What makes a fantasy novel great? Ask ten people and they will each give you a different answer. Greatness is in the mind of the reader.
Rather than rely on personal opinion for greatness, I will attempt to create a list of the greatest fantasy novels of all time using objective selection criteria.
As with our list of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, we will begin with the awards a novel has received. After all, if the “experts” recognize the novel by selecting it for an award, then it truly must be great. Yes, awards are handed out subjectively, but a broad sampling of awards and audiences can provide an objective metric.
The second portion of a novel’s greatness will be its commercial success. Of course, commercial success is frequently achieved by very badly written novels, but a novel’s success can add to the case for a novel’s greatness. It cannot however be used as the sole criteria.
Great novels serve as sources of inspiration and imitation. We will explore the influences a novel has on society as well as the cultural impact of each novel.
Our list of fantasy novels will vary somewhat from the list of science fiction novels. Science fiction novels are more frequently standalone works. Some in our list belong to a series, but each can stand on its own merits. Fantasy novels are a bit more complicated. Many of the greatest fantasy novels of all time are part of a series, but they differ from the science fiction novels in that they must be taken as a set.
In these cases, we will refer to the series and highlight the novel which stands out amidst the series. While some authors might argue that their seven novels are really only one novel, we will attempt to focus in on the single best installment of the series.
Some ongoing novels will not be considered since they are not complete. A complete story requires a beginning, middle, and end. A few modern fantasy novels have one beginning to go along with many volumes of middle, but no end.
Now that we’ve discussed the foundation, let’s get on to the first entry in our list of the greatest fantasy novels of all time.
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien
First Year Published: 1954
- International Fantasy Award for Best Novel 1957
- Prometheus Hall of Fame Award 2009
The starting point when discussing the greatest fantasy novels of all time must start with the benchmark. The novel that all other fantasy novels are compared to is The Lord of the Rings. Furthermore, J.R.R. Tolkien is the benchmark for fantasy authors.
Some might argue that The Lord of the Rings is antiquated and filled with flaws and bad writing. Maybe they are right, but it does not prevent The Lord of the Rings from being great.
When novelists are promoted, they are called the next Tolkien. When a new fantasy series hits the bookstore, it is hyped as the modern-day Lord of the Rings.
The Lord of the Rings is the benchmark to which all others are compared. It has been in print for seven decades and still no other fantasy novel has come close to knocking it from the summit.
The Lord of the Rings was published as three novels even though Tolkien originally wrote it as one long novel. The single volume did not make economic sense at the time for the publisher.
The three parts of the novel are The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Each of the three parts are divided into two sections.
The Lord of the Rings has sold over 150 million copies, making it one of the best-selling novels of all time. Readers in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia have voted it their nations’ favorite book.
The cultural impact of The Lord of the Rings extends into Hollywood, where the most recent films based on the novel generated billions of dollars in revenue. Tolkien’s masterpiece has reached into every corner of the world. People on every continent know the tale of Frodo and The One Ring.
Besides the awards the novel has received, the film adaptation has received 247 awards and 453 nominations. The list of awards includes 17 Oscars, 3 Hugos, 3 Locus Awards, and 3 Nebulas.
The Lord of the Rings has inspired countless board games, video games, card games, role-playing games, fan fiction, art, and authors. The impact the trilogy has had on society cannot truly be measured. It is easily the most recognizable fantasy novel of the last hundred years.
J. R. R. Tolkien is a grandmaster who created a world filled with wonder and mystery. The depth of his world allows it to breathe with life while enthralling millions of fans. If you have never read The Lord of the Rings, it is time to put it on your list.
Whether you are a fan of the novel or not, there is no denying that The Lord of the Rings is one of the greatest fantasy novels of all time.