While the 1950s might have seen the publication of crucial series like The Lord of the Rings and Narnia, it was during the 60s that the fantasy genre skyrocketed to new levels of popularity and mainstream appeal. Publishers eager to meet rising demand sought out fantasy works, and the decade brought many beloved classics to the genre.
Below I’ve listed what I believe to be the 12 most popular or influential fantasy novels published between 1960 and 1970. I’ve tried to use the original cover from that year where possible. Series titles are included in brackets:
(To enlarge a cover simply click on it and the image gallery will open)
The Lord of the Rings didn’t take off in the USA until the late 1960s, when it sold millions of copies. This sent American publishers on the hunt for similar works. Some reissued older fantasy novels, bringing them to a new and larger readership (e.g. the Ballantine series, launched in 1969). Previously, adult fantasy had thrived mostly in pulp magazines, now became profitable and popular in novel format.
One of the most enduring fantasies of the 60s is Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, often cited as the first to introduce the ‘boy wizard’ trope. It explored complex themes and philosophical ideas, as did other young adult and children’s fantasy works of the time, such as Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (inspired by quantum physics), Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn and Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone. In fact, young adult fiction in general began to thrive in this decade as the first books marketed expressly at teens were published.
Many of the influential works of this decade were by female authors and featured female protagonists. Several also blurred the lines between science fiction and fantasy. For example, McCaffrey’s Dragonflight and L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time are considered science fiction by some and fantasy or science fantasy by others.
The era also brought an important work of dark fantasy in Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, which helped popularise the dark carnival trope.
A Few Interesting Facts
- Taoist philosophical ideas of balance are prominent in the Earthsea Cycle. Le Guin actually wrote an English translation of the Tao Te Ching (a Taoist text).
- The protagonist of A Wizard of Earthsea has red-brown skin, and Le Guin often expressed her annoyance at the character being portrayed as white on cover illustrations. She was also critical of the whitewashing (and a myriad of other problems) in the Sci Fi channel adaptation.
- American author Lloyd Alexander was inspired by Welsh mythology and his experience in Wales during his WWII army training.
- Anne McCaffrey was the first woman to win a Hugo Award for fiction and the first woman to win a Nebula Award.
- Mercedes Lackey read and loved Andre Norton’s books as a teen in the 60s. 30 years later, the two authors collaborated and wrote The Halfblood Chronicles (1991) together. Lackey also collaborated with Anne McCaffrey.
- A Wrinkle in Time came close to never being published. L’Engle received 26 rejections and almost gave up writing. Once she finally found a publisher the book was a great success and went on to win the Newbery Medal.
- Norton Juster loved the “music of words” and read widely as a child. The Phantom Tollbooth is known for its wordplay, wit and puns. It also references children’s fantasy classics, such as Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Charlotte’s Web and The Wind and the Willows.
- The Last Unicorn, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, is often voted amongst the top fantasy novels of all time. Beagle also wrote the script for the 1982 Japanese-American animated adaption.
- Robin Hobb lists Heinlein’s Glory Road as one of her influences.
- Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was inspired by the chocolate companies of his childhood. In the 1920s Cadbury sent free test packages for new products to school children, and Cadbury and Rowntree’s were highly competitive and secretive about their chocolate-making methods.
Other 60s 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, because I’d already included another work by that author, because they were more science fiction or horror, or simply because I didn’t think they were as significant to the genre as others. However, some of these are still worth mentioning:
- The Cricket in Times Square (Chester Cricket and His Friends Series) by George Selden, illustrated by Garth Williams (1960)
- A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle (1960)
- Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson (1961)
- James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl (1961)
- The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (The Wolves Chronicles) by Joan Aiken (1962)
- The Planet Savers (Darkover Series) by Marion Zimmer Bradley (1962)
- Elidor and The Owl Service by Alan Garner (1965 & 1967)
- The Jewel in the Skull (The History of Runestaff series) by Michael Moorcock (1967)
- Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967) [horror]
- Swords Against Wizardry [Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser Series continuing from previous decades] by Fritz Leiber (1968)
- The Goblin Tower (The Reluctant King Trilogy / The Novarian Series) by L. Sprague de Camp (1968)
- The Warlock in Spite of Himself (Warlock Series) by Christopher Stasheff (1969) [science fantasy]
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.