Thoughtful Thursday: You never forget your first

Welcome back to Thoughtful Thursday! I’ve been mulling over something Janny Wurts said in the podcast we linked to on this blog last week.  She talked about certain archetypes reoccurring in fantasy because they serve as an entrance point to the genre for certain age groups which made me think about how I started reading fantasy.

I remember the first fantasy book I ever read.  While younger I had read other books like C.S. Lewis‘s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, or Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, but I had never considered them fantasy. Maybe because the stories depicted something I recognized as our world, just looked at sideways. The first book I read and realized I was reading a fantasy novel was Mercedes Lackey’s Arrows of the Queen.  I was in my early teens, and this book spoke to me in a way that nothing else had before. I was figuratively transported out of my boring teenage life and into another world. I identified with the plucky young heroine, her trials and triumphs, the clear cut world view, and I coveted her telepathic horse.  That set me off into a reading binge that has never really ended.  For years I read every book that Mercedes Lackey published. I blazed through Anne McCaffrey‘s Harper Hall trilogy, and most of the other Pern books. I fell in love with Charles deLint and Robin McKinley and Jane Yolen and Elizabeth Moon.  And that was just high school.

Even now as an adult, when nothing else on my bookshelf appeals to me, I can pick up Arrows of the Queen and lose myself in familiar and welcoming Valdemar. While my tastes have matured and I realize now that it may not be the epitome of great literature, I will always be grateful for that book starting my love affair with fantasy and science fiction.  And I still covet the telepathic horse.

It’s your turn: How old were you when you read your first fantasy novel, what was it, and what about it made you seek out more?

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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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  1. I didn’t really start actively reading until about 8, when I fell in love with horses. Then I started reading books about horses, of which there were rarely enough.
    I was nine when I found my first fantasy novel. My father had just passed away and we’d moved back to Rhode Island (we’d been living in Florida). Back then my school still got those wonderful Scholastic catalogs we could order books from and I, figuring that unicorns were pretty much horses with horns, ordered a copy of Into the Land of the Unicorns by Bruce Coville. I was pretty miserable at the time, being uprooted from the school I was familiar with and the home I loved, and it was such a wonder to me to find this world I could escape to.
    Of course, the sequel didn’t come out for years, and in the meantime I searched out more books–still starting from my love of horses so I ended up with books like Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce and Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey. For years I pined over The Unicorn Chronicles until I gave up on waiting for the next one–and lo! When I was 17 I discovered Song of the Wanderer on the shelves. And I was thrilled last year with the release of Dark Whispers. Mr. Coville is one of the only authors whose delays I’m willing to forgive.
    Besides, in the meantime I’d also discovered that I could also escape to other worlds by writing them myself, so I got on okay. :)

  2. LOTR for me. My dad has beautiful old worn copies of LOTR and The Hobbit, and when I was a baby he started reading them to me each night, and when he would finish, he’d just start over. I remember (vaguely) sitting at the dinner table with him and my mom struggling to read through the hobbit when I was younger. And after that, it’s still pretty boring. I just kept re-reading. I didn’t rediscover fantasy as a genre until I was out of college.

  3. For me, the first book that I realized was fantasy was The Sword and the Satchel. I was just turned 14, and reading opened up from that book. By the end of that summer, I had polished off The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, all of which I re-read constantly, plus Eddings, McCaffery, Herbert, Asimov, Brooks, LeGuin. I read a lot of schlock as a teenager, stuff that I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole now, and likely, The Sword and the Satchel falls into this category (farm boy finds magic sword, old wizard, etc.). I will never re-read it, as that will destroy the memory.

    My first actual fantasy book was My Father’s Dragon, which I read when I was 8. I never knew that it was part of a series until recently, and it has been reprinted several times since being published in the mid-20th century. I only realized that this was “fantasy” in hindsight. I might get the set for my kids, as I enjoyed it so much.

    Notice that I don’t remember the authors from either one.

  4. Sarah /

    I think it must be Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders series. I know I read other stuff at a young age, but that seems to be the one I remember reading as a teenager that really started me reading fantasy. And to heck with the Companions, I wanted a telepathic dragon. I think the telepathic bond drew me to a lot of books. Mercedes Lackey, Andre Norton’s Catseye and Beastmaster stories. Telzey Amberdon – I wanted to be Telzey. Come to think of it, I may have actually read the Telzey stories before the dragon ones. Why didn’t I keep a book journal? Too busy reading the next book I guess. My favorite one from age 8 or 9 is No Flying in the House. I still have a copy.

  5. Robert /

    In lower school–I went to an Episcopal school–our chaplain would periodically visit our class to read the Narnia books. I vividly remember the scene in Voyage of the Dawn Treader when Eustace becomes a dragon.

    In high school … Shadowdale (Ciencin); Dragonlance Chronicles (Weis/Hickman); and The Diamond Throne (Eddings). And boy, was I impressed later by this big, new, promising epic called The Eye of the World …

  6. Well not sure if ERB’s Tarzan would be considered fantasy, but all I have to do is remember reading Tarzan of the Apes, and I still get a child-like thrill of adventure. I was lucky enough to get the whole series in the printing with the Neal Adams and Boris covers, which, to this day, I can’t help but smile at whenever I glimpse their spines on my bookshelf. And that’s despite the fact that I don’t think I could get through them if I read them today.

    Then I started reading REH’s Conan, -the controversial Sprague De Camp and Carter edited series. Those grim, dark adventures complimented with the awesome Frazetta covers, made me look at the world differently. For years after -and even sometimes today-, I couldn’t walk through woods, hike a mountain, or cross a field, without wondering what forgotten ancient civilizations could have stood there or how many great warriors had fought their last battle only to fade away into the mists of time.

