Are you interested in fantasy books and want to read the classics? Which stories should you read?
If you like modern fantasy and want to get into the classics of fantasy, then this list is for you.
In this article I hope to break down my favorite stories of the influential tales. It’s important to note that often these stories fall between short to novella length, and that many were published in magazines then later into collections. Unlike modern fantasy, which seems to shoot for a 400 page book no matter what, the old stories were typically short enough to fit in a magazine. Keep that in mind!
The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) by Lord Dunsany
I reviewed this one before, but it’s worth mentioning. This was the true beginning of fantasy in the 20th century, bridging the Arthurian stories and fairy tales of old with the future epic fantasy that would come. However, Dunsany’s prose is so poetic that it takes effort to read. It’s beautiful and downright fantastic but does take time to get through.
Dunsany is all but forgotten these days, a master of the form whose name exists in footnotes. It’s a shame, because he’s one of the true power houses of prose. Every fantasy author after him pointed to him as an influence.
If you want to see where the greatest authors of fantasy got their influence, start here. I’d recommend him to anyone who wants to read the best the fantasy genre has to offer.
The Dark Eidolon (1935) by Clark Ashton Smith
This is a short story by Clark Ashton Smith, though many would recommend his six story collection The Double Shadow, which culminated with the story of the same name. In “The Dark Eidolon”, an old sorcerer seeks revenge against the prince who ran him over.
Clark Ashton Smith is still remembered for a few short stories, but he was a master of prose with many tales that inspired generations of writers. It’s a shame his other work has been forgotten over time, since he’s a fantastic writer who wrote with Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft.
It’s a dark story that comes together into a pit of ironies and insanity. If you like dark tales, this one is short and worth a read. Smith inspired many dark fantasy stories that came after.
Jirel of Joiry (1934-1939) by C. L .Moore
The Jirel stories are only six in total. That said, they were collected into a single book in 1969 and 2002. Honestly they’re worth a read for “Black God’s Kiss” alone, which is one of the best fantasy stories of its time.
Jirel is a red-haired French ruler, a beauty of sorts who is proud and arrogant. She’s ferocious and often angry, seeking to kill those who slight her. She often confronts the supernatural, and this leads to her adventures.
C. L. Moore’s writing is excellent. There’s a skill with her stories that hits right on time. Her descriptive work isn’t overly flowery, though she does strike emotions well. Ultimately, if you want to read early work with some dark fantasy leanings, these stories are perfect.
Conan the Cimmerian (1932-1936) by Robert E. Howard
The Conan stories are some of the most influential pieces of fantasy of all time. Howard’s prose is excellent, though some of his work falls victim to aging. The Conan stories generally fall into the short to novella length, with one major book by Howard himself and several by other authors.
Because Conan is split into stories, allow me to mention my favorites:
- The People of the Black Circle – it’s high adventure when Conan kidnaps the empress of a mighty kingdom, and flees from her army and dark magicians hunting them both. There’s interesting characters, double-crosses, and rebellions. It’s worth reading, though it pushes novella length.
- The Frost Giant’s Daughter – Norse fantasy mixed with heroic fantasy clash in this story. When Conan participates in a war in the North, he is mystified by a beautiful woman who leads him seemingly to his death. If you want an interesting short story, this is a quick read.
- The Tower of the Elephant – When Conan enters a mighty tower, he finds something he didn’t expect. There’s epic fights, feats of strength, and bizarre creatures in this tale. It’s not too long, so it’s worth a read.
The stories are fantastic. They were also highly influential to other authors, sealing fantasy in the shadow of the mighty Conan until the coming of a different lord. Modern fantasy authors often recommend Conan to others, including George R. R. Martin.
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (1939-1988) by Fritz Leiber
Fritz Leiber used these two characters in several stories throughout the 20th century. They weren’t dark fantasy in the modern sense of it, but they had interesting adventures.
He was the second Worldcon “Gandalf Grand Master of Fantasy” after Tolkien, if that gives you any idea of how influential Leiber was. His work inspired not just the genre, but spawned its own subgenre of sword and sorcery. However, as is often the case with the early works, these stories have mostly been forgotten despite them being some of the best fantasy work in the 20th century.
“Ill-met in Lankhmar” is usually the story most recommended. It’s not too long and worth your time. These stories are often published in collections, and those are worth reading.
If you like adventure stories and want to see interesting characters in those settings, you can’t go wrong here. Even Terry Pratchett has mentioned these characters as being an inspiration.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950) by C. S. Lewis
Among fantasy works, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a beloved tale often read by children. It has that association as a children’s book first and a fantasy book second. However, it’s fantasy in its own right with a detailed backstory for the land of Narnia and a world that the children actually enter through a portal in a wardrobe.
I have fond memories of this book. We used to have a yearly tradition of going to a play of it before Christmas. As I got older this tradition stopped, but the memory remains.
C. S. Lewis is a imaginative writer with the gift of storytelling. If you have never read this book you’re missing a key piece in fantasy throughout the 20th century.
The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) by J. R. R. Tolkien
Tolkien has a reputation these days of complex prose and over-description, but this is ill-founded. None of The Lord of the Rings reads poorly, and all of it has hints of poeticism. Tolkien’s writing was polished beyond belief, aside from a few strange occurrences (Tom Bombadil), and he wrote a tight story with little lapses in logic. The modern attempts to disassemble his work by saying “why didn’t the Eagles fly the ring into the volcano?” fall flat. Tolkien’s book is a work of art unlike any work of fantasy in the last hundred years.
If you’re a fantasy reader and haven’t read The Lord of the Rings, you are missing out.
Elric of Melnibone (1972) by Michael Moorcock
I’ve always pronounced it “Mel-neh-bo-nay”. I reviewed the book Stormbringer in this series, but this is the first entry to the Elric saga. If you want gritty, dark and somber fantasy from the 70’s, this is for you. The best thing about Elric is how much other series afterwards were influenced by it. Even Neil Gaiman cites Elric as an influence on his work.
The character is fascinating, and actually predates the book in short stories published in magazines. These stories stretch from 1961 until roughly 1991; a long span! Moorcock is still alive as well, but seems to publish other stories instead.
The work is dark, but great. If you can handle it, I recommend it. I gave my buddy a recommendation to read it before and he burned through the first three books, but said he had to take a break because it was so gloomy. I understand that.
The Chronicles of Amber (1970-1991) by Roger Zelazny
Roger Zelazny is a more recent author, but his work hit at the right time to influence tabletop gaming and other related media. They follow Corwin, a prince of Amber, and describes his adventures. There’s two worlds here: Amber and Chaos, with Shadow somehow between them.
The stories are imaginative and inventive. They touch on interesting themes and fantastical elements. This might be one of the most approachable stories for modern fantasy readers since it’s a direct line from here to the likes of Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, and Patrick Rothfuss.
And those are my suggestions for where to start. If you like learning the history of the genre and want to read the great works of the past, I definitely would encourage you to read some of the work on this list.
L. Sprague de Camp had a short story collection called The Spell of Seven. If you like some of these authors, give that collection a chance, you might find some new authors you’d like.
I didn’t touch science fiction, but there’s some pretty close stories that were influential as well by Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. P. Lovecraft, and Leigh Brackett. Clark Ashton Smith has a story called “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” which is often cited as the inspiration for the movie Alien. It’s worth a read if you want some good science fiction.
If you’re a fantasy fan though, try Jack Vance; his science fiction is nearly fantasy at times.
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