Seven Fantasy Must Reads

Submitted by Jeff on Tue, 02/08/2011 – 15:18

At Ropecon I was asked about works of world literature that I think are essential for fantasy game writers or for folk who really want to understand the underpinnings of the genre. So at the top of my head, here are seven must-reads for the genre.

Inanna’s Journey into Hell. Dating to well before the eighteenth century B.C., this Sumerian poem joins many archetypal mythological themes: the descent to hell, the sevenfold approach, death and rebirth, the pursuit, the mourning women, and so on. This poem represents the first of the tragic journeys to the underworld of which we know; subsequently made countless times through the centuries, in Homer, in Hesiod, in Virgil, in Dante, and even in the Kalevala.

The Iliad and the Odyssey. Yeah, Homer was likely multiple authors and these are two very different books, but if you haven’t read the Iliad and the Odyssey, you are simply squatting in darkness. The accursed rage of Achilles, the cunning intelligence of Odysseus, and foremost but doomed Hector, provide us with the bookends of the hero, but there is so much more. From the Iliad with its themes of glory, fame, respect, wrath, and fate, to the long homeward adventure of the Odyssey, these books have it all. If you haven’t read them, go out right now and do it. If you have read your Homer, reread them.

Shahnameh. The Book of Kings is the national epic of Persia and among the greatest works of world literature. Written in the 10th century A.D. by the poet Ferdrowsi, it tells the story of pre-Islamic Persia, from creation to the defeat of Yazdegerd, last of the Sassanids. A powerful theme explored in the poem is the fact that those who demand loyalty are often morally inferior to those whom they govern. The central figure of the epic is Rostam, the child of an Indian princess descended from an Arab demon king and of a man brought up outside civilization by gigantic magical bird, and one of the great heroes of literature anywhere.

Beowulf. The ur-source of fantasy literature (and an obsession of Prof. Tolkein), the 8th century AD Anglo-Saxon poem has the hero who fights trolls and demons, becomes king, and dies defeating the dragon that threatens to destroy his people (who are nonetheless doomed to be destroyed by their human foes). Heroic doom, magical swords, boasting contests, fire-breathing dragons, feuds, treasure hoards, Beowulf has it all. Heck, the Hobbit is just a retelling of the third act of Beowulf from the perspective of the thief! If you are a gamer or fantasy fiction fan and haven’t read Beowulf, I pity you.

Saga of the Volsungs. Another ur-source of fantasy literature, the Saga of the Volsungs is the 13th century Icelandic version of the Nibelungenlied (best known as the source of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring cycle).  This epic is divided into two distinct parts. The first part, ending with Sigurd’s defeat of the dragon Fafnir, is studded with mythic motifs, Odin and werewolves, gods, giants, a valkyrie, a dwarf, and even a dragon. The second part takes place in the human world and nearly all the characters may be identified with historical figures. Prof. Tolkein was heavily influenced by this saga and even composed an epic English transliteration of the saga.

As an aside, I picked the Saga of the Volsungs as the Icelandic entry for this list of fantasy must-reads, but I could have picked so much more. I could have just as easily added Egil’s Saga, Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, Njal’s Saga, Heimskringla Saga, and so much more. Frankly, I’d advise just going on an Icelandic saga binge.

Kalevala. This amazing 19th century Finnish compilation and codification of traditional Karelian stories has cast a long shadow on fantasy literature and gaming – especially through Prof. Tolkein (his Children of Hurin is a “retelling” of the story of Kullervo) but also Moorcock (Stormbringer may well be inspired by Kullervo’s sword). Cursed swords, feuds, magical contests, resurrections, and the greatest MacGuffin of all time – the mysterious Sampo. I figure I’d just end on a snippet from Book 36 of the Kalevala, where Kullervo confronts his sword:

Kullervo, Kalervo’s son
snatched up the sharp sword
looks at it, turns it over
asks it, questions it;
he asked his sword what it liked:
did it have a mind
to eat guilty flesh
to drink blood that was to blame?
The sword followed the man’s drift
it guessed the fellow’s chatter
and answered with this: “Why
should I not eat what I like
not eat guilty flesh
not drink blood that is to blame?
I’ll eat even guiltless flesh
I’ll drink even blameless blood!”

Kullervo, Kalervo’s son
the blue-stockinged gaffer’s child
pushed the hilt into the field
pressed the butt into the heath
turned the point toward his breast
rammed himself upon the point
and on it he brought about
his doom, met his death.
And that was the young man’s doom
the Kullervo fellow’s death –
the end for the fellow, death
for the ill-fated.

Submitted by J-Paul (not verified) on Sun, 09/10/2011 – 19:57.

Talking about Underworld Journeys, there was a very rich anf gorgeous exhibition at the Louvre museum in 2010, about the Egyptians’ “Heavens Gate” : visions of the world and undeworld in the Ancient Egypt.

I learned a lot about some aspects of their religion. There was a lot a beautiful paintings (especially a huge sarcophagus) depicting the travel of the Pharaoh in Hell and its challenge (monsters, enigmas, etc) to reach the doors of the paradise. Made me think about a typical Heroquest, as Campbell portrays it.

