The fantasy genre has a rich history of storied authors who have brought life to worlds not our own, and characters many would grow to love. Magic, fantastical creatures, and places larger than life sprung from these fantastic minds. We cannot simply imagine fantasy as it would be right now without creative authors who toil to write these stories for us.
Among the long list of authors are a few names whose legacy is etched in permanent stone. Some of them have inspired others in the list to become great fantasy writers themselves, and have even fathered modern fantasy tropes as we know them.
In this article, we’ll list out the top 5 best fantasy writers of all time, vetted from over 140,000 votes!
1. J. R. R. Tolkien
Popular works: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion
One cannot simply mention fantasy without saying J. R. R. Tolkien in the same breath. Born John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, he was an English writer best known for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. His stories have etched themselves a permanent mark on the hall of fame of fantasy.
His greatest work, The Lord of the Rings, served as a sequel to The Hobbit, his first work which enjoyed great success as a children’s fantasy novel. The titular character refers to the story’s main antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron, who created the eponymous magical Rings of Power to rule over the peoples of Middle-earth. The story, broken down into six books, follows the journey of four hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, in destroying these Rings.
Aside from these fictional works, Tolkien had a large body of notes and writings he called the legendarium. Unpublished till his death, these were compiled and published posthumously primarily as The Silmarillion, edited by his son Christopher Tolkien.
Tolkien had a wide variety of influences and themes across his stories, including his philological interest in language (marked by his constructed languages), Christianity, mythology, literature, and personal experience. As a professional philologist (someone who studies languages primarily through literature), Tolkien stated that his stories were made to accommodate his languages, rather than creating a language for his stories.
Tolkien died on September 2, 1973, from a bleeding ulcer. Upon his death, he left a great legacy that shaped the modern fantasy genre, influencing writers both contemporaries and future. Due to this great influence, Tolkien is often referred to as the father of modern fantasy, earning him first place in the list.
2. Brandon Sanderson
Popular works: Mistborn series, The Stormlight Archive series, last 3 books of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time
Brandon Sanderson is second on the list, an American author known for the expansive Cosmere fictional world. This fictional universe is the setting for several of Sanderson’s stories and series, including the Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive series, and the novels Elantris and Warbreaker.
The Cosmere universe is a vast world consisting of sixteen Shards, scattered on ten Shardworlds. A Shard is associated with an Intent and will alter the world it goes into accordingly. Each world has a unique magic system, also shaped by the Shard/s and it/their Intent/s. Many of Sanderson’s fantasy works take place in one of these Shardworlds.
Sanderson’s popularity was bolstered when he was chosen by Harriet McDougal, wife and editor of the late American author Robert Jordan, to finish The Wheel of Time series. McDougal provided Sanderson with notes and outlines that Jordan left before his death. The last installment of the series, A Memory of Light, ended up becoming three books: The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight, and A Memory of Light.
Aside from his bibliography, Sanderson is also popular for introducing the concept of hard and soft magic systems. According to Sanderson, magic systems in fantasy can be either largely mysterious and unknown (soft) or defined by mechanics and laws (hard).
Building upon the concept of hard and soft magic systems, Sanderson also created the Laws of Magic, three guidelines on writing magic in fictional works. These Laws deal with writing magic and how magic interacts with your plot to make it work. Sanderson also added a zeroth law, to “err on the side of what’s awesome.”
Today, Sanderson is the host of a podcast titled Writing Excuses, together with authors Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Taylor.
3. Terry Pratchett
Popular works: Discworld series, Good Omens
Sir Terence David John Pratchett, known as Terry Pratchett, was an English humourist, satirist, and author. His most prominent work, the Discworld series, spans 41 novels that he wrote over the course of 32 years.
Discworld, his flagship series, consists of stories that often parody classical works, taking inspiration from sources like mythology, folklore, and fairy tales. Analogies of real-world issues and aspects of culture come up frequently as themes all throughout the series. The title refers to the setting of the series, a flat world resting on top of four elephants, who are, in turn, standing on top of a giant turtle.
Pratchett had distinctive styles, ranging from his comical footnotes that comment on the narrative to his avoidant tendencies with chaptering. As a satirist and author, most of Discworld exhibited satirical themes often handled comically.
Pratchett sold over 85 million books worldwide, becoming the best-selling author in the UK during the 1990s. He was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1998 and was knighted for services to literature in the 2009 New Year Honors.
