What to Read When You Tire of Tolkien

As a follow up to a former post, let me also make a few recommendations of books to read when you are in the mood for fantasy, but you DON’T want to read something in the mood or atmosphere of Professor Tolkien.

Being something of an old and backward curmudgeon, I will limit my recommendation to authors who went out of fashion before I was born. There are many fine and imaginative fantasists spinning their magical worlds into creation writing these days, more than an inattentive reader can count, and I will not trouble anyone by failing to select one over the other.

Here are my suggestions:

The Worm Ouroboros, E. R. Eddison

Lilith, George MacDonald

A Voyage to Arcturus, David Lindsay

The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle

The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany

The Well at the World’s End, William Morris

Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirrlees

Beyond the Fields We Know, Lord Dunsany

The Three Impostors, Arthur Machen

The Night Land, William Hope Hodgson

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, H. P. Lovecraft

Xiccarph, Clark Ashton Smith

The Island of the Mighty, Evangeline Walton

Deryni Rising, Katherine Kurtz

The Broken Sword, Poul Anderson

Red Moon and Black Mountain, Joy Chant

The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton

The People of the Mist, H. Rider Haggard

The Shaving of Shagpat, George Meredith

Vathek, William Beckford

Let me make a comment or two. First, an attentive reader will note that I do not repeat any authors.

This is not because Lord Dunsany (for example) only wrote one book worth reading, but only because I seek here to do no more than to introduce his work to those who unhappily have not hitherto made his acquaintance.

Likewise, I do not list sequels. if you read and enjoy what I recommend, it is easy enough for you to find the same author elsewhere.

Second, an attentive reader with the eyes of the hawk will notice I do not list anything by James Branch Cabell, albeit he is famed among older fantasists, and admired by many famous writers.

This is because I have not read him, and have no basis on which to make a recommendation for or against. However, those interested in non-Tolkienesque fantasy may wish to at least be aware of the name of James Branch Cabell, should curiosity prompt you to seek him out. I do know that Robert Heinlein admired him.

Third, an attentive reader with the eyes of the hawk and the spleen of a troll with notice I do not list anything by Mervyn Peake, albeit he is famed among older fantasists, and admired by many famous writers.

This is because I despise the work of Mr. Peake with an elemental loathing, and the LORD placed an enmity between my seed and his seed.  I cannot imagine why anyone considers the (not misnamed) Groan Trilogy a ‘fantasy’ in any way, since there is no fantastic element anywhere in the sludge that passes for a plot, or the autopsy of human degradation that passes for character, the turgid clot of wording that passes for text. The only thing even unusual in the tale is the size of the rotting castle Gormenghast, which means as freakshow, not phantasy. One might even call the work an anti-fantasy, that is, it takes place in a world not less mundane, ugly and petty than our own real world, but more. The work is scrofulous and obsessed with the grotesque. Avoid it. Flee it.

However, in all honesty, readers of fantasy who loath Tolkien all seem to love Peake. It may be to your taste. If so, may the Muse have mercy on your soul.

Fourth, an attentive reader with an encyclopedic memory and the wit of Sherlock Holmes will immediately deduce that all these books are from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series edited by Lin Carter.

This is because each book of that series is from near or before the days of Tolkien, and therefore has little or no influence from the same sources that influenced Tolkien. I do not believe there is a single elf or dwarf in the lot of them.

I owe Lin Carter a deep debt of thanks for the many happens hours spend in my youth wandering far beyond the fields we know in the worlds invented and forgotten by older authors, and saved from oblivion by Lin Carter.

I would be so bold as to say that the whole fantasy reading world owes him that debt. I sincerely doubt the work of Tolkien, standing in isolation like the final giant in a desolate plain of battle after the Ragnarok, could have produced the modern interest in fantasy fiction had not Lin Carter and a few other editors labored mightily to put the works of this hitherto scorn genre before the public eye.