THERE HAVE BEEN COUNTLESS GREAT AUTHORS OF FANTASY. BUT WHO ARE THE MOST INFLUENTIAL OF THE GENRE?
We will never have unanimous agreement on this matter, but here is one list of the ten most influential fantasy authors to date.
Earlier this year I wrote a post in which I compiled a list of who I felt were the ten most influential science fiction authors to date. To my surprise this post is far and away the most viewed post on this blog, responsible for about a third of all the traffic to the site. In light of that, I’ve decided it is about time I compiled a list of the most influential fantasy authors to date, in my opinion.
Now, before anyone gets their underwear in a bunch about my choices, I want to make it clear what my criteria for including these authors on this list is. My judgement is based solely on how much influence the authors have exerted on the genre in terms of inspiring readers and other authors, as well as in influencing the various directions in which fantasy literature has moved in. I have not taken into account how successful any given author has been, nor their abilities as writers and storytellers. I haven’t even been swayed by how much I like or dislike any of my choices or their body of work.
Without further ado, here in reverse order, are the ten most influential fantasy authors of all time. And please keep in mind that this is just one person’s opinion; you are free to disagree with any or all of the selections.
10: Robert Jordan
History will forever remember Robert Jordan as the creative force behind, The Wheel Of Time series, one of the most successful and popular fantasy book series of the past quarter of a century. The epic, multi-volume series has sold literally tens of millions of copies worldwide, and has proved to be one of the most influential of recent times.
Famously, Jordan passed away before completing what was intended to be the final instalment of The Wheel Of Time. However, he had the foresight to leave extensive notes to allow another author to complete the book in the event of his passing away. Brandon Sanderson, who is a fan of the series was eventually brought in to write what became the final three volumes.
The success that The Wheel Of Time has attained has helped to revitalise the appeal and popularity of long running, epic fantasy sagas, and will ensure that Jordan’s influence will continue to be felt for many years to come.
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9: Marion Zimmer Bradley
Some people will rightly question the appropriateness of including Marion Zimmer Bradley on this list, in light of the very recent child sex abuse allegations made against her. Others might feel that Zimmer, having been dead for fifteen years, therefore cannot defend herself in court, shouldn’t have all her work tarnished by the claims. In either case I will simply leave it up to the judgement of you the reader as to whether or not it’s appropriate to read any of her writings.
Personally, I do feel uncomfortable keeping Zimmer on this list thereby promoting her body of work. Because though I can never know for certain the veracity of the accusations levelled against her, I don’t doubt them for a moment. At the same time, it’s not possible for me to erase Zimmer or her contributions to the genre from history, so for now I will reluctantly leave her name on this list.
Over the years some of Zimmer’s best work has had great appeal particularly for female readers, even those who previously weren’t fans of the genre, because of the strong feminist leanings in her writing. Many of those readers will today feel a sense of great betrayal due to the nature of the revelations about her past. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were no longer able to view her books in the same light again. Those who are able to separate art from its artist may still be able to appreciate Zimmer’s body of work; some of which is exceptionally good.
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8: Roger Zelazny
The American writer, Roger Zelazny, was a multi-award winning author, of both fantasy and science fiction. His most well known work being his long running fantasy series, The Chronicles Of Amber.
I think it is fair to say that like many writers before and since, Zelazny’s best work is his earlier writings, which are considerably better than the later stuff. This is perfectly illustrated by the Amber series; the first five novels, published in the seventies, are so much better than the second five books that were published during the eighties and early nineties.
One of the defining traits of much of Zelazny’s fantasy stories, is the prominent use of mythologies from various cultures. While many other genre writers have limited their use of mythology to those of northern European origin, most notably Norse mythology, Zelazny has also made extensive use of Hindu mythology, as well as exploring Egyptian and Chinese mythology, among others.
Despite the numerous awards and award nominations he attained during his career, Zelazny’s name is, surprisingly, not nearly as illustrious to mainstream audiences, as many of the other great fantasy writers of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, for many years, fans of the genre have viewed Zelazny as one of those authors whose work is to be considered required reading.
