– by Brendan Reid, Editor –
The modern fantasy genre is one that has truly taken off in the past few decades. Blockbuster movies are capitalizing on a market that was once considered extremely niche, and audiences around the world are being given a fantastic array of spectacles to choose from. Amidst all the glamour and special effects, it can become easy to forget where the ideas of myth and magic originally came from, and the books that popularized them. Here is a list of tales that were integral in building of what we consider epic and fantastical, and stories that helped shape the popular idea of fantasy.
1.The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh (Gilgamesh) is truly one of the most important pieces of literature ever discovered. The stone tablets outlining the mighty deeds of Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu were found in Iraq during the late 1800s, and forever influenced the way we understand literature. It tells a tale of bravery and redemption, intertwined with ancient Mesopotamian mythology. It also tells the tale of a Great Flood, much like the one that Noah had to endure. The tablets date it as the earliest work of literature ever written, from as far back as 2100 BC. Gilgamesh has been translated into numerous modern versions. It’s structure is seen in just about every work of epic fiction, with a warrior protagonist who loses it all and must find meaning in the world and himself, and numerous exciting battles against fantastic beasts. Gilgamesh influenced an entire culture, which has in turn influenced ours, and is an especially good read if you are a lover of fantasy, or history in general.
2. The Iliad And The Odyssey, by Homer
While it is true that Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey are two volumes, I feel that they belong together, for they tell one continuous story. These epic tales are integral to our understanding of ancient Greek culture, and our conception of their gods and rituals. The Iliad tells the story of the Trojan War, a great quarrel between mighty kings over a beautiful queen, and of the warriors and gods who fought in the 10-year battle. The Odyssey tells of the adventures of Odysseus, the man who was responsible for bringing about the end of the Trojan War, and who was cursed to wander the sea for 10 more years before returning to a troubled home. Both tales are rife with pathos and epic triumph, and have been passed down through the ages as masterpieces of literature. Our ideas of heroes and mythology would not be the same without these ancient works. Their influence can be found in just about every other work of epic fantasy, and the characters and events from these stories are pervade our popular culture.
3. The Once And Future King, by T.H. White
The tales of King Arthur are surely some of the most recognizable in western culture. The sword in the stone, the torrid affair of Lancelot and Guinevere and the quest for the Holy Grail are all stories that seem instinctively understood. The figure of King Arthur actually existed in history, though his deeds have been exaggerated to fantastic heights. While stories of Arthur are as ancient as the king himself, it was T.H. White’s The Once And Future King that truly brought these tales back to the forefront, and it wove history and fantasy together in such a way that they seemed inseparable. Published in 1958, the book chronicles the rise of fall of the titular king, from his blissful childhood to tragic adult years. At his side is his tutor Merlyn, who guides Arthur as he grows and brings a great element of the fantastic into the tale. This story is seeped in magic and folklore, and White’s prose and dialogue creates a world that is simultaneously dark and humorous, and one that you can easily become lost in.
4. Watership Down, by Richard Adams
A story about a group of rabbits trying to find a new home wouldn’t seem to belong on this list, but Richard Adams’ Watership Down shows that even a tale about woodland critters can become powerful when done correctly. Published in 1972, Watership Down builds for its readers the world of the rabbits, a place with its own language, mythology, and politics, and a story that is epic in scope. The characters within this story are all layered and believable, even in their rabbit forms, and you cannot help but find yourself caring for them. The story even delves into the mystical, for one of the rabbits has prophetic visions like that of a Greek seer and can see the horrors of human interference with nature. It deviated from swords-and-sorcery model that was so prevalent in the genre, and has inspired writers to utilize fantasy in new ways. Though often disregarded because of its synopsis alone, Watership Down is a wonderful tale, and one that draws tactfully from its influences to create a world that is fresh and original.
5. The Lord Of The Rings, by JRR Tolkien
The Lord Of The Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien is the undisputed crown jewel of fantasy literature, and the genre has never been the same since its publication in 1954. Tolkien singlehandedly popularized the use of wizards, dragons and elves in modern fantasy, shaping the ideas of high fantasy that we take for granted, and did so with a prose that was as poetic as it was accessible. His words fill the pages with life, and paint an image of Middle-Earth and its characters so clearly that you could swear you were part of the Hobbit’s quest to rid the world of darkness. The Lord of the Rings films brought Tolkien’s masterful tale to a whole new generation, and his influence continued to affect modern culture. His imitators have been numerous, but none have quite been able to top the incredible majesty of The Lord of The Rings, and it is likely that its reign shall go on undisputed.