The Mount Rushmore of Fantasy Literature
As everyone knows, there’s this gigantic and highly distinctive sculpture of prominent US Presidents on the side of Mount Rushmore:
As a thought experiment – if we were designing a Mount Rushmore of fantasy literature, who would be on it? Bearing in mind that there’s only four slots and a century and a half of authors to choose from.
The one person I think everyone can agree on is J.R.R. Tolkien: love him or hate him, he is easily the most important figure in the development of the modern fantasy genre. Fantasy would still exist without The Lord of the Rings (I may do a post another time about a world without Rings), but it would be unrecognisable.
The remaining three places are trickier. There are some very prominent and influential fantasy authors who are better associated with other genres: H.P. Lovecraft, for example, who is a pivotal figure in Horror. So if we were expanding out to wider Speculative Fiction, they would be strong candidates. But for the present discussion we are limiting ourselves to fantasy…
My next choice would actually be Lord Dunsany. Now Dunsany is a more contentious selection than Tolkien: he is comparatively obscure to a modern audience, being largely read by fantasy-buffs and people interested in the history of the genre. Nor would Dunsany make anyone’s top five list of great fantasy authors: The King of Elfland’s Daughter is incredibly ponderous, and the ironic twists of his short stories become predictable and old-hat after a while. No, what Dunsany has going for him is his immense influence on subsequent writers (including, but not limited to, Tolkien, Lovecraft, and Jack Vance). Dunsany’s invented pantheon of gods predates Tolkien’s Ainur, while some of his short stories – Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth – are examples of pre-Howard Sword and Sorcery. Dunsany, in short, is the grandfather of the genre, especially of the whimsical, playful strain that seeks, first and foremost, to enchant.
I initially intended to nominate Fritz Leiber as the representative of Sword and Sorcery, but after thinking again, I settled on Robert E. Howard. Leiber is more subversive (Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are altogether different heroes from Conan), and more diverse in his stories, but Howard takes the cake as the trope codifier of the sub-genre – though not trope inventor, with both Dunsany and E.R. Burroughs writing several decades earlier. Howard’s sensibilities are easily the most difficult to adjust to out of the authors being discussed (yes, the stories feature hefty doses of racism at points), but he is what he is, and one shouldn’t expect books to necessarily share the moral outlook of the reader. Meanwhile, Conan as a character is an iconic piece of the fantasy genre, one also subject to endless imitations, homages, and deconstructions (Moorcock’s Elric in many respects is an inversion of him). In contrast to Tolkien’s elaborate invented histories and Dunsany’s flights of imagination, Howard is raw, blood-soaked, action and adventure.
Mervyn Peake, the last of this quartet, represents fantasy as a neurotic nightmare (I’ve always loved the description of his Gormenghast books as what you would get if Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka collaborated on a fantasy novel). Peake’s work stands apart from the others in that while he has been undoubtedly influential – the likes of Michael Moorcock and China Miéville are massive fans – Gormenghast has never spawned the sort of imitations that followed Tolkien and Howard (or even Dunsany). It stands alone, a gothic fantasy out of time, laden with bizarre caricatures, and imbued with the shadow of the mid-twentieth century. No-one could accuse it of being light reading, and at points the plot disappears altogether into paragraph-long musings on bits of wall, but as the representative of the weird end of the genre, it really does show what fantasy is capable of.
So there you have it: my Mount Rushmore of fantasy. Your opinion may differ. 🙂
Mount Rushmore of science-fiction: H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and Ursula Le Guin. If I’m not allowed living people, I’d drop Le Guin in favour of Mary Shelley.
Mount Rushmore of horror: Ann Radcliffe, E.A. Poe, Bram Stoker, and H.P. Lovecraft.