The term “high fantasy” was first coined by Lloyd Alexander in a 1971 essay he wrote based on a presentation done for a conference of Children’s Librarians.
It is defined as a fantasy set in an alternate, fictional world rather than the real world. Often the hero of “high fantasy” is a childlike figure that matures rapidly due to circumstances related in the story. They are often helped by a mystical mentor who is often formidable and provides not only help but advice. The antagonist is often some unknown force or “Dark Lord” of great power and fueled by malevolence for the rest of the world.
This genre has returned to prominence in recent years with books like the Game of Thrones series. Here are a few of the classics in the genre that you can read as we continue to wait for George R.R. Martin to actually finish the next book.
The Lord of the Rings
Any discussion of fantasy trilogies should begin with the one that started the trend and set a high bar, The Lord of the Rings. Taking twelve years to write, this series was first started as a sequel to The Hobbit which had been published in 1937.
Tolkien had tried to submit his drafts of The Silmarillion to his publishers but they were rejected. The publisher believed that more stories of Hobbits would be popular.
Several times, Tolkien abandoned the work due to his full time academic schedule, but he started sending chapters to his son, Christopher, who was serving in the Royal Air Force in Africa. It was first published in 1955. It is considered to be the archetypal standard for the genre.
After the events in The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins returned home and seemed to settle back into the staid, normal life he left behind for his adventures with Gandalf and the Dwarves. Years pass and he reaches the ripe old age or 111 and decides to go on one last adventure leaving all his worldly belongings, including a magic ring, to his cousin, Frodo. The ring turns out to be the One Ring created by Sauron to rule the RIngs of Power.
Frodo and his friends set off on an adventure to keep the Ring from being found by the Dark Lord of Mordor. Along the way, he’ll be helped by Elves, Dwarves, Men, and Gandalf the Grey.
Dragonriders of Pern
Pern is a pre-industrial society populated with lords, harpers, and dragons. There are folks who ride the dragons of Pern that have a mental bond with their dragons that makes their lives symbiotic which helps when they fly the dragons, who use their fire breath to destroy the mycorhizoid spores known as Thread that fall upon their world every time the Red Star gets close to the planet (about every fifty years).
While there are over twenty books in the series, it is that first trilogy that cemented Anne’s place in the world of fantasy fiction. She was the first woman ever to win either a Hugo or a Nebula Award for two of her novellas set in the wonderful world of Pern.
After centuries without the need for dragons to protect Pern from the threat of Thread, F’Lar finds Lessa while on search for candidates to attempt impression upon the batch of dragon’s eggs awaiting them on the sands of Benden Weyr. She does impress with the newly hatched queen dragon, Ramoth, and rises from being the displaced noble daughter of Ruatha to the Weyrwoman for all of Pern.
Sword of Shannara
Although not intended to be a trilogy by Brooks, the first three books in the Shannara series do have a self contained story that often follows the standard set down by Tolkien. Despite claims that the plot and characters were lifted from Lord of the Rings, many believed it was a well executed introduction to the Four Lands that Brooks continued to write about for over thirty novels.
The books are much better than the (thankfully) short lived series, The Shannara Chronicles that aired for two seasons on MTV.
2000 years after the “Great Wars,” Flick Ohmsford and his half-Elf brother, Shea, are visited by Allanon, the last Druid. He warns Shea that he has been targeted by the Warlock Lord because he is the last descendant of Jerle Shannara he is the only one who has a chance to wield the fabled Sword of Shannara in defense of the Four Lands. After warning them, the Druid has other tasks to perform so he leaves them to their own devices. They are forced to flee the forces of the Warlock Lord with only the three blue Elfstones that Allanon left them for defense.
Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
As Dungeons and Dragons gained popularity in the 1980’s, someone figured out that people might like to read books based on modules or campaigns. It was another way to built excitement for the various settings in the D&D system.
Based on the 12 modules that introduced the universe to players of the game, the book has a slightly different narrative but was created by Laura & Tracy Hickman who came up with the setting after was hired by TSR, Inc. Tracy would be joined by Margaret Weis to write the novels that would launch the book series that numbers well over a hundred entries.
Taking place in the fantasy world of Krynn, the series tells the story of Tanis Half-Elven, Sturm Brightblade, Flint Fireforge, Tasslehoff Burrfoot, Goldmoon, Riverwind, and the twins, Caramon & Raistlin Majere. Their story takes them from Xak Tsaroth to Tarsis. They fight monsters from nightmares and discover that the fabled Dragons and the True Gods are real. Their journeys bring them to becoming legends themselves, the Heroes of the Lance.
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever
Stephen R. Donaldson
Though there would be another trilogy and a tetralogy (grouping of four) that followed, it was the first trilogy of this series that flipped the High Fantasy genre on its head.
Donaldson created in Covenant a character that was an unlikable but sympathetic hero. He did fight against a malevolent evil but didn’t believe what was happening was real. There also was not a mentor character, although he was surrounded by others who helped him navigate the world of the novels. For most critics and readers, the series did not leave the hopeful feeling that most “high fantasy” novels were known for. Instead its darker tone and ending was disquieting, yet felt right.
Thomas Covenant, an embittered and cynical writer, afflicted with leprosy and shunned by the real world, finds himself transported to The Land. It may all be a delusion in his disturbed mind, but in The land he regains his health but after having lost two fingers to leprosy, he labels himself the “Unbeliever.” The denizens of The Land, however, believe Covenant to be the savior that was foretold and he takes up the struggle against Lord Foul, “The Despiser,” who intends to escape the bondage of his universe and wreak revenge upon “The Creator.”
Did we leave out a trilogy that you thought should be included? Let us know in the comments and we might fit them into an upcoming article.