How we Set our Criteria for the Top 14 Epic High Fantasy Series of All Time:
Fantasy fiction is set in an alternative, entirely fictional world, rather than our real world.
High Fantasy strives for Mythopoeia, the act of making (creating) mythologies. While many literary works carry mythic fantasy themes, only a few approach the dense self-referential purpose of mythopoeia. It is invented mythology that, rather than arising out of centuries of oral tradition, are penned over a short period of time by an author. It is intended to create detailed worlds with well-ordered histories, geographies, and laws of nature. The rules of this fictional world differ from those of our world, with the inclusion of magical elements, creation stories, religious beliefs, customs, societies and norms.
Mythopoeia aims for specifically created mythology to add credibility and literary depth to fictional worlds.
This is a list of those we consider the best of the best:
1. Wheel of Time – by Robert Jordan
Of all the epic fantasy entries out there, we had to list Wheel of Time in the #1 spot. The Eye of the World is the first novel in The Wheel of Time series. Originally planned as a 6-book series, The Wheel of Time now spans 14 volumes, in addition to a prequel novel and a companion book. Book one was published in 1990.
Robert Jordan died in 2007 while working on what was planned to be the final volume in the series. Fellow fantasy author and long-time Wheel of Time fan Brandon Sanderson was brought in to complete the final 3 books. The series draws on numerous elements of both European and Asian mythology, especially Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism in the concepts of balance and duality, and a respect for nature. Additionally, its religious creation story has similarities to Christianity’s Good and Evil.
The Wheel of Time is notable for its length, its detailed world, its well-developed magic system and a large cast of characters. The 8th through 14th books each reached number one on the New York Times Best Seller List. As of 2008 the series has sold over 44 million copies worldwide and has spawned a computer game, roleplaying game and soundtrack album. Television and film rights to the series have been optioned several times, most recently by Universal Studios.
2. The Belgariad – by David Eddings
Pawn of Prophecy is the first book of The Belgariad, a five-book epic fantasy series that follows the adventures of Garion as he seeks to fulfill the prophecy of the battle between the Child of Light and the Child of Dark and restore balance to the world. Eddings followed up The Belgariad with The Malloreon, a five-part fantasy book series that continues the lives and adventures of the characters of The Belgariad.
Magic is the Will and the Word, in which a sorcerer concentrates their strength through willpower, then releases it with a word. The word itself is immaterial; but the user must have a clear vision of their object. The uses of the Will and the Word are almost limitless; but can exhaust the user even to their death.
3. A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) – by George R.R. Martin
Evan though this series is not yet complete, I don’t think that any top list could exist without A Song of Ice and Fire. It was inspired by the War of the Roses and Ivanhoe – which may speak to its amazing realism and depth of world building. It is currently intended to comprise seven volumes. The first book, A Game of Thrones, was published in 1996. Two more novels are planned and still being written in the series: The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring.
HBO purchased the television rights for the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series in 2007 and began airing Game of Thrones in 2011.
The story follows an epic struggle among several ruling families as they fight for the right to the Iron Throne. Meanwhile, as they fight, they are oblivious of a coming danger that they are ill prepared to meet. Magic, Dragons, Politics, Religions and other bad things.
4. Shannara – by Terry Brooks
Shannara begins with The Sword of Shannara in 1977 and continues through to Witch Wraith, which was released in 2013. The series blends magic and primitive technology. The books are set in the Four Lands – Earth, long after civilization as we know it was destroyed in a chemical and nuclear holocaust. By the time of the prequel First King of Shannara, the world has reverted to a medieval state and magic has re-emerged to supplement science.
The series has received criticism; some have accused Brooks of lifting the entire plot and many of his characters directly from Lord of the Rings.
Regardless of this, after being accepted for publication by Ballantine Books, Shannara was used to launch the company’s (then) new subsidiary, Del Rey Books. Its success provided a major boost to the commercial expansion of the fantasy genre.
5. Dragon Riders of Pern – by Anne MacCaffery
The series (as of 2011) comprises 22 novels and several short stories, beginning with Dragon Flight in 1968. The Dragonriders of Pern is one of those rare series that has a foot in both SciFi and fantasy. In creating the Pern world, McCaffrey set out to subvert the clichés associated with dragons in European folklore and modern fantasy fiction. The Dragons of Pern can breathe fire and resemble great lizards with wings, but Pernese dragons are entirely friendly to humanity and are not magical, but a genetically modified species created by the first human settlers on the planet. Though based on a SciFi premiss, the Dragons have a psychic link to their Riders. The world, religion and society of Pern are classic High Fantasy.
6. Memory, Sorrow & Thorn – by Tad Williams
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn began with The Dragonbone Chair in 1988. The paperback publication of To Green Angel Tower was divided into two volumes, so many readers consider Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn to be a 4-book series.
The books are set on the continent of Osten Ard, whose inhabitants include Sithi (elf-like immortals), Qanuc (troll-like mountain-dwellers), as well as several distinct human nations. The youthful conquests of King John the Presbyter (also called Prester John) unite most of the human world into a single realm, but the former conqueror is too old and feeble to stop his sons from quarrelling. As the conflict widens throughout the world and beyond, an orphan kitchen boy, Simon, is living a life of castle drudgery. As a new ruler is crowned and forms a supernatural alliance with the Norn Storm-King, Simon is forced to flee into the wilderness, armed only with his mentor’s biography of Prester John.
Despite terror, starvation, and general bewilderment, Simon manages to find sanctuary and thus begins the quests for Three legendary swords — Minneyar (“Year of Memory”), Sorrow, and Thorn. They are the only hope against the combined power of evil gripping the world.
7. Lord of the Rings – by J. R. R. Tolkein
Often imitated, but never duplicated! The story began as a sequel to Tolkien’s 1937 children’s fantasy novel The Hobbit, but eventually developed into a much larger work. It was written in stages between 1937 and 1949, much of it during WWII. It is the 2nd best-selling novel ever written, with over 150 million copies sold.
It follows the adventures of a least likely hero, who eventually saves the word by resisting evil and staying true to his nature, while around him beings of immense power fight for control of Middle Earth. Often thought of as THE benchmark for High Fantasy.
Tolkien’s work has been the subject of extensive analysis of its themes and origins. Although a major work in itself, the story was only the last of a larger epic Tolkien had worked on since 1917, in a process he described as mythopeia, (refers to the making of myths). Influences on the story of The Lord of the Rings, include philology, mythology, religion and the author’s distaste for the effects of industrialization, and Tolkien’s experiences in WWI.
The Lord of the Rings in its turn is considered to have had a great effect on modern fantasy; the impact of Tolkien’s works is such that the use of the words Tolkienian and Tolkienesque have been recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The enduring popularity of The Lord of the Rings has led to numerous references in popular culture, the founding of many societies by fans, and the publication of many books about Tolkien and his works. The Lord of the Rings has inspired artwork, music, films and television, video games and subsequent literature. Award-winning adaptations of The Lord of the Rings have been made for radio, theatre and film.
8. Mistborn – by Brandon Sanderson
The Mistborn series spans 4 books, the first being Mistborn: The Final Empire (2006). The fourth book takes place about 300 years after the original trilogy.
Most humans are enslaved skaa workers living in misery and fear, where the Lord Ruler is the divinely invincible power. In the brutal Pits of Hathsin where atium, the most valuable metal in the world is mined, an imprisoned half-skaa thief named Kelsier discovers his Mistborn powers and escapes. A brilliant mastermind and natural leader, now empowered with new weapons, he uses his talents to topple the Final Empire by stealing its treasury and collapsing its economy, while setting up the Lord Ruler as the mark.
Sanderson is noted for creating the 3-Laws for Building Magic Systems in High Fantasy.
Rule 1: An author’s ability to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.
Rule 2: Limitations > Powers – A character’s weaknesses are more interesting than his or her abilities.
Rule 3: Expand what you already have before you add something new. Readers of genre fiction are interested not just in the magic system but how the world and characters will be different because of the magic.
9. The Elric Saga – by Michael Moorcock
The anti-hero Elric of Melniboné was a seminal influence on the field of fantasy in the 1960s and 1970s. Elric is written as a deliberate reversal of what Moorcock saw as clichés commonly found in fantasy adventure novels inspired by the works of Tolkien.
Central to many of Moorcock’s fantasy novels is the concept of an Eternal Champion who has potentially multiple identities across multiple dimensions of reality and alternative universes. This cosmology, called the multiverse, is based on the concept which arose in particle physics in the 1960s and deals with various primal polarities such as Good and Evil, Law and Chaos, and Order and Entropy.
From the first story onwards, the Albino Elric is shown using ancient pacts with gods and demons to assist in accomplishing his goals. Elric’s finding of the sword Stormbringer serves as both his greatest asset and greatest disadvantage. The sword confers upon Elric strength, health and fighting prowess but must be fed by the souls of those struck with the black blade. In the end, the blade takes everyone close to Elric and eventually Elric’s own soul as well.
10. The Riddle-Master Trilogy – by Patricia A. McKillip
The Riddle-Master of Hed is the first book of the Riddle Master Trilogy, the following two books of the series are Heir of Sea and Fire and Harpist in the Wind. It was published in 1976.
The trilogy makes use of a number of themes from Celtic mythology. The story takes place in a fantasy world divided into a number of countries. Each country’s ruler has a mystical awareness of his or her land: the land-rule. The seldom-seen High One presides over all. Riddles, typically questions about obscure pieces of lore, feature significantly, as does shape-shifting magic and music. This is the ultimate “quest” style story.
Morgon, Prince of Hed, only wants to rule and work the land of his birth, however he has a different destiny and inheritance, marked by three stars on his forehead. He must wander strange lands of untamed magic, dealing with riddling wraiths, mysterious harpists, a lost crown, a magical sword and an all knowing High One who rules over all. In his quest for a new life for his people, he must face great dangers – not only to himself, but to his promised bride, his land and his way of life as he strives to bring magic back to the world.
11. The Immortals – by Tamora Pierce
Wild Magic is the first book of The Immortals Series of 4 books. The orphan Daine learns that she has the magical ability known as Wild Magic, which enables her to speak to animals, heal them, take their shape and bend them to her will. Her father is Weiryn, a minor god of the hunt. She meets the master mage Numair and becomes his student.
Under Numair’s guidance, Daine explores the scope of her magic. But she begins to sense other beings too: immortals. These bloodthirsty monsters have been imprisoned in the Divine Realms for the past four hundred years, but now someone has broken the barrier. It’s up to Daine and her friends to defend their world from an immortal attack.
There are a lot of nods to Celtic Lore in these books. A large cast of characters, love interests and gods, leading to epic battles of good vs evil.
12. Sword and Circlet Series – by Carole Nelson Douglas
This is my dark horse entry. Six of Swords and Exiles of the Rynth are prequels to Keepers of Edanvant, book one of Sword and Circlet’s trilogy of books first published in 1982 for a total of 5-books in this series. Strong Sorceress female lead, Irissa, can look at no reflective surface without loosing her magic. Her talking, interfering cat is the soul of an old seer of her magical order of the Torloc race. Her love interest, the swordsman, Kendric, is one of six mystic swordsmen who protect the realms. Evil villains galore inhabit a world that is corrupt and dying. The magic is unique, the story is strong. Douglas has always addressed women’s issues in her fiction and preferred mixing genres from contemporary to historical mystery/thriller, romance and women’s fiction, with high and urban fantasy.
13. The Chronicles of Prydain – by Lloyd Alexander
The Book of Three is the first book of the The Chronicles of Prydain, a Five-book series of Children’s fantasy published in 1964. The Series earned a 1966 Newbery Honor and a 1969 Newbery Medal.
The five novels follow Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper at Caer Dallben. Taran chases the pig into the woods, and thus begins his adventures. Soon he teams up with a wandering king-minstrel, a sharp-tongued princess and a furry creature called Gurgi to save Prydain from the power of the Horned King.
The novels draw upon Welsh Mythology, particularly the Mabinogion. One of the most widely read series in the history of fantasy, The Chronicles of Prydain is the inspiration for the animated Disney film, The Black Cauldron.
14. The Chronicles of Narnia – by C.S. Lewis
The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe is the first book of The Chronicles of Narnia, a seven-book series published in 1950. It is considered a classic of children’s literature and is the author’s best-known work, having sold over 100 million copies in 47 languages. The Chronicles of Narnia has been adapted for radio, television, the stage, and film. The books have profoundly influenced adult and children’s fantasy literature since World War II. Lewis’s exploration of themes not usually present in children’s literature such as religion, and issues including race and gender, has caused controversy over the years.
Set in the fictional realm of Narnia, a fantasy world of magic, mythical beasts, and talking animals, the series follows the adventures of various children who are magically transported to Narnia, where they are called upon by the lion, Aslan (a god figure) to protect Narnia from evil and restore the throne to its rightful line. The series spans the entire history of Narnia, from its creation to its destruction.
The books are inspired by mythology stories from Christianity, Persian, Greek, Anatolian and traditional British and Irish fairy tales.
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