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Your Picks: Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books

Aug 11, 2011

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More than 5,000 of you nominated. More than 60,000 of you voted. And now the results are in. The winners of NPR's Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy survey are an intriguing mix of classic and contemporary titles. Over on NPR's pop culture blog, Monkey See, you can find one fan's thoughts on how the list shaped up, get our experts' take, and have the chance to share your own.

A quick word about what's here, and what's not: Our panel of experts reviewed hundreds of the most popular nominations and tossed out those that didn't fit the survey's criteria (after — we assure you — much passionate, thoughtful, gleefully nerdy discussion). You'll notice there are no young adult or horror books on this list, but sit tight, dear reader, we're saving those genres for summers yet to come.

So, at last, here are your favorite science-fiction and fantasy novels. (And a printable version, to take with you to the bookstore.)

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The Once and Future King ()

Arthur Comes Alive In 'The Once And Future King'

Sep 22, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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My parents are both English professors, and when I was little they raised me and my brother on a strict diet of literary classics. I think they wanted to turn us into little prodigies, like the Williams sisters, except with books instead of tennis. It probably wouldn't have worked anyway, but the project was doomed the day I opened a book and read the following:

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology. The governess was always getting muddled with her astrolabe, and when she got specially muddled she would take it out of the Wart by rapping his knuckles.

The Wart is short for Arthur, as in King, and the book was The Once and Future King by T.H. White.

I don't know very much about Terence Hanbury White. You probably don't either — as far as I can tell, there is only one half-decent biography of him, and it was written in 1967. He makes a cameo appearance in Julie Andrews' memoir Home as a solitary sexually frustrated misanthrope who lived alone on an island with a bottle of Pernod and a bad case of writers block. That T.H. White is a stranger to me. But the author of The Once and Future King is an old and very good friend. I have read his book more times than any other in my library.

Part one of The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone, tells the story of the young King Arthur's education by the sorcerer Merlin in a small-time, no-account castle in the English countryside. White's descriptions of daily life in medieval England — hay baling, tilting and archery practice, falconry — are ravishingly vivid: like a restorer of antiques, he strips away the grime and smoke from the past until it's as bright and clear as the present. Chapter by chapter, through little adventures and big ones (both Robin Hood and Morgan le Fay turn up), Arthur slowly comes to understand, like and trust himself. He doesn't know it yet — his noble birth is still a secret, even to him — but he is preparing to take up the burden of power.

The Sword in the Stone set the standard by which I judge all historical fiction. It is also the most perfect story of a childhood ever committed to paper, and it is only the first part of The Once and Future King. What follows — Lancelot, Guinevere, Gawain, the Holy Grail — is a foregone conclusion to those who know the story of King Arthur. White took hold of the ultimate English epic and recast it in modern literary language, sacrificing none of its grandeur or its strangeness (and it is very strange) in the process, and adding in all the humor and passion that we expect from a novel. What was once as stiff and two-dimensional as a medieval tapestry becomes rich and real and devastatingly sad.

The Sword in the Stone was published in 1938, the year after J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, and I often wonder why White isn't considered one of the founding fathers of modern fantasy, the way Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are. Perhaps one day, in the future, he will be.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

This first appeared as a web only essay on September 13, 2010.


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A Book and a Wish for a Daughter

by Aaron Freeman
Dec 23, 2005

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My teenage daughter loves Harry Potter, so for Hanukkah I'm getting her a copy of T.H. White's The Once and Future King. With all due respect to Harry from this humble muggle, White's re-imagined Camelot remains my favorite tale of a boy wizard.

The boy is called Wart, a play on his given name, Arthur. Abusively raised by his wicked stepfather and picked on by his older stepbrother, Wart, like Harry, is a classic hero.

My daughter and I wallow in Harry's lessons at Hogwart's school. But imagine the story if Harry had been personally and exclusively tutored by Dumbledore. That's what you have between Wart and Merlyn. Merlyn would have been one of Dumbledore's mythic heroes. In addition to being the world's greatest wizard, in The Once an Future King, Merlyn lives backward through time and gets ever younger as Wart becomes Arthur the old king.

But more, I want my daughter transformed by the passion of Lancelot and Guinevere. I want her, like them, to demand of her heart fire that transcends law, nation and king. I know it's unlikely she'll get it, but I hope she doesn't figure that out for decades to come. I dream that as an adult she'll settle for nothing less than grand, soul-searing ardor. I want her satisfied only with a love willing, like Lancelot, to gallop into the wild mob and rescue her from a death that she would gladly endure for an hour of his embrace.

In my daddy fantasy, Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot, will take their places alongside Harry and Ron Weasley and Hermione within my daughter's imagination. I imagine that through the book she and I will forever share enchanted landscapes and points of reference.

As she internalizes the politics of Harry and Hermione's campaign for house elf rights, I hope my daughter will also embrace Merlyn's anti- war message that might can never make right.

As it did with me, I want the novel to inspire her life and love for decades.

It is, I know, ridiculous to weight any gift with so many dreams, so much hope. Maybe no present can have the as profound an effect on a person, much less a teenager as I desire of The Once and Future King.

Then again, it's a really good book.

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About the Author

Aaron Freeman commentator for All Things Considered. He is a journalist, stand up comedian and correspondent for Chicago Public Radio’s morning magazine "Eight Forty Eight." Hear Aaron Freeman on NPR:

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