As a sister piece to my Top 5 Sci-Fi articles, I decided to sit down and put together this list of the Top 5 Fantasy Authors. Many hours (and possibly margaritas) after I started this, I think I've compiled a good guideline to anyone who needs to pack a decent amount of diversion in case they find themselves stranded on an island (though hopefully, the island will provide its own diversion, as you will see below).
I'm not going to play the literary nerd card and claim you should read the Poetic Edda instead of Tolkien's works. Yes, he did draw (heavily) from them, but they aren't as accessible as many of your professors (or the author of this article, when he's feeling more condescending than usual) would have you believe. Nor am I going to tell you to listen to Wagner's Ring Cycle, because well, opera. From The Lord Of The Rings Saga, to Letter From Father Christmas, Tolkien can take seemingly ordinary existences and weave them into the most epic tales. Tolkien's works are where many of today's fantasy writers and game developers have drawn their inspiration, and you cannot go through his book without imagining how such scenes could be brought to life on the big screen (humor me and imagine you'd never seen Peter Jackson's adaptations).
A master of the superfluously complex sentence, and certainly not the best writer (or at least the easiest author to read), Dunsany is still considered one of the masters of fantasy. From his Book Of Wonders, to his retelling of the Tortoise and the Hare, Dunsany influenced writers from Tolkien to Lovecraft.
Judith Tarr – be it in her high fantasy novels or her historical fiction – has a way of making all of her characters very real. From Brother Gerbert in Ars Magica to Alexander The Great in Lord of the Two Lands, her characters are three-dimensional, no matter how many gods and demons may trod across the pages. Tarr's settings are completely enveloping – as you feel the searing desert in Pillar of Fire; the tension of the Crusades in Alamut; and the awe of otherworldly entities intervening in human affairs in many of her works – the reader is easily transported to the worlds she creates (and you'll have a tough time wanting to leave after you turn the last page of each one of her books).
If I had never read a book in my life (not that anyone's ever checked my credentials), John Myers Myers' book, Silverlock, would be my literary resource of choice. Following the adventures of an American sailor caught in a storm, Silverlock take this everyman from island to island in a strange land (The Commonwealth of Letters) as he meets everyone from Circe, to the Norse Gods, to characters from James Fenimore Cooper's works, and everyone in between. If you haven't picked up this book (and you have no excuse), try to get it with the Silverlock Companion, which will help decipher the names of this all-star cast. To this day, major authors tease apart the various scenes to figure out all of the literary references in this magical tale.
I would be remiss if I didn't include Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar Saga on this list – not only because of the grand scale of the books, but also because she has done something very few authors have done: build a logical world from the ground up. The Valdemar Saga takes place in a world where everything from the magic system to psionics to the very existence of sentient magical constructs (Griffons) has been thought out. You won't see any deus ex machina coming out of the blue to save the good guys, or some evil from beyond the color of comprehension oppressing the people. Mercedes Lackey gives the reader full transparency in everything she writes. You will be treated to crisscrossing arc development, grand tactics, and even what it is like for individuals on the front lines of a war (after all, how does a psionic healer treat the injured if he's experiencing the thoughts and fears of everyone around him?) and their relationships. To give you an idea of the impact her work has had on fans, Mercedes Lackey is one of the few authors who encourages fan fiction (provided you get an official release from the author), and her fans have even organized Mentor programs based on the mores and ethics laid out in her books, and commit themselves to doing good works locally and abroad.
Well, that's my Top 5 Fantasy Author collection. I know many of you are wondering why Howard's Conan books didn't make the list (I personally love low magic worlds), or David Eddings (I already mentioned Tolkien, there was no reason to be redundant), or Neil Gaiman, or Charles de Lint (maybe I should do an article specifically on the genre of Urban Fantasy) didn't make the list. There is no right answer, and if you feel I am missing anyone please tell me about them in the comments section. There are just so many fantasy authors out there, and I encourage you to tell me all of your personal favorites!