Jared (of Pornokitsch fame) and Justin (Staffer‘s) between them conned me into this. I don’t know why I didn’t say no – perhaps because, despite all the things piling up on my plate, I remain a sucker for punishment.
The challenge: construct a list of 50 essential works of epic fantasy. I confess to having played a little fast and loose with the definitions, but I like my list. I had fun with it.
Today, you lot get to see the first 25.
Jared’s list is over here.
Tansy Rayner Roberts was persuaded into joining us here.
Justin’s wrongheaded opinions may be found here.
The list that follows should be considered as – partly – descriptive of what I view as major influences on the field of epic fantasy. And partly me having fun.
1. Homer, The Odyssey.
Opinions are divided over whether one can call the epic narratives of antiquity epic fantasy, as such: but Homer stands at the beginning of the entire history of European literature, and the fantasy genre has itself made multiple uses of the adventures of quick-tongued Odysseus.
2. Plato, The Republic.
Plato’s ideal city is utopianist and dystopian at the same time. A fantasy of perfect governance, it is also a fantasy of perfect, stratified oppression. Philosophy may not be fantasy, exactly, but Plato too stands at the head of a whole number of intellectual traditions…
3. Ovid, Metamorphoses.
More even than the Aeneid, the influence of the Metamorphoses – changeable gods, shape-shifted mortals – is a rich vein that’s been mined throughout the history of European letters.
4. Lucian of Samosata, The True History.
A fantastical, satirical epic journey, encompassing the Moon and the Isles of the Blessed. War, peace, shenanigans, humour.
5. The Táin.
IRELAND REPRESENT! The Cattle-Raid of Cúailnge’s Cow. A story of jealousy, sex and revenge from Iron Age Ireland. This too, falls under the heading of “debatably fantastic” – but it’s part of my canon, and I’m keeping it.
6. The Mabinogion.
7. Marie de France, Lais.
Medieval Europe isn’t a period I’m much enamoured of, but today’s epic fantasy is still recognisably in part a descendent of the courtly romances of the middle ages. Marie de France here stands for an entire genre – as one of the first to write courtly lays in English, and one of the first to involve Arthurian elements.
8. Snorri Sturlason, The Poetic Eddas.
No one can ignore the influence of Norse myth. As the Avengers have so rightly proven.
9. Geoffrey of Monmouth, A History of the Kings of Britain.
History? Well, maybe. There’s some Arthuriana here…
10. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess Newcastle, The Blazing World.
Is it fantasy? Is it science fiction? A utopian vision of a different world, ruled by a queen advised by spirits of the air…
And now we skip forward a few more centuries…
11. Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword. (1954)
Not nearly as foundational as The Lord of the Rings, and more in the sword-and-sorcery vein, still it can be said many works of epic fantasy are in dialogue with Anderson’s.
12. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. (1954-1955)
A foundational text of modern epic fantasy, and the one with which most subsequent texts are in dialogue.
13. Frank Herbert, Dune. (1965)
Sometimes science fiction and epic fantasy come in the same package. I’m just saying: Dune has as much in common with epic as it does with SF, perhaps more.
14. Barbara Hambly, The Darwath Chronicles. (1982-1983)
Portal fantasy, where the protagonists from our world cannot return home. The world of the Darwath Chronicles faces a cataclysmic threat: monstrosity and climate change combine to threaten all life. Brilliant, horrific, astonishing: read the later sequels as well.
15. P.C. Hodgell, Godstalker Chronicles. (1982-?)
It never ceases to delight me that we now actually have some hope of seeing Hodgell’s series finished and published in its entirety. Really imaginative epic fantasy that incorporates sword & sorcery elements, it is made of pure, delightful win – at least for me.
16. Tamora Pierce, Tortall. (1983-?)
Pierce was writing epic fantasy YA since long before YA was the New Hot Thing.
17. John M. Ford, The Dragon Waiting. (1983)
Debatably epic, but astonishingly fantastic.
18. Elizabeth Moon, The Deed of Paksenarrion. (1988-1989)
A trilogy about a shepherd’s daughter turned mercenary turned god-chosen paladin.
19. Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time. (1990-2013)
The first of a series of writers to reshape the landscape of epic fantasy, beginning in the 1990s.
