This is strictly my opinion. Any time someone creates a “greatest” list, it is based on highly subjective criteria. My criteria is formed around influence more than skill or output. Some of the writers here had very little output, but their influence is phenomenal. It’s like George Harrison. I consider him the greatest guitarist of all time for the quality of his songs and the number of people he inspired to get off the couch and play. Was he the best? No. There are far more with greater skill and talent. So, this list is based more on impact and influence than skill and talent.
Fantasy is the oldest genre of literature. It can be traced back to Homer, the author of Beowulf and Scheherazade. How about those guys who stretched the truth about Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett? That’s all fantasy! It’s all mythical and it’s all something we enjoy and resonate with. These are simply the most modern writers in that genre and the ones who gave us what we read today. Enjoy!
1. J.R.R. Tolkien — Do you even have to ask why he’s at number one? He’s considered the father of modern fantasy and without him, this would be a really short list. His output was minimal — four novels, an incomplete background book and a collection of tales. Yet, he created a modern mythology for the British by retelling old Saxon tales. When the movie version of Return of the King swept the Oscars, fantasy moved into the mainstream as an epic for all time. So, the Lord of the Genre earns the number one spot.
2. Robert E. Howard — Okay, sure, he’s a pulp writer, but he created Conan the Barbarian, a character who has entered the cultural lexicon right next to Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Batman, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Howard is the father of the sword and sorcery subgenre, and without that, we’d be stuck with only high fantasy. Sword and sorcery is the fun side of our world! It’s the naked brawny man, and the naked buxom woman, fighting impossible odds with their smarts and a huge weapon, and don’t we all just wish! In a short career of only ten years, Howard produced 800 short stories, poems and novels in virtually every genre of his time. Now that is one hell of a writer!
3. Terry Brooks — Brooks gets a bad rap these days because many critics think he just ripped off Tolkien. I don’t think he ripped him off, but he borrowed from him. First off, he didn’t have much to work with back in 1977. Second, that’s what myth tellers do; they borrow from each other. He ranks here solely because of the impact of The Sword of Shanarra. That book appeared concurrently with Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, at the exact time that Dungeons and Dragons players and Lord of the Rings fans wanted something more, when fantasy was ready to expand. Brooks gave us that expansion. He showed us what could be done with what already existed. I don’t know how many high school students were inspired to try their own hand at writing fantasy because of Sword of Shanarra, myself included. Many of us are still writing.
4. Stephen Donaldson — While Terry Brooks showed us what could be done with what existed, Donaldson showed us what could be done that was new by giving us Lord Foul’s Bane. This was fresh! This was literature! This was a deep, dark and sometimes unapproachable book. Without Lord Foul’s Bane, and the rest of the Thomas Covenant series, I doubt we would have George R.R. Martin and Jim Butcher with their dark, all too human, fantasy stories. Donaldson did with fantasy stories the exact same thing that George Lucas did with science fiction in movies at the same time with Star Wars. He brought myth home to a new generation. Donaldson showed us that fantasy could be written in a literary fashion, and not just in a high epic style. And the man hasn’t stopped showing us that.
5. Marian Zimmer Bradley — Bradley is left off all too many lists these days, and I think it’s because as she grew older, she became more of an uberfeminist. Her later works certainly were too political for my tastes, but there is no escaping The Mists of Avalon. Not that you would want to escape it. It is a phenomenal retelling of the Arthurian legend. For years, Bradley was the only woman writing in the genre, but she brought many women into it, and for that, she deserves to be on anyone’s top ten list. Sure she said a lot of feminist things, but someone needed to say them, and what better platform than the fable of fantasy. Besides, she gave her name to a long running magazine. Not even Tolkien could make such a boast.
6. George R. R. Martin — Perhaps the best thing to happen to fantasy since Brooks and Donaldson! Martin brings a professional and historical voice to the table. Did you know he was the writer behind that great TV show Beauty and the Beast? Despite his small output of fantasy novels, the man knows what he is doing. The Game of Thrones is a retelling of the Wars of the Roses for a modern audience, and he nails the all-too-human attitudes of those who struggled for the throne for very good reasons. This is epic fantasy, yes, but also human. It is easy to find ourselves in one of Martin’s characters, and that can be a scary thing indeed. Martin’s books aren’t just fantasy, they are literature. I suspect that in 100 years, he will be taught in freshman lit classes in colleges everywhere.
7. Robin Hobb — Currently, the leading woman’s voice in fantasy, but I suspect that will change as those who grew up with Marian Zimmer Bradley and Robin Hobb come of age and start writing. What sets Hobb apart from most fantasy writers is her ability to let her characters suffer. I’ve only seen her equal in Joss Whedon. But that’s life and it’s what makes fantasy so needed in our world today. Life sucks, but maybe there is some magic left that we can use to help ourselves and others. Hobb gives us that insight.
8. Jim Butcher — Urban fantasy at its best! I love Raymond Chandler anyway, and when I encountered the first Harry Dresden book, I had the best of both worlds — the love child of Philip Marlowe and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with a sense of humor. Butcher asked “why not?” as in, why not a private investigator who is also a wizard? Why not indeed! Keep writing, Jim!
9. Terry Pratchett — If Monty Python showed us what the Brits can do with a fantasy movie by giving us Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Pratchett shows us what they can do with a novel through Discworld. This is as hilarious a series as the Hitchhiker’s Guide series! Surreal, droll and all too modern, Pratchett gives us fantasy with a deep bite. In a genre that all too often takes itself seriously, Pratchett pokes us in the ribs and makes us laugh. At ourselves. And that hurts! But we want more.
10. J.K. Rowling — Shut up! I don’t want to hear it. The woman who dethroned Pratchett as Great Britain’s number one author deserves to be on this list. Sure, she needs a good editor (she repeats herself, uses too many ellipses and allcaps) but she did accomplish something profound. She reminded us that courage and determination can overcome evil. Harry Potter brought a lot of new readers, and writers, into the genre and they can’t seem to get enough. Hey, the more readers we have the better! Rowling took fantasy and made it accessible to teens, and through them, adults as well. Anyone who can do that should be in the top ten on any list.
Perhaps I should expand this list to the top 15 or 20. I can think of others to add. Terry Goodkind is blasted left and right for his misogyny, but that helps create a world of vile evil, and don’t we live in that kind of world? How about Stephen King? He may not write fantasy, but the Dark Tower series qualifies, and he has influenced many writers, myself included. How about H.P. Lovecraft, who told us how to create atmospheric settings? How about Edgar Rice Burroughs? I know he’s associated with Tarzan, but I remember his one-off novel The Mad King, which was a great fantasy and his answer to The Prisoner of Zenda. How about C.S. Lewis? I’m not a Narnia fan (too many evangelicals like it, and if they like something, then I automatically hate it) but he was a great writer and that was an influential series.
That’s the problem with lists. There are always more to add.