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10 Most Influential Fantasy Novels

A 20th Century List…



No, hopefully I can add some value here, if nothing more than informational and educational (and maybe a little humor). I recently saw a “top 25 most influential list” and it was a) mostly female authors (no issue there) b) all but one from 2000 was female (also no issue), and not one single book on the list with the exception of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings would anyone consider “influential.  Hell, they even left off Sanderson, Jordan, and Erikson (none of which I’m a fan which will clearly show on my list). Brandon isn’t on my list because, well, this is a 20th Century list and he’s a 21st Century author.

I want to do better than the list above. I want to see if I can offer up a list, strictly from the 20th Century (because, let’s face it, once we hit 2,000 books and music fizzled into cardboard mannequin overly produced factory generated krell). And the key word is “influential” not just “fantasy books by…”. The books on my list probably influence (really, the did influence) most of the 21st list, including Mr. Malazan Stephen Erikson.

And let’s not forget: This is an opinion piece folks! 🙂

Number 10

The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson

Let’s start the list with a book that another author on this list said was “highly influential to the creation of” his character. The book is not as well known as maybe Three Hearts, Three Lions for example, but Mr. Anderson is a 7-time Hugo Award winner, and a Fantasy Grand Master. So he’s got street cred for sure. And while this book is largely steeped in Viking mythology (Anderson was from Danish heritage after all), its got the word sword in the title (just kidding) – it was published in the 50’s before the boom of Sword & Sorcery during a time when Sci-Fi was all the craze. Bold move!

Number 9

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

I struggled here. I really want to include more female authors, but the crux of them (Andre Norton, Tanith Lee, Ursela K. LeGuin, Madeline L’Engle, C.J. Cherryh, Leigh Bracket) write mostly Sci-Fi. With the exception of Louise Cooper’s Master’s Trilogy, I couldn’t really find an “influential” work from a female author (beside #5 which pained me to include), and Louise Cooper’s trilogy is relatively an unknown (hardly influential – but a great page turner). I’m also trying to stay strictly within the fantasy (sword and sorcery) realm. And so, as we talk about “world-builders”, we have to mention the Farseer world and what Robin Hobb created. I know on Facebook this series gets talked about a LOT, so it’s influencing. It’s out there. Personally, I’ve never read it (I do own it, that’s a start), but I can tell you as someone who has never read it, I see it everywhere and it comes highly recommended sitting just behind The Wizard of Earthsea (which was a condiration here) and A Wrinkle in Time (which for me is sci-fi).

Number 8

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

When you’re really close friends with J.R.R. Tolkien, something like this was bound to happen. Originally published in 1950 (13 years of The Hobbit), Lewis’s work has become one of the most well-known fantasy novels out there. Kids going through a wardrobe to another world? And it’s ruled by an Ice Queen? Awesome! Pass the Turkish Delight please! And it has talking animals! Sweet! And swords. And sorcery. Kids for generations have read these books. Again, published at a time when sci-fi was uber popular. Lewis himself was a sci-fi author as well (Out of the Silent Planet anyone?). With world building, magic systems, and a religious undertone, this book resonates from beginning to end. Suffice to say, include ALL the Chronicles of Narnia here as a well-built world of magic and wonder where kids could get to through mirrors, wardrobes, etc.

Number 7

The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White

Wait, isn’t this a Disney movie? Yes. But like most Disney movies, it was a book first. AND, it was published in 1938 so it qualifies as 20th century. But I’m primarily using this as a gateway to get the King Arthur legends into the mix. Clearly the single most influential work of fantasy (probably after Beowulf) and featuring the most famous fantasy sword of all time: Excalibur. This story later became part of the tetralogy, The Once and Future King. There is no doubt this story, and the stories in the tetralogy have made their mark in many fantasy stories and retold versions – Mists of Avalon anyone? Honestly, is there any other sword more famous than Excalibur? Maybe one (keep reading).

