The Influences of Early Commercial Epic Fantasy Authors


The purpose of this post is to give a quick overview of just who the authors behind that big wave of Epic Fantasy in the 70s-90s that reshaped perceptions of the genre listed as their influences. The hope is it can serve as a stepping stone towards a better understanding of these authors and some of modern fantasy’s building blocks. There’s a few caveats; this is a first draft and not exhaustively researched; it takes the authors at face value; I’m too lazy to reference everything properly right now (although the links will be included, and most of it comes from links).

The post is concentrating on a handful of influential authors; Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, David Eddings, Mercedes Lackey, Raymond E. Feist, Tad Williams, Robert Jordan, and GRR Martin.

Terry Brooks is oft considered the founding father of works with strong Tolkien influences, with The Sword of Shannara being very close to Lord of the Rings, something sometimes cited as Brooks’ decision and sometimes a publisher idea. Although Brooks acknowledges his debt to Tolkien, saying reading him at the age of 21 is what made him a fantasy writer, his biggest influence is William Faulkner. He is in general unwilling to divulge specific authors, but states most of his influences were non-fantasy and that he was a Sci-Fi reader most of his childhood, and thinks his childhood play mattered as much as any book.

It is difficult to find something specifically from Donaldson’s mouth, but the commonly given composite list for him seems to be: J.R.R. Tolkien, Roger Zelazny, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, William Faulkner, CS Lewis, Robert E. Howard, Mervyn Peake, and Wagner’s operas. That’s something I’ll chase down in later versions. Zelazny is particularly mentioned.

David Eddings (although Leigh Eddings is given as a co-author, it is harder to find influences) wrote much in The Rivan Codex about his love for Lord Dunsany and preference to draw directly from sources such as Malory for influence (he describes himself as nodding to Papa Tolkien and hurrying onto the good stuff). As a professor of English literature (and Leigh also completed a doctorate and I believe taught), he mainly taught modernism, with Dostoyevsky, Woolf, Pound, Eliot, and Joyce all authors about whom he did a good deal of lecturing, while Leigh used Hemingway in her doctoral thesis.

Mercedes Lackey is the first author on here to have directly worked with other speculative fiction authors such as Marion Zimmer Bradley and CJ Cherryh (she credits Cherryh with taking five years off her road to publication. Andre Norton, Thomas Burnett Swan, T.H. White, Vera Chapman, Alan Nourse, Theodore Sturgeon, Anne McCaffrey, Elizabeth Goudge, Karen Elizabeth Gordon, and Tolkien are her other credited influences. I found her answering the question twice; the last five were the only two not to appear on the list both times. A better draft would hopefully find more answers and be able to clarify if we’re dealing with a list of major and minor influences.

Raymond E. Feist lists Fritz Leiber as his only fantasy influence, and gives Shakespeare, Costain, Shellenbarger, Renault, Stevenson, Dumas, Doyle, and Scott as his main influences. The Tolkien influence is just marketing talk to him. I only went with one link here because I’m lazy.

Tad Williams has a long list of influences on wikipedia, but from his own mouth has given Zelazny, Moorcock, Leiber, and Dick as huge influences. The list from wiki runs as follows: Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula K. Le Guin, Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas Pynchon, J. D. Salinger, William Butler Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Barbara Tuchman, Philip K. Dick, Ruth Rendell, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), Jane Austen, T. S. Eliot, Jorge Luis Borges, Patrick O’Brian, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel), A. A. Milne, J. J. Norwich, Stephen Jay Gould, John Updike, Thomas Berger, Raymond Chandler, William Shakespeare, and James Thurber. A better draft would dig into this. Also mentioned on his wiki page are Tolkien (listed as a major influence), Dickens, Nesbit, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Kenneth Grahame.

Robert Jordan answered the question many times, and his list is John D. McDonal, Jane Austen, Robert Heinlein, Louis L’Amour, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain. He has acknowledged a debt to Tolkien as a fantasy author, and he regularly recommended other fantasy authors’ books, but the list given is the regular influence list (given at least twice).

GRR Martin is another guy who likes to name his influences loud and often. Tolkien, Heinlein, Scott, Costain, Gregory, Williams, Howard, Bernard Cornwell, Stan Lee, Jack Vance, Yerby, Sharon Kay Penman, Shakespeare, Andre Norton, Maurice Druon, Waltari, Howard Pyle, Lovecraft and Jordan all make the list.

Now that’s a lot of raw data, so let me try and dig into this a bit.

