By an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet, translated by Seamus Heaney
OPD: Original poem was written somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries. This translation was published in 1999
This translation of the oldest surviving poem in Old English is my favorite of the several versions I’ve read. Translated by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, whose love for language and its history is explained in an opening essay, this edition presents, in taut, vivid, epic prose, the fable story of Beowful, the Geatish knight who defeated the horrible monster Grendel. A story examining courage, heroism, and death, I think this makes for an excellent read for teens hungry for the fantastical worlds of Tolkien – it was literature like this that formed the imagination from which Middle Earth later grew.
By George MacDonald
This is one of George MacDonald’s later books, the story of a young, leisured man who discovers a world within (or beyond?) his own where he is challenged to “die indeed” by a raven who seems to be the first man, Adam. Plunged into a fantastical world of little children living at peace with their beasts in the forest, giants, dueling skeletons, and an evil princess attended by leopards who terrorize the land, the hero must face not only the terrors, but his own capacity to act, choose, and love. A MacDonald fairy tale is a world of spiritual realities made flesh. Not direct allegory, nor yet mere fantasy, Lilith is a journey into the regions of the soul, into grace, sin, suffering, and the fresh-sprung waters that come when we learn to lay down what keeps us from dying in order to live.
The Book of the Dun Cow
By Walter Wangerin
This story took me by surprise. Here is an opening from Wangerin’s site: “At a time when the sun turned around the earth and animals could speak, Chauntecleer the Rooster ruled over a more or less peaceable kingdom. What the animals did not know was that they were Keepers of the Wyrm, monster of Evil long imprisoned beneath the earth. And Wyrm, sub terra, was breaking free…” I didn’t expect to be engrossed by a farmyard fable, or moved by the story of a slightly arrogant rooster who must learn to protect his people from evil, but I found this to be a powerful tale of humble, workaday hearts encountering evil and resisting its dominance. Fascinating. Excellent for discussion.
The Cosmic Trilogy
By C.S. Lewis
OPD: Out of the Silent Planet in1938, Perelandra in 1943, and That Hideous Strength in 1945
Lewis considered this trilogy of space-travel adventures a “fairy tale for adults.” Don’t be put fooled by the space-travel nature of these books, in many ways they have a medieval flavor in keeping with Lewis desire to “re-enchant” the modern imagination with the wonders of, not cold, empty “space,” but the golden dance of the “heavens.” The first book finds a philologist named Ransom (based, according to several sources, on Tolkien) on an unexpected journey to “Malacandra,” (Mars), where he encounters the presiding spirit of that planet and discovers why earth is, in a universe of singing, dancing stars, called “the Silent Planet.” The second book follows him on his second planetary journey to Perelandra (Venus), where he must assist that planet’s Eve in resisting the temptations of the “unman.” The third book takes place right on earth, with Ransom and the planetary powers pitted against the dark machinations of the N.I.C.E. A strange, vivid, convicting story in which Lewis imagines what might happen if the principles of “scientism” were seriously applied to education and society, this book can offer an uncomfortable commentary on our own materialistic age. Great moral drama and fantastical travel all made with Lewis’ vivid imagination and vibrant prose.
By J.R.R. Tolkien
If you really loved The Lord of the Rings, then you have to read The Silmarillion. This is what Tolkien considered the “real” story behind the romance and drama of The Lord of the Rings. Presenting his own mythic version of the world’s creation (the whole book is worth the passage about the “music of the Ainur” when the world is sung into existence), the coming of the elves, the coming of men, and the fall of both, this collection of epic, often tragic tales reflects the ancient, Icelandic, and Old English mythologies that so captivated Tolkien’s imagination. The tale of the brave man Beren, and his beloved Luthien, the tragic history of Turin, the wars between Elves and Dwarves, every one of these stories is rich in ancient color, in the high language and beauty of older times, and a clear understanding of what goodness looks like, and what evil brings.
Tree and Leaf
By J.R.R. Tolkien
For any Tolkien lovers, this slim book will be a gem. In this collection of essays and stories, readers will recognize Tolkien’s winsome style in tales like Leaf by Niggle or Farmer Giles of Ham, and also get treated to his famous defense of the fantasy genre in his essay, “On Fairie Stories.” Also included is the poem Mythopoeia, written for C.S. Lewis after a discussion of the truth-bearing power of myth.