Pratchett died on March 12, 2015, from Alzheimer’s disease.
4. Robert Jordan
Popular works: The Wheel of Time series, several Conan the Barbarian novels
James Oliver Rigney Jr., better known as Robert Jordan, was an American author of epic fantasy. He was best known for The Wheel of Time series, a series of 14 novels, the last three of which were published and co-authored by Brandon Sanderson posthumously.
The Wheel of Time is noted for its length (a total of 4.4 million words), comprehensive magic system, detailed world, and an enormous cast of characters (over 1,800 named characters) interacting among a large number of subplots. The success of the series spawned several games, a soundtrack, and an ongoing TV series. The Wheel of Time has been one of the best-selling fantasy series since The Lord of the Rings.
Before The Wheel of Time, Jordan also worked on the Conan the Barbarian series, having written six Conan pastiches that became successful. His works were considered to be some of the better pastiches not written by Robert E. Howard, the original creator of the titular character.
Before Jordan passed, he left notes and recordings to ensure that the then-considered to be the last volume of The Wheel of Time series, A Memory of Light, would be finished after his death. Brandon Sanderson was chosen to be the author of this last volume, becoming three books. Robert Jordan passed away due to cardiac amyloidosis on September 16, 2007.
Popular works: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, The Space Trilogy
Clive Staples Lewis was a British writer, best known for his children’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia and his non-fiction Christian apologetics. Lewis was a contemporary and close friend of Tolkien, both having worked together, became part of the informal group the Inklings, and the latter having converted Lewis to Christianity after initially falling away from it.
Lewis’s works were heavily influenced by his faith, most of them dealing with themes related to Christianity. The Space Trilogy deals with themes of humanity (notably the wickedness of humanity) and a retelling of the Tower of Babil, while the Narnia series contains strong themes of faith and the typical good vs. evil narrative. Aslan is particularly noted to be a parallel of Jesus in Christian theology.
Aside from his fictional works, Lewis was an influential Christian apologist of his time, with many of his non-fiction Christian works quoted by many denominations. He became a famous broadcaster during the Second World War’s air raids, and some of his writings originated from his scripts.
Lewis died on November 22, 1963, due to kidney failure.
Although these five people have made great contributions and left lasting legacies in the fantasy genre, there are still many more names who deserve to be honorably mentioned in this list.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Popular works: The Hainish Cycle, Earthsea series
Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was an American novelist best known for her science fiction novels written in the Hainish universe and the Earthsea fantasy series. Although she was better celebrated as a science fiction writer who brought the genre to the mainstream readership, her flagship fantasy series Earthsea stands toe to toe in popularity with her science fiction works.
Le Guin was known to incorporate many critical themes in her works. Gender and sexuality, moral development, and political systems are themes present in both her Hainish and Earthsea series. Her works have also been the subject of literary critique and academic attention.
Popular works: The Sandman, Coraline, Neverwhere
Neil Richard MacKinnon Gaiman is an English author who is best known for his comic book series The Sandman and his novels Coraline, Stardust, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. His works are known to be highly allusive, with many of them often dealing with dark themes and tones.
Particularly, The Sandman is one of DC Comics’ most successful comics, with many accolades and influencing the entire graphic novel medium and the fantasy genre in general. Its popularity also spawned an ongoing TV series of the same name, originally released on Netflix. This work easily cements Gaiman’s position as an influential author in fantasy.
Popular works: Farseer trilogy, Liveship Traders trilogy, The Tawny Man trilogy
Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden, better known as Robin Hobb, is an American writer known for her trilogies set in the Realm of the Elderlings. Although she initially published her early works as Megan Lindholm, most of her commercial successes, the secondary-world fantasy novels, were under the Hobb name.
Her works under the Realm of the Elderlings compose of 16 books, divided into five parts. Four of them are trilogies, and one is a tetralogy: Farseer, Liveship Traders, The Tawny Man, The Rain Wild, and The Fitz and the Fool. Gender and queerness are prevalent themes in this series, as well as ecocentric concepts.
Be a Great Fantasy Writer Like Them!
The modern fantasy genre is borne and shaped by the great minds of Tolkien and those who came after him. Readers and enjoyers of the fantasy genre have been pampered by the words and worlds crafted by these people.
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