Number 6

The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore

This book is on the list because it introduces a character who would become as iconic as most on this list. In fact, the largely secondary Drizzt Do’Urden became so popular after the publishing of this book, Salvatore had no choice but to write more. He followed it up with Homeland and the rest is history. This book also introduced an entire new realm in AD&D (if you don’t know what that is, stop reading here and go do something else), Icewind Dale, a bitterly cold realm in the Forgotten Realms. At the time of this writing I think over 37 Drizzt books have been published (don’t quote me or my source – my memory – on that number). He is by and large, the most famous Drow.

Number 5

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

First, what is it with brits and initials? All kidding aside, this book is probably required to be on the list because…it was not only hugely popular (understatement of last century), but it is STILL HUGELY POPULAR!!! And scores of wannabe authors have tried to cash-in on the next “child wizard” thing. All have failed. Miserably. Thankfully. And while there is some debate as to the quality of the writing (myself included), one has to admit the extent of the magic and world-building in this novel (and those to come) is extensive to the extent of obsessive (see Tolkien). Not to mention the plotting. Doubtless, J.K. Rowling did it right. Each novel is an “episode” with it’s own set of challenges for the hero, but it also follows one plot line from beginning in this book to the end of book seven. Highly, highly influential.

Number 4

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkein

Ok, I am obligated to include Tolkien somewhere on this list, right? But Number 4? Surely this is a mistake. Possibly. To add to the dilemma, when I say The Hobbit I am also saying Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion, and the entire Middle-Earth. Without this little gem from 1937, we wouldn’t have the concept of “world-building” in this sense. Nor Hobbits. Nor Gollum, by far the most famous tragic character ever written. Nor the most famous wizard (next to Merlin of course) ever created. The length and breadth of Tolkien’s world goes FAR beyond the published works we know. You can get volumes of Middle-Earth history. Tolkien also changed the concept of “Elves” from Tinkerbell fairy types (more Gnomish than elves) to tall, immortal and mystical beings that helped shape a world – then left.  Basically the elves you see, know, and love, in the D&D realms. Without Tolkien there would be no Moorcock, Eddings, Brooks, Goodkind, and so on. When it comes to creating fantasy realms, the British really get on it! Probably because they grew up in fantasy realms. But why not Number 1 for Tolkien then? Two reasons: the story of the ring is largely borrowed from The Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot, who compiled oral tradition stories from Karelian and Finnish folklore and mythology (this book is a 19th century book, hence- not on the list – plus the oral history dates back 3,000 years) Secondly, he wasn’t the first of his kind to do world building. Read on!

Number 3

Fritz Leiber’s Fahfrd & the Gray Mouser

Although not technically a “novel” until the stories were “fixed up” in The Two Sought Adventure, since 1940, the character adventures of Fafhd and the Gray Mouser have become one of fantasy’s wholly enriched and lively duos. Their adventures in Lankhmar have been stylized and borrowed by many writers, and also dungeon masters. They appeared in DC comics before becoming a DC comic. They are probably the most well-known duo in the fantasy realm. Fritz Leiber published Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories up until 1983 (he died less than 10 years later). Fritz Leiber even coined the term “Sword & Sorcery” in response to Michael Moorcock’s request to classify a Robert E. Howard Conan story. It is Leiber’s most famous creation, even after multiple Hugo wins for sci-fi stories. He also published horror stories.

Number 2

Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock

First published in 1961, Elric the albino swordsman who weilds Stormbringer, an intelligent sword that loves to feast on souls, fast became an icon in the industry. There are many Elric stories available, there are even a few not written by Michael Moorcock himself. Elric is featured on Blue Oyster Cult’s Fire of Unknown Origin album which the famous Veteran of the Psychic Wars Mr. Moorcock himself co-wrote. I say famous because the song was featured in the cult movie Heavy Metal. The album was originally supposed to be the soundtrack for that movie. Moving on from that little side-track, Elric is also featured in many Hawkwind songs (of which Moorcock was a member-ish), including the loosely based concept album Warrior at the End of Time.

