Nothing beats a great read. It is at once a means of escape, a source of entertainment, and a mine of information. There are very few things that can provide all of those and much more than a great book. And that is why having a book in your hands should be treated as an exciting event in itself.
Books that deal with fantasy, certainly provide all the best qualities of a great book and even more. There is perhaps no better means of escape while also entertaining every reader. Readers of books dealing with fantasy also can’t help but appreciate the creativity, inventiveness and great use of imagination by the writers of such fiction.
How about a list that features the greatest fantasy books ever written? That is surely an exercise that would both be fun and highly subjective. A list that tries to rank the best of anything is always going to lack some amount of objectivity. However, it is indeed fun to try and come up with the masterpieces of the fantasy genre.
The following is an attempt at making a list of the best fantasy books ever, albeit a short one. It only attempts to include titles that have made considerable impact on the genre and helped define it for readers of its time and beyond.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s legions of fans would perhaps understand and agree why The Hobbit is placed at number one in this list, ahead of even his epic The Lord of the Rings. Some might consider it a bit much to say that Tolkien originated the modern fantasy genre with The Hobbit, but perhaps no other writer ever came so close to achieving just that. It started with Tolkien simply writing the words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”, at the back of one of his students’ tests after he was suddenly inspired. He developed it as a story for his children, which then grew into something that’s so much more.
The themes of the book might seem quite familiar by now – heroism and character growth, especially for the peace and home loving hero thrust into the midst of an awesome adventure – but we must remember that this is the book that really put fantasy on the map. First published in 1937, it continues to enjoy massive popularity and success, thanks in no small part to its major motion picture adaptations.
A Game of Thrones
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin is without a doubt a modern masterpiece of fantasy. It is the first in the series titled “A Song of Ice and Fire”, a high fantasy series of novels. If anyone needs any proof of how great it is, the recognition and awards that it has received should serve as very good evidence of that.
A Game of Thrones has received the following accolades – nominations for the 1997 World Fantasy Award as well as the 1997 Nebula Award; winner of the 1997 Locus Award; the 1997 Hugo Award for Best Novella was given to Blood of the Dragon, which were made up of chapters from the novel.
Another distinction was achieved by the book when it became part of the New York Times bestseller list and eventually reached the number one spot in July 2011.
All the awards and recognitions that came the book’s way would not have been possible if Martin was not able to create a fascinating world filled with equally fascinating characters and events. The story spans various continents and that helps give it that epic scope that deals with the lives of lords, knights, wizards, ladies, etc. But perhaps what sets it apart is Martin’s willingness to kill off major characters. Important players in the story might meet their demise but the larger story moves forward, which surely makes for interesting reading. That unpredictability is perhaps what made A Game of Thrones such a hit with fans and critics alike.
The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is not simply a continuation of his earlier, and seemingly simpler, work The Hobbit. It is so much more than that, as it has achieved a level of greatness that few others in the realm of high fantasy have been able to even come close to. Indeed, the work began as a much simpler one, but it grew and developed into something that no one, not even Tolkien, could have anticipated.
Tolkien did most of the writing for The Lord of the Rings during the course of World War II, although he began it after The Hobbit in 1937 and only finished it twelve years later, in 1949. The trilogy of books holds the distinction of being the second highest selling novel of all time, with more than 150 million copies sold worldwide.
The Lord of the Rings is a description of the War of the Ring, which involves the One Ring that was created by the Dark Lord Sauron as his main weapon to subjugate the whole of Middle Earth. The struggle for the One Ring raged on from The Shire – land of the peace loving Hobbits – and on towards all of Middle Earth.
Throughout the story, the exploits of its main characters are shown – the hobbit Frodo Baggins, who carried the One Ring, along with his hobbit friends Samwise Gamgee, Meriadoc Brandybuck, and Peregrine Took; Aragorn, a Ranger from the North and Boromir, a Captain from the Kingdom of Gondor represented Men; Legolas, a prince of the Elves; Gimli, a warrior who represented the Dwarves; and Gandalf the Grey, a wizard who is also a main character in The Hobbit.
Conan the Barbarian
Conan the Barbarian by Robert E. Howard is probably the pinnacle achievement of what is known as the Sword and Sorcery, which may be considered as a sub-genre of fantasy. Some might even argue that Conan the Barbarian (or Conan the Cimmerian) is not a single huge novel or book, but rather a series of short stories featuring the barbarian hero. But it definitely deserves inclusion in this list if only for the impact that it had on fantasy as well as in popularizing the genre even more and making legions of new fans. Conan first appeared in 1932 in a series of stories that were featured in Weird Tales magazine.
Conan the Barbarian can also be considered a “pulp” hero of sorts, since his roots lay on pulp fiction magazines that were so prevalent in the 30’s. Howard conceived of the character after he feverishly tried to come up with something that he could offer to the many pulp outlets of the day.
A forerunner of Conan the Barbarian appeared in a story that Howard submitted to Clayton Publications for publication in their latest magazine, “Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror”. The story was titled “People of the Dark”, where the protagonist remembers his past lives, with one of his former incarnations being named Conan, a barbarian who worships a god known as Crom.
Conan the Barbarian’s real first appearance though, came in Weird Tales magazine (cover dated December 1932) and titled “The Phoenix on the Sword”. It was actually a rewrite of a rejected earlier story that had the title, “By This Axe I Rule”, and had Kull of Atlantis as the main character instead of Conan.
Some people might look down on fantasy books as low-brow literature, but anyone who is familiar with Tolkien would beg to disagree. Just read any of the works that we have listed here and you would know that they all deserve recognition.