20. Janny Wurts, The Wars of Light and Shadow. (1993-?)
I’m a book behind on this series, which – it must be said – seems to have lost a little steam over the last couple of instalments. But its initial arcs are a powerful, imaginative entry in the epic lists.
21. Terry Goodkind, The Sword of Truth. (1994-2007.)
Goodkind followed in Jordan’s footsteps, and although now I can’t see what I ever saw worth reading in his first six books, at the time I first encountered them they contained elements that delighted me – like women who did fighty things. His financial success probably didn’t hurt in terms of paving the way for the next slow-growing blockbuster, GRRM.
22. Melanie Rawn, Exiles. (1994-1997)
An incomplete trilogy that is still one of the best pieces of fantasy I’ve ever read. Also, let Rawn’s place here on the list stand in for the place she also deserves for the fantasy-soap-opera of The Dragon Prince and its sequels.
23. George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. (1996-?)
These days, Martin’s part of the bedrock establishment of epic, but when A Game of Thrones first hit the shelves, its particular brand of medieval grittiness was doing something rather subversive with narrative expectations. In those days, killing off characters was still a shocking thing to do… and I got tired of it after the second book. But its influence can’t be denied.
24. Michelle West, The Sun Sword. (1997-2004)
I haven’t finished this series, but I admire what West’s been doing with it, and with its prequel-continuation, The House War.
25. Joe Abercrombie, The First Law. (2006-2012)
I read the first book. I didn’t really like it. But Abercrombie’s success – and, consequently, his influence on the features of epic fantasy – can’t be denied: I’ve been recommended The Heroes and Red Country, and will probably be reading them.
Tune in on Monday for the next exciting installment of EPIC LIST: PART II: THE EPICENING.
OMG we have three texts in common so far. THREE.
Also your list is way more academic and smart-sounding than mine, and also you are better than me at describing books in one or two sentences. You rock, Liz!
I’m interested in more arguments around Dune, although mostly I’m just feeling silly for *not* seeing it as an epic. Also, Odyssey FTW! (Homer spins in his grave)
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Oh wowza, I remember ploughing the the Lais of Marie de France back in my university days. Always remember a story in which a woman has her nose bitten off, only for the narrator to inform us that this, of course, means all of her children and children’s children will be born nose-less. That’s how genetics worked back, then, you see.
Awesome list! :)
Three whole things! From this, we discover that everyone believes in Homer.
I may have gone a little overboard with the historical stuff, it’s true. (I could have kept adding to that section – I mean, I left out all the playwrights! EPIC TRAGEDY. And how about those Thousand and One Nights, then?) But I had to give myself a limit, didn’t I?
I’m not sure how smart-sounding or how “good” my shorter descriptions are. But thank you for the compliment!
Dune is definitely epic fantasy. You have the Special Heir of Specialness who is also Prophecy Boy. There is an Evil Lord. Revenge/vendetta. Riding around in the desert on Giant Magic Wyrms. And swordfights, and sacrifice.
It’s also SF, sure – but it’s proof that SF and epic fantasy share many parts of their lineage.
As for the Odyssey – it’s entirely possible that “Homer,” whoever he was, knew he was making Fun Stuff Up.
That sort of thing is always fun.
I’m amused by the number of titles on your list that you didn’t like but included anyway. Also, I’m very looking forward to part 2.
Three that I didn’t like/don’t like now… that’s not a bad tally, really.
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I am delighted that you have Melanie Rawn on here. I always feel like she is a massively overlooked epic fantasy writer-probably due to the stall out of the Exiles series.
Great list. Definitely agree with a lot of this, however I think you came up short on Dune. Over 6 books and thousands of years he created an epic thread about fate and humanity. While it does have a lot of SF elements, those diminish over time and are dominated more by fantasy elements. Being able to create a universe that is unique, consistent, and bears little resemblance to reality is one way I define fantasy.
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@ moonshower –
I don’t like a lot of Rawn’s stuff, but the two books of the Exiles are brilliant.
@hawkwinglb They really are. Hopefully one day they are finished.
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I’m very happy to see mention of Michelle West. I absolutely agree that she is has created one of the greatest fantasies of all time, and am usually puzzled that reviewers and commentators so often omit her. There are certain rankings that I might quibble with, but such is often the case with these things and is vastly overshadowed by my pleasure in seeing someone give West some of the credit that I believe she has earned. Thank you for having such good taste. :)