Every so often, someone puts out a “top ten must-read” list of books for people unfamiliar with fantasy. There’s nothing much wrong with a list of this nature, if you’re looking for good reading and your taste happens to march with that of the list-maker. Some time back (fifteen years ago?), I was asked to come up with such a list myself – my “top ten must-read” fantasy books for writers.
I couldn’t do it, not even when they let me cheat blatantly by listing authors instead of single titles. And here is why:
>It seems to me that a “must read” list for would-be fantasy writers should have as much breadth and depth as possible, both in terms of the length of time covered and in terms of the type of writing that’s covered. Because the point is, in my opinion, to give an overview of the field, both at present and historically. And ten slots just isn’t enough to do that in, as you will see in a moment.
J.R.R. Tolkein belongs on any must-read list for fantasy writers, whether you like his kind of thing or not; the success of “The Lord of the Rings” led directly to the founding of the modern fantasy genre as a separate category, and anything that seminal belongs on this sort of list. He also allows me to check off “epic fantasy” and “high fantasy” in the same slot. One down.
J.K. Rowling comes next, but not because of the wild popularity of the Harry Potter books – no, I put her on the list because her work is a synthesis of a whole lot of fantasy and YA fantasy tropes, from the coming-of-age story, to the boarding-school stories, to the orphaned protagonist and wise wizard mentor, to castles, secret passages, saving-the-world, magic swords, prophecy…. (I have remarked on more than one occasion that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had everything a kid could want in a story, except pirates.) It was a tough decision, because I’d really like to have Jane Yolen, Diana Wynne Jones, Nnedi Okorafor, Garth Nix, Tamora Pierce, L. Frank Baum, Patricia Wrightson, Edward Eager, Diane Duane, C. S. Lewis, Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, or Phillip Pullman in the childrens-and-young-adult fantasy slot. There is a LOT of really excellent children’s fantasy out there.
I’d want one slot for humorous fantasy, and that belongs hands down to Terry Pratchett and his Discworld books. I’d like at least one slot for modern urban fantasy, but the choice is a lot less obvious when you have Charlaine Harris, Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint, and Jim Butcher all in competition for the slot. I think I’ll pick Neil for this one, on the grounds that his work covers a lot more territory than any of the others (though de Lint is a close runner-up in that regard). Two more slots full.
I’d like to have at least one slot for somebody who’s doing literary fantasy and/or magical realism, like Angela Carter or Robertson Davies or Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges. I’ll throw a dart at the bookshelf and pick Marquez, though again, it’s a tough choice.
That fills five slots with more-or-less modern writers; time to start looking a bit farther back. Dark fantasy should really have more than one slot, because I want one for H. P Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, and one for Bram Stoker, Sheridan Le Fanu, Mary Shelley, or John William Polidori. That only leaves me with three slots left, though, so I might have to drop to one choice for dark fantasy. I’ll put Lovecraft in one and Stoker in the other, for now.
Three slots left. One pretty much has to go to something Arthurian – The Matter of Britain has over a thousand years of roots in English fantasy fiction, and its traces show up in all sorts of unexpected places once you start looking (Star Wars?), and there are a zillion retellings and spin-offs, starting all the way back at Geoffrey of Monmouth. (The Arthurian legends are, I maintain, the fan fiction of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries.) I’ll pick Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, though T.H. White would also do very nicely; John Steinbeck’s version would be perfect if he’d only ever gotten it finished; Mary Stewart’s retellings are excellent and so are Rosemary Sutcliff’s two versions.
So now I have two slots left. I’m torn. There are all the Victorian fantasists (Oscar Wilde, Lord Dunsany, William Morris, George MacDonald); there are the classic literary fairy-tale writers like Charles Perrault and Madam d’Aulnoy; there are sword-and-sorcery greats like Michael Moorcock and Robert E. Howard (whose Conan the Barbarian arguably founded the whole sword-and-sorcery subgenre); there are the heroic fantasists like Howard Lamb and C. L. Moore; there are writers like Evangeline Walton, who’ve done magnificent retellings of older works like the Mabinogian. There’s historical fantasy, which includes much of Tim Powers and several of Poul Anderson’s as well as folks like Susanna Clarke, and the Orientalists, like Earnest Bramah, Barry Hughart, E. Hoffman Price, Lucy Chin, and William Wu. There are writers who don’t fit into any subclass, like Mervin Peake and E.R. Eddison and James Branch Cabal, and writers who fit in multiple possible subcategories, like John M. Ford and Ursula le Guin and Gene Wolfe and Roger Zelazny. And that doesn’t even get to things like Homer or Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or the explosion of fantasy in comics and manga…
I will throw out Shakespeare on the grounds that everyone has probably already seen or read “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” already, and I will throw out Sir Richard Francis Burton on the grounds that he merely translated The Arabian Nights Entertainment rather than actually writing it.
And then I will cheat mercilessly. Twice. First by putting the Ellen Datlow/Terri Windling Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies on the list, all sixteen of them, even though Ellen and Terri are editors and not writers. Those volumes are as close to a comprehensive overview of the best of the best fantasy, dark fantasy, and horror available in English for the sixteen years they cover, in-genre and out-of-genre, and they include recommendations for novels (which of course couldn’t be included in an anthology of short fiction).
And last I’m going to cheat by filling my last slot with that prolific writer, Anonymous, because it lets in an enormous number of folk tales, fairy tales, myths, and legends all at once, from the Poetic Edda and the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Ramayana, to Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and the Arabian Nights.
And that’s where I give up. Ten slots, multiple candidates for all of them, and I still had to leave out dozens of possibilities and cheat twice. Fantasy is just too broad a field. Maybe if I did a “top 100″ list…