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Just over a week ago I was chatting with a friend about nothing important when he made the following statement: “The Lord of the Rings is the best fantasy story, ever.” Well, I think he used the word “evah!” but you get the idea. Not being well read in fantasy I couldn’t immediately throw out any book or series names that might be better, or just as good. So we asked our panelists this week the following question:
The Lord of the Rings is a hard set of books to top. They rank amongst some of the best books that I’ve read, because of the depth to the world-building, the epic story, the high quality writing, allegory that transcends the subject matter and the nostalgia that I have for it being one of the first book series that I really got into. So, when it comes to another series that really tops that, there’s quite a lot to surmount: this is assuming that those qualities are what makes Tolkien’s classic a benchmark in the fantasy genre.
The series that comes to mind is Philip Pullman’s excellent His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass). Ignoring the weak points in the series with TSK, the series is an excellent, epic trilogy that blends genres, and tackles a number of philosophical issues that for me, were very formative. The series has remained amongst some of the best books that I’ve ever read, and as I’ve re-read them over the years, it’s been a constant source of amazement.
When it comes to singular books, there’s no question in my own mind: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is a standout novel that looks to mythology in North America. As I re-read it this year, I found myself sucked into Gaiman’s excellent prose, engaging stories and poise behind the novel, and remembered just why this was a great book the first time I read it.
I’m not sure it’s possible to one-up The Lord Of The Rings since it pretty much established epic Fantasy as a genre, but there are several books that I read shortly after The Lord Of The Rings when I wanted more of the same. I don’t think any discussion of Fantasy is complete without mentioning The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon books. I also loved Diana Paxson’s The Serpent’s Tooth and some of her other stories as well as some of the books in Elizabeth Haydon’s Symphony of Ages series. Even though it’s more Science Fantasy, I have to include Patricia Kennealy-Morrison’s Keltiad series. Part of the story depends on space travel, but the epic series is more of an extrapolation of what thriving Celtic cultures might be like if they continued developing independently of Earth. Kennealy-Morrison took her stories way beyond the familiar tropes of Arthurian legend and demonstrated a deep understanding of what we know about the Celts.
Let’s start with T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, the best fantasy novel I’ve ever read.
Then, in no particular order:
The Dying Earth, by Jack Vance
The Face in the Frost, by John Bellairs
The Book of the New Sun tetrology, by Gene Wolfe
The King of Elfland’s Daughter, by Lord Dunsany
The Red Magician, by Lisa Goldstein
The Land of Laughs, by Jonathan Carroll
Orlando Furioso, by Ludovico Ariosto
The Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R. R. Martin
The Gormenghast Trilogy, by Mervyn Peake
The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen Donaldson
The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
Dracula, by Bram Stoker
…and a bunch more (but not Narnia). As you may have guessed by now, I’m in that tiny minority that simply doesn’t like Tolkien or his methodology.
If you’re looking for a latter-day Romance set in an alterior realm you can immerse yourself in — if you’re looking for the worldscaping, the epic/heroic plot dynamics, all the things that Tolkien does so committedly — The Lord of the Rings is probably unrivaled when it comes to fantasy of that particular form. The law of diminishing returns applies to copies and copies-of-copies by writers simply trying to offer more of the same, and this Oxford don applied his dedication and erudition over nearly a decade, so he set the bar way high for writers wanting to go one step further, to give something different. I mean, while your George R.R. Martins and Gene Wolfes might do prose and characterisation better, might have more thematic meat to them, Tolkien has this trump card of subcreation, having spent so much time and toil on developing his worldscape; I suspect the immersive effect of that worldscaping is important enough in fantasy of a certain idiom that many will place Tolkien above all others on that basis alone. But then I can’t really speak to that, to be honest; I’m not really interested in fantasy of that form, that flavour, so I’m not sufficiently well-versed in it to make valid suggestions of comparable works of equal or greater merit.
