Fantasy’s Big Three

Science Fiction has its big three. Most often these are listed as Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. The line up varies, of course. It can’t be objectively determined and prominence waxes and wanes with time. Weird Tales had its own holy trinity: Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith. Three seems to be a magic number. Who, I wonder, would be Fantasy’s big three?

The question at first seems readily answerable, since the first name springs instantly to mind: J.R.R. Tolkein. It isn’t merely that The Lord of the Rings is influential (that’s undeniable.) It is that Tolkein sells consistently. LOTR occupies valuable real estate in every book store. It never goes out of print and new editions spring up frequently.

So, easy, right? One down. How hard could it be to pick two more?


This isn’t a question of who was/is influential. This is a question of popularity, longevity, and book spines cracked in the Fantasy genre writ large, no drilling down to subgenres. I could look to an easy way out, conjuring by the name of J.K. Rowling. Talk about sales, there’s your gal. But Harry Potter is children’s fiction. So, sadly for my lazy ass, I have to disqualify the series. Same goes for C.S. Lewis, an Inkling with a solid track record. Ursula Le Guin deserves some consideration. But I re-read the Earthsea Cycle a couple of years ago, and I have to consider it to fall in the same category as Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. Besides, Le Guin is better known for her Science Fiction.

I keep coming back to Robert E. Howard. Conan, since his renaissance, has enjoyed Tolkein level sales, name recognition, and shelf space. Plus, Howard spun tales of numerous other well-known characters and they all take up room in multiple collections. Gradually becoming part of the public domain has done nothing to slow the popularity of Howard’s fiction; quite the reverse.

So, that’s two. Excellent. Almost done. I can do this.

What have we got? Glen Cook is considered by some the progenitor of Grimdark. He is influential among other writers in the field. But, that isn’t quite what I’m considering here, is it? I’m more concerned with the larger reading public than we scribblers of fiction. (Yes, I’m including myself. And yes, I fully realize what an almost microscopically small fish I am in this pond.) So, despite providing some impetus to Erikson, Abercrombie, Morgan, et al, and despite my personal appreciation for his output, Cook is not the third leg of the stool.

What about Edgar Rice Burroughs? I can’t quite bring myself to classify Tarzan as Fantasy, though I am certainly sympathetic to the argument and wouldn’t expend much effort disputing you if you disagree. John Carter is Sword and Planet. Now, I’m willing to consider that a branch of Sword and Sorcery, and thus Fantasy. But I’m not sold on Barsoom books fighting in the same weight category as LOTR and Conan. Besides, if we are including Sword and Planet, I’d want to consider Anne Mcaffrey and her Dragonriders of Pern books. I don’t have any statistics immediately at hand, but my memory suggests that those books occupied more square footage in the bookstores than John Carter of Virginia. (I could be wrong. There’s nothing of the scientific method involved in this post.)

It may be that the third member of the triumvirate is the scribe of one of the massive door-stopper series. Robert Jordan, say, of the seemingly interminable Wheel of Time. Or G.R.R. Martin of the perhaps actually interminable A Song of Ice and Fire. Both men had prior success. Both, whether from sheer mass, popularity, or both, continue to move product. This, I think, remains open. Will either series achieve the long term success of Tolkein’s or Howard’s output?

The same question applies to some of the more recent successes, like Jim Butcher or Larry Correia. Will future generations continue to care about Butcher’s Harry Dresden or Correia’s monster killers? To be seen.

I’d like to say Zelazny. Shoot, I’d like to say Vance. Talk about influential. There are several that I’d be happy to say carry the same stature with the general Fantasy reading public as Tolkien and Howard: Lord Dunsany, Saberhagen, De Camp, Pratt, Leiber, etc. I have a long list. Moorcock ought to be given consideration. Elric is the great granddaddy of any number of brooding, emo swordslingers. But I fear he might be a trifle niche to make the cut.

I suppose the answer I come up with is that there isn’t a Fantasy big three. Instead, Fantasy boasts a duo. But I’m open to persuasion. What do you think? Am I missing someone obvious? Should Terry Pratchett get the nod? Tell me what you come up with.

To help grease your mental gears, how about some reading?