After finishing Tolkien and Lewis, a lot of people wonder where to go from The Lord Of The Rings or The Chronicles Of Narnia. You can descend into the miasma of post-Tolkien fantasy, which has its high points and its low points. Terry Brooks’ early Shanarra books almost did it for me, and I have heard good things about Robert Jordan’s almost interminable Wheel Of Time series, but I haven’t read it. The best post-Tolkien books for my money are Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books and, unfortunately, Phillip Pullman’s series, His Dark Materials. Post-Tolkien fantasy literature either tends to be very derivative (as Brooks’ earlier books were) or dark in their metaphysics (as Pullman and Rowling)
The Good Stuff, the Afghan Blond of Fantasy Literature, is the pre-Tolkien material, the stuff that was written since the late Victorian age and into the ‘fifties, when Fantasy was very much a minority taste. Here is a sampling from that era.
Lud-In-The-Mist by Hope Mirrlees. This is the overlooked gem of the 20th Century. Hope Mirrlees was an Edwardian heiress whose only production was this little gem. Set in the comfortable and oh-so-respectable Whig utopia of Dorimare, this book is for the inner Jacobite in all of us.
Governed by her prosperous commercial oligarchy, Dorimare doesn’t lament the Revolution that overthrew her fairy aristocracy some 300 years ago. Master Chanticleer, one of the leading families in the capital of Dorimare, is enjoying a calm and well-ordered life until his son is accused of that most horrifying of crimes, eating fairy-fruit….
The Worm Oroboros by E.R. Eddison. I believe this book may be out of print. That would be a shame. In the first few years after the initial success of The Lord Of the Rings, a lot of fantasy was published by Ballantine, and this was one of them.
E.R. Eddison’s Spencerian sympathies makes English sound like one of Tolkien’s Elvish languages. His names are wonderfully evocative (the protagonists Spitfire, Goldry Bluszco, and Brandoch Daha) and the exploits are all of a heroic cast. Fair ladies, treacherous villains, noble knights, and heroic self sacrifice abound.
Really, the plot isn’t that inventive if you’ve read Beowulf, Malory, or Gawain And The Green Knight, but the sheer shimmering beauty of Eddison’s wordsmithery is certain to pull you in and carry you through.
Voyage To Arcturus by David Lindsay This is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, and for sheer imagination, it tops them all. Linday is the only writer in this or any other genre who ever attempted to describe a new primary color or different media of perception spawned by the numerous new sense-organs the protagonist grows and discards as he progresses through the landscapes of Tormance.
Lindsay’s metaphysics are difficult to parse. I found the ending unsatisfying after being enchanted by the rest of the book. I have heard him referred to as a “triply-distilled Calvinist”, but I never saw that. For someone whose book is awash in sensory data, his denouement is austere and ascetic. I know I’m not the only person who enjoyed this book, as I have met a young woman named Joiwind.
It would be close to a capital crime not to mention the work of clairvoyant Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, although he is not thought of as a fantasist. It would be hard to recommend any one of his books over the others, and since most of his published books are anthologies of his shorter works, I really don’t have to.
I enjoyed Fictions, The Book Of Sand, and Labyrinths. Borges is one Spanish writer who translates well into English, since he was bilingual and spent a lot of time in English-speaking countries. The creepiest story of his I have ever read is Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius which, if it is “about” anything is about the emergence of Berkeleyan ideal world into ours, piece by coin by candleabra.