The unicorn is a life-size or at least horse-size sculpture at a forge near Leatherhead in Surrey.
Since I write fantasy, I read and watch a great deal in the genre. In some films and books I might find inspiration – not directly, but in the sense that I write in the same general space, e.g. urban fantasy. Other books have had an undoubted influence on me. Since I grew up in the days of black and white television on a really small screen I can definitely say that books were my first introduction to fantasy and it’s intriguing to find my favourites now getting new life and wider appreciation via TV shows, some of which I also love.
I want to talk about some of my favourites and why I think they work so well, with the occasional mention of apparently similar works that don’t, for me, hold the same appeal. Fantasy often tips over into sci fi or speculative fiction and into fairy tales or legends. Sometimes it takes those as a starting point and sometimes it references them. If I have left out some of your favourites it could be because I regard them as belonging to those other genres.
I have liked fantasy since I was quite young. My introduction to the genre included the following.
The Princess and the Goblin (and the sequel) by George MacDonald. I adored these books and their dream-like illustrations (think old hardbacks). I think the concept of an unknown world beneath our feet really appealed. Later interactions with books like The Borrowers, or Truckers had a similar effect but those started with assumptions about our own world, whereas MacDonald’s offering built the fantasy kingdom for the princess first and then provided goblins beneath the castle.
Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest in Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. These are wonderful retellings for children. They tease out the essentials from the plays and certainly had me believing in Titania, Oberon, Puck, Ariel and Caliban in a way that for example Enid Blyton’s stories never managed. Perhaps that’s because the plays are for adults, rather than children, so the characters have a depth that those in children’s books rarely achieve. I had the tales read to me from a very early age and think they probably inspired my first literary effort, a play for the Brownies to perform which included a fairy called Bluebell. I was too young to be a Brownie but my mother was Brown Owl and let me join in since I was the author. I don’t think, however, that my fairies had any depth.
Kipling’s Just so Stories were written for children but also appeal to the adult reader. The stories have inbuilt morality tales, like Aesop’s Fables, but don’t quite preach to the reader as those do, and have live animals doing all sorts of things like the ones in Beatrix Potter’s Tales, but again, the reader senses a deeper and richer back story. Yellow Dog Dingo, The Butterfly who Stamped, and Old Man Kangaroo have stayed with me much more vividly than Peter Rabbit. Even thinking about How the Rhinoceros got his Skin makes me feel itchy to this day.
The Silver Chair by CS Lewis. I was totally unaware (until I got to university…) that this was part of a series. I recall my parents being scornful about it because it didn’t deal with ‘real’ children, but it appealed to my sense of adventure and to the daydreams that included creatures like giants and marsh wiggles, and of course, heroic princes who in turn had to be saved by children like me. When I did, as an adult, read the Narnia books, I was somewhat disappointed to find the religious imagery and message embedded in them. I did love the films and TV series, especially the BBC version.
My next foray into fantasy was probably The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle. I liked it a lot, but felt faintly cheated and wanted more. I think this is probably why trilogies and series work better for fantasy lovers. Once the reader has accepted a world and immersed themselves in it, they don’t want to leave at the end of a single volume. There are too many places to visit and threads to follow.
Lord of the Rings. A friend was raving about this and I was given the books for Christmas just after my sixteenth birthday. (My book lover son-in-law points out that if I hadn’t read and reread them they would be valuable…) I read the trilogy first, then The Hobbit, and then Tree and Leaf which is an essay about fairy stories plus an example of one. I never got on with The Silmarillion, which always read, to me, more like a history book which was a perfectly valid concept but not to my taste. I soon discovered that ER Eddison (The Worm Ouroboros) and Lord Dunsaney (The King of Elfland’s Daughter) predated Tolkien, but I still think Tolkien was the author who made fantasy take a leap into the twentieth century and spawned a plethora of similar books. I tried Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry but didn’t care for the way their characters originated in our world and somehow got magically transported to another. I gather their niche genre is now called portal fantasy. I started reading Terry Brookes. I enjoyed his Magic Kingdom books (despite being ‘portal’) but found the Shannara series derivative with most of the characters stereotypes based on Tolkien figures, fighting battles and fulfilling quests without making me really care about the outcome. I enjoyed Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Series but can’t remember much about it, which suggests I wasn’t sufficiently immersed. Lord of the Rings definitely sparked my imagination and also my admiration of a style that switches effortlessly from heroics to the scent of mushrooms, enhancing both. ‘High’ fantasy is quite hard to read – Eddison’s work is a case in point – and the struggle to adapt the reading brain to a continuously heroic style can, for me, detract from immersion in the world. Tolkien avoids this by giving us endearing personal scenes and reactions before returning to the grand quest. I think it’s this that changes the way epic fantasy is seen and makes him such a popular figure.
Arthurian legend was another of my favourites from my teens onwards. Anya Seaton’s Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, and TH White’s The Once and Future King are the authors I recall with greatest enjoyment, and I liked the film Camelot (and the animated prequel The Sword in the Stone, based on White’s books. There are others (whose names I have forgotten) who exasperated me with their odd attitudes to English history and place names, things which needs to be respected even while the fantasy kingdom is built. I wasn’t so keen on either Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Silver Sword or Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series (I love his Sharpe books) because they lifted the fantasy saga into historical reality which spoilt it for me, but I enjoyed Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy. I have visited places like Tintagel with a frisson of pleasure even though I know perfectly well that Arthur is not a historical figure. I have written about the Arthurian court, or at least about Lancelot and Merlin, and I have set my fae series on Alderley Edge which is one of the many reputed resting places of the knights of the round table. I did not enjoy what I saw of the TV Camelot series. The characters weren’t ‘my’ Arthur, Merlin, etc. however good the filming and acting may have been.
