Top 25 Best Pre-Tolkein Fantasy Books

Fantasy Before Tolkien
Best Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Books (Fantasy Before There was a Fantasy genre)

When writing any list detailing the best pre-Tolkien fantasy it is difficult, to say the least. 

I started creating this list quite easily...then the questions began: 

How do you determine what belongs and what doesn't? 

How far back in time is appropriate? There's no denying The Iliad was influential… but should it be on this specific list?

If the people reading and writing the story believed it to be true – then can we call it fantasy? 

This leads from the question before – If The Iliad was telling the stories of the Greek Gods, how can we decide that it is now Fantasy? Maybe it belongs with Religious Works (That's a WHOLE separate, scandalous and potentially world-ending debate – let's just move on, shall we?)

So the decision was made – and it could be quite an arbitrary decision at that – to include only the novels that influenced the Fantasy Genre as we know it now. 

By “influenced”, I mean those books that shaped the fantasy genre that we are reading today. Books that, like pieces of an interlocking puzzle seem weird and, when released as stand-alone stories, were certainly a little out of place.

Yet once they start connecting with their counterparts… something begins to take shape. Influence is a funny thing… sometimes influence is only recognized a long time after the fact.

Here are the books that I feel shaped and guided the genre towards what it has become today. These books inspired our literary grandfathers and introduced the world to a different type of storytelling. 

Each book has one little component, one puzzle piece, that a reader will pick up and say “aah! I recognize that” It could be a concept, a stereotype, a style of writing or even a plot line. 

What that puzzle piece is, does not really matter (who cares what a puzzle piece looks like on its own) but what becomes so obvious is that without that piece, our world of fantasy would be lacking.

Here is my selection for the 25 most influential Fantasy Novels pre-Tolkien (note: The Iliad undoubtedly belongs on this list!).


Make sure to check out our other Best Fantasy Decade Lists:

Best Early Modern Fantasy (Fantasy during Tolkien's era)

Best Fantasy Books of the 60's

Best Fantasy Books of the 70's (fantasy finds complexity)

Best Fantasy Books of the 80's (the golden age)

Best Fantasy Books of the 90's (contemporary fantasy)

The King of Elfland's daughter tells the tale of a human prince who is dispatched by his father to woo and wed the elf princess of a mystical land.Why it's on the listLord Dunsany created a world that featured a few set pieces that every modern sword and sorcery author tends to include in their own works. Magic Kingdoms with strange and unearthly residents; A dashing and courageous prince with a magic sword; unicorns that only ever graze near haunted and eery forests and even the stereotypical bumbling and slightly comedic troll. What would modern fantasy be without these? In actual fact, these set pieces (with a few minor tweaks) make up some of the most captivating scenes of a certain novel written by J.K. Rowling…Lord Dunsany is known for guiding us all out of the traditional fairy tale type narratives, and into what would become High Fantasy. At times poetic, soulful, light-hearted and sorrow-filled, this book is a wonderful way to gain an understanding of what was (fairy tales) and what fantasy becomes (high fantasy, sword, and sorcery with epic but flawed heroes).The way the King of Efland's Daughter explores the marriage of a mortal man and an elf princess: her yearning for home, his endless quest to return to the arms of his beloved, and the ensuing fallout from all these adventures, make for an entertaining read. More importantly, it highlights how fantasy can be a powerful tool for exploring the human condition.Read if you likeWorld Building and Quests.
