Modernity Bias: Daniel Greene’s Top Fantasy Characters

YouTuber Daniel Greene has put out a list of his personal favourite fantasy characters:

It’s a decent enough list, for the most part (confession time – I have never read a Sanderson book). And it’s a purely subjective question anyway, what with different people having different preferences. I was, however, struck by how many of these characters in the video date from comparatively recent fantasy. Only one of the fifteen predate the 1980s, and only three predate the 1990s. Even after you add in Greene’s honorary mentions, only Samwise Gamgee and Gandalf come from a work older than forty years.

Is this a problem? No. Greene – in contrast to TIME Magazine – is not claiming these to be the best fantasy characters of all time. These are merely his personal preference, and he clearly likes to read contemporary stuff. Good on him – there is plenty of worthwhile fantasy material coming out today.

Wretched old fool that I am, I would take a slightly different route. I have a strong interest in the genre’s history, and so my own subjective assessment of characters would result in a focus on older works. The ones that have stood the test of time. Not necessarily the characters that actively shaped the genre (though they often have), but rather the ones that still jump out at me from the works of old.

Anyway, in chronological (rather than preferential) order, I thought I would cite ten older fantasy characters, whose literary portrayal still holds up – in my humble opinion.

Omitting any mentioned by Greene, I will be focusing on characters from 1900-1980. That is still modern fantasy, of course, but it also predates all but the Tolkien characters in Greene’s video. Think of it as a counterweight to all those listed characters from the past thirty years, without getting into arguments about whether Milton’s Satan counts as a fantasy character.

  • Lord Gro – The Worm Ouroboros, by E.R. Eddison (1922)
  • Steerpike – Titus Groan, and Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake (1946-1950)
  • Sméagol/Gollum – The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954-1955)
  • Denethor – The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954-1955)
  • Elric of Melniboné – The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock (1961-1976)
  • Cugel the Clever – The Eyes of the Overworld, by Jack Vance (1966)
  • Sam the Buddha – Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny (1967)
  • General Woundwort – Watership Down, by Richard Adams (1972)
  • Feanor – The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien (1977)
  • Thomas Covenant – The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen Donaldson (1977)

Before anyone screams about the omission of Robert E. Howard’s Conan… Conan is highly important to the development of the genre, but the stories themselves are plot-driven adventure yarns. Our protagonist’s characterisation isn’t really the compelling lure of the work.

Elric and Thomas Covenant continued to have stories written about them past 1980, of course, but I am rating them only on their pre-1980 appearances. Which is handy, since both series have decayed since.

3 thoughts on “Modernity Bias: Daniel Greene’s Top Fantasy Characters

  1. I started trying to make a top 10. It got as far as

    1. Alice
    2. Mr Toad

    After that it seemed the characters only stood for the fantasy they appeared in. Random example: Jasperodus in ‘Soul of a Robot’ by Barrington Bayley.

    In F&SF, as it used to be promoted, the idea (invention, scientific phenomenon, thing) is the hero. Whereas in old-styley litfic (Emma Bovary, yawn; War and Peace; Henry James, double yawn; The Secret Agent) the character is supposed to be at least as interesting as the situation.

    I also wrote down Anacho, the renegade Dirdir in ‘City of the Chasch’

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is true. When one looks at classic older fantasy, you often find yourself disentangling the idea of an interesting character from the story itself. Conan is just such an example – he’s a cornerstone of the genre, yet on closer inspection, no-one reads Howard for the characterisation. Ged from Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is another one – the world is more interesting than he is.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, fantasy and literary fiction (the novel, hallowed by the likes of F.R. Leavis) are antithetical. H.G. Wells somewhere complains that he is called both the new Dickens and the new Jules Verne. I think Dickens is a fair example of the literary side, as he created about 100 characters for every other author’s one, without bothering much what the point of them was. Whereas Wells’s character studies (Kipps, Mr Polly) are pretty much forgotten

        Liked by 2 people

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