Influential Figures in Fantasy, 10

The Big Boom III

Robert Jordan (1948-2007)
George R.R. Martin (1948-)
Terry Pratchett (1948-)

In the 1990’s, Fantasy (at least pure ‘secondary world’ Fantasy) just got bigger and bigger. The greatest representative of this era is probably its most commercially succesful writer, Robert Jordan, whose later books regularly hit the top spot on the New York Times sales lists (the paper acclaimed him as the heir to Tolkien – ‘in attention earned if not achievement’). Along with writers like Terry Goodkind and Tad Williams, Jordan took Fantasy to the next level of commercial success, largely by amplifying the Brooksian formula, making his battles bigger, his magic more explosive, and his stories much, much, much much longer. Jordan ended up writing eleven gargantuan volumes of his ‘Wheel of Time’ epic series (plus one prequel), leaving the final three novels to an author (Brandon Sanderson) selected by his estate after his death; Goodkind’s ‘Sword of Truth’ lasted a mere 11 gigantic installments, plus one prequel and one (and counting) sequel. It’s hard to really comprehend the sheer enormity of these series (and there were plenty more). As one comparison: “The Wheel of Time” is longer than one hundred copies of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe all back to back. Any two volumes of it put together would be about the length of War and Peace, with thirteen more volumes still to spare…

Jordan, though, was perhaps the end of a certain phase in fantasy. Later in the nineties, the tone changed, moving away somewhat from the big-magic adventure-epics of Jordan (and to a lesser extent Brooks, Eddings, and the TSR writers) and toward a more character-focused, ‘historical’ form of fantasy. Robin Hobb might be worth mentioning here, but by far the more prominent writer of the movement was George R.R. Martin, whose A Song of Ice and Fire came closest of this next generation to challenging Jordan. Martin, of course, was approximately the same age as Jordan, and gained fame earlier, but only as the writer of short stories (mostly SF) and a few standalone novels. It was in the late 1990s that A Game of Thrones came out, and the height of his popularity was not reached for another decade, until his books were made into a succesful TV series. A Song of Ice and Fire helped reconfigure the landscape of fantasy, coming at it almost from another direction entirely – his series reads less like a classically ‘fantastical’ story and more like a historical fiction novel that happens to be set on another world with some magical elements, and the emphasis on the story shifts from the epic confrontation between good and evil to the quotidian conflict between variously morally grey rivals – painting the colours, as it were, of S&S onto the form of epic fantasy.

Meanwhile, something even bigger was happening in Britain. Terry Pratchett begin his career as a novellist in the ‘70s, but he achieved the height of his powers and fame in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, primarily with his Discworld series, but also with his Johnny Maxwell and Bromeliad trilogies. Pratchett represents a revival of Chestertonian ideologies, with his humour, distinctive (and distinctively English) narrative voice and Romantic, anti-materialist didacticism (Death’s famous line at the end of Hogfather, which I won’t spoil for those who haven’t read it, may well be the most Chestertonian thing ever written by anyone not named Chesterton). His ability to speak to both adults and children, to genre fans and to a mainstream audience, in both drama and comedy and one and the same time, and with a narrative voice that combined extraordinary wit, erudition and literary awareness with a simple, popular touch that let readers feel elevated and flattered rather than spoken down to, lead to nearly unprecedented popularity. Pratchett became the best-selling author in the UK (at one point comprising over 4% of total hardback fiction sales in the country), and garnered at least five honorary doctorates, a knighthood, blockbuster theatrical adaptations by the Royal National Theatre, many adaptations for TV, and a range of commemorative stamps from the Royal Mail. After Rowling, the 50’s pair of Tolkien and Lewis, and the fantasy horror pair of King and Rice, Pratchett became the biggest-selling fantasy author of all, and helped to make fantasy respectable with a far broader market.

P.S. since writing this, Adam over at the always fascinating has updated his estimates of the best-selling SFF authors of all time. He calculates that Stephanie Meyer has overtaken Pratchett (and even Rice), and he puts Jordan slightly ahead of Pratchett, but the margins of error are probably large.