Furthermore, all the while the old masters remain readily popular and available. The Founder of Modern Fantasy J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings of course, but also others just as the recently passed
Ursula K. Le Guin whose Earthsea Cycle took a different approach to the genre. Much like Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising Sequence and Pullman's aforementioned His Dark Materials. Actually, several of the authors listed above are old masters; I merely listed them up there because have until recently or still are writing.
But now I think a bit of history is in order. How did we find ourselves in this wondrous Golden Age of Fantasy? The answer, unsurprisingly, begins with J.R.R. Tolkien.
No one denies that Fantasy literature owes its bones to The Lord of the Rings; it essentially swamped all previously written works of Fantasy, and it unquestionably created "Fantasy" as a marketing category. Indeed, all the author's I have listed site Tolkien as a defining influence, from GRRM to Jones, from Rowling to Paolini, from McKillip to Croggon. Knowing that Tolkien came first, you cannot read any other books without seeing his hand-print. Indeed, in the immediate years following LOTR, its popularity created an enormous number of Tolkienesque works (using the themes found in The Lord of the Rings).
Then, in 1977, Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara came out. Some now call the it a LOTR imitation, but I disagree utterly; it is Tolkienesque, for a certainly, yet is its own story and the Four Lands has a history/lore unique to that of Middle-earth and populated by engaging characters; furthermore, to call the two subsequent books in the Original Shannara Trilogy LOTR imitations is nothing short of madness. Regardless, however, the key fact is that Brooks' was breakthrough success that publishers had been yearning for: the first true master Fantasist since Tolkien and Shannara became the first Fantasy novel to appear on, and eventually top the New York Times bestseller list. As a result, the genre saw a boom in the number of quite popular titles published in the following years, such as Terry Pratchett's Discworld. Then came The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb (which is one my to-read list) and The Blue Sword and its companion The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley.
Yet the Golden Age had yet to begin. It needed a push. Well, several pushes, actually, and the next of those was Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time (which took decades to complete and is my current book), followed by the more swiftly finished Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series by Tad Williams. Both international bestsellers, with Williams' work setting the seeds of inspiration in the mind of George R. R. Martin and the much later and regrettable rise of Grimdark Fantasy.
Yet still the Golden Age had not begun. Fantasy was present and popular, yes, but it needed, frankly, another Tolkien; another The Lord of the Rings. Another undeniable literary classic to inspire another whole generation of readers. And we got it in The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling...hence my name for her, the Heir of Tolkien. One does not need me to list the virtues of Harry Potter nor how it differs from LOTR, but it was the classic that started the Golden Age of Fantasy – pushing the genre forever into the canon of Great Literature increasingly intertwining with mainstream fiction. A process aided by the international popularity of other works such as Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle, Ranger's Apprentice by John Flanagan, and so many others that have have listed.
Now, with both Rowling and Tolkien to draw upon, Fantasy has blossomed into a still-growing and flourishing garden of authors and worlds one can spend literal decades reading (I speak from experience). Truly the popularity of the Fantastic is not lessening but rather the opposite, as noted in the first paragraph. Let us glory in this Golden Age of Fantasy! This Golden Age of Imagination!
"At its best, fantasy rewards the reader with a sense of wonder about what lies within the heart of the commonplace world. The greatest tales are told over and over, in many ways, through centuries. Fantasy changes with the changing times, and yet it is still the oldest kind of tale in the world, for it began once upon a time, and we haven't heard the end of it yet." - Patricia A. McKillip
"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want your children to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." – Albert Einstein