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The Top 20 Greatest Fantasy Writers of All-Time

Find out who makes the cut.

By Tim Janson     April 10, 2009

 

Well after laboring on the Greatest Sci-Fi and Horror writers, I’ve finally turned my attention to my favorite genre, Fantasy! This was the most difficult list of all to do because fantasy’s lineage is so long and there are so many different sub-genres and I admit that in large part many of the authors on the list fall into more traditional veins of fantasy. 
 
Let me go over the usual criteria so no one feels to slighted if their favorite is not on the list. This isn’t just about the quality of the writer’s work. There are other factors I took into account such as the body of their work. I wanted the writers to have a substantial volume of work to their credit and that work had to be primarily in the fantasy field. Jack Vance wrote some great fantasies but he’s still thought of as more of a Sci-Fi writer. Other criteria included the importance of a writer’s work such as if they created enduring, unforgettable characters or stories, and their influence on other writers and popular culture.
 
With the growth of fantasy fiction over the past three decades, I’d say it’s a certainty that this is a list that will continue to change and evolve over the years to come, but for now, here is our top 20!
 
20. Katherine Kurtz -
 
 
Kurtz has almost quietly snuck onto the list at #20.  While her career has spanned forty years she still seems to be unknown by a lot of people.  Her greatest creation is the Deryni series which has been going strong since the first novel, Deryni Rising in 1970.  The Deryni world is one of the most realistic and well conceived medieval worlds in fantasy.  The five Deryni trilogies have been supported by numerous short stories and two reference books.  Besides the Deryni books she has so-written with Deborah Turner Harris the “Adept” and “Templar” series’.
 
 
19. R.A. Salvatore
 
 
When TSR first started publishing fiction novels based on Dungeons & Dragons, a lot of it was pure junk.  But one of the early stars was Bob Salvatore.  Is initial series, “The Icewind Dale Trilogy” captured the essence of D&D with its band of crusading heroes.  The series introduced Salvatore’s heroic Drow warrior Drizzt Do’ Urden.  Salvatore followed up the series with “The Dark Elf Trilogy” which took us back in time to see Drizzt’s birth and eventual excape from his malicious family and the other horrors of the Underdark.  With Drizzt, Salvatore has created an adventuring hero in the tradition of Swords & Sorcery characters like Conan and Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser. 
 
 
18. J.K. Rowling
 
 
Whether you are a Harry Potter fan or not, you simply cannot deny the enormous influence that Rowling’s books have had on popular culture within the last decade.  Potter has done more to get pre-teen and teens to read books than our school systems.  The Potter books are certainly the most influential fantasies since The Lord of the Rings.  She has introduced an entire generation to fantasy by making it something younger kids could relate to and enjoy.  The trick now will be to see if she can continue her success post-Harry Potter.  Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire won the 2001 Hugo award for best novel…beating out George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords no less.
 
 
17. David Eddings
 
 
David Eddings didn’t publish his first novel until he was 51 years old but what a splash it made!  Pawn of Prophecy was the first of a five book series called “The Belgariad”.  It was a typical quest story with the main character Garion being plunged into events that will culminate in him having to battle a mad God.  What set the story apart was that the characters were richly detailed and frankly, did not all get along with each other.  Eddings followed this series up with a five book sequel series called “The Mallorean” and these ten books represent some of the best-selling and most popular fantasies of the 1980s.  Eddings’ output somewhat slowed in the mid-90s although he returned with a new series “The Dreamers”.  His wife and writing partner, Leigh, passed away in 2007.
 
 
16. Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
 
 
Well you can’t have one without the other so I’m putting this well known duo together.  Weis and Hickman co-created the world of DragonLance and have co-authored numerous novels set within the world of Krynn.  By far the most popular and influential was the original series of four books:  Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night, Dragons of Spring Dawning, and Dragons of Summer Flame.  The pair would team again for several other fantasy series including “Dragonlance Legends”, “Darksword”, “Rose of the prophet”, “The Death Gate Cycle” and “Sovereign Stone”  Their most recent series is the “Dragon Ships” series beginning this year.
 
15. Marion Zimmer Bradley -
 
 
There would be no way to have this list without the legendary Marion Zimmer Bradley who is perhaps more responsible for attracting female fans and writers to fantasy than any other writer.  She created the Darkover series which has produced dozens of novels and short story collections written by Bradley as well as other writers and its still going strong today with several new books forthcoming.  Although it tended more towards Sci-Fi in the beginning, Darkover morphed more into fantasy with science elements over the years.  However, Bradley’s greatest triumph was her re-telling of the King Arthur legends in the “Avalon” series.  “The Mists of Avalon” related the Arthurian legends from the female point of view.  Several prequels followed and the series is being carried on today by Diana L. Paxson who co-wrote several Avalon books with Bradley before her passing in 1999.
 
