“There is only one Lord of the Rings,” as Gandalf says in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the three-volume epic. It’s as true of the literary work as it is about Sauron himself.
Despite being a lifelong fan of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, I don’t typically go out looking for another book or another series that strikes the same chord. There are, however, many high fantasy or epic fantasy works that evoke a similar sense of beauty, adventure, heroism, depth, and melancholy as Tolkien’s great work.
I’ll admit that I am routinely frustrated at the non-Tolkienesque recommendations I encounter, so please take mine with your own grain of salt. They are informed by the data I gathered last year on why readers continue to love The Lord of the Rings, but there’s always some personal taste involved.
Here are just seven series that share key similarities—all which stand well on their own merits, it’s worth adding.
Fusing the Ordinary and the Very Epic: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Earthsea Cycle (1968 – 2001)
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Earthsea Cycle follows the coming-of-age journey of a wizard called Sparrowhawk, along with some of his treasure-hunting adventures, his attempts to bring real peace to a war-torn world, and a quest to stop wizardry itself (and all crafts of beauty and power) from disappearing. It’s also a series about the power of being very ordinary.
Although Earthsea is one of the most obviously unique of all the works this article discusses, there are so many ways in which reading this series feels like reading The Lord of the Rings.
For the sake of brevity, here are a few high level items to consider:
- In Earthsea, as in Middle-earth, magic seems to have touched everything. Yet the omnipresence of magical events has not diluted the power it brings to the page in this high-magic setting.
- Readers might be fooled into thinking The Lord of the Rings is a long work of fiction. At 575,000 words, it’s about the size of two George R. R. Martin books, 1.25 books in the Stormlight Archive, and the final solitary volume in Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn (referenced later on). In short, The Lord of the Rings is short for high fantasy, epic fantasy, or similar genre organizers. And so is The Earthsea Cycle, the entire work spanning less than 500,000 words.
- Short or not, Earthsea shows Le Guin’s uncanny ability to tell a great story with few pages, much as Tolkien himself did.
- Earthsea is full of minor characters doing seemingly unimportant things. Yes, there are heroics like Aragorn’s or Gandalf’s, but the story is mostly concerned with more ordinary events, which brings it much closer to real life than your standard work of epic fantasy. It also makes it much more harmonious with Tolkien’s own work, which is greatly concerned with ordinary, daily, non-epic goings on.
This last point connects to what might be most Tolkien-like of all: Earthsea’s clearest heroes don’t solve their problems by strength of arms. Le Guin meticulously crafts stories in which killing a bad guy doesn’t actually fix the world, much as Tolkien’s work did. Yes, you’ll find epic clashes of armies or magical powers in The Lord of the Rings—and Earthsea has some similar moments—but it’s in quieter moments and less obvious decisions that both works bring their stories to a point of resolution.
Music is Magic in The Riddle-Master Trilogy by Patricia McKillip (1976 – 1979)
The Riddle-Master Trilogy by Patricia McKillip tells the story of a young land-heir, swine-herd, beer-brewer, amatuer riddler, would-be-scholar, and prophesied hero all rolled up into one. Along the way, there’s plenty of murderous chasing, ancient riddles, and magical harping to keep readers interested. Much like Middle-Earth, McKillip’s fantasy world is filled to the brim with magic, much of it left almost wholly unexplained.
In an earlier blog post on underrated works of epic fantasy, I’ve noted Tolkien’s critical influence on McKillip. What’s especially interesting to me is that McKillip tells such a different story in such a different style than Tolkien, despite numbering him among only a very few speculative fiction writers to shape her early work (Le Guin was another).
“Tolkien just opened the doors to imagination.”—Patricia McKillip, 2010
Where The Lord of the Rings divides an epic journey up across a party of disparate compatriots, there’s a much lonelier journey going on in The Riddle-Master Trilogy; the main characters—Morgon, Raederle, and Deth—spend a great deal of time alone or with little company around them. Also, much like The Earthsea Cycle mentioned above, there are no Helm’s Deeps or Pelennor Fields with armies fighting on them in this trilogy. Just a wizard or two here or there and a long, well-tuned string of riddles to lure the curious reader forward.