Three series I thoroughly enjoyed are:
Game of Thrones by George RR Martin, The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams
I have watched the entire TV series of Game of Thrones and adored it but still, actually, prefer the books and would very much like Martin to write the final one. It remains to be seen whether he will alter the ending. He has suggested readers are in for some surprises. I love the sprawling politics of the series, and the way the individuals interact both knowingly and unknowingly with forces much greater than themselves. I know Martin based his ideas on the mediaeval Wars of the Roses but history, whilst fascinating, doesn’t have quite the impact that novels like this do, possibly because we are very aware that historical protagonists are long dead whereas the novels have a sense of immediacy.
Politics and social commentary are a large part of The Wheel of Time, too. I did read the entire series, ably finished after Jordan’s death by Brad Sanderson, but I got a bit annoyed with Jordan in the middle of the fourteen books. He would spend page after page creating a detailed world, which was very well done, but then when the volume ended there was the feeling that the plot had not been furthered very much. The TV show (which intends to condense the books into eight seasons) can’t, of course, have the luxury of dwelling on descriptive detail but I think that makes it all the better. I am absolutely loving it, despite the liberties it takes with the plot and the sequencing.
I wish someone would make a show using Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. The four volume trilogy (!) has all the same elements as the Martin and Jordan series, with the personal stories set against a background of world politics and a clash of cultures. I think it’s probably my favourite of the three series.
I started to watch The Witcher but gave up. I understand the series was based on a Polish novel and some video games arising from it. It disappointed me because there didn’t seem to be any backstories or depth to any of the characters or locations, major or minor, and whilst further viewing might have remedied this, in the books and shows I love, the backstories themselves have backstories and these are obvious from the first chapter or episode.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is much loved even by people who don’t usually enjoy fantasy. I really like the way he comments on the human condition and on various social evils in the course of stories about a totally alien world with a number of cultures and some intriguing characters. Part of his success lies in using humour rather than preaching. However, a lot of authors have tried to copy him by attempting humour in stories of trolls, dragons, etc. Usually, they fail because their humour is too heavy handed. Pratchett’s situations are funny because none of the protagonists find them even slightly amusing. The lecturers at Unseen University never laugh at themselves, for example. I love the Discworld novels and have enjoyed the films I have seen so far.
Last but by no means least we come to something I regard as my own corner of fantasy, urban fantasy. (Although I have written both a series and a stand-alone that do not take place in our world.) Urban fantasy sets the scene in our modern era and has paranormal activity taking place in well known cities in our world.
My absolute favourite has to be Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, with her changeling, October, living in San Francisco but alternating between being a private detective there and a knight of Fairyland. The way folk tales, fairy tales and legends are woven into this modern story is wonderful.
Laurell Hamilton’s Merry Gentry series has the same attributes but relies a little too much on sex to sell the stories to the reader.
Tanya Huff’s series, including the Blood series, the Smoke series and the Enchanted Emporium series, set in Canada and the far north west of US do a similar job but in, for example, her Blood series, she invokes sympathy for vampires, something that can’t be said of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles whose characters were, for me, uniformly unpleasant. I loved Deborah Harkness’ All Souls series, which also presented vampires in a sympathetic light. I believe it has been filmed but not on a streaming service we subscribe to.
The Temeraire series by Naomi Novik presents an alternative reality where dragons fought on both sides in the Napoleonic wars. As a lover of dragons I am enchanted by these books and the way they show dragons as a normal part of our history. Peter Jackson has bought the film rights but nothing has happened so far. One of my favourite fanfics fuses Temeraire with Cornwell’s Sharpe, which is an interesting concept and actually fairly obvious, but it took a fanfic writer to think of it.
And finally, Harry Potter by JK Rowling. (There seems to be some kind of pattern here for fantasy writers to use multiple initials…). It falls into the urban fantasy niche. I first read the books when I was reading them aloud to school classes and kept ahead by borrowing from students. I loved the way they enticed reluctant teenage readers into grappling with long and unillustrated chunks of text but at a personal level found the writing rather flat and the characters slightly annoying. I was also seriously upset when the author killed off Harry’s owl and in an interview compared it to putting away childish things. The films changed my perceptions of the characters and the stories. I was able to focus on the school – so like my own UK boarding school except that our staircases stayed put – and the magical elements. I am aware that a lot of people object to the author making money from their work despite their current unpopularity arising from their stance on gender issues. All I can say is that I usually divorce the work from the author (you have to assume Tolkien was pretty misogynistic) and that for many writers, actors, etc. we have no idea of how they view or viewed things that concern us, because they never told us. I understand the feelings about JKR making a profit but I continue to enjoy the films.
As I said at the beginning, I have read fairly widely in the fantasy field and have mentioned here only the books that have stayed with me as examples of how to – or, of course, how not to. There are plenty of others that don’t quite meet fantasy criteria but are excellent Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is a good example. I thought about it and decided it would fit best on a shelf with magic realism alongside writers like Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, both of whose work I like but would not class as fantasy. On a lighter note I decided The Clangers are sci fi. Then there are others that whilst perhaps enjoyed at the time were not memorable or remarkable in any way. Eddings’ The Belgariad is one of those. I got tired of his style even though I initially devoured the series.
To sum up what appeals, I think it’s the world building, with the depth of the societies and their cultures, then the characters, with real personalities including flaws. The plot is often the same: a quest of some sort and people either meeting up to follow it or meeting along the way. There’s almost always absolute evil but rarely absolute good. The ‘hero’ is most often plucked from an ordinary life and is not any kind of ‘superhero’. Sometimes there’s romance, and occasionally there’s sex; those aren’t the main elements, just a pleasing addition. The book has to give me access to a new or alternative world, with a sense of wonder, and make me care about what happens there. My favourites do exactly that.