Considered by some to be the Iliad of heroic fantasy, the worm Ouroboros explores the history of a great war between 2 kingdoms on a distant, isolated world. Why it's on the list The name of the book references an ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail, which has come to symbolize the cyclical nature of life. As you read the story, the meaning behind the name becomes clear. But the concept of Ouroboros has influenced many modern authors, Robert Jordan being among them. medieval, sometimes Norse, sometimes Arthurian, this book weaves a tale of heroic fantasy that very few authors have ever been able to match. The Worm Ouroboros' story features great battles on earth and sea, hazardous quests, doomed traitorous minions, stately villains and equally heroic main characters. While it is not an easy read, with its Shakespearean English, the book is definitely worth the effort since it shines a light on heroic fantasies origins, and sets a bar that has yet to be exceeded. The book was also one of the first fantasy novels to include an appendix with a historical timeline of events pertaining to the story. Read if you like Heroic Fantasy.
This classic is written in a similar manner as Brother's Grimm and is a magical fairy tale about an independent, yet innocent, eight-year-old princess who discovers that her mysterious great-grandmother lives in the attic. What she doesn't know is that she is in continuous danger from the Goblins that live underground. Why it's on the list As the title may hint, this is a story in the same vein as The Goose Girl or Jack and The Beanstalk. As the title may also hint - there's a goblin and there's a princess. What makes the story so special is the imagery and stunning use of a child's point of view through the narrative. MacDonald has interwoven elements of mythology and religion so deftly into this enchanting story that it is truly a delight to read. Read if you like Fairy-tales. To be reminded that courage, trustworthiness and love are virtues for a reason.
Conan – the name conjures up images of swords, bare chests, sweat, blood and lots of furs (like a non-campy version of Dolf Lungren's He-Man). It's hard to believe that Conan is more than 100 years old.Howard created the world around his central character Conan. While Conan is titled as a barbarian we get to see a deeper side to him as the stories progress. He is supposed to be a barbarian but is also a linguist, strategist, charmer, thief, and king (eventually). The fact that the character is depicted in spectacular prose just makes the story even more memorable. Why it's on the list These books are a vital read for any lover of fantasy. Ignore what you have seen on TV and in comic books – Howard's Conan is a unique and memorable story. At times brooding, bloody, sincere or just funny, these stories are beautifully written. Howard's style of writing is so perfectly detailed that you very quickly get sucked in for the ride.Howard did something that Tolkien later would perfect. Building a world around his characters. He added an appendix called "The Hyborean Age" to many of his stories as a way to create some additional depth to Conan's universe and thereby give it a deeper sense of authenticity. What this means to us as readers, is that Howards world gets deeper as you read and it becomes even easier to engross yourself.Robert E. Howard's character inspired a whole host of authors with this new "sword and sorcery" style of storytelling. Stephen King said, "Howards writing seems so highly charged with energy that it nearly gives off sparks"Read if you likeClassic sword and sorcery. To know the real character behind the movies.