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7: Michael Moorcock
British writer Michael Moorcock is something of a jack-of-all-trades; a novelist, an editor, and a musician. He has excelled in a number of different genres, and even achieved acclaim for some of his literary fiction. But it is his fantasy work for which he is best known. For most fans of the genre Moorcock will forever be associated with his series of Sword & Sorcery novels featuring his iconic albino anti-hero Elric of Melniboné.
Moorcock’s fantasy writing has always sought to distance itself from the tropes common to the works of Tolkien and his numerous imitators; he has been known to be quite vocal in his criticisms of such works, in fact. For the most part he has been successful in this endeavour, and his influence on the genre primarily stems from this intent.
Unusually for an author, Moorcock, has been known to go back and revise his already published works, leading to new editions being published; sometimes substantially altering stories that transpired in the previous edition. Whether or not this is a good thing is debatable, but it certainly contributes to setting him apart from his contemporaries. I guess you could call him the George Lucas of fantasy literature.
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6: Ursula K. Le Guin
While I won’t dispute that her science fiction works are superior, American author, Ursula K. Le Guin, is arguably better known for her fantasy works; principally the Earthsea series. In any case, she is very much a pioneer of both genres in her capacity as one the first female authors to successfully establish herself in these genres that had for a long time been dominated by male authors.
I don’t know what it is about female writers, but my observations have lead me to conclude that the best of them are inexplicably able to produce beautiful prose that their male counterparts are not able to match. Le Guin is no exception to this rule; she has a beautiful way of writing that effortlessly captivates readers. This ability really helps bring her stories and characters to life.
Much of Le Guin’s body of work is distinguished, not only, by her penchant for using her stories to tackle socio-political themes, but also for prominently featuring mostly non-white characters. She is one of the very few major Caucasian writers of fantasy and science fiction who has been consistently willing to risk doing so.
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5: Tanith Lee
In some ways I’ve come to view British author, Tanith Lee, as the forgotten woman of fantasy literature. In recent years she has been unable to replicate any of the success or popularity that she attained during the seventies and eighties. Yet she remains one of the most influential voices of the genre, responsible for attracting many female readers (both younger and older) to a genre that has traditionally been perceived to be the preserve of male readers and writers.
Lee’s writing, much like herself as a person, has a rather unique quality. Her storytelling rarely, if ever, follows convention, and she has the uncanny ability to create original and memorable characters. In addition to a writing style that has always had a very poetic flow that few, if any, writers are capable of imitating, and some readers have great difficulty appreciating.
It is ironic then, that the attributes that make Lee’s body of work stand out, may have contributed to the decline in publishers willing to risk acquiring her more recent efforts. Presumably they feel that such unconventional work will not resonate with contemporary bookworms; a case of a strength becoming a weakness perhaps? Whatever the case, Lee is still one of the most acclaimed authors of the genre, and her older works continue to earn her new fans.
The Birthgrave (The Birthgrave Trilogy, Book 1)
Quest For The White Witch (The Birthgrave Trilogy, Book 3)
Night’s Master (Tales From The Flat Earth, Book 1)
Death’s Master (Tales From The Flat Earth, Book 2)
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4: Robert E. Howard
The inclusion of Robert E. Howard will more than likely be an affront, to his more vociferous critics. But any weakness in the quality of his writing is more than compensated for by the strength of his story telling. For an author who died so young, having taken his own life at the tender age of just thirty, it’s impressive just how influential his work has been.
Howard was a prolific writer who wrote in many different genres, but it is his fantasy work for which he is best remembered. He is unquestionably the most significant pioneer of the Sword & Sorcery sub-genre, and the fact that he can lay claim to creating one of the most iconic fictional characters of all time, in the form of Conan The Barbarian, more than justifies his inclusion in this list.