Submitted by Jeff Richard on Sun, 09/10/2011 – 18:53.

Historically, I don’t disagree. However, I find the story of Inanna more interesting and mythologically intriguing that Gilgamesh. Not that I don’t find the various Gilgamesh stories cool – but I don’t go back to it again and again like I do Inanna’s Journey into the Underworld.

Submitted by Sysiphus on Sun, 09/10/2011 – 17:56.

Gilgamesh (‘l’épopée de Gilgamesh’ en français) est en effet, fondamental et précurseur de pas mal de thème qu’on retrouve dans l’Odyssée, la bible, etc.
Les chinois ont peut-être aussi quelquechose d’intéressant dans leur histoire… mais je ne connais que très mal leur littérature.

Submitted by Roger on Wed, 05/10/2011 – 15:12.
Belatedly,Rather than criticise your seven I’d insist on 15 adding Gilgamesh, a big book of Irish myths and legends, The Nibelungenleid proper, Le Morte d’Arthur, Orlando Furioso, Ramayana, Tale of the Heike and Yoshitsune.
Nothing later than the Renaissance and if you’ve included all the Icelandic Sagas You Can Find that must be well over 5,000 pages in total.
And while incomplete (and as he’s 85 and still not half-way done likely to remain so) Christopher Logues’s ‘War Music’ series is a brilliant modern verse reworking of the Iliad.

For the whole thing I’d highly recommend Martin Hammond’s prose translation – this really catches the visceral quality of the battle scenes in a way that verse translations (excepting Logue) don’t IMO.

Submitted by Jeff Richard on Sun, 14/08/2011 – 19:26.
Personally I think “Inanna’s Journey to Hell” is a more important must-read for fantasy than “Gilgamesh”. And a cooler story. My blog, my taste! :DMy favorite collection of Greek Myths are from Kerenyi, simply because he includes so many contradictory myths and local variants.


Submitted by Stephan (not verified) on Fri, 12/08/2011 – 19:15.
No Gilgamesh?For the Greek myths I would have been tempted to say Graves 2 vols Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece. Not just the tales we know but most of the regional variations and alternatives.

Submitted by Jeff Richard on Wed, 03/08/2011 – 10:00.
Inanna’s Journey to Hell. Lots of versions of this out there. I use either the N.K. Sandars translation in the Penguin Classics “Poems of Heaven and Hell from Ancient Mesopotamia” or the Pritchard translation from his series of volumes on The Ancient Near East.
The Iliad and the Odyssey. Go with the Fagles translation. Verse, not prose.
Shahnameh. I have the Dick Davis translation put out by Penguin Classics.
Beowulf. Seamus Heaney.
Saga of the Volsungs. Jesse Byock.
Kalevala. I have the Keith Bosley translation done by Oxford World’s Classics.

Submitted by Edgar Francis on Wed, 03/08/2011 – 08:05.
Can you recommend good English translations of each for those of us who may be fluent in Persian but not Sumerian?

Submitted by Theya Two Mothers  on Wed, 03/08/2011 – 06:38.
Yes – the Mabingion lept out at me, too. glad to see the Kalavala though!
‘Spose I’ll go read some Homer… it’s the one I lack on your list!

Submitted by Jeff Richard (not verified) on Tue, 02/08/2011 – 18:26.
Absolutely. I pondered adding the Old Testament, but left it off for brevity’s sake. On retrospect, I should have included: The Tain, the Bible, and the Mabinogion.

Submitted by Keith on Tue, 02/08/2011 – 18:23.
How about the Bible? It certainly underpins a lot of literature. Some parts of it could be re-written as Conan the Barbarian stories.

Submitted by Jeff Richard (not verified) on Tue, 02/08/2011 – 16:52.

But seriously, Tolkien’s academic writings are worth reading. Never forget that the guy’s academic creds. His essay on Beowulf had a big impact on revising opinions of the literary worth of the poem, and he was a big influence on later Icelandic studies. The guy is “Professor” to me!

Submitted by Jeff Richard  on Tue, 02/08/2011 – 16:31.
Yeah, that’s the guy. If folk are going to complain about reversed letters in a blog-post, well then maybe I shouldn’t post as much! 😀

Submitted by Christoph Kohring on Tue, 02/08/2011 – 16:29.
Dunno about any “Prof. Tolkein” myself… But hey, that’s just me, I know only of world-famous J. R. R. Tolkien [1892-1973] ! ;o)

Submitted by Jeff Richard (not verified) on Tue, 02/08/2011 – 16:26.
I dropped the Tain in favor of the Shahnameh, which hits so many of those same themes of Cu Culainn (including the hero who alone can stand against overwhelming invasion and later unknowingly killing his own son). But if I were to add an eighth book, that would be it.

Submitted by Nick Brooke on Tue, 02/08/2011 – 16:22.
Kinsella’s translation of the Tain must have just slipped under, right? 🙂

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