Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Fifty Essential Epic Fantasies? Really?

So, over at, Charlie Jane Anders is talking about these lists of the "50 essential epic fantasies," and how the lists reveal that a lot of people aren't really clear about the nature of epic fantasies.

I think she's missing the point.

It isn't that people don't know what an "epic fantasy" is...
It's that there simply aren't 50 essential ones. Period.

There just aren't enough titles to fill up these lists, and that's why books like Perdido Street Station and The Dragonlance Chronicles (God save me!) pop up in them.

Ironically, the list that actually contains the most interesting titles - Ian Sales' - is the one that Charlie singles out as containing the least epic fantasy.

Bottom line, there are maybe a dozen essential epic fantasies, especially if one accepts that an epic fantasy cannot be essential if it's also badly-written crap. Yeah, I'm looking at you, Far- [rest of title deleted at request of Mendelssohn's publicist and lawyer]. And series count as single works:

Lord of the Rings
The Once and Future King
Nine Princes in Amber through to The Courts of Chaos
A Wizard of Earthsea
Moorcock's Eternal Champion (or, if you're in a lighter mood, Lieber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser)
Watership Down
Mythago Wood
The Chronicles of Prydain

and the source material:
The Iliad
The Odyssey
The Aeneid
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Paradise Lost
The Divine Comedy
The Mabinogion
The Bible

How do you know I didn't just pull this list out of my a**?
Hey, I write the stuff.
Trust me.


  1. "Essential" is such a fraught word. It doesn't just mean good, it doesn't mean popular, but what does it mean?

    Does it mean that fantasy readers have them in mind when reading new fantasy books or that authors need to be cognizant of the tropes they established when writing their own work?

    In that sense, can modern unfinished series qualify as essential? A Song of Ice and Fire is currently unavoidable because of the TV show but even beforehand the books had a serious impact on the genre ...

    Are the Conan books really essential or is it just the character? (actual, not rhetorical question because I haven't read them yet)

    Is Edgar Rice Burroughs "essential" reading even though his stories are garbage?

    1. Excellent question. I use "essential" in terms of people being cognizant of tropes; but these days, I'm understandably focused on the mechanics of the genre. It then follows that the series doesn't have to finish to be essential. Doesn't hurt, of course. And ERB is "essential" in that Tarzan and some of his other creations (e.g. Barsoom) persist in the consciousness of readers and writers alike...

    2. In fact, you could go so far as to say that without Burrough's Barsoom, Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles and Heinlein's Red Planet wouldn't have had the imagery that they did.