Medieval fantasy is one of the most popular fantasy subgenres.
It is different from modern fantasy such as the popular YA fantasy Harry Potter series
Much more than fairy stories, this subgenre is also responsible for many images that come to mind when one thinks of fantasy literature – ancient sword, evil king, knights, armor, and mythical creatures.
Medieval fantasy books are set in the Middle Ages (from about 500 to 1400–1500 CE), before the Renaissance and coming out of the Dark Ages.
Common elements of this fantasy subgenre include an entire world of dark magic, an empire ruled by an evil king, a royal family and their kingdom’s protective wall, wizards, princesses, knights, dungeons and dragons, and dense forests.
Fantasy stories set in the Medieval Era are sometimes known as historical fiction and feature common themes, including supernatural forces, perilous magic, and dragons.
Much medieval fantasy takes inspiration from the early stories of King Arthur and the Knights of The Round Table set in medieval Europe, which is why this genre is also sometimes referred to as Arthurian fantasy.
Read on for some of our recommended medieval fantasy works.
The best medieval fantasy books
Below we’ve included some of the most popular, loved, and highly recommended books and fantasy series in this subgenre.
1. Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is the quintessential book of this subgenre. It is undeniably one of the most important works of fantasy ever published and remains just as popular today as it was first published in 1955.
The LOTR is a trilogy, including:
- The Fellowship of the Ring
- The Two Towers
- The Return of the King
The story follows Bilbo Baggins, nephew to Frodo Baggins, who sets out on a high adventure from his home, The Shire, Middle Earth, to carry the One Ring to Mordor and with the hope and objective of destroying it once and for all.
The One Ring is an incredibly powerful source of magical powers, granting invisibility to the bearer but at the cost of one’s sanity.
Anyone who wears the Ring is invisible to all but one, the Dark Lord Sauron, the Ring’s creator.
The Lord of the Rings has all the essential elements of medieval fantasy.
The first novel of the series introduces Frodo Baggins accompanied by old friends, Sam, Merry, and Pippin in the quest. But complex characters like wizards, dragons, elves, and dwarves join Frodo later on in his perilous journey to Mordor through dangerous terrain, opposing forces such as an army of brutal Orcs and the Nazgûl.
“All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes, a fire shall be woken, A light from the shadows shall spring; Renewed shall be blade that was broken, The crownless again shall be king.”
This great series is a classic that shouldn’t be missed by young and old readers alike and is worth a re read after all these years.
2. Eragon by Christopher Paolini
Christopher Paolini’s Eragon is a beautiful, big book, perfect for younger readers (teens/young adults) who want to get into the fantasy genre.
Eragon is the first book in the Inheritance Cycle and was adapted for the big screen. Unfortunately, the film adaptation was not a huge success, but the books are still loved and appreciated.
The story follows a young boy named Eragon, a poor young farmer. Eragon finds a polished blue stone on his walk. He keeps the stone with him, and later emerges a dragon hatchling named Saphira.
As Saphira and Eragon become more familiar with each other, Eragon learns that he communicates telepathically with her.
Eragon realizes his epic destiny as it is soon revealed to him in a story that takes us soaring through the sky.
“No hunter of the sky should end his days as prey. Better to die on the wing than pinned to the ground.”
3. The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan
Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy, The Wheel of Time series, is the gift that (almost) keeps giving to those who love it.
There are fourteen books in the main series, with an additional three, which means if you liked the first one plenty more will come after.
The first novel in Robert Jordan’s series: The Eye of the World, was published in 1990.
Events take place before the Eye of the World, but the main story begins in this book with our protagonist Rand al’Thor. Rand al’Thor is a young man, a sheep herder from Andor.
As we meet more characters in the book and become more familiar with Rand al’Thor, the main character learns he is a wanted man.
While delivering cider to a nearby town, a messenger informs Rand and his friends that the Dark One is looking for him. What ensues is an unforgettable adventure for Rand al’Thor and company.
Robert Jordan’s fantasy series has a wealth of rich characters, worlds, and ideas. The author’s world-building skills and ability to flesh out characters well is why he is a favorite among fantasy lovers.
“You can never know everything, and part of what you know is always wrong. Perhaps even the most important part. A portion of wisdom lies in knowing that. A portion of courage lies in going on anyway.”
4. The Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams
Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy is an epic fantasy tale told from the viewpoints of several characters, offering the reader an immersive experience of the overall narrative.
The three books in the series are:
- The Dragonbone Chair
- Stone of Farewell
- To Green Angel Tower
The series takes place on the fictional continent of Osten Ard in a world where humans live united with elf-like immortals and dwarf-like mountain dwellers. The unity of the inhabitants of Osten Ard is primarily thanks to King John the Presbyter.
Early in the book, we learn of the King’s fading health as he advances into old age. As upset as they are about their father’s health, his sons Elias and Joshua argue over who will succeed him as future king.
We also learn that the King has a dark secret. Add to that the agenda of the priest Pryrates, and the safety and well-being of the entire continent of Osten Ard enters jeopardy.
“He who is certain he knows the ending of things when he is only beginning them is either extremely wise or extremely foolish; no matter which is true, he is certainly an unhappy man, for he has put a knife in the heart of wonder.”
5. A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin
George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has sold over 90 million copies worldwide since the initial book in the series, A Game of Thrones, was published in 1996.
The series’ popularity skyrocketed in 2011 when HBO adapted it for television with awesome cinematography and a stellar cast of actors.
Even if you’ve seen all Game of Thrones episodes, Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is still well worth reading. Long after the series has been concluded, fans still cannot stop talking about it, especially with the release of the new HBO series, The House of the Dragon.
It’s incredibly dense but fast paced. There are currently seven books published, but George R.R. Martin’s engaging writing style and characters, setting, and overall world-building skills are unparalleled.
The detailed accounts of characters and their stories are just one aspect of George RR Martin’s writing that sets him apart from other fantasy writers and make the books more than worth reading.
The series follows several houses (Stark, Baratheon, Arryn Lannister, Greyjoy, Bolton, Tully, Tyrell, Martell, Targaryen) on the continent of Westeros as they fight for rule of the Seven Kingdoms, the right to the Iron Throne.
The magical link in this series is brought on by the dragons themselves. The focus is really on the dynamics between the houses.
Filled with political intrigue, each royal household forms alliances or battles against each other, despite a great threat that endangers everyone and may result in the world’s end.
Winter is coming and White Walkers, an army of the undead ice people, are approaching and the epic battle is yet to come.
Fair warning, though, the action packed scenes of death and violence, may not be suitable for young ones.
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
Medieval fantasy novels are for readers of (almost) all ages who like medieval times, magic systems, and even legendary dragon riders.
They’re great for teens who are just beginning to explore the a world filled with magic in the medieval period and who will re reading these works decades later, as any older LOTR fan knows.
So, if you haven’t read any of the fantasy books and series mentioned above, check them out. Who knows, you may be inspired to write your own fantasy story and be in the same league as famous fantasy authors.
All these great books are available in print and audiobook format, so if you don’t want to spend months getting through a thick volume, listen and enjoy!