Elric is a comic book, including appearances in a couple of Marvel comics fighting against another S&S character of great fame. Elric has also been turned into a role-playing game. Without a doubt, many character archtypes (and, believe it or not, SWORD archtypes) would not exist if not for Michael Moorcock’s creation of Elric in 1961.

Number 1

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian.

Also never technically published as a “novel” beyond “fix-ups” (not during Howard’s short lifetime), Conan is by far the most well known players in the sword and sorcery realm. As stated above, Conan is the reason behind the Sword and Sorcery name. Conan first appeared in in Weird Tales in the December 1932 issue in a story called The Phoenix on the Sword. From there, Howard wrote 27 more Conan stories before he took his own life in 1936. Many famous fantasy writers, such as Lin Carter, took up the Conan helm and published  their own stories (fan fiction?). Conan is a comic book by Marvel, a black print newstand graphic magazine, graphic novels, movies, etc. Howard is also known for creating the classic S&S character Kull.

It is no mistake that the top 3 are Leiber, Moorcock, and Howard. And while it could be argued Leiber should be #2 and Moorcock #3, they’re still in the top three, and as connected as they are (with the naming of the genre and why), it only makes sense.

Honorable Mentions

Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCafferey

Great concept, takes place in the far future. It’s sci-fi. Just because it has dragons doth not make it fantasy.

The Wizard of Eartheas by Ursela K. LeGuin

While at the top of the list, maybe a smidge more popular than #6 mentioned above, it didn’t resonate and wasn’t memorable. Hardly influential. I could be wrong, the list is subjective.

Dune by Frank Herbert

No doubt some would consider it fantasy because of the magic (really, religious) element, but since it takes place 20,000+ years from now, I consider it sci-fi.

Star Wars by George Lucas

Yes, I said Star Wars. It was published as a novel, by George Lucas and is certainly a contender. It takes place in the past, it has sorcery, and it has swords. And no doubt has influence multiple generations since it’s release. I dare you to prove me wrong.

Chronicles of Ember by Roger Zelazny

Count Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg

There are more, but I’m moving on now.


This is my list of the top 10 most influential fantasy novels of the 20th century. I know you’ll disagree with some (maybe all?) but I take great pleasure in creating a fantasy list that does not contain Sanderson (heh).  But all kidding aside, I think the important thing to remember, as fans of the genre, this is the type of subject matter that could be debated for hours, and we’d enjoy every minute of it.

Notes for Those Scratching Their Heads


Wait, no love for Malazon or Wheel of Time or Game of Thrones?


Can you elaborate?

Sure. Malazon came out in 1999, barely able to include it here. It’s epic, no doubt. So is the Wheel of Time, and Game of Thrones, and The Dragonbone Chair. I get it. People love slogging through 8,000 volumes of 900 page books. I don’t. I live by two rules, and these ironically are two rules all writer’s should abide by. First, if I don’t know who the main character (i.e. the Protagonist) is by the end of the first chapter, I’m done. All of those mentioned above, it either was not clear who the protagonist was, or they weren’t introduced. Second, the same goes for the ANTAGONIST, that is, the villain. All of those mentioned above were hard DNF’s for me. And I don’t care. For craps sake, there’s a reason Lord of the Rings was published in THREE VOLUMES! By today’s standards, that’d be half of one GRRM book. And lastly, speaking of George, his only “win” for writing was a Hugo for a short story in the 80’s published in Omni. Actually, I really like his short stories. The novels are just plain horrid.

Did you have anything to say about not including black female transgender authors on your list?

No. This question is a written as a joke really, not intended to be serious. This list is about influential novels, not gender or racial equality or equity. The hard fact of the matter is most of these authors are male and were published pre-1960. Sorry, that was life then and I’m not going to fudge my list one way or the other to appease some unwritten rule. And if you’re curious, some of the female authors mentioned above do “bat for the other team” so to speak. So I guess it is kind of inclusive. Kind of.

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