known character, Conan the Barbarian, he is one of its most influential authors. Even more remarkably, Howard's tales of the dark-haired Cimmerian comprised only a four-year span of his short career, ending with the author's untimely death by suicide in 1936. His Conan stories remain among the most reprinted works of fantasy, thanks to the efforts of others in the years after his death to collect and preserve Howard's writings. Although critical acceptance of his pulp-brand fantasy has been marginal to non-existent, Howard's ongoing popularity has had a huge effect on the heroic fantasy works that have followed in his wake.

Fritz Leiber

Leiber was the writer who actually coined the phrase "swords and sorcery." Began in 1939, his stories of Lankmahr and its two greatest heroes, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, still rank as some of the most influential stories in the genre. Their endurance isn't surprising, given Leiber's rare penchant for attracting both popular and critical acclaim. At his best, Leiber wove action and a wry sense of humor into compelling, often challenging, plots. With so many familiar tropes to his credit, Leiber is one of heroic fantasy's founding fathers.

Michael Moorcock

In 1961, Moorcock commenced his Elric of Melnibone series with the short novel The Dreaming City. Combining epic and dark fantasy with a sense of the surreal, he wrote the series with its albino anti-hero as a direct contrast to the popular fantasy of Tolkien and Howard, works that Moorcock has roundly criticized throughout his career on artistic grounds. Whether or not you agree with Moorcock's outspoken comments, he became an important divergent voice, greatly expanding what was acceptable in heroic fantasy.

Lloyd Alexander

Even as a winner of the Newberry Medal, Alexander often gets overlooked in his contributions to fantasy because his most renowned books—The Chronicles of Prydain series—are written for children. Well, so was The Hobbit. Deriving from Welsh mythology and the Mabinogion, this collection of five novels is a masterpiece of fantasy literature that spans the adventurous young adulthood of its hero, Taran. Every teenager ought to read the fourth book in the series, Taran Wanderer, for its portrait of a young man on a quest to find out who he really is (it's much less cynical than The Catcher in the Rye and less preachy than The Chronicles of Narnia).

Honorable Mentions

Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. P. Lovecraft, Peter S. Beagle, C. S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Terry Pratchett, Jack Vance, G. K. Chesterton, Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, and Stephen R. Donaldson. If your favorite author has been left off, it's likely because I've only listed the authors that I've actually read and have personally impacted me.