A Beginner’s Guide To Fantasy Novels Part One: The Roots Of The Genre
There certainly are a lot of fantasy novels out there, so much so that if you’ve been wanting to get into fantasy but didn’t know how, it would be hard to find a place to start. So I’m going to give those looking for an “in” a few articles describing some classic novels, why they’re worth a read, and some links to where you can find them. In starting this list, where do we begin? If you think about it, fantasy can be said to go back to at least Greek Mythology and the stories and plays that came from them. But most people know the ones to seek out there; Homer’s Illiad and Odessy, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and there is a book in the 1800’s that kind of takes care of that.
So we’ll begin with what many consider the first book and work up from there. At least you can check out the roots of the genre and what inspired many of the authors that will be mentioned in later editions. I hope you can find your avenue into the fantasy genre from these lists.
Beowulf (First Century AD)
Published somewhere between 957-1025 AD, Beowulf tells the story of Hrothgar, a Danish king who must turn to fames warrior and Geatish prince Beowulf to rid his mead hall, Heorot, from ancient monster Grendel. The epic poem also tells of Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother, his crowning as King of the Danes, and his fall at the hands of a Dragon.
It won’t take up much of your time as it is only just barley 80 pages long, but if you find the right translation you will be immersed in a world of Nordic tradition and interesting characters. Whether it be proud King Hrothgar, his Queen Wealtheow, skeptical warrior Unferth, and courageous Wiglaf. My suggestion for translation for Beowulf is Seamus Heaney’s 1999 effort, but the Barnes And Noble Classics Edition translated and introduced by John McNamara is pretty good too.
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Sir Gawain And The Green Knight by The Pearle Poet (14th Century, Tolkien Translation 1925)
One of the most famous of the Arthurian romances, this epic poem deals with the noble Irish prince and Knight Of The Round Table who accepts a challenge by the mysterious Green Knight to give him a blow with a sword as long as the Green Knight can return the favor in a years time. Gawain gives the Green Knight his blow and chops off his head, only for the Green Knight to pick his head back up and tell him he’ll see Gawain in a years time. Themes like courage, faithfulness, honor, man’s closeness to nature, and Paganism are all explored in this poem.
There is no doubt that the J.R.R. Tolkien translation is the best one to read, but there is another pretty good translation by Simon Armitage.
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The Fairy Queene by Sir Edmund Spencer (1596)
Edmund Spencer’s magnum opus, and one of the longest epic poems ever written, with a new type of stanza created for it (eight lines of iambic pentameter and one line in iambic hexameter, rhyming). The poem is an allegoric take on several virtues as it follows the various adventures of different Knights as they ride from a feast. There is one about the Redcross Knight, who is tricked by a mage called Archimago into fighting a dragon (might be a reference to Saint George and the dragon), a Knight named Guyon who must resist the urge to fight to overcome a sorceress, a lady Knight named Britomart who learns from Merlin that she is destined to establish the Monarchy in England, and more.
Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Mallory (est. 1485)
The most famous of the attempts to compile and translate the Arthurian Legend, Thomas Mallory’s book is a fun read. You’ll find everything here, from Uther Pendragon to the Betrayal Of Lancelot Du Lac. The adventures in Avalon and the tragedy of Sir Tristram and Lady Isolde, as well as the tale of Sir Gareth and his battle against the Red Knight.
Idylls Of The King by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1859)
A poetic take on the legend of King Arthur with some of the most interesting stories, including; The battle of Arthur against the “heathen hordes” in aid of Leodogran, his giving of his daughter Guinevere as tribute, and the breaking of Briton from the Roman Empire. Retold is Tragedy of Balin and Balan , two brothers destined to end each others lives and doom Camelot. Here too, is the sad tale of Lady Elaine, the quest for the Grail, and the tale of Bedivere returning Excalibur to the lake to fulfil a prophecy.
Five Children And It/ The Enchanted Castle by Edith Nesbit (1902 and 1906)
Two wonderful children’s stories that started early fantasy series. Five Children And It concerns five children who move from London to Kent and find a wish granting creature called a Psammead. In the true spirit of things that grant wishes, none of the wishes works out exactly like the children want. The Enchanted Castle deals with series regulars “The Railway Children” discovering the titular castle in the forest and have adventures with a magic ring that can turn you invisible, among other things.
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That does it for the roots, next we tackle the Classics.