15 Early Fantasy Reads that Defined the Genre (Before Tolkien)

Uncover the roots of fantasy literature with these 15 early fantasy reads. Journey through time and explore iconic works that shaped the genre, from Le Morte D’Arthur to The Princess and the Goblin. Delve into imaginative worlds and timeless tales that defined fantasy.

As a fantasy reader, you understand the allure of otherworldly realms, magical creatures, and grand adventures.

The genre has evolved over the years, with contemporary authors captivating us with their unique worlds and unforgettable characters.

But it’s also valuable to recognise and explore the roots of fantasy literature to appreciate the genre fully.

This blog post will take you on a journey through time, introducing you to 15 early fantasy reads that have shaped the course of the genre.

Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory

Published in 1485, Le Morte D’Arthur is a compilation of stories and legends about the legendary King Arthur, his knights, and their adventures. The stories are based on earlier legends and texts, and Thomas Malory’s retelling has become one of the most well-known and influential versions of the Arthurian tales.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

A timeless classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) tells the story of a young girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole and enters a strange, fantastical world. Lewis Carroll’s imaginative tale is filled with memorable characters and has captured the hearts of readers for generations.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Published in 1726, Gulliver’s Travels is a satirical adventure novel that follows the journeys of Lemuel Gulliver to various fantastical lands. While the story serves as a biting critique of the politics and society of Swift’s time, it also presents readers with an imaginative and engaging exploration of the unknown.

The Vampyre by John William Polidori

The Vampyre (1819) is a short story that is considered the first modern vampire tale. It introduces the character of Lord Ruthven, an aristocratic vampire, and has had a significant impact on the portrayal of vampires in literature and popular culture.

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

A groundbreaking work in the genre of Gothic fiction, The Castle of Otranto (1764) is a tale of supernatural events, romance, and suspense. This novel laid the groundwork for many elements of modern fantasy and horror stories.

The World’s Desire by H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang

This 1890 novel tells the story of Odysseus, a hero of Greek mythology, in a fantastical setting filled with magic, adventure, and romance. The World’s Desire combines elements of classical mythology and historical fiction to create an engaging and unique fantasy tale.

The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson

First published in 1912, The Night Land is a futuristic, dark fantasy novel set in a world where the sun has died, and humanity is on the brink of extinction. The story follows the protagonist’s journey through this nightmarish landscape, encountering terrifying creatures and supernatural occurrences.

Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice by James Branch Cabell

Jurgen (1919) is a satirical fantasy novel that explores themes of philosophy, religion, and morality. The story follows the titular character, Jurgen, as he embarks on a fantastical journey through various mythological realms.

The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris

This 1894 novel is one of the first modern fantasy works and has influenced many authors in the genre. The Wood Beyond the World tells the story of a medieval merchant who embarks on a quest to find a mysterious and magical land.

A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

Published in 1920, A Voyage to Arcturus is a philosophical science fiction novel that combines elements of fantasy and allegory. The story follows the journey of a man named Maskull, who travels to a distant planet to explore its unique cultures and landscapes.

The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison

This 1922 high fantasy novel follows the adventures of a group of heroes in a world filled with magic and intrigue. The Worm Ouroboros is known for its rich prose, complex characters, and detailed world-building.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany

Published in 1924, The King of Elfland’s Daughter is a classic fairy tale that explores themes of love, magic, and the nature of reality. This enchanting story has inspired generations of fantasy authors and readers.

The Dream-quest of Unknown Kadath by H.P. Lovecraft

This 1927 novella is a dark fantasy tale set in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. The story follows the protagonist, Randolph Carter, as he journeys through the Dreamlands, encountering strange creatures and ancient gods in his quest to find the mysterious city of Kadath.

The Virgin and the Swine by Evangeline Walton

Originally published in 1936, The Virgin and the Swine is a retelling of the Welsh Mabinogion, a collection of ancient Celtic myths. Walton’s novel weaves together elements of history, folklore, and fantasy to create a captivating story that has inspired countless modern fantasy works.

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

This 1872 children’s fantasy novel tells the story of Princess Irene and the young miner Curdie, who work together to save the kingdom from the menacing goblins that dwell beneath the earth. The Princess and the Goblin is a timeless tale of courage, friendship, and the power of faith.

The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser

An epic poem written in the 16th century, The Faerie Queene is an allegorical work that combines elements of romance, mythology, and fantasy. The poem follows the adventures of several knights as they embark on quests in the service of the Faerie Queene, representing various virtues and ideals.

These 15 early fantasy reads offer a fascinating glimpse into the origins of the genre and the imaginative worlds that have captivated readers for centuries.

By exploring these timeless tales, you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for the rich history and enduring appeal of fantasy literature.

What are your favourites?