  7. Hmmm, this is a little complicated for me! I think I went in and out of “fantasy phases” a couple of times before finally settling into it as a favorite genre!

    I remember being obsessed with fairy tales as a kid, and with myths as a slightly older kid. Heck, I still am. :)

    I also remember sort of looking down my nose at fantasy when I was, oh, early teens or so. Don’t remember why; I think it was a misguided attempt to be mainstream-“cool”! Then one year I participated in a “read X number of books during the summer” thing through the public library, and once you completed the reading, you got a book as a prize. I was older than the age group they’d intended the contest for, and they didn’t have many choices for me. I ended up with a copy of Jane Yolen’s A Sending of Dragons, which is the third in a trilogy, and was bummed about it at the time. I wanted something more romancey, IIRC. Dragons? That was cheesy, right? Except I ended up enjoying it and going back to read the first two books in the series. I also remember reading an anthology at the time called, I think, Enchanted Lands. It had a version of “Tam Lin” in it by Joan Vinge. First time I’d ever come across that tale, and it blew me away.

    Then I stopped reading fantasy again, unless one counts the huge Anne Rice kick I was on in college. Anne Rice led me in a sort of sideways fashion to Elizabeth Hand, which led me to some nonfiction reading about goddess religion, which led me in turn back to fiction: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon. Around the same time I read some Wheel of Time because my friends were into it, and a bit of Patricia McKillip because it was handy one day when I was bored. The McKillip blew me away.

    Yet I still can’t claim it was “my genre” until a little later. I say in my profile that my point of entry was Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, and it’s really the most accurate place to start. I picked it up because the cover art was beautiful and because I had haunting memories of the tale it was based on. I liked it, and Terri Windling was putting big lists of recommended books in the backs of these novels, and suddenly I was off on a mad hunt for anything on that list and anything that was vaguely fairy-tale. I read lots of older stuff then, plus discovering Juliet Marillier and Peg Kerr and Jacqueline Carey and some others, and the rest was history.

  8. Because I’m short on time, I’ll quote from my review for Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster:

    There are some fantasy epics that all literature professors, and most normal people, would consider essential reading for any well-educated person — J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, etc. So, yeah, I read those a long time ago. But beyond that, there’s not much fantasy literature that’s essential reading. So, for a long time, I didn’t read any. In my drive to be educated, I stuck to the classics (which are classic because they’re great literature, usually). But one day, maybe 15 years ago, Patricia McKillip’s Riddle-master fell into my hands. I can’t remember exactly when, and I can’t remember how. I can’t even remember enough to tell you exactly what the trilogy was about. It’s been that long ago.

    All I can remember is sitting for hours, slack-jawed and amazed. The imagery was so beautiful, the writing so elegant, the ideas so powerful. Some of the imagery has remained with me; I can still remember the awe I felt when Morgon learned how to change into a tree, how to harp the wind, and who Deth was. I don’t really remember the details of the story very well, but I still feel it.

    I was sad when I finished the Riddle-master trilogy, but excited to have found something I loved so much, so I went looking for more beautiful fantasy literature. It’s been my favorite source of entertainment since.

  9. rebecca /

    For me it was Tamora Pierce’s “The Immortals Quartet”, and I was up until three in the morning reading “The Emperor Mage” (my first all-nighter!) There was adventure, and gods, and romance, and talking animals, and plots with plenty of twists and turns. Pierce throws everything but the kitchen sink into her books, but somehow makes it all work and feel coherent.

    And something that didn’t really occur to me as a ten year old, but which certainly meant a great deal later on were her plethora of female strong female characters. None of them were damsels in distress or Mary Sues: they were realistic, flawed, strong and had a range of goals that they strived for (and though this may sound squicky to some, they also have to deal with mundanities of life such as periods and contraceptives). Pierce manages that delicate balance in writing female protagonist: letting them be admirable without being perfect, and writing strong female characters without relying on a bunch of idiotic male characters who only exist to make the women look good by comparison.

  10. rebecca /

    Oh, also I have to give special mention to Meredith Anne Pierce’s “The Darkangel” and Philip Pullman’s “Northern Lights.” I read them both when I was thirteen, and they opened my eyes to the fact that “fantasy” novels didn’t have to be set in Ye Good Olde Days, in which everyone ate stew and wore cloaks and rode horses.

  11. where do we draw the line between “fantasy” and plain ole “children’s lit”? Do we count the Dahl’s Charlie and James, The Borrowers, Rabbit Hill, Stuart Little, Edward Eager? In that case my first “fantasy lit” was in 3rd grade and what made me want more was that idea of things in our world not being what they always seemed–the idea that little people were always around, that insects and animals had personalities, etc. I think that built on my first non-reality love–sci fi, something I’d picked up from my father. In 2nd and 3rd grade I was reading Danny Dunn, the Wonderful Mushroom Planet, etc. and I loved the idea of what the world might become, what the universe might have in store out there (Andre Norton was my goddess through elementary school) It was a small shift from that to what the world may already be.
    But if we mean alternate world sort of fantasy, it was the Narnia books and The Hobbit in 4th and 5th grade . I can still remember my father handing me a copy of The Hobbit in the Sibley’s book dept and telling me I’d love it. He was right. And it was all downhill from there–I ached to wake up in Narnia or Middle-Earth or Prydain–literally ached for it. I can call up that ache now in memory, though I no longer feel it first hand–but it’s still enough even in memory.

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