Books in Conan The Cimmerian Series (2)

Weird Tales had a seminal impact on Fantasy and Science Fiction. First published in March 1923, it was a pulp magazine aimed at readers who would enjoy "the weird, the bizarre, the unusual" and other topics that the more mainstream fiction magazines tended to avoid.Why it's on the listThe timing of the Weird Tales magazines could almost be seen as fate. For the first time in American History, more people lived in cities than rural areas. They had more money to spend and were exposed to national advertising campaigns for the first time. Weird Tales came at a time when people were not just getting used to being exposed to new ideas and new things, they were actively pursuing it. Jazz, Television, Flight – the 20's was a time of excitement. What can be more exciting for a young reader than exploring stories of ghosts, fairies and other bizarre tales?Thanks to this serendipitous situation, Weird Tales has had, arguably, the greatest impact on fantasy writing since Homer decided to tell his little stories. The timing of the first publication was during the height of the pulp magazine craze, and the Weird Tales series of magazines was, at the time, the most effective way for a new author to reach a mass audience. Thousands of young adults were very suddenly exposed to this world of fairy tales, horror and the bizarre. This influx of readers made it possible for authors to gain a following, and some experience, before releasing their own standalone novels.Weird Tales was, therefore, instrumental in giving a forum to a young, new generation of writers who wanted to explore more "highly imaginative" stories. Some of the fantasy's most celebrated authors got their start in Weird Tales, and reading an edition of Weird Tales is an excellent way of gaining an understanding into how the craft and genre so rapidly developed.Read if you likeShort stories, genre-crossing.
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are the titular characters of a collection of sword-and-sorcery stories. Originally they were created as more human counterpoints to larger than life characters like Tarzan and Conan.characters are opposites in many senses of the word, with Fafhrd being a tall, skilled barbarian, and the Mouser being a short, mercurial thief with just a little bit of magic. While they may seem completely opposite, they share a bond that manifests itself in their drinking, feasting, wenching, brawling, stealing, gambling and many adventures.Why it's on the listThe style of writing and the level of detail in the world makes this a thoroughly enjoyable read. What is more remarkable is the combination of the two characters. They are truly unique. On one side the formidable and powerful barbarian fighter, and the sharp, sly apprentice wizard who is also a thiefâ¦but from page one they come to life with so many layers that you can easily forget these are simply fantasy characters.Read if you likeThe original "buddy cop" dynamic.
The Broken Sword tells the story of a human baby stolen at birth and raised by elves. It is a rock-solid bit of writing and a truly fantastic dark fantasy that borrows quite strongly from the myths and legends of the Nordic races. This story is set in a time when the Old Norse Gods still walked the earth, and elves made sure to control their own corner too. Why it's on the list While there are countless excellent authors who can write epic fantasy or hard sci-fi – there are very few who can do both. Poul Anderson was amongst the greatest speculative fiction authors. Thanks to a broad knowledge of Nordic myths, a far-reaching interest in old and dead languages and a degree in physics, Anderson was able to create a true fantasy and sci-fi classic. Read if you like Nordic Mythology. Released at a similar time as Tolkien's novels. This is an excellent example of how similar, yet completely different a Nordic/Romantic/Dark fantasy type book can be.
The Wood Beyond The World was considered, by Morris himself, to be a revival of medieval chivalrous romances. The story shadows a young man – Walter who leaves his unfaithful wife and his father and sails off into the sunset seeking love, adventure, and happiness. Why it's on the list The Wood Beyond The World is possibly the earliest modern fantasy to combine the supernatural with a fantastically imagined world. The sheer brilliance with which he creates this world became an inspiration for many other writers, like C.S. Lewis and Tolkein. These legendary writers consider Wiliam Morris' work to be foundational, and they credit Morris with showing them how High Fantasy world-building should be done. Read if you like Medieval folklore. Faerie romance/fantasy. The trail of influence on Tolkien.
This is one of those books that if you give any plot lines – you give away the story. Suffice it to say that this dark and enticing set of stories are perfectly written and are an excellent way of getting to know Lovecraft, whose influence on literature and pop culture has spread far and wide.Why it's on the listWhile most would consider H.P. Lovecraft to be a horror writer, many of his works also had an element of fantasy. Lovecraft's work explored the dark edges of human consciousness. He was a master of creating anticipation, with his stories slowly building suspense, until we are so spellbound that every page, and word, become a frightful, dark and thoroughly enjoyable experience. The Call of Cthulu is a riveting and well-written introduction to Lovecraft's art and is highly recommended for anyone looking to get a first taste of his universe.Read if you likeDark Fantasy. Any Lovecraft lovers have to read this.
This classic is the Arthurian tale standard by which modern iterations are measured. Or blatantly ripped off ('cough' Disney 'cough'). While the first section is a bright and comical depiction of Arthur as a familiar young orphan called the Wart, the novel becomes increasingly dark and dismal as the golden age of Camelot crumbles. White takes age-old questions and dresses them in Old English folklore, creating a thought-provoking rendition of a legend with which we are all familiar. He pokes fun at our modern day mess, as well as the typical foibles of human nature to which none of his heroes is immune with flippant anachronistic references throughout. Despite the ease with which even the most noble fall, there is a kindness in the way they are each so relatable, even the baddies. The cast is so well written, and the prose so enjoyable it's one of those volumes that can be re-read annually and still retain its impact.

Books in The Once And Future King Series (6)