What feels most Tolkienesque about McKillip’s trilogy is the author’s evident respect for the beauty of the world she created. It’s stunningly unique, even when weighed against the almost 50 years of high fantasy following it. Like Tolkien, McKillip made something that feels too distinct to be properly replicated.
An Epic Story With Elves, Quests, Magic Swords, and Mystical Mentors: The Sword of Shannara Trilogy by Terry Brooks (1977 – 1985)
While the past two works on the list are less apparent in their Tolkien-like trappings, Terry Brooks wore his clearly from the start of his career. The Sword of Shannara Trilogy, which contains three whole, standalone stories, draws on similar plotting, quest structures, and even hero party makeups. It doesn’t feel too fresh upfront, but Brooks’s debut does show a great deal of skill and imagination all the same—and books two and three (and Brooks’s many Shannara stories after that) do a lot to distinguish themselves in their own right.
Here’s a quick for instance on the similarities: Book one (The Sword of Shannara) follows the quest of a semi-orphaned villager and his adoptive brother as monstrous creatures chase them from their home and they set out to destroy a dark lord. Along their journey, they team up with a dwarf, two bow-wielding elves, the crown prince of a powerful kingdom that guards the border between the dark lord and the rest of the known world, and a mysteriously knowledgeable druid.
And here’s an example of where Brooks does his own thing: The hero of book one doesn’t succeed through fighting or escaping or purposefully destroying a magical relic. He succeeds by using truth and paradox to confound the deluded dark lord head on.
Filled with immense monsters, ancient magic, fast-paced chases, and courageous confrontations of evil, The Sword of Shannara Trilogy embraces the sense of adventure and heroism that so many readers love in The Lord of the Rings. Where Tolkien leans more heavily into lore and detail, Brooks’s very American storytelling is a little more pulpy and action-packed. This makes for a different read than the previous works on the list but one that has resonated with many Tolkien fans in the years since this trilogy helped launch epic fantasy as a commercial, formalized genre in the U.S.
A Work That Captures the Sorrow of a Closing Age: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams (1988 – 1993)
Tad Williams has written quite a variety of speculative fiction, but to date he is most well-known for his million-word epic trilogy Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. George R. R. Martin is one of the series’s many vocal fans and credits Williams with influencing him to write his own epic fantasy.
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn shares more than one strong similarity with The Lord of the Rings. It’s very much a story about small people (physically and socially) stepping into heroic roles they shouldn’t have to shoulder. It’s also one of the more rigorous of early epic fantasy stories in terms of overall setting and worldbuilding.
There’s a particularly powerful parallel between Middle-earth and how Williams portrays ancient, magical peoples withdrawing from the world of humans. Much as Tolkien’s elves are leaving the lands of mortals, Williams’s magical races have in many ways already distanced themselves from the doings of humankind. The distance this creates between the ordinary world and magical occurrences sets readers up for a huge sense of awe whenever pretty much anything magical comes about. Many low-magic series have followed, but I have encountered few that bring such a sense of age and scope as Williams’s original trilogy—in a way that feels very much like reading The Lord of the Rings.
Going Epic on Epic Fantasy: Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen (1999 – 2011)
Critics have often called Robert Jordan (author of The Wheel of Time) the American Tolkien because of the size and scope of his massive fantasy story. Don’t forget the Canadian Tolkien, though. His name is Steven Erikson.
Erikson’s 10-book epic is more often compared to A Song of Ice and Fire than to The Lord of the Rings, but it’s hard to find any writer in any genre who rivals Erikson’s depth of world-building (and that includes Tolkien himself).
Where Tolkien uses his immense knowledge of philology and poetry to inform his worldbuilding, Erikson draws on archeology and anthropology as well, creating economies, social contracts, militaries, and magic systems that feel incredibly plausible because they follow patterns so identifiable in human history.
And this is to say nothing of Erikson’s sheer skill with words. Erikson graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the most celebrated writing program in the world, and he makes his wordsmithing prowess plain from early on in book one of Malazan.