I can only speculate as to how good an author Howard could have developed into had he lived longer. Like any other craft, writing is something that can be improved over time, so I feel that those who excessively criticise the literary merits of his work are being a little unfair. But I think it is noteworthy that Howard has been more influential than many writers of far greater ability.
The Savage Tales Of Solomon Kane
The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian (Conan The Cimmerian, Book 1)
The Bloody Crown Of Conan (Conan The Cimmerian, Book 2)
The Conquering Sword Of Conan (Conan The Cimmerian, Book 3)
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3: Lord Dunsany
I must confess that I have yet to read anything written by Lord Dunsany, so I am not able to comment on the quality of his output. However, it has not escaped my notice that many luminaries of fantasy and science fiction literature, whom I have read, have cited Dunsany as a major influence. This list includes such notable figures as J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, Jack Vance, David Eddings, and Michael Moorcock; just to name a few.
While his own work may never have entered the public consciousness, the fact that so many of those writers who succeeded him went on to achieve widespread critical acclaim and popularity, serves to illustrate just how influential he has been. The fantasy literature landscape would likely look very different today without the contributions of Lord Dunsany.
I don’t know about you, but I think it is long past time for me to discover the works of Lord Dunsany to find out why so many other authors have been influenced by him.
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2: C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis is one of those authors who require no introduction, whatsoever. His name is synonymous with The Chronicles Of Narnia, his seven book children’s fantasy series that has never been out of print since been published during the fifties. Though there are certainly many better writers of fantasy that one could point to, the strength of Lewis’ influence lies in the fact that for several decades his Narnia books have served as a gateway for the genre; igniting a passion for fantasy in the hearts of young readers, and inspiring them to go on to discover more weighty works by other authors. How many people went on to read Tolkien, Eddings, Feist or Brooks because of Lewis?
Although Lewis’ writing has attracted the ire of a number of harsh critics and vocal opponents over the years; most notably Phillip Pullman, and to a lesser extent, Michael Moorcock, there is no disputing that Lewis has done more than most to popularise the genre, draw in new readers, and inspire successive generations of new writers. The Chronicles Of Narnia has been instrumental in influencing multitudes of fantasy authors, and the series remains as popular today as it has ever been.
Truth be told, I think my childhood would have been incomplete had I never read The Chronicles Of Narnia. I don’t think I am alone in holding this sentiment.
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1: J.R.R. Tolkien
While I personally have never been a fan, I think it is hard to argue against J.R.R. Tolkien being the most influential fantasy writer to date. Not only in his capacity as the author of two of the most popular and successful works of fantasy ever written, in the shape of The Hobbit, and The Lord Of The Rings. But he is also, perhaps, the first author to truly elevate the genre above the perception of it being juvenile in nature, and lacking in literary merit; only fit to be read by pimply faced teenagers.
Tolkien demonstrated that fantasy could be as well written and pretentious as literary fiction, as well as tackle more serious themes that can appeal to adult sensibilities, in the process. You’d be hard pressed to find adult bookworms who are embarrassed or ashamed to acknowledge that they have read, and even enjoyed Tolkien’s work.
Numerous writers over the last few decades have cited Tolkien as a major influence on their own writing careers, and this is likely to remain the case for many years to come. I genuinely don’t believe that fantasy literature would have developed to where it has today without the publications of J.R.R. Tolkien.
So there you have it, the ten most influential fantasy authors to date, in my opinion. I won’t attempt to claim that this is the definitive list, as there are many other authors that have been omitted who could have been included. Not to mention that, if I compile this list again a decade from now, there are several, more contemporary, writers who could possibly warrant inclusion; notably Brandon Sanderson and George R.R. Martin; maybe even Jacqueline Carey and Guy Gavriel Kay.
If you feel there has been any glaring omissions from this list, feel free to mention who you think should have been included.
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Insights, reflections and opinions on various subject matters related to fantasy and science fiction literature. Maybe the odd talking point that others can also weigh into if so inclined.