Continuing with my series of lists, here are ten authors you should read to have a good grasp of the history and scope of the heroic fantasy genre. These are some of the most influential writers in the genre, and in fact without most of them we probably wouldn't even have the genre. I'm listing authors instead of books because several of these folks only or mostly wrote short stories. I will suggest what I think are important works from each though. I'd also like to suggest three non-fiction works about the fantasy genre. They are Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers by L. Sprague Decamp, Imaginary Worlds by Lin Carter, and Wizardry and Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock. Read these books and the works of the writers below and you'll be able to hold your own in any discussion of the history and evolution of the fantasy genre.
The guy who got the ball rolling. There's a pretty sharp line of demarcation between fairy tales and folklore and the modern fantasy novel and William Morris drew that line in the 1800s. The Well at World's End is probably the best of his fantasies, but I like The Wood Between the Worlds a lot. So did C.S. Lewis who ripped it off for his Narnia books.
Amazingly original ideas and stunning dreamlike prose. A huge influence on writers from Lovecraft to Neil Gaiman. The King of Elfland's Daughter is probably his most famous novel but I prefer his short fiction. Try the Book of Wonders. My favorite story of his is The House of the Sphinx.
Most people tend to think of Lovecraft as a writer of horror, but he also produced quite a bit of Dunsany style fantasy such as The Silver Key, The Doom that Came to Sarnath, and The Cats of Ulthar. But even without those stories, Lovecraft's influence on the fantasy field is considerable. His pantheon of elder gods and great old ones remain the model for many of the demonic entities faced by the heroes of today's fantasy novels. He also was a major influence on the next two writers on this list.
Clark Ashton Smith
Probably the best writer of the Weird Tales triumvirate, Smith was encouraged by Lovecraft to try selling fiction to Weird Tales and turned out to be a one of the magazine's top writers. His prose is elaborate without being overly Byzantine and his ideas are original and haunting. Even now, 50 sum odd years after their original publication, the dark fantasies of CAS have considerable power. Nightshade Books is publishing definitive volumes of the collected stories of CAS. Get em before they become collectible and the prices go sky high.
Robert E. Howard
The father of sword & sorcery, Howard took historical adventure and Lovcraftian horror and melded them together into a new sub genre. I think it's safe to say that next to Tolkien, Howard is probably the most influential writer in the fantasy genre. Conan is certainly one of the most recognizable fantasy archetypes. Most modern generic fantasy, particularly the works of writers like Terry Brooks, Bob Salvatore, David Gemmell, and Raymond Feist seems to be a mix of Howard and Tolkien. Del Rey Books is currently publishing affordable trades of Howard's fiction. I recommend The Coming of Conan and the Savage Tales of Solomon Kane to start with.
Catherine Moore is the first lady of heroic fantasy. Back in the 1930s she was the only woman writer to go toe to toe with Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith in the pages of Weird Tales. Her fiery heroine Jirel of Joiry is the godmother of all of today's women warriors. Moore's lush, descriptive prose remains powerful stuff even today. She deserves to be a lot more popular than she is. Paizo Publishing has recently put out a collection of all the Jirel of Joiry stories. Highly recommended.
The Lord of the Rings is first major 20th century fantasy epic and still pretty much the driving force behind commercial fantasy today. The influence of Tolkien is simply amazing. One has only to look at the covers in the bookstores with their pseudo medieval settings and their elves ,dwarves, and orcs to see just how omnipresent the Lord of the Rings is. Unfortunately the success of the Lord of the Rings since the early 1970s has flooded the market with inferior clones and set the publishing model as doorstop trilogies, but that takes nothing away from Tolkein's work.
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Not only the creator of Tarzan but of John Carter of Mars, Pellucidar, Carson of Venus, and many other richly imaginative works. What would the world be like without Tarzan? Not nearly as much fun. Tarzan of the Apes and A Princess of Mars are still classics almost 100 years after their original publication. I have a fondness for At the Earth's Core and the other Pellucidar books as well.
There's never been anything quite like The Dying Earth. A wonderful and original fantasy that I recommend to anyone who will listen. Vance was a major influence on the fantasy writers (and game developers) of the 1960s and 1970s and remains very readable today. Vance wrote a ton of other SF and fantasy but he'll probably always be best remembered for The Dying Earth.
Michael Moorcock started setting fantasy on its ear back in the 1960s with his tales of Elric of Melnibone and he's still at it today. Not content to follow trends, Moorcock has always wandered in his own directions, be it in the fields of SF, Fantasy, or literary fiction. The only member of this list still with us today, Mike is still showing everyone else how it's done. Del Rey is publishing new trades of Mike's Elric stories, but used copies of his other books about Corum, Hawkmoon, and others are easy to find and worth tracking down.
Obviously there are a lot more people who are important to the history of fantasy, but hey I could only have ten on my list. I didn't get to talk about E.R. Edison, James Branch Cabell, or Peter Beagle. I didn't get to mention Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, Poul Anderson, or Tanith Lee. There wasn't space for L. Sprague de Camp or Fletcher Pratt, Fritz Lieber or...well, you get the idea. Read the reference books I mentioned and you'll learn all about these people too.