Remedial Fantasy For the Chronically Lazy: A Top Five List

A couple of weeks ago I moderated a panel on the essential science fiction writers of the Golden Age. The premise was which writers should someone read if he were interested in acquiring a grounding in sci-fi but possessed either limited time or small inclination to read copious amounts of early twentieth century fiction. Who are the not-to-be-missed highlights? It was an engaging, free-ranging conversation. Many writers were brought up and discussed. The panelists agreed more often than not. I doubt we managed to pare the options down to an easily digestible reading list.

My original concept for the panel included fantasy as well. But, as it was a science-fiction convention, that idea was (rightly) nixed. But I still think it worth discussing. What if you, dear reader, had an interest in fantasy, indeed enjoyed reading the current crop of authors? What if you wanted to learn more of the inspirations guiding your favorite writers and where certain tropes and archetypes originated. But what if, for whatever reason, you didn’t want read a bunch of old stuff? Which authors could you read, at a bare minimum to fill this gap?

This could be a major undertaking. But since I am writing a web log post and not a PHD dissertation, I’m going to arbitrarily limit myself to five. Also, I am going to make the assumption that anyone interested in fantasy has already read Tolkien so I can dispense with him entirely. Most of these authors I’ve written of before, so if you are interested in some additional thoughts of mine, feel free to browse through the archives.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

Edgar Rice Burroughs. It doesn’t start with him. ERB had his own influences. I’m guessing H. Rider Haggard, A. Conan Doyle, and Jules Verne among them. But the fantasy that followed owed him a great debt. From Planetary Romance to lost civilizations, you can read it from ERB. ERB labored in the pulp mines, in which word count mattered more than plot consistency. The point was to keep the action moving, keep the readers interested. So don’t look to him for concise storytelling or poetic language. But for rollicking, imaginative adventure, he’s your man.

Lord Dunsany. If you are interested in concise storytelling and poetic language, look to Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the 18th Baron of Dunsany. He was a master of the short, evocative tale. The influence of his conception of fairyland as a realm of beauty and mortal danger can be seen in such writers as Tolkien, Poul Anderson, and Neil Gaiman.

Robert E. Howard. Ever read anything about a sword-swinging barbarian? Well, it all started with REH. Really, what more need I say? Of course he created much more than Conan. But we’re talking the essentials here, so sadly I must forego discussing Solomon Kane, Ban Mak Morn, et al. You want to understand where modern fantasy originated? Read Conan.

Clark Ashton Smith. CAS is less well known than he should be. But if you consider writers tacked onto a sort of genealogical table, with inspirations standing in for blood relationship, then his influence exceeded his fame. CAS at the root of the chart leads to a sequence of “begats.” Jack Vance is on that table (and not just for the Dying Earth motif), as are Gene Wolfe, R.A. Lafferty, and — to a lesser extent — Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp. CAS was a poet who happened to write most of his poetry in prose.

You may ask “Where, Ken, are the women?” I had considered including C.L. Moore in the fifth spot. She beats Leigh Brackett out due to the heavy ERB influence in Brackett’s fantasies. The influence of her evocative, gothic style can be detected, I think, in writers such as Andre Norton.

But I don’t do quotas. So, the way I see it, Fritz Leiber takes the fifth slot. The fantasy duo, a mismatched pair playing off each other for both dramatic and comedic effect may not have originated with Leiber, but he perfected it.

There you have it. The five fantasy writers you need to read to catch up on the genre, if you must limit yourself to five. Of course if you ask me tomorrow, the list might have changed.

What do you think? Did I slight anyone? Am I completely off my rocker? Or is this list defensible?