Lord Foul’s Bane, by Stephen R. Donaldson

I have a feeling that Lord Foul’s Bane may come as a surprise to many readers. It’s on the ‘fantasy’ shelf, and fantastical things do occur, but this isn’t meant to be how fantasy works. At least, not these days.

Some history is in order. Lord Foul’s Bane is one of the most important books in the history of the genre. It came out in the epochal year of 1977 – in October, I think. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons had been released in stages through the year, with the Monster Manual released sometime that autumn so far as I can make out. Tolkien fans would have been at fever-pitch with the long-awaited release of The Silmarillion in September. In January that year, Terry Brooks had released his own shameless rip-off loving homage to Tolkien. Up until then, fantasy was mostly the soft fringes of science fiction, itself already a niche genre. Pern and Earthsea were established, but otherwise it was a matter of writers like Vance, Moorcock and Leiber, who did not exactly write for the masses. Anne Rice and Stephen King were just getting started, but keeping themselves carefully distant from the ‘fantasy’ label, despite their content. Rice, King, Brooks and Donaldson were all early representatives of the Boomer generation, a generation that had grown up with Tolkien and Lewis, and that in 1977 were just beginning to put their stamp on the genre they had inherited.

What happened next is obvious. Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara became the first fantasy novel to make the NYT’s bestseller list. The Silmarillion reached #1 at the beginning of October and stayed there until the middle of March 1978. AD&D was a cult success, and went on to raise up a generation of new fantasy fans. Even The Book of Merlyn made it to the list, the long-belated fifth novel of T.H. White’s old Once and Future King tetralogy. And Donaldson went on to sell 10 million copies of his first two fantasy trilogies. Fantasy went from being a strange half-genre of isolated works to a full functioning world of its own – and a profitable world too.

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