Where would Shakespeare have been without fantasy — his spirits, his ghosts, and his proto-Orc Caliban, the misshapen villain of ‘The Tempest’? You can’t have Macbeth without the witches three.
Today, the final Harry Potter film released on DVD, and with it, the entertainment industry has finally realized that fantasy sells just as fast as sex and violence. After the Harry Potter franchise came to a close in theaters, movie producers huddled in boardrooms and tried to find their next blockbuster hit starring wands, beasts, and flashes of light. But in reality, fantasy has always been the guilty pleasure of the masses. We’ve just been quietly reading in our beds into the wee hours of the night – or attending Comic-Cons and role playing at Renaissance fairs and Star Wars conventions in discreet corners of the world, depending on your level of fandom.
But after stripping away all the costumes and cult followings, it all started with some characters and a story, and these are the best ones. In no particular order, enjoy.
1. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
As Susanna Clarke’s debut novel that took her ten years to write, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a masterpiece. An alternative version of history that takes place during the Napoleonic wars, Clarke’s novel is a cross between a historical war novel, a Jane Austen social satire, and fantasy. Centuries ago, magic existed throughout England and spells pervaded the countryside and cities, but the art slowly went extinct after the great magician John Uskglass disappeared. That is, until two men emerge to revive the English tradition of magic after centuries of stagnation, and show the British population they too have the ability to do magic, they have just forgotten how.
2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a teenage girl has lived on an island isolated from the rest of humanity with only her father, until a storm brings a shipwreck with plenty of sailors (full of sperm) on board. When Miranda sees all of the new men for the first time she exclaims, “O wonder! / How many goodly creatures are there here! / How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world / That has such people in’t!” This quote provides the climax for Aldous Huxley’s future dystopia novel (set in London AD 2540), when a young Shakespeare fan living on a “savage reservation” finally sees the modern outside world for the first time. A world where babies are grown in factories and engineered to have specific traits, where “mother” is a filthy curse word, the numb population takes government hallucinogens like candy, monogamy is forbidden, and being alone is feared.
3. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
There is something about Harry Potter that comforts fans to the series. When I think of reading Harry Potter, I imagine myself on a squashy couch by a crackling fire with a warm mug of tea and a pet curled up next to me with its head in my lap. Regardless of what people say about Rowling’s abuse of adverbs and lack of character development (or whatever criticisms you’ve heard or can think of), devoted fans grew up and matured along with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and will always identify the series as part of their childhood. It’s like a warm hug after playing tag in the rain. So does it matter to us that some literary critics and skeptics of children’s books scoff at the series? No. I know they haven’t tasted Honeydukes or plotted their next adventure in the Gryffindor common room. What matters is that thirty years from now I will still recognize it as a symbol of comfort and friendship, and could reference it in a conversation with a group of strangers of my generation, and some might smile in appreciation.
4. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
Sex, gore, violence, political intrigue, and more sex. “The American Tolkien” knows what sells (and so does HBO), and sometimes the magic is so few and far between that its easier to label A Song of Ice and Fire series as lusty medieval thrillers rather than fantasy novels. But when the magic does appear, Martin does it with showmanship. He does it with extinct dragons hatching from fossilized eggs, with dead people walking in the arctic, with ice demons melting from obsidian daggers, and with children possessing the minds of wolves. After the release of A Dance with Dragons this past July, only two more eagerly awaited books remain in this epic seven-part series.
Read the A Game of Thrones post.
5. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The thing that’s so perfect about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy is Tolkien’s aptitude for language, and this is why no fantasy world has ever resonated so completely as Middle Earth has, or ever will again. Before Tolkien became an author he worked on writing definitions of words for the Oxford English Dictionary, and his passion for Germanic etymology led him to translate famous works like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and produce a definitive “Middle English Vocabulary.” He became a professor at the University of Leeds, teaching linguistic courses on areas like Old Norse, Old Icelandic, Finnish, and Medieval Welsh. Somewhere in between he invented the beautiful script and grammatically elegant Elvish language, and created characters and places that all mean something to the trained eye. For example, King Theoden means “King king” and Gandalf means “wand elf” in Old Norse. Each species and landscape has its own complete voice, from the Ents to the fires of Mordor. Middle Earth drips with meaning, seeping into the roots of the trees and moistening the engraved halls of mountain chambers. Tolkien created an eloquent universe for our hungry eyes to translate.
*Block quote by Lev Grossman