 
14. Robert Jordan
 
 
To be honest, I only made it through the third book in Jordan ’s massive Wheel of Time series.  It wasn’t my cup of tea and I found it self-indulgent but you can’t deny it’s place in fantasy history.  Several books in the series have reached the #1 slot on the N.Y. Times bestseller list and the series has sold over forty million books.  Jordan basically created the mega-epic fantasy series that has continued with series like Terry Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth”.  When Tor began publishing a series of Conan the Barbarian pastiches, Jordan was at the forefront writing seven Conan novels. 
 
 
13. Lord Dunsany
 
 
His full name is Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany.  Dunsany was the epitome of the European adventurer.  He was an avid hunter and champion pistol marksman.  He served as a Captain during World War I before starting his literary career.  Dunsany was one of the most influential early fantasy writers.  Numerous future fantasy legends including Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Moorcock, David Eddings, and Neil Gaiman, all count Dunsany as a major influence on their work.  The King of Elfland’s Daughter written in 1924, is one of the early great works of modern high fantasy and was one of the first books published under Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy line in 1969.  Other great Dunsany works include: The Charwoman’s Shadow, The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories, and The Gods of Pegana (A major influence on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos).
 
 
12. Tanith Lee –
 
 
Lee is one of the most prolific writers of fantasy.  She has been nominated for two Nebula awards, ten World Fantasy awards (winning twice), and six British Fantasy awards (winning once).  Among her greatest works is the “Flat Earth Series” a layered world of men, gods, and demons.  Among the novels in this dark sorcery series are Night’s Master, Death’s Master, Delusion’s Master, and Delirium’s Mistress.  These books were a strong influence on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic series.  Some of her more recent series’ include “The Piratica Series” and “The Lion Wolf” series.  I personally think she is one of the most underrated writers in fantasy.  She is altogether unique.
 
 
11. George R.R. Martin
 
 
Some may think Martin should be higher on the list but I think I’m being pretty generous considering his output is so light, especially compared to most of the others on the list.  Martin started out as a Sci-fi writer and was perhaps best known as the editor of the long running Science Fantasy anthology series ‘Wild Cards”, to which Martin also contributed several stories.  But of course it was his “Song of Fire and Ice” series which escalated him to superstardom among fantasy fans.  The series is planned for seven volumes with four already being published although many fans have become disenchanted with the long wait between books.  Martin has been nominated for two Hugos and three Nebulas for Best Novel for the “Song of Fire and Ice” books, although he has yet to win.
 
10. Neil Gaiman
 
 
Gaiman took a different to becoming a top fantasy writer, getting his start in comic books.  Gaiman’s Sandman for DC/Vertigo comics was an imaginative, sprawling epic of dark fantasy.  Gaiman wrote the entire 75 issue run of the series that introduced a different version of the character but still tied it to the Golden Age crime fighter.   Gaiman wrote numerous other comic titles before turning his attention to novels.  His modern fantasy American Gods virtually swept the major genre awards winning the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Bram Stoker award as Best Novel.  Coraline won the Hugo and Nebula as Best Novella, and the Locus and Stoker awards for best Young Adult novel.  Most recently The Graveyard Book was awarded the Newbery Medal given to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.  At age 48, Gaiman is going to be a force to reckon with in the fantasy field for many years to come!
 
 
9. Terry Brooks
 
 
When Terry Brooks wrote The Sword of Shannara in 1977, he received a great amount of criticism for essentially copying Lord of the Rings.  Despite the similarities, Shannara was good, and became a best seller, in fact, becoming the first fantasy fiction novel to appear on The New York Times trade paperback bestseller list.  Brooks quickly showed that he was more than a Tolkien derivative by turning Shannara into a trilogy with Elfstones of Shannara and Wishsong of Shannara, and then into a full series with several other trilogies.  Brooks showed he could do more than high fantasy with the “Magic of Landover” and his modern fantasy trilogy “The Word and the Void”.  He has had 22 novels make the N.Y. Times bestseller list.  The original Shannara trilogy is currently in film development with Warner Bros.
 
