Elitist Classics–Part 1
Good Fantasy and SF novels (or really any novel for that matter) are not created in a vacuum. Our favorite authors were inspired or influenced by authors whose work came first. Those influences were, in turn, influenced by even more ancient works.
A few weeks back, we were having a discussion with our good friend, and occasional contributor, Rob. Somehow we ended up discussing this very point, and Rob said something like, “Man, a post about these REAL classics would be great.” We decided that it was indeed a great idea, and the hunt for material for these “Elitist Classics” was soon underway.
As it turns out, there were a lot of Classics.
So, in a series of posts that will be added to our University of Fantasy (and SF) canon, here are the “Classics” according to us. This post will figure more on Fantasy. Keep in mind, this isn’t a limited list. There are dozens of older works that could be included here, but we have chosen to limit it just a tad.
J.R.R Tolkien: THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS
Many readers and authors of fantasy point to the works of Tolkien as one of the influences that weighs the heaviest on the genre. Certainly there had been other works prior to Tolkien’s, but his is what made it popular and accepted. As we have mentioned before, THE HOBBIT is actually our preferred novel of Tolkien’s, but THE LORD OF THE RINGS is awesome in a darker, more serious way.
C.S. Lewis: THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA
Lewis and Tolkien were contemporaries and friends (there were, in modern terms, in the same writing group). Lewis’ NARNIA series has captured the imaginations of millions of readers over the years. Look, if you haven’t read this series, you must be living under a rock…
Mervyn Peake: GORMENGHAST
Along with Tolkien and Lewis, Peake’s Gormenghast series is widely pointed to in terms of influential works. Most of this series takes place in a huge and dominating castle which is almost a character in itself (Hogwarts has nothing on Castle Gormenghast). One could argue that the more “realistic” of todays fantasy has its roots in Peake’s creation, as there are no other races besides humans, and no magic in this series.
Where do you think Tolkien got a huge chunk of his inspiration? Both Tolkien and the composer Wagner took their inspirations from this epic German poem. Dwarves, dragons, treasure, and a Ring. Yup, it’s all here in this 13th century (though it is based on heroic motifs and people from the 5th and 6th centuries) text.
Robert E. Howard: CONAN
Yes, we are well aware that he wrote other stuff besides Conan in his short life (committed suicide when he was 30). Essentially, he created the Sword and Sorcery type of fantasy that has lately seen a resurgence. From Moorcock, to Leiber, to Jordan, to the modern writers, Howard is arguably on of fantasy’s most influential authors. Personally, we enjoy his horror just as much as his fantasy.
THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH
We attended a panel at World Fantasy where Steven Erikson, David Drake, and Jeff VanderMeer (awesome group of people, yeah?) were asked the question, “If you couldn’t pick Glen Cook as a main influence for non-conciliatory fantasy, who would you pick?” They unanimously chose GILGAMESH. This is as ancient as it gets, taken from tablets in Mesopotamia. If you ever took Art History, chances are you (like us) read this epic. It is incredible.
In future installments of the Elitist Classics, we’ll talk about Steampunk, SF, Horror, and Mystery.
Chime in on what other works you think should be considered Fantasy Classics.
Parent page: Elitist University
I have been reading a lot would include the works of Sir Walter Scott–two of my favs are Ivanhoe and Rob Roy. His historical fiction carries a lot of the themes as some of my favorite fantasy novels. Specifically, when he pits classes, or nationalities, religions, etc. against each other it creates conflict similar to the best fantasy. He also writes engaging characters which is what makes excellent fantasy stand out as well.
I completely agree with you on Sir Walter Scott, and the value of Historical Fiction (and its themes). With the popularity of Alt. Historical Fiction/Fantasy, and Fantasy that is set in a world highly reminiscent of our history, the impact of that genre is high.
I don't know if you can make any specific attributions, but Greek, Roman, Norse, and Asian myths all have large contributions to modern fantasy. Along the same lines, perhaps Homer would be a representative of those myths.
Roger Zelazny is the earliest I recall where science and magic are blended in various ways. I could be missing others, though.
Ray Bradbury was a big influence, although many (most?) of his writings are technically science fiction, the way he wrote and portrayed his scenes and characters influenced a lot of modern writers, in my opinion.
Finally, Edgar Allen Poe with his treatments of short stories. Although he may warrant a more direct mention in the horror segment rather than fantasy, I think he strongly influenced fantasy, and especially the shorter stories in the genre (and many others).
I'm a big fan of all these works, except for NARNIA, which I never got into, and GORMENGHAST, which I haven't read yet (but I will now). Thanks.
I agree with everything listed, with a special nod to Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. Those were out of this world and still hold up today. He had a cool narrative style, especially when he throws in phrases like “shadow-haunted”. That is pure bad-ass.
I was surprised not to see TH White's “The Once and Future King” up there with Tolkien and Lewis. In terms of recasting older myths for a modern (commercial) audience, my impression was that was a very important book.
I think White's reluctantly violent heroes are a major theme that recurs again and again in lots of 20th century heroic fiction, from fantasy novels to comic books.