4 Epic Fantasy Novels Written Before The Lord of the Rings


Pic: The Worm Ouroboros, vintage cover, Ballantine Bantam Dell ©

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (first volume, 1954) may have codified many of the tropes of fantasy literature — noble elves, doughty dwarves, magic swords, and long-bearded wizards — but the genre’s roots stretch many years back.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century in particular saw a boom in fantastical fiction. In between the gothic literature of writers like Bram Stoker and the pulp fiction of Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, came a wave of strange literature inspired by fairy tales, dreams, and fantastic imaginations.

This list looks at some of these lesser known works of the early modern fantasy canon. Note: many of these can be found as public domain ebooks, but if you’re a stickler for print — I prefer it for classic works, myself — then you can click the titles for that option.

  • The cover of the book The Well at the World's End

    The Well at the World's End

    Artist, social reformer, and author William Morris wrote this epic inspired by the medieval romances of Thomas Malory. Four sons of a medieval king decide that they’d like to explore the world. One of them, Ralph, finds himself on a fantastical adventure through a magical wood and beyond. He encounters Ladies with magical powers, warriors, and evil Lords, one of whom is named “Gandolf”. Morris was dedicated to the revival of traditional English arts, and The Well at the World’s End is very much a work in that vein. (1896)

  • The cover of the book Jurgen


    Jurgen is a satire of, well, everything: Arthurian romances, contemporary society, religion, mystical mumbo jumbo… need I go on? It is the story of Jurgen, a “clever fellow” who journeys through a fantasy realm in search of adventure and ladies fair. Instead, he encounters the devil’s wife, among other dubious paramours, and villains who are more than his equal. (1919)

  • The cover of the book The Worm Ouroboros

    The Worm Ouroboros

    The magical realms of Demonland and Witchland go to war in this high fantasy Nordic myth mashup. The language can get a little tedious if you don’t have a taste for deliberately antiquated English, and names that sometimes read like they were chosen by randomly mashing a bunch of keys together on a typewriter, but it’s certainly worth exploring. (1922)

  • The cover of the book The King of Elfland's Daughter

    The King of Elfland's Daughter

    The King of Elfland’s Daughter is the book that I’d recommend to any modern fantasy fan looking to dip his or her toes into the forerunners of the genre. It has pretty much everything you’d hope to find in a fantasy novel: a questing adventurer, witchcraft, a journey into the fairy realm that borders on the psychedelic, and even a rune-forged, black-bladed sword. It’s a touching story, too: a prince marries an elf, only to discover that she’ll never really understand him or his world. There’s echoes of Aragorn and Arwen here, I think. A truly influential and highly readable classic. (1924)