 
8. Raymond Feist
 
 
Feist burst onto the fantasy scene in 1982 with “Magician”  the first book of the Riftwar Saga which, along with David Eddings’ Belgariad, were perhaps the two best fantasy series of the 1980s.  Feist infused traditional high fantasy with space/time elements for a unique blend of genres.  His debut series, “Riftwar Saga”, was one of the best fantasy series of the 1980s. Feist has gone on to publish seven more series within the Riftwar cycle, both returning to the original world of Midkemia, and exploring new Rift Wars. The latest series begins next month with Rides a Dread Legion.   Feist stepped out of traditional fantasy to write 1988’s modern fantasy Faerie Tale which was a great book and makes you wonder why Feist hasn’t re-visited the genre.
 
 
7. Roger Zelazny –
 
 
Passing away at just 58 years old, Zelazny left behind one of the most detailed and engrossing fantasy series ever written, “The Chronicles of Amber”. Zelazney successfully blended science and fantasy into an epic series as the Princes of Amber battle against the Court of Chaos. In all Zelazny wrote ten books and several short stories about Amber. After his death, a new Amber series was started but met with mostly negative reaction from fans and critics. Besides Amber, he wrote numerous other outstanding fantasies including his tales of Dilvish the Damned, the descendant of both Elves and humans who wages war against a powerful sorcerer while aided by a demon in the form of a metal black horse. During his career he won 6 Hugo Awards, 3 Nebula Awards, 2 Locus Awards.
 
 
6. Fritz Leiber –
 
 
Along with Robert E. Howard, Leiber was one of the godfathers of the Swords & Sorcery genre. His seminal characters Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, made their first appearance in the 1939 tale, “Two Sought Adventure”Leiber’s tales of the giant barbarian and the slippery thief would be collected into seven books consisting of some three dozens stories and one novel. “Ill Met in Lankhmar” which details the pairs first meeting won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. The stories have gone onto numerous comic book adaptations and even a RPG game. The pair would become the template for rousing adventure heroes for decades to come. If you can find a copy, Leiber’s 1947 short story collection Night’s Black Agents, is a great read. 
 
 
5. Michael Moorcock
 
 
Moorcock is perhaps the most diverse talent on this list, dabbling in music and songwriting in addition to his long literary career. Moorcock’s most beloved creation is Elric, the Albino Emperor of Melnibone. The anti-hero who possessed the soul-stealing sword known as Stormbringer has been the subject of several novels and short stories. What makes Moorcock unique is his Eternal champion multiverse where characters like Elric, Corum, Duke Dorian Hawkmoon, and the secret agent Jerry Cornelius are all incarnations of The Eternal Champion, who exists in various time periods. Over the years numerous of Moorcocks’ works have been adapted into comics format and an Elric film is supposedly in development at Universal Pictures. Moorcock has won a Nebula Award, six British Fantasy Awards, and a Bram Stoker Lifetime achievement award. 
 
 
4. Piers Anthony
 
 
Anthony is one of the most prolific writers around with over 100 novels to his credit in his forty year career. That would be about 300 years in George R. R. Martin time. Anthony’s most popular and longest running series is Xanth started in 1977. Anthony has written essentially one Xanth novel every year since then. The Xanth novels blend colorful characters with humorous plots that have managed to stay fresh for over three decades. Anthony would be on the list for Xanth alone but the lightning-fast writer has produced numerous other series including the eight book “Incarnations of Immortality” which deals with the living embodiments of beings such as Death, Fate, Time, War, Nature, Evil, Night, and Good. Anthony surprised fans by adding a new book to the series in 2007, seventeen years after the previous entry. 
 
 
3. Terry Pratchett
 
 
Like Anthony, Pratchett is the author of one of the most popular and long-running fantasy series, “Discworld”. Discworld, the fantasy/parody series where the flat world is balanced on the backs of four elephants which, in turn, stand on the back of a giant turtle, has seen 36 volumes since the first, The Colour of Magic, was published in 1983. Pratchett has sold over 55 million books and was the UK’s top-selling writer until displaced by J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books. The brilliantly original series has spoofed such writers and stories as Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, The Wizard of Oz, The Da Vinci Code, and even managed to slip in political barbs about Watergate. Over the years the Discworld books have been adapted into comics, computer games, role-playing games, and stage and Television productions. The Colour of Magic was adapted into a two-part British television film in 2008 and was shown in the U.S. on the Ion Network. 
 
