Show Mobile Navigation
Books |

Top 10 Underrated Fantasy Stories Before 1937

by ophiucha
fact checked by Alex Hanton

J.R.R. Tolkien changed the face of the fantasy genre when he published “The Hobbit” in 1937 and subsequently his famous “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. But with this defining moment in the genre, many of the great works that preceded Tolkien have been forgotten in time. This list gives you my top ten underrated classics of fantasy prior to the publication of “The Hobbit.”


by Hope Mirrlees


Publication Date: 1926

Probably the most obscure thing I shall mention on this list, this is a rather interesting tale in an alternate world where some rather mundane people live in peace, but are interrupted by a flow of fairy fruit form the neighboring lands. It explores some interesting themes for a high fantasy novel, and it is certainly something different for the well-read fan. I would recommend her other works as highly, but most are a bit difficult to find – all but this one are out of print. Still, if you can procure a copy of anything else by Mirrlees, make sure you take the opportunity. [Read it here.]


The Water-Babies
by Charles Kingsley

Image 646 1

Publication Date: 1863

This is a children’s novel that I might not recommend for the kids, but anybody with an interest in Victorian fairy tales and a bit of controversy absolutely must pick this one up. It has moral messages (in blatant form, as children’s novels are wont to do, to such an extent that one character is named Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby) on a variety of topics, most notably child labor but also on a number of religious and scientific topics. Kingsley himself was a Reverend, but he was not against the at-the-time very controversial publications of Charles Darwin. Look at it in the right perspective, readers, and you’ll find quite the metaphor for the going ons of the time as well as a fun little fairy tale. [Read it here.]


The House on the Borderland
by William Hope Hodgson

3927 400X600

Publication Date: 1908

This is a horror novel, certainly, but this was really the novel that made way for writers of the Lovecraftian-sort (including H.P. himself). It is a darker branch of the fantasy genre, but the cosmic and supernatural horrors found in the House on the Borderland are no less fantastic than anything Tolkien could conjure. If you enjoy the supernatural as much as you do elves and dragons, then this a great story to look to for the origins of your subgenre. [Read it here.]


Lost Horizon
by James Hilton


Publication Date: 1933

Here is an instance of an aspect of this novel exceeding the fame of the novel itself. Many of you have probably heard of ‘Shangri-La’. There are a buildings, gardens, albums, songs, a manga series, towns, a region of Saturn’s moon, and a chain of hotels in Hong Kong named after it. In fact, it was even mentioned on another page here on Listverse. But this grand story of immortality, British imperialism, and all you could hope for from a fantasy novel. It is underrepresented for such an influential piece of literature, and it is a very enjoyable read even ignoring the wonderful world of Shangri-La. [Read it here.]


The Princess and the Goblin
by George MacDonald


Publication Date: 1872

This is a simple, subtle story of fantasy and wonder in the form of a children’s book. We have the classics: dungeons, goblins, princesses, and adventure. It’s a rich story that can be enjoyed at all ages, and the lessons it teaches are excellent for any readers looking for something to read to your children. Indeed, it is said to be one of Tolkien’s favorites as a child. [Read it here.]


The Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame


Publication Date: 1908

Adapted into a play by A.A. Milne (author of Winnie the Pooh), as well as into one half of the Disney film “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” (the other half being an adaptation of the Sleepy Hallow story), this is certainly the most famous of the underrated. Still, not many people have read the book and that is what this list is for. This is a cute children’s story about a wealthy toad, a water rat, a humble mole, and their adventures with other anthropomorphic creatures, the god Pan, and of course, a willow tree. [Read it here.]


The Worm Ouroboros
by Eric Rücker Eddison

Ereddison - Worm Ouroboros 2

Publication Date: 1922

This is my favorite novel. Written in a mock epic style, Eddison brings us through Mercury, a land divided into kingdoms like Witchland and Demonland, in a journey that spans what seems to be years with epic battles, magical beings, and three brothers. Goldry Bluszco, Lord Juss, and Lord Spitfire. What really makes this story excellent, though, is the ending – if you’d like to think of it as such. [Read it here.]


The Well at the World’s End
by William Morris


Publication Date: 1896

This book helped codify the classic fantasy story. And, indeed, both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were influenced greatly by the works of William Morris, this novel in particular. Written in a medieval style, we follow the adventures of a young man on his quest for the eponymous well, one which will grant him immortality. A book of similar influence and greatness by William Morris is “The Wood Beyond the World,” and it is equally worth your time. [Read it here.]


The King of Elfland’s Daughter
by Lord Dunsany


Publication Date: 1924

This position goes less to “The King of Elfland’s Daughter,” and more to Lord Dunsany himself. He may be the most iconic writer of the fantasy genre prior to Tolkien coming about, yet few people know him at all these days. It’s quite a shame. Also, there is a concept album about it with vocals from the lead of Jethro Tull and Christopher Lee. [Read it here.]


The Faerie Queene
by Edmund Spenser


Publication Date: 1590 – 1596

Jumping back three centuries from most of the works on this list, we have the poet Edmund Spenser. This unfinished epic poem was written in praise of Queen Elizabeth I and details a number of faerie tales, Arthurian epics, and classic, fantasy fun. It is also one of the longest poems in the English language, the origin of Spenserian stanza, and the old cliché ‘roses are red, violets are blue’ is found in its earliest form in this poem. How can you not want to pick it up? [Read it here.]

fact checked by Alex Hanton