For this discussion on classic fantasy vs modern fantasy, I am going to use J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S Lewis as the classic examples (plus maybe a couple of other honourable mentions).
One of the main reasons I see reviewers disliking classic fantasy and instead preferring modern books is the writing style. Methods of conveying a narrative have changed over the decades, and even within contemporary works, there are differences. However, there is a big difference between reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
In older books, the narrator tends to be omnipresent, aware of everything. It can be quite jarring to read something like, “little did she know, her day was about to get much worse” in books these days. This style used to be quite common, though.
Fantasy books were children’s books, and British children’s literature in the early 1900’s was all essentially written in that type of style.
Now, if we look at a slightly more recent classic fantasy example, such as A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, we can see some of the older writing style still there, if a little closer to what we are used to now. This was a slow evolution, so slow, in fact, that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone also contains some similar choices in the prose.
I do think that writing has improved over the years. Yes, The Lord of the Rings is beautifully written and an excellent piece of literature, but by modern standards, writers like Patrick Rothfuss and Steven Erikson are far better.
On any classic fantasy vs modern fantasy discussion, you will more than likely see a comparison made of the characters. Older fantasy books were filled with archetypes: you’ve got the hero, the mentor, the dark lord… etc.
The classic tropes are fun, especially when done well. Robert Jordan dragged the cliches of the genre into the modern style in his Wheel of Time series, influencing a whole generation of writers, such as Brandon Sanderson (who completed that series).
In his Mistborn series, Brandon Sanderson used the archetype of the Dark Lord and flipped it on its head. We begin book 1 in the trilogy, The Final Empire, in a world where the Dark Lord has won. How this character is different to Sauron or Voldemort is something I can’t reveal without spoilers, but suffice to say that the Dark Lord trope was revitalised and made for an exciting and intriguing read.
No one has done worldbuilding better than J. R. R. Tolkien. Or have they? If you have read Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series (a world co-created with Ian C. Esslemont, who has also written his own books within the world), you may believe that Tolkien has been bested.
I think the answer to that debate is too long for a few paragraphs, but the main point is that writers are creating huge, sprawling worlds that feel like they rival Tolkien’s work, even if they don’t. That’s a huge achievement, and often done by making the reader believe that the writer knows more about their world than they actually do.
This can save spending over 40 years creating a world to write stories about, meaning we get far more! Great examples include every book in Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere, such as the epic Stormlight Archive series and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.
Classic fantasy vs modern fantasy: who won? I believe that while the works of Tolkien, Lewis and others had a huge influence on the genre, the fantasy that is being written now is so much better. Just look at the books written by R. F. Kuang, Patrick Rothfuss, and so many self-published authors who create sprawling, incredible worlds.
We live in a golden age of innovation in the fantasy genre and I am so excited for where it will go next. Enjoy the works from the past, but don’t live there forever!