 
2. Robert E. Howard
 
 
When I think about Howard, I think about what might have been had he not taken his own life with a bullet in the head at just thirty years old. How many more tales of Conan might he have written? What new characters would he have created? In a career that only last a little over a decade, Howard produced an unbelievable volume of work. Decades after his death, complete, and partially written stories would be discovered. Howard created some of the most popular characters in Swords & Sorcery: The Puritan adventurer, Solomon Kane in 1928; The Atlantean-Era savage King Kull; The Pictish King Bran Mak Morn and of course, the greatest character in the history of fantasy, Conan the Barbarian. 
 
Set within his pre-historic Hyborian Age, Conan ranks with James Bond, Dracula, and Tarzan as the most influential literary characters ever created. The character has appeared in hundreds of books and comic books. Numerous writers have taken their turn at writing Conan pastiches including Robert Jordan, Andrew J. Offutt, and harry Turtledove. Conan has been adapted into film, television, an animated series, video and computer games, and role-playing games. He’s been the subject of numerous action figure lines as well. 
 
Less known, but equally enjoyable. are his stories of World War I era adventurer and soldier of fortune Francis Xavier Gordon. Along the same lines is Irish treasure hunter Kirby O’ Donnell, and Indiana Jones type character. Howard was also an early contributor to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and wrote some of its finest tales including “The Black Stone”.  Howard is the only American writer in the Top 5 and he was an American original!
 
 
1. J.R.R. Tolkien -
 
 
It’s ironic that the person at the top of the list has produced the least amount of fantasy fiction but when that work is The Lord of the Rings, it’s kind of like hitting a homerun in the 7th game of the World Series in your only career at-bat. I think it’s reasonable to say that the Tolkien is responsible for creating more fantasy fans than any writer in history. He is still the gold standard despite modern attempts by some critics to dismiss his works. With over 150 million copies sold, only Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities has sold more copies in terms of works of fiction—and Dickens had a hundred year head start! When you toss in another 100 million plus copies for The Hobbit, we are talking staggering numbers. 
 
There are very few fantasy writers who have not been influenced, at least a little bit, by Tolkien. He didn’t invent the idea of epic fantasy and indeed, his good friend C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia came out before The Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien certainly perfected it. A professor of English language and literature, Tolkien was influenced by many sources for his works including Norse, Celtic, and Arthurian mythologies and his own devout Catholic philosophies. In fact, the Simarillion, Tolkien’s narrative history of Middle-Earth, really is his retelling of the Bible with Eru Ilúvatar as the One God/Supreme Being, and Melkor/Morgoth, his version of Satan, and the Maiar, i.e. Gandalf and other wizards, essentially being angels.
 
The influence of the Lord of the Rings on pop culture has been immense. Besides the fact that many popular fantasy writers of today like Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, David Eddings, and Dennis L. McKiernan have drawn heavily on Tolkien’s works, the books have been adapted into radio, television, animation, and film. Numerous video, computer, board, and role-playing games have been based on the books as well. The three recent film adaptations from New Line Cinema earned close to 3 BILLION dollars in the U.S. The “Hobbit” will be adapted into two films to be released in 2011 and 2012, and will be directed by Guillermo del Toro and LoTR director, Peter Jackson, serving as Executive Producer. 
 
Due to The Lord of the Ring’s incredible influence, Tolkien is unquestionably the choice at #1!
 
 
 
 
The hardest part to doing a list like this isn’t deciding who to keep in but who to leave off. In all honesty the last few names could have easily been exchanged for some of these honorable mentions:
 
 
 
Lloyd Alexander, author of The Chronicles of Prydain
L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz books
David Gemmell, author of the Drenai series
Dave Duncan, author of various series
Guy Gavriel Kay, author who assisted with the editing of The Silmarillion
C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia
Tim Powers, author of The Drawing of the Dark and The Fault Line Series
Christopher Stasheff, author of the Warlock of Gramarye and Wizard in Rhyme Series
Jack Vance, Author of the Dying Earth series
Karl Edward Wagner, author of the Kane novels
Lawrence Watt-Evans, Author of the Ethshar series

 

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

Showing items 1 - 10 of 55
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FBrigdon 4/10/2009 4:41:02 AM

That was a very well thought and interesting list. I know that you will catch flak from some about the names or the order or blah blah blah, but your list provides not only great suggestions for some readers but also some good food for thought.

 

Thanks!