Out of the eight authors, all have talked about Tolkien in some form when answering the influence question). However, Feist has rejected the idea of being influenced by him, and Eddings seems to regard him as minor at best. Jordan’s view on him as an influence seems ambivalent if positive and he doesn’t appear on the major list; at some point I will dig deeper into Lackey’s view as well. Not being influenced by his work creatively does not mean they weren’t influenced by publishers’ and editors’ view of the market; a cynic might suggest wanting to put some distance between themselves and the shadow of the colossus. Nevertheless, the idea of Tolkien as a universal influence is clearly in question.

Other fantasy authors are thin on the ground. Brooks, Feist, and Jordan have all downplayed their fantasy influences; Eddings has talked about Dunsany when talking about influences, but no others (although it seems likely he was familiar with Leiber, Feist’s one given fantasy influence). At a quick count Leiber is but one of a small handful of authors to be named by multiple authors, along with Robert E. Howard, Roger Zelazny, and Andre Norton. Sci-Fi authors do little better with Theodore Sturgeon and Robert Heinlein the only two to get multiple mentions; Stan Lee is the other speculative fiction creative with multiple mentions. By and large these authors belonged to the Sword & Sorcery tradition in fantasy (Zelazny and Sturgeon are guys who straddled Fantasy and Sci-Fi to the best of my knowledge), and all are American. British authors such as Peake, Lewis, Dunsany, Morris, MacDonald, Eddison, and so on, seem to have had relatively little impact.

By and large, few of them have found their childhood books influences beyond Tad Williams (although Lackey does mention Goudge). The most common individual influence other than Howard is Shakespeare. But in general terms adding up authors, we can see two particularly influential non-fantasy genres. Donaldson, Brooks, and Eddings were all influenced by modernist American authors; Feist, Williams, Jordan and Martin by historical adventure authors. As things stand there’s a very neat division there and one that, in truth, I’m not sure I would have picked out solely from their works. It’s possible more research will find a more muddled picture. Lackey is the one author whose influences seem to be almost entirely speculative fiction.

Other small bits seemingly worth noting is the presence of Dickens and Austen twice; the general absence of taproot texts save for Eddings’ citing of Malory; the general absence of authors working close to when they were save Martin; how Lackey is the only one to draw majorly from female authors; and of course the difficulty of finding common ground between them. If there’s one field of common ground, it’s adventure fiction – whether Historical or Sword & Sorcery as that captures all of them bar Brooks and Eddings, and I suspect Brooks’ unspecified Sci-Fi childhood had its share of Sci-Fi adventures.

I stress this is a first draft. I am sharing it because a good way to speed up research by having people add things as much as anything. I imagine my findings will change.

But for now, my findings are that early commercial Epic Fantasy was influenced by Tolkien – he is the impossible to ignore figure who played a part in just about everyone’s finished product, even if he wasn’t a big influence for all – but in terms of the bigger picture, he was one horse in a crowded field. The biggest horse, so the biggest individual influence, but the biggest individual influence is a small part of the pie. About half of the pie came from non-fantasy influences through a mix of classic English, modernist American, and historical adventure fiction. After Tolkien, the fantasy half of the pie draws mainly from Sword & Sorcery, with a nod to Zelazny and a few nods to earlier English authors. Sci-Fi appears here and there, but seemingly not significantly.

And if you were to try and draw a tentative conclusion about the nature of this wave of Epic Fantasy from it, you’d suggest these authors took (or were edited to take) Tolkien as a mould, and then poured a diffuse set of inspirations in, but with mostly a concentration on various forms of adventure fiction, as compared to Tolkien’s mythopoeic stylings.

Source Links:

https://gifford.mla.hcommons.org/2017/08/26/a-frightful-hobgoblin/ (Eddings)

https://dragonmount.com/forums/topic/59776-robert-jordans-favorite-reads/

http://www.crydee.com/raymond-feist/faq/9260/which-writers-have-influenced-you

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tad_Williams

https://www.reddit.com/r/Fantasy/comments/1kab57/hi_reddit_im_international_bestselling_fantasy/

https://www.goodreads.com/blog/show/983-author-terry-brooks-guide-for-fantasy-readers

https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/interviews/article/84774-as-the-shannara-saga-ends-terry-brooks-looks-back-and-forward.html

https://www.reddit.com/r/asoiaf/comments/2f3wz9/spoilers_all_a_list_of_things_that_grrm_has_cited/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_R._Donaldson

https://www.bookseriesinorder.com/stephen-r-donaldson/

https://www.fantasybookreview.co.uk/Stephen-Donaldson/biography.html

https://advicetowriters.com/interviews/mercedes-lackey

https://www.andrewqgordon.com/2018/01/interview-mercedes-lackey/

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