Erikson is often described as being too challenging for many fantasy readers today. With a heavy focus on warfare and imperialism, Malazan also sits more on the military fantasy side of the genre spectrum, versus the lofty, high fantasy space The Lord of the Rings craved for itself. That said, Erikson’s rich lore, expansive setting, immense cast of characters (god and human alike), and very character-oriented storytelling make his work an excellent fit for the many Tolkien fans who want something epic, well-imagined, and unforgettable.
A Magical Mix of Everything: The Swan’s War Trilogy by Sean Russell (2001 – 2004)
Perhaps the least well known series on the list, The Swan’s War trilogy feels like an even amalgamation of the elements in almost all the above series. It follows several converging storylines, including the coming of age journey of a few village boys, a sort of Montagues and Capulets rivalry that goes full-blown medieval war, and the secret quest of an almost roguish wizard.
I’d venture to guess that author Sean Russell knows one of Tolkien’s oft-forgotten secrets: Don’t explain everything. The Swan’s War trilogy feels almost like a dark fairy tale, when you get deep into it. The lore is less expansive than most items on this list, but it still feels deep and awe-inspiring without taking 5000 pages to get there.
Like in The Fellowship of the Ring, particularly, there’s plenty of chasing and escaping from mysterious forces, and like in The Two Towers or The Return of the King, readers will find interesting stories about royal families, political intrigue, and warfare, all meshing well with simpler tales about a few young cousins trying to find their way safely home. And much like The Lord of the Rings as a whole, Russell’s trilogy is particularly interesting in its fascination with landscape and the journey itself, presenting a setting that feels as magical when uninhabited as it does when warring enchanters hunt each other across it. There’s plenty of magical imagination and adventure as well, but the unique sense of location is perhaps the single item that makes it feel most Tolkien-like.
Celebrating Fellowship: Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations (2011 – 2012)
Michael J. Sullivan’s six-book trilogy follows the oft-illegal adventures of two companion thieves, Royce and Hadrian. Sometimes they’ll be taking a job to make some quick cash. Sometimes they set out because they’ve been framed for jobs they didn’t do. They always collaborate, however, and their teamwork is part of the appeal.
Riyria Revelations feels in many ways the most light-hearted and hopeful of the works on this list. Not that dark things don’t happen. They do in every volume. But as in The Lord of the Rings, there’s a present sense of fortitude or even optimism that largely stems from the comradery between its characters. Royce and Hadrian foil each other more blatantly than Frodo and Sam or Gimli and Legolas, but the series visits themes of loyalty and fellowship again and again, both with its protagonists and with other characters.
Make no mistake. There are also instances of arcane wizardry, skillful swordplay, epic monstrosities, and the search for lost royalty, so most high fantasy or epic fantasy readers will find something to like here. While Riyria Revelations is less of a bildungsroman than any other work on this list, it still feels relevant and a little classic. But it’s the ever present thread of friendship that feels most relevant to Tolkien.
A Few Others Worth Mentioning
As mentioned earlier, many Tolkien fans found something new to love in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, and I see the appeal. It’s a long journey to the end of the series, but it’s the type of expansive tale that couldn’t be told without a deep commitment to the length of the road from Emond’s Field to Tarmon Gai’don.
Guy Gavriel Kay is another high fantasy author well worth including on this list. Kay not only writes poetic, distinctive, powerful fantasy on his own. He also played an integral role in bringing The Silmarillion to light, making him particularly Tolkien-like in his contributions to the genre.
I’d also add Kristen Britain’s Green Rider series for consideration. In a similar vein to Terry Brooks, Britain wears many Tolkien influences on her sleeve, and few fantasy writers match her great love of horses—while Tolkien is one who seems to have shared it.
Last but not least, if you’re a fan of The Lord of the Rings, you can always go read it again. I like to encourage people to try new books, but this is one work that surely has a lot to give over repeat readings. Tolkien’s tomes are full enough that you might find a new story or two there each time.
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About the Author
Stephen Taylor is the author of The Witherclaw Trilogy as well as short fiction appearing in The Future Fire, MYTHIC Magazine, The Centropic Oracle, and other publications. His short story “Only an Ocean” won a Silver Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. When he’s not writing, he’s often playing my violin or wandering in the woods.