For me it definitely started with The Hobbit. I have the copy my father gave me when I was a kid, and it's the same book he had as a teenager in 1966. The binding's starting to give, the top of the pages are beginning to gently yellow, but it's in good enough shape that I'm hoping I can pass it on to my son when he's ready (and willing) to read it. I couldn't get enough of Bilbo Baggins and his adventures with Gandalf and the Dwarves as they fought trolls, spiders, goblins, and the wonderful bloated menace of Smaug. I read The Hobbit over and over again, until my father decided I was old enough to tackle something weightier, and The Lord of the Rings is where I really discovered J.R.R. Tolkein.
Thanks to Tolkein and games like Dungeons & Dragons (remember, this is back in the early 80's) I began a steady process of devouring fantasy series and novels. The Lord of the Rings stayed as the epicenter of my fantasy world, but along the periphery I found C.S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia, Terry Brooks and the Shannara series, the Xanth novels of Piers Anthony, the Riddle-Master trilogy by Patricia A. McKillip, and perhaps at the head of the pack, the wonderful Amber novels by Roger Zelazny, which for a time challenged the top spot in my heart for best fantasy series.
But then something happened. Fantasy kept giving me the same old thing, but there was a new kid on the block, wired and interstellar and ready to launch expectations into another universe entirely. I can't remember when I first became aware of science fiction as literature, although, like millions of others, I'm sure STAR WARS was the initial kick that sparked my interest. But the wealth and depth of writing from folks like Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury explored so many aveunes of the human condition, entertained so many exciting concepts and ideas that fantasy began to seem a little, well, childish. Especially to a teenager obsessed with all the things a teenager becomes obsessed with in the late 80's. The early 90's saw the advent of the Internet and the expansion of what was possible through technology, and thanks to Neal Stephenson and William Gibson novels like Neuromancer and Snow Crash ushered in an entirely new kind of writing, and it was writing that I couldn;t devour fast enough. But why did my taking to science fiction so passionately leave fantasy along the wayside? Was it really something about the perceived maturity of dragons and elves? The few authors I tried - R.A. Salvatore and David Eddings - left me cold and feeling like I had grown up, but fantasy writing had stayed the same age.
Fast forward another 15 years or so.
It's 2008. A young boy with glasses and a lightning-bolt scar has completely transformed the landscape of fantasy and literature for young adults. Whereas in the 80's I had to get my fantasy kicks from the normal science fiction/fantasy shelf in the local store, now there are whole sections devoted to what's known as "Young Adults". Scores of novels and series dedicated to fulfilling the promises that Lewis and Tolkein did for me when I was younger.
And that's great, but who and where to turn now for "adult" fantasy (insert your own sex joke here____)? In a world where almost everyone is reading Harry Potter and lesser known (but equally for kids) entries like the Artemis Fowl and Eragon series, is there such a thing as "mature" fantasy? The last big fantasy series for adults I could recall was The Wheels of Time by Robert Jordan, but a couple quick glances didn't seem to show anything promising, although judging by the sales I could be wrong. I began asking people for recommendations and checking out web sites and blogs dedicated to the genre to see what's been going on and who's considered the Big Boss of fantasy nowadays.
Turns out a lot's been going on while I slaved away with interstellar wars and positronic brains. The "new masters" of fantasy have in turn taken aspects of history, religion, comedy, romance, and even a little SF in order to freshen the sword and sorcery pot. A few names I keep seeing over and over again are George R.R. Martin, Terry Goodkind, Raymond E Feist, David Gemmel and Elizabeth Moon. I've read the first two Discworld books from Terry Pratchett which were good, although I've since heard that the series as a contained world doesn't really get going until Mort, and it turns out Charles Stross, who writes some very good horror (The Atrocity Archives) and science fiction (Glasshouse) has a skewered fantasy series called The Merchant Princes.
So it seems "a lot" has happened to fantasy, but where to begin? If anyone out there has some opinions on the above authors or, better yet, a great starting place to get "back" into fantasy, sharpen your +3 pole arm and let me know. If nothing else it's your opportunity to sound off on some of your favorite writers.