Jirel of Joiry was a character that featured in a series of short stories in Weird Tales. Ruling her own fictional kingdom somewhere in medieval France, her stories usually revolve around her quests to take revenge on the supernatural forces who would either slight her or threaten her kingdom.Why it's on the list The concept of a strong, female character is nothing new for us enlightened children of the new millennium. Think Lara Croft, Hermione, Xena (Yes, I can't believe I referenced Xena here either!). But in the 30's a heroic woman who doesn't need a man to protect her was groundbreaking. The fact that this woman was always off on adventures in alternate planes of existence and in other realms, made her character just that much more interesting.Jirel was the archetypal undefeatable swordswomen, with her armor, sword and anger-filled clashes with all things paranormal. She was tough, arrogant, attractive, skilled with the sword, but at the same time C.L. Moore created a character that was able to reflect on her actions and learn from failures and mistakes.Any book from the 20's or 30's that features a character who is bad-ass enough to gain the respect of her male fans, yet sentimental and introspective enough to appeal to the ‘fairer sex', deserves to be acknowledged for its contributions to fantasy and speculative fiction.Read if you likeGirl power, sword and sorcery, female characters, female authors.
Dracula will always reign as the true master vampire, the one creature in horror and fantasy who can simultaneously seduce and terrify. And don't let yourself think this is an archaic story just because the novel was published in 1897. It still hits home even now in a way no other author has yet to match. Dracula still remains the greatest vampire novel of all time. Why it's on the list Dracula belongs a little on the edge of fantasy, having more of dark romance, horror fantasy as its themes. However, it's undeniable that this book had a huge impact on pop culture and literature. Bram Stoker managed to create a literary giant that is possibly the most pervasive of all characters in the history of fiction. While it cannot be overly analyzed (the story reflects 19th-century views on love, horror, and suspense), it is still a book that every fantasy lover should have on their shelf. Remember that even though this was not the first vampire story, every one of our modern vampire authors derives the basis of their characters from this single iconic figure. Read if you like Vampires, horror and dark romance. Before deciding that Vampires sparkle and are basically good – read Dracula.
A story that needs no introduction! The classical tale of Alice, who falls down a rabbit hole and into Wonderland. Filled with nonsense rhymes, songs, and puns, this is a 150-year-old story that is as entertaining today as it has ever been. Why it's on the list The story is timeless and this novel is an amusing and delightful read for any age. Lewis Carroll found delightful ways to take nonsensical events and connect them in ways that made perfect sense, all while revealing the most curious nature of children. Reading Carroll's work makes your imagination dance, sing and cry out in pleasure. Read if you like It's Alice in Wonderland. You have to read it!
Another book that needs no introduction. While it is not quite the same as the movie, the key pieces are there. Dorothy caught in a storm. An ensemble cast on an epic adventure. Each character having their own mini-adventures along the way. The final truth - that sometimes what you seek most is actually within you, just waiting to reveal itself – as appropriate even today. Why it's on the list This story is written in a time when things were simpler. We knew who was good, who was bad, and everything was just a few degrees more innocent. Baum is able to create a story that skips along at a perfect pace, and no scene nor description is deep enough to slow the narrative down. Read if you like Oz is very similar to Alice in Wonderland in that the main character escapes to a different place, discovers the kind of person they truly are, and then returns to their lives with new purpose.
What can I say to introduce a character as renowned as Peter Pan? Originally Peter Pan was an ensemble character in "The Little White Bird". Eventually, Peter Pan grew up a little (he was an infant and became a young boy) and Barrie created a highly successful play entitled, "Peter Pan or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up". Barrie's play ran for almost 10 years, during which time a children's novel was written based on some extracted chapters from The Little White Bird. The story we all are familiar with is titled "Peter and Wendy" and while Peter Pan seems to spring from the pages larger than life – in truth he was a character that was developed and perfected over the course of a decade. Why it's on the list The messages that Peter Pan shows us are lessons that all children (and adults!) need to learn. Escaping, as a child, to neverland is fantastical and wondrous, but eventually, we all need to grow up. Growing up has nothing to do with age – we "grow up" when we stop believing in our dreams. And the last life lesson that Peter Pan teaches us? After a life of fairies, pirates, love, singing, dancing, and sword fights – after a life filled with adventure - death waits for us all. But instead of seeing this as a little morbid and sad – Barrie has one last thought, "To die would be an awfully big adventure". Read if you like A light-hearted story that will let your imagination run wild and set your inner child free.