Hobbs 4/10/2009 5:17:08 AM

All kinds of problems with this list but nothing to do with the order (except a few) but more to do with who you left off in place of who you put on...NO WAY SALVATORE should be on this list vs. who you left off.  You lost a lot of credit with me on that. He is the wrorst F'ing writer in the history of writers but hey, his art work for his books is cool!   Will be more specific later on who should have been kept over him and trust me the number is LARGE! 

almostunbiased 4/10/2009 6:23:57 AM

On a side nota though some what fitting, Dave Arneson died.  He worked with Gary Gygax to create Dungeon and Dragons.  I'd say that's fantasy writing, so I thought I'd add it here.  Very clever man.

almostunbiased 4/10/2009 6:32:45 AM

Oh and enjoyed this list though I don't read a lot of fantasy.  I'm not sure why since Lord of the Rings is my favorite story of all time.  I guess I just enjoy false history and Sci-Fi better for a book.  Though to be honest I haven't given fantasy as much of a chance.  I did love D&D though.

TayDor 4/10/2009 6:35:31 AM

Eddings?  Really?  What a hack.  The Belgariad...a bunch of books that repleat the same plot elements over and over.  "the world's a cycle." for an explanation as to why he's a hack and can't come up with better plots.

 

And yes, the Sword of Shannara was a total rip off of LOTR,

killerville 4/10/2009 6:55:55 AM

I assume we're using this space to offer alternatives?

OK so Stephen King deserves to be SOMEWHERE on the list. Rowling deserves to be higher, as she has introduced a whole new generation not only to fantasy, but to the written word in general.

Pratchett Higher than Gaimen? Whatevers...

And Stephen R Donaldson doesnt even make the honorable mentions list? What?

I think putting Tolkien at #1 is akin to all of the lists that have "Citizen Kane" as the greatest movie ever made. Its safe and generally agreed upon by all fans.

LittleNell1824 4/10/2009 8:02:52 AM

And yet, it shouldn't be safe to put Tolkien at #1. You can call it sour grapes if you like, but 3 dimensional women only entered Tolkien's universe through Peter Jackson. Not to mention that a lot of people don't actually enjoy reading Tolkien. They love that other authors are inspired by Tolkien, but they prefer to read those authors instead. That's right, I just mentioned the elephant in the room. I'm not saying he's not a great mythologist, or that his series isn't iconic. Maybe he should be the sponsor of the list instead of on it because it's too hard to place something so inspiring and yet ultimately not completely satisfying.

NDorado 4/10/2009 9:58:36 AM

Okay, here are two big ones that you missed that should be on your list or at least mentioned in the "also-rans" --

1.  Harlan Ellison

2.  Tad Williams

Carry on.

Hobbs 4/10/2009 10:31:37 AM

I haven't finished throwing up from seeing Salvatore on this list.   Tim, you give that piece of crap way too much credit...to even mention Conan in the same breath as Salvatore is a huge insult.   How he could be on the list over Lewis or even MCCaffrey (who isn't even on your also mentioned) is beyond me.  I'm guessing you were a fan because other than the art work to his books he works shouldn't even be mentioned.  I could name writer after writer but it would be a waste of breath. 

LittleNell, you have a valid point but like all novels it comes to taste (see above) and to me Tolkien deserves to be number one because without him we wouldn't be talking about a 20 greatest fantasy writers of all time.  I would take into consideration your point about sponsor of the list but being one of the people that was blown away by his books, how rich and creative they were, I think number one is perfect for him.  I can understand young people in the future not being that high on Tolkien because there is so much else out there and his writing style is becoming dated but he will always be King.

tjanson 4/10/2009 10:57:45 AM

Hobbs...let me say right off the bat that I figured Salvatore would be the most controversial and least popular name on the list.  But again, I think he's had a tremendous impact over the past 15 - 20 years, particularly with the popular D&D inspired fiction.  The original Dark Elf Trilogy detailing Drizzts excape from the Underdark was very good.

Someone mentioned Harlan Ellison.  Ellison made my list of top Sci-Fi writers.  As mentioned, I wanted the bulk of a writer's work to be in the fantasy genre.  Tad Williams should have made the honorable mentions...oversight on my part.

As far as Donaldson, boy that's a sore subject with me and we discussed Donaldson before on the boards...I found the Thomas Covenant stuff to be brutally boring and a lot of people agreed.  Same holds for Terry Goodkind which is why he is no where to be found.

Really, the writers I'd love for people to discover if they haven't already are Tanith Lee, Fritz Leiber, and Dunsany.

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