The long-bearded ancestor of all wizard, warrior, and chivalrous knight stories is arguably Le Morte d’Arthur, compiled by Sir Thomas Mallory and first published in 1485 – not bad, considering the printing press was only invented in 1450. These tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Roundtable was later worked by T.H. White into The Once and Future King, published in sections between 1938 and 1958, and taken up by Disney in 1963 as The Sword in the Stone. In the same time period (1937-1954), J.R.R. Tolkien was busy pounding out The Lord of the Rings, his infinitesimally detailed trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King) that set the bar for most fantasy novels to come, so massive in scope that ten hours of movie magic can’t encompass it all.
Tolkien helped shape Dungeons and Dragons (1974), the endlessly successful fantasy game – wizards, warriors, dwarves with their battle axes, elves, orcs, checking for traps and spells – they all started with Tolkien. Dungeons and Dragons, however, is directly responsible for creating several lines of worthy novels, perhaps the best being the two original Dragonlance trilogies, Chronicles (Dragons of Autumn Twilight, etc) and Legends (Time of the Twins, etc). While some have complained that “you can hear the dice rolling in the background,” these are the novels that set my brain on fire. I had the misfortune to read them as they were being released, having to wait anxious months for each delicious installment. While Chronicles sets up the characters and sends them off on a very D&D-type adventure, Legends runs with the developed characters and explodes with adventure. These trilogies are clean enough for the 11-15 year old crowd, and a great place to send them after (or in preparation for) Lord of the Rings. There are more than 200 novels under the Dragonlance umbrella (and a film), so let them read!
The modern crown of medieval fantasy, however, must go to George R. R. Martin (what’s with all those R’s?). His Song of Ice and Fire series, better known as Game of Thrones, the first title of the series, is Tolkien grown up dark and twisted (yes, darker than Mordor, where evil is only ever alluded to). Dragons, kingdoms, sex, murder, warfare, dwarves, incest, murder, swords, traitors, child brides, sex, murder, backstabbing, murder, sex, murder – Game of Thrones is nothing short of a massive soap opera set in a fantasy world of medieval powerstruggles. While the HBO series consists heavily of nudity and violence, it is not a tenth of the amount of extreme brutality and sexual depravity of the books – these are NOT chivalrous tales for the young, but bloody and too-realistic horror stories of warfare. Yet, they will suck you in with compelling characters in a story that is too painful to read further, and too engaging and dramatic to ever put down. Each volume runs 800-1200 pages, so unless you can clear your schedule (you won’t want to stop), you may want to check out the audiobooks instead.
Read them. Savor them. Imagine them. Then go beat up a tree with a sword. Just make sure it’s not an Ent first.