(by guest blogger Elizabeth Eckhart)
The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and J.R.R. Tolkien are all phrases considered synonymous with high fantasy. Since The Hobbit’s publication seventy-five years ago, the consensus among fans and critics is that J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the most, if not the most, ingenious fantasy writers to have ever existed. Even the less-than-habitual reader recognizes Tolkien’s legacy, and rightfully credits him with the onslaught of fantasy novels we enjoy today. Tolkien did more than bring back the the fantastical elements children and adults had been missing since the era of the Brothers Grimm -- he also thoroughly altered them. Because of Tolkien, we began to see tall, beautiful elves instead of tiny, mischievous creatures; the beginning of an elves vs. dwarves racism that carries into hundreds of subsequent fantasy novels; and even larger tropes such as the necessity for a world other than ours, war on an epic scale, an almost undefeatable enemy and, of course, a small band of heroes. Tolkien is credited with the popularity of the reluctant, anti-hero (think Bilbo and Frodo in comparison to Beowulf) who defeats the enemy in some way other than hand-to-hand combat. The list, of course, goes on.
As do the books. Since the publication of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, book stores have been filled with both worthy imitations of Tolkien’s work, and, well, some less than brilliant attempts to recreate the magic of Tolkien’s work. No need to name titles, yet we all know the type of book being pointed out. Generally paperback, has some half-naked or sexualized character (male or female) on the cover and, if read, follows every predictable fantasy trope on the market. While a few are enjoyable as light reads, most leave the reader with a bad taste in their mouth and a feeling of dissatisfaction -- like we’ve just eaten the no fat, gluten free, sugar free version of our favorite meal.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a linguist and a scholar of medieval literature, making the depth of his novels, informed by the works he studied for decades, impossible to imitate. Those who do can only produce shoddier, twisted versions of the same tale. So what can we do as writers and readers to help preserve the magic Tolkien created? For guidance, we can look at a few popular, well-written books that would likely not exist without Tolkien’s input to the sub-genre of fantasy, but also have moved past the black hole that many fantasy writers get sucked into: the one of LOTR’s elves, dwarves, and quests.
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Hobbit was first published in 1937, and the first Chronicles of Narnia appeared shortly after, in 1950. Perhaps C.S. Lewis had the benefit of not being entirely submerged in the Tolkien obsession that would only grow as the years passed on. However, there are a few things that cemented the differences between the two tales, and made Lewis’s tale as original and unforgettable as Tolkien’s. For one, The Chronicles of Narnia featured children as heroes, and while they were not perfect, often wanting to go home, their age and relationship separated them from Tolkien’s band of heroes. C.S. Lewis also mixed Christian themes, and borrowed ideas from Persian, Greek, Anatolian and Roman mythology, as well as traditional British and Irish fairy tales. Beyond that, his magical creatures were inherently different than Tolkien’s, since Lewis opted for regular animals who could talk, and creatures borrowed from mythology, like fauns.
A Song of Ice and Fire
Whether or not you are a fan of the series -some may find the endless characters tiresome- one has to at least admit that George R.R. Martin’s series, beginning with A Game of Thrones, is one of the few books in the last twenty years to escape feeling like a regurgitation of Tolkien’s work despite being written with many of the same themes, and even featuring dragons. Martin’s series stands out because he chose to broke the format Tolkien began, which generally plods along with the discovery of the hero, convincing the hero to help, following the hero and his gang along their quest, and eventually, finding success. Instead, Martin has an astounding number of characters, all with faults and good sides and frankly, we aren’t sure who we’re cheering for (except that it’s not Joffrey Baratheon). On top of that, Martin may enlist familiar