The 30s and 40s were a crucial period for the fantasy genre. Not only did they see the publication of The Hobbit and the meeting of the Inklings group of fantasy writers, but also a rise in the number of pulp magazines publishing fantasy stories. While the genre had not yet become mainstream, the stories of these decades significantly contributed to its development and definition.
Below I’ve listed what I believe to be the 12 most significant fantasy works published between 1930 and the end of 1949, with their original covers where possible. Because some serialised stories didn’t appear in novel form till later decades, I’ve instead included the covers of magazine issues they featured in (if possible):
(To enlarge a cover simply click on it and the image gallery will open)
The Inklings group met in Oxford in the 30s and 40s. Its members, which included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien, not only wrote fantasy, but also some of the earliest scholarly writing on fantasy (e.g. Tolkien’s 1939 essay “On Fairy-Stories”) often pointing out that it could appeal to adults as well as children. While The Hobbit didn’t achieve the soaring levels of popularity The Lord of the Rings would later garner, it was none-the-less very popular after its publication in 1937, and set the stage for his later work.
This period was also important for comic fantasy and sword and sorcery / heroic fantasy. T. H. White’s The Once and Future King affectionately mocked elements of the King Arthur legend, and included anachronistic humour and social commentary. The magazine Unknown Worlds (founded in 1939) featured sword and sorcery tales with a comedic element, publishing the stories of writers like L. Sprague de Camp, Fletcher Pratt and Fritz Leiber.
Comics and superhero fiction also had their beginnings in this era, with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman (1938) heralding the golden age of comic books from the 30s-50s. While these comics were not fantasy or novels, they had a significant influence on speculative fiction as a whole.
The end of this era was marked by the founding of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (in 1949). Its prominent use of the word “fantasy” no doubt helped firmly establish the term for the genre (though it had been used earlier by other publishers, e.g. The Fantasy Press Publishing House founded in 1946).
A Few Interesting Facts
- A lot of 20s, 30s, 40s adult fantasy novels were ‘rediscovered’ and reprinted in the 70s (many by the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series) in response to the post-Lord-of-the-Rings rise of adult fantasy. As such, some works enjoyed their greatest popularity decades after original publication.
- Walton’s The Virgin and the Swine, the first of 4 volumes retelling the Welsh Mabinogion, sold poorly in the 30s, and none of the others were published at the time. It was rediscovered and reissued in 70s as The Island of the Mighty, followed by the 3 other books, forming what eventually became known as The Mabinogion Tetralogy.
- Fritz Leiber coined the term Sword and Sorcery to describe the kind of fantasy-adventure stories written by Robert E. Howard, in response to a letter from Michael Moorcock in the fanzine Amra.
- In addition to writing his own fantasy, L. Sprague de Camp continued Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and also edited several anthologies, said to have sparked a renaissance of sword & sorcery in the late 60s.
- The Sword in the Stone was initially a stand-alone work, but was followed by shorter novels that were eventually compiled, revised and expanded on to create a tetralogy: The Once and Future King (published 1958).
- The Incomplete Enchanter is notable in that it bases its magic system on an intellectual system of symbolic logic.
- This is more an observation than a fact, but from looking at the above images, it would seem the scantily-clad-damsel cover trend has its roots in the magazine illustrations of this era!
Other 30s and 40s Works and Authors
There are some works that didn’t make it onto the list above that are none-the-less worth mentioning too:
- The short stories of H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)
- The short stories of Algernon Blackwood (1869–1951)
- Mistress of Mistresses by E.R. Eddison (1935) [Zimiamvian trilogy]
- The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney (1935)
- The Golden Key, or the Adventures of Buratino (1936) by Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy
- The Little Grey Men: A Story for the Young in Heart by Denys Watkins-Pitchford (1942)
- Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright & Mark Saxton (1942)
- Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson (1948)
- Silverlock by John Myers Myers (1949)
- Lost Horizon by James Hilton (1933) [an adventure novel with fantasy elements, and also a lost world novel. It was one of the early paperback “pocket books” and sold millions of copies, making it one of the most popular books of the 20th Century. It is the origin of the term ‘Shangri-La’]
- The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943) [one of the best-selling books of all time. By some standards it’s fantasy, but it’s more often seen as an allegorical, magical realist work of literary fiction]
NOTE: I’m no longer mentioning science fiction works here unless they are particularly relevant to fantasy, because the two genres begin to diverge more obviously in this period, and with the proliferation of sci-fi in this era (the 30s and 40s are sometimes referred to as the golden age of science fiction) it would make my list too long!
Are any of these books a favourite? Or would you add another important novel to the list? Feel free to give it a mention in the comments.