Lud-in-the-Mist is one of the genuinely overlooked classics, a striking piece of fantasy that, for almost 100 years, has been ignored and forgotten. Amazingly, when reading it, you wouldn't realize its age. The book has a timeless feel to it, as though it doesn't quite belong in our world. Which is the whole point of the book – telling the story of a little town, surrounded by all things Fairy, yet denying the very things that make it such a unique and special place. The story is a thoroughly enjoyable little tale about a murder mystery, amusing townspeople, and otherworldly yet dangerous fairy. Why it's on the list This book is classic fantasy. The characters start off in the "normal" world, and then go off to a mystical world and interact with fantastical creatures and events. What makes Lud-in-the-Mist so entrancing is the way it is written and how the characters all still work - even today. Read if you like Murder mystery. British fairy lore.
Beowulf is the oldest surviving long poem, written by an anonymous poet. It is acknowledged as being one of the most important works in English literature. Beowulf tells the story of a monster named Grendel and his mother. After terrorizing villages in what is now Scandinavia, the titular hero arrives to confront and defeat the monsters. The legend of Beowulf is not just about the story itself. The actual poem has been consciously restored and renewed hundreds of times for the last thousand years. What makes this poem so persistent, is that each successive generation prizes it and ensures its ultimate survival. The fact that it is still in print, despite a thousand years of culture and language changes, makes the manuscript itself a mystical legend. Why it's on the list While we know the overarching story - young hero comes to town to slay the terrible monsters - Beowulf is unique. The singsong rhythm of the story makes it hypnotic. The stunning language and glimpses of old Anglo-Saxon culture just add to the mesmerizing effect. Beowulf is classic literature for a reason. It's got everything: loyalty, courage, bravado, death, and, of course, mythical monsters. There are some great lessons you can take away from this book at various times in your life that will change as your circumstances and wisdom changes. Read if you like Superheroes. They are seen everywhere, but if you want to read about the greatest hero in history, check this out. If we ever had a clash between Hercules and Beowulf… Hercules would find himself completely outmatched.
This cautionary tale of morals, psychology, and poetic justice has become one of the greatest fantasy and horror works in recent history. After a young man makes a Faustian wish, he discovers that he will remain forever young and in his prime. What he only later realizes is that a portrait made of him reflects the stains and ravages that his hedonistic lifestyle has caused. Written in 1890, this social criticism is still relevant today (maybe especially so with our obsession over reality TV, fashion, and beauty). Oscar Wilde has created a story that resonates with us all. We would all love to live forever. But would we feel the same way if we had a constant reminder of what our lifestyle make us "truly" look like? The book is witty, philosophical and completely entrancing. The Picture of Dorian Gray makes us all look just that little bit closer at our lives. How important are youth and beauty? Is living forever truly something we all should want? Read if you like It's Oscar Wilde. There are so many layers to this novel.
Gulliver's Travels tell the story of a shipwrecked sailor who finds himself on an island full of little people. Gulliver has many adventures along the way with a host of different and fantastical peoples. This is a book that uses fantasy and allegory to discuss the shortcomings of Swift's native England. A wonderful story written by an author who some claim to have been the first political satirist.Why it's on the listThis book can be read and enjoyed by children as simply a tale of tiny people, giants, yahoos and other creatures. But at a deeper level, there is so much more going on. Swift's satire shows us an uncompromising view of our society. Politics, religion, culture, and education all get poked and prodded by Swift until we are forced to learn and change. As a short and simple book to read it is a delight. As a satirical commentary on Western Civilization, there is a lot more for us to consider.Read if you likeAdventure. Satire.
Arguably Shakespeare's best-known comedy, A Midsummers Night's Dream contains a tremendous amount of fantasy, romance, and folly. The story concerns itself largely with four individuals who, while entwined in a love triangle, eventually discover that their own wishes are as nothing, when under the influence of fairies of the forest. Why it's on the list This is definitely the most fantastical of Shakespeare's work. It is filled with fairies, spells, love potions and romantic confusion. When reading the play, you feel like you are in a dream. It is no coincidence that Shakespeare has influenced every literary writer for the last 500 years. He creates a story that entrances and repels, that is deep and considerate while seeming light and airy. William Shakespeare manages to stimulate the imagination of the reader or spectator by fantastic contrasts and the creation of an exotic fairy world. Read if you like Shakespeare. Theatre and plays.
