At beginning of the 20th Century, books with fantasy elements – magic, invented worlds, supernatural beings – weren’t as mainstream as they would later become (and were often described as pulp fiction or children’s stories, since “fantasy” still wasn’t yet a genre term). However, several fantasy books from this era still enjoyed great success or paved the yellow brick road for future authors.
Below I’ve listed what I believe to be the 8 most popular or significant fantasy novels published between 1900 and 1930. I’ve used the year each novel was first published (if stories appeared earlier in another form those dates are included in brackets), and I’ve tried to use the original cover or jacket from that year:
(To enlarge a cover simply click on it and the image gallery will open)
These decades are often called the “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” so it’s no surprise many fantasy stories aimed at children feature in the above list. Several of these successful books were followed by longer series and stage adaptations (although Peter Pan was actually originally a stage play). There were even film adaptations, since the turn of the century also saw the first films and feature films.
The pulp magazines of the early 20th Century were also instrumental in the rise speculative fiction as a whole, publishing mostly horror, adventure, weird fiction and science fiction, but also some fantasy. Publications that were founded or active in this period include The All-Story Magazine (started 1883), Der Orchideengarten (started 1919), Weird Tales (started 1923) and Amazing Stories (started 1926). Popular serialised stories were often later released as novels.
Selecting books for this era was tough, in part because the line between fantasy, science fiction and other genres was even blurrier than it is now. For example, A Princess of Mars might seem a strange inclusion in a fantasy list, since it’s a planetary romance, but it’s brimming with swordplay, magical happenings and other fantasy elements that make it very much a science-fantasy blend.
Another type of novel that thrived in this period and often combined science, fantasy and adventure was the lost world story. Started by King Solomon’s Mines in 1885 (the first in the Allan Quatermain series, which Haggard continued writing until his death in in 1925), it was extended by Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and others. I haven’t included these above, because I feel they were more influential for the science fiction genre, but I’ve included them in the “other works” list below.
A Few Interesting Facts
- L. Frank Baum wrote 14 full-length Oz books, and his publisher printed an additional 26 after his death by various other authors. Additional Oz-inspired books were also released by other authors and publishers, creating a vast collection of works based on this fantasy world.
- The earliest Wizard of Oz adaptation to screen was a 15-minute silent film made in 1910, though there have since been many more.
- The stories of Irish fantasy writer Lord Dunsany were a major influence on the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, H. P. Lovecraft and others.
- The Worm Ouroborus is a heroic fantasy heavily inspired by mythology. Both Tolkien and Lewis read it, and it was later often mentioned as one of the rare adult epic fantasies that predated Tolkien’s.
- Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the Barsoom, Tarzan, Pellucidar and Caspak series, was very prolific during this period, publishing a lot of adventure and science-fantasy series in the All-Story Weekly.
- Hugh Lofting first penned the character of Dr Dolittle in letters to his children sent from the trenches of World War I, not wanting to write about his “too dull or too horrible” actual news. These formed the basis of his 13-book series, the second of which won the Newbery Medal. The first novel, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, involves a journey to Africa and, like some other children’s works from this era, reflected the colonialist attitudes of the time and included racist words and plot elements that were edited in subsequent editions.
- Some of the “other works” listed below, while more obscure at the time of publication, gained notice later when mentioned by popular authors. For example H.P. Lovecraft and Terry Pratchett name The House on the Borderland as an influence, C.S. Lewis was inspired by A Voyage to Arcturus, and Neil Gaiman lists Lud-in-the-Mist as one of his favourite books.
Other Early 20th Century Works and Authors
There are some works that didn’t make it into the list above for various reasons, either because they were light on fantasy elements (or were more science fiction or adventure stories than fantasy), because I’d already included another work by that author, because they weren’t novels, or simply because I didn’t think they were as significant to the genre as others. However, they are still worth mentioning. I also had a lot of trouble choosing what to include and exclude for this era, so some missed out on being highlighted above by a slim margin:
- The short stories of H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), notably his Dream Cycle and Cthulhu Mythos stories.
- The works of H.G. Wells (1866–1946)
- The short stories of Algernon Blackwood (1869–1951)
- The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (1902)
- The Wonderful Adventures of Nils / Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (1907) and other works by Selma Lagerlöf [the first woman to win the Nobel prize for literature]
- The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham (1908)
- The House on the Borderland and The Night Land, by William Hope Hodgson (1908 and 1912)
- The Phantom of the Opera / Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux (1909)
- The Book of Wonder (1912) short story collection by Lord Dunsany
- Angel Island by Inez Haynes Gillmore (1914) [feminist fantasy]
- The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1914)
- Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912 / 1914)
- Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice by James Branch Cabell (1919) [a popular early work of comic fantasy that influenced Terry Pratchett and others]
- A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay (1920)
- Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees (1926)
- Topper by Thorne Smith (1926)
- Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1926)
- LOST WORLD BOOKS: The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912), The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1918/24), The Citadel of Fear by Francis Stevens (Gertrude Barrows Bennett) and The Moon Pool and The Ship of Ishtar by Abraham Merritt (1919 and 1924).
Are any of these books a favourite? Or do you think I’ve overlooked an important novel? Feel free to give it a mention in the comments.