Thing is, The Lord of the Rings is kind of a pointless benchmark for me in the first place. It’s like asking if there’s any poem that measures up to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which isn’t really doing anything that I’m remotely interested in, in terms of poetic technique. Like, of course there are better poems than Idylls of the King, as far as I’m concerned; I’d suggest most anything by William Blake, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens — and that’s just a start. But this is largely because I find Tennyson’s whole aesthetic tedious as fuck; it reads as trite Romantic doggerel to me, so with even a glimpse at the vast field of poetry in general my eye falls on scores of other writers I consider better. But none of them are trying to do something really comparable, so it’s not a wholly fair comparison. Tennyson and Stevens are so vastly different in approach, you might as well be comparing artists in different media. And for me fantasy is such a broad field, I have exactly the same response with Tolkien. I find The Lord of the Rings turgid and reactionary, hate Tolkien’s whole aesthetic, so there’s a host of works I’d call better, but it’s a bit like saying I think Braque is better than Bach.
The thing is, I know for some The Lord of the Rings is the very essence of fantasy — it’s what fantasy is all about, what all fantasy aspires to — but I think that’s buying into a very narrow notion of an idiom which is, to me, defined simply by the fact that it utilises the fantastic. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, Edward Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet, the short story collections of Jeff Ford or Kelly Link, if you allow them under the general term “books” — these are my benchmarks of fantasy at its best. Ackroyd, Bulgakov, Carter, Delany — there’s a whole alphabetised library of writers whose books or series — Hawksmoor, The Master and Margarita, Nights at the Circus, the Nevèrÿon books — I think are ultimately better than The Lord of the Rings as works of literature. They just leave him in the dust in terms of general literary craft, I’d say… unless, of course, you’re trying to fit them into this particular mould set by Tolkien, unless you’re asking them to match Tolkien at his quite idiosyncratic game of subcreation. Actually, in terms of conjuring an alterior reality, Nevèrÿon is more alive to me than Middle-Earth, but then Delany’s series isn’t remotely epic/heroic in its narrative grammar, so it’s still not so much beating Tolkien at his own game as it’s playing a different game entirely.
When you’re dealing with an idiom as broad as “fantasy,” that old fruit analogy holds true. It’s a bit daft to say this apple (or this banana or plum or apricot or whatever) is as good as or better than that orange. Or, in terms of my personal taste when it comes to Tolkien, that lemon of all lemons.
The fact is I’m not all that widely read in fantasy published over the past twenty or so years, though I read all kinds of stuff, from Dunsany to MacDonald to Barringer to Cabell back in the sixties and seventies. But if you want an unfounded opinion, I’d say it would be hard to top The Lord of the Rings on at least two grounds: first, it is no more than the tip of a scholarly iceberg, representing only a fraction of the immense and unparalleled work that Tolkien put into the whole scenario of his Middle Earth; and second, it is inarguably the most influential fantasy work of the twentieth century, having spawned the entire modern genre of post-Tolkien, quasi-Tolkien, faux-Tolkien war-and-politics series that are still being churned out.
OK, the first two that spring to mind are Raymond Feist’s Riftwar series, and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.
In defense of Riftwar, it was the first epic fantasy series I read after being familiar with Tolkein my whole life. It was great to see another world with a different set of moral choices. At least in the first two books (Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master), it wasn’t a matter of Good vs. Evil, but instead of two cultures that simply didn’t understand each other yet. And the main character, Pug, moves between the two cultures and we get to see inside each. That was very refreshing, and I’ve always very much enjoyed the world-building there.
Does Discworld need defense? Certainly not. 25+ books, still going strong, which has made Sir Terry a pile of money the size of St. Paul’s. I came to this series later in life after seeing Pratchett do a reading in 2006. I fell instantly in love–the way he plays with all the fantasy tropes, deconstructs them in a flash of wit, and leaves you smiling. He applies Enlightenment values and analysis to a distinctly pre-Enlightenment genre. What’s not to love?