Aladin, Sinbad, Genies, Flying Carpets, Ali Baba… One Thousand and One Nights has left us with some enduring characters. The European version was first introduced (in French) in 1707. For most of the people of the time, this was the first real taste of the fables and mythology of the East. Wildly influential on people like Tolstoy, Wells, Lovecraft and a veritable who's who of modern authors.Why it's on the listThis collection of stories is an excellent counterpoint to Grimm and Anderson. By reading the 3 collections back to back you will be able to gain an interesting perspective on the morality, fables and culture of both east and west.Interestingly, these stories are not looked upon kindly by Eastern scholars – they find them badly written, childish and truly fit only for women and children. The stark difference between this view and the way in which Western authors have embraced the stories is in itself a wonderful commentary on the difference between East and West. At times misogynistic, confusing and always magical – One Thousand and One Nights is a much-recommended read.Read if you likeEastern fables. Classic childhood stories.
This thrilling adventure story is jammed with as much true fantasy as any other writers 3 book series. It's such a pity that this book is not praised more. The story revolves around a British man who is carried away into a fantasy world where evil and good are trapped together on a ship. To explore too deeply into this plot now would not be fair for anyone who has never read it. All you need to know is that this is a romantic, brilliant, sexy and heroic adventure tale. Why it's on the list This is classic pulp fantasy at its finest! An easy read, telling the stories of Babylonian deities and the endless battle between light and dark, this book can't be analyzed and researched too deeply. It is, however, perfect for a reader to devour while curled up in a chair. The Ship of Ishtar is universally acclaimed as a classic of the fantasy novel genre. Read if you like Classic pulp adventure novels.
If C.S. Lewis and Tolkien say that Macdonald is their master and that they build on his foundation in every story they write… The Complete Fairy Tales must be a seminal read. His stories are full of weird creatures, magical women, golden keys and dreamy atmosphere, but they're also, unlike the later stories by Lord Dunsany, more grounded and traditionally fairy-tale like. The Complete Fairy Tales is an excellent selection of short stories and is definitely for fans of fantasy and fairy tales. Why it's on the list This is an exceptional compilation from an exceptional writer. Put simply – C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Madeleine L'Engle all consider George Macdonald to be a master storyteller and the "Grandfather of all of us who struggle to come to terms with truth through fantasy". MacDonald's stories are full of imagination and wonder. This sense of wonder is exactly what modern fantasy writers try to do. It isn't enough anymore (has it ever been enough?), to just write a drab old fantasy story. A true fantasy narrative is one where the readers submerge their own selves into the adventure and BECOME the story. George Macdonald showed modern authors exactly how this is best achieved. Read if you like: An interesting subtext. To understand what inspired the great authors. Fairy-tales. To be reminded that courage, trustworthiness and love are virtues for a reason.
Gripping listeners and readers for more than 2 700 years, The Iliad is the story of the Trojan War and Achilles. Written by an author we call Homer, both books have been translated into English many times over many years, and into numerous other languages as well. Not surprisingly there is a vast multitude of opinions and disagreements about the quality of the translations. Why it's on the list Both books teach readers lessons from our forgotten past – and show us how men and women should live their lives. Both stories have a combination of everything a modern adventure thriller needs: monsters, gore, violence, scheming deities, strange lands, lust, revenge, deception, honor, and heroes. The biggest realization you will have after reading these books? Regardless of how our culture and technology has evolved – the human condition is still the same. Readers will laugh, cry and rage at the same events. We will sympathize and empathize with everything that happens during the Trojan War and Odysseus' journey home. Basically, after 3 000 years, we are still the same. Read if you like Greek mythology. One of the greatest stories of all time.
First of all – I'm not talking about the Disney version here. I'm talking about the real Grimms Fairy Tales – filled with rape (Sleeping Beauty), murder (Pinocchio), self-mutilation (Cinderella) and torture (Snow White). It was originally called Children's and Household's Tales but the original German Fairy Tales are commonly known to English audiences as Grimm's Fairy Tales.Why it's on the listFor more than 200 years, Grimm's Fairy Tales has been the way we are all introduced to good and evil, and right and wrong. But at the same time, the stories blurred those lines. Sometimes the hero or heroine dies. Sometimes the evil witch wins. Good things can happen to bad people, and sometimes the end justifies the means. These lessons are key to what keeps bringing us back to fantasy time and again. The flawed hero, the evil and powerful nemesis. Clothes, items or a person with mysterious powers… these are all staples of the fantasy genre.These fairy tales taught us to appreciate the trials and tribulations of the protagonist and we all feel a little guilty when rooting for the bad guy. Even the most modern fantasy writers are simply exploring the boundaries of these simple truths we learned as children. Note: Grimms fairy tales was initially deemed inappropriate for young children. It became such an issue that the brothers Grimm were forced to release a ‘sanitized' children's version.Read (the original versions) if you likeFeeling the wonder of being a kid again.