If you love the fantasy genre (or want to explore it), add these classic fantasy books to your reading list! Perfect for fans of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, most of these classic fantasy novels were written before Narnia and Middle Earth, and helped shape modern fantasy literature.
I grew up steeped in fantasy literature, much of it either written by C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, or influenced in some way by those two authors. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia are indeed seminal in the fantasy genre. But of course, Tolkien and Lewis were not the first fantasy authors on the scene, even though the genre was still pretty new when they were writing.
If you’ve ever wanted to go beyond the borders of Narnia and Middle Earth and journey into other realms of fantasy literature, let this list be your guide! The first Narnia book (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) was published in 1950, and the first installment of The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954 (although written earlier). Most of the books on this list of classic fantasy novels pre-date both of these! I hope you enjoy exploring the following authors and the worlds they created.
Best Classic Fantasy Books Every Fan Should Read
Phantastes by George MacDonald (1858)
On his twenty-first birthday, Anodos inherits an old desk from his late father. Upon inspection, he discovers a secret compartment in the desk, and to his surprise, a beautiful and ancient fairy lady steps out. She promises that he will soon find the path into Fairy Land. Sure enough, the next morning his bedroom melts away into a land of streams and meadows, and Anodos begins a series of adventures that teach him profound truths about love, beauty, temptation, and the self.
Although George MacDonald is a bit of a “niche” author today, he was hugely influential to late 19th-century and 20th-century authors, including Lewis Carroll, J. M. Barrie, G. K. Chesterton, Madeleine L’Engle, and Ray Bradbury, to name a few. C. S. Lewis said that when he read Phantastes at the age of sixteen, he “crossed a great frontier” and his imagination was baptized.
MacDonald wrote Phantastes near the beginning of his literary career, and the fantasy novel Lilith near the end. Both have an amazing dream-like quality and are rich in symbolism. Although not connected they are excellent to read together, as they’re quite distinct from his more child-oriented fantasy novels such as The Princess and the Goblin.
The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris (1894)
After his wife is unfaithful to him, Everyman hero Golden Walter turns to the sea for a fresh start. On his journey, he has a vision of a powerful sorceress, a beautiful maiden held prisoner, and a dwarf. Eventually a storm brings him to their lost and magical land, where Walter will encounter many adventures as he seeks to free the maiden.
Yes, the author of this novel is the same William Morris famous for his coveted textile and wallpaper patterns! As an artist, novelist, poet, bookmaker, and public speaker, Morris was quite the Renaissance man. In addition to The Wood Beyond the World, Morris wrote several other fantasy novels, the best of which is probably The Well at the World’s End. However, since The Well is much longer than The Wood Beyond the World, it makes sense to start with the latter, to get acclimated to Morris’s (intentionally) archaic style.
The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison (1922)
The Worm Ouroboros is an epic high fantasy novel that tells of a sweeping war between the kingdoms of Demonland and Witchland. The conflict rages across land and sea, drawing in enemies and allies from neighbouring countries like Impland and Pixyland, as well as magical creatures such as a hippogriff and a manticore.
Eddison’s strengths are in his world-building and sheer imagination. Some readers find the language difficult, as he chose to write in Shakespearean-style English. Eddison was an occasional guest of the Inklings literary group, and both J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were avid readers of his work. In addition to The Worm Ouroboros, Eddison wrote the Zimiamvian Trilogy, which is loosely related to his earlier novel.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany (1924)
In this fairy tale romance, our world exists side-by-side with Elfland, although time passes differently in each. The mortals of Erl, wishing to restore the old magic to their land, send the ruler’s son Alveric into Elfland to win the hand of the Elven princess, Lirazel. But is there a place in our world for a marriage between a mortal man and an Elf?
Although The King of Elfland’s Daughter is Dunsany’s best-known work, he was a prolific author, publishing nearly 100 volumes of poetry, plays, short stories, science fiction, fantasy, and more.
Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees (1926)
The citizens of Lud-in-the-Mist, in the country of Dorimare, have long ago banned all communication and trade with Fairyland, which lies on their distant borders. But every now and then, contraband Fairy fruit makes its way into Lud. It tastes irresistible, but those who eat of it are never the same again.
The hero of the story ends up being a most unlikely specimen–middle-aged Nathaniel Chanticleer, mayor of Lud, and terrified of all things Fairy. But when Nathaniel’s own son eats the forbidden fruit, the mayor finds himself enmeshed in a tangle of intrigue and murder, leading him to question the status quo and make choices he never dreamed of facing.
Although she wrote poetry and two other novels, Lud-in-the-Mist is Mirrlee’s only fantasy novel. Nevertheless, her writing had its impact on famous authors such as Neil Gaiman and J. K. Rowling, as well as her contemporaries and friends T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf.
The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (published 1936 and 1970s; written 1930s-40s)
The Mabinogion Tetralogy is a collection of four novels based on the Welsh Mabinogion mythology, the earliest prose literature of Britain. Walton’s series includes Prince of Annwn, The Children of Llyr, The Song of Rhiannon, and The Island of the Mighty. Like the original Welsh legends, each book is full of enchantments, family drama, castles, giants and monsters, and magical transformations. Walton wrote the manuscripts in the 1930s and 40s, but when her first book sold poorly (despite favorable critical reviews), she tabled the project. In the 1970s Walton was “rediscovered” and her Mabinogion books were published for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series.
This series is a good pick for fans of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King cycle, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series, and Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. (And the latter two, at least, were certainly influenced by the original Welsh Mabinogion.)
What are your favourite classic fantasy novels?
Further reading for fantasy lovers:
- 25 Best Classic Fairy Tale Collections for Your Home Library
- Gorgeous Y.A. Fairy Tale Retellings You’ll Remember Forever
- 7 Young Adult Fantasy Series You’ll Always Treasure
- My Review of The Carver and the Queen (a YA fairy tale retelling of Russian folklore)
- Fantasy Book Recommendations