I’ve seen a few articles lately about major fantasy works published in the 1980s, the works everyone should have read, or the wave of what one writer referred to as “extruded Tolkien byproduct” fantasy that came out in the 70s and 80s. But what’s weird is that although I was a fantasy reader in the 80s, I hadn’t read most of the works referred to.
Which got me wondering what, exactly, I did read. I know that before I finished high school in the mid-80s I knew I wanted to be a fantasy novelist. I was already scribbling bits of stories in spiral notebooks. I knew all the tropes. But how did I manage to get to that point without having read a lot of the books that supposedly all fantasy nerds were reading at that time?
I was a big fairy tale fan as a child, with books of the tales, as well as the books/record albums of the Disney movies. I went through a “witch” phase in second and third grade, when Bewitched reruns were the big thing among the girls at school, but most of the books I read then wouldn’t really fit with the kind of fantasy I later to write (though they were closer to what I have ended up writing). I read The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis during my “horse” phase, but I don’t think it registered to me as fantasy, in spite of the talking horses, perhaps because I didn’t know it was part of a series. And, I guess, when you’ve read plenty of horse books that are actually narrated by horses, the talking horse thing doesn’t seem quite that fantastical. I read a lot of the Oz books, as well.
Probably my first experience with fantasy as fantasy would be The Hobbit, which I read in fourth grade. In sixth grade, I got into the Narnia books as fantasy, and then read The Lord of the Rings. Soon afterward, I read all of the Lloyd Alexander Prydain books.
I know I read the Katherine Kurtz Deryni books starting sometime in maybe my junior year of high school, and they were a huge influence on me wanting to write fantasy. I must have read The Sword of Shannara somewhere around this time because I know I was excited to find The Elfstones of Shannara in a used bookstore my senior year of high school. I had all the Alan Dean Foster Spellsinger series. I recall trying to read the first Thomas Covenant book and being repulsed, but I did read Donaldson’s Mirror books. I read Mary Stewart’s Merlin series, but that read more like historical fiction than like genre fantasy.
Otherwise, I’m not entirely sure what I was reading that made me aware of the tropes and wanting to write fantasy. At the time, there was no library in our town, so we had to get memberships in the library in a nearby small town, and I don’t think we found that option until maybe my sophomore year. Their fantasy offerings were rather limited, though I know that’s where I found the first Deryni book, The Sword of Shannara, and the Thomas Covenant book I tried. The only bookstore in the area with new books was the mall bookstore, which had maybe one shelf of fantasy, but there was a big used bookstore, and I remember spending a lot of time scouring the fantasy section (though, oddly, my current shelves don’t seem to reflect that, but I don’t get rid of a lot of fantasy books).
A lot of the stuff from that era I ended up reading in the 90s or later, like the Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series or the Eddings books.
I read pretty widely, so it wasn’t all fantasy. I also read a lot of mysteries, World War II thrillers, spy novels, and historical novels. Maybe I was captivated enough by the fantasy I did read to want to do that. Maybe some of what I read was obscure enough that it doesn’t show up on those lists. I have learned that some of the books from those “of course everyone has read these” lists don’t always hold up well. If they were among the first fantasy you read, back in the 80s, I’m sure they were captivating. If you read them for the first time more recently, after having read (and written) a lot more, they come across as kind of trite.
Maybe there were things I read that I don’t remember now but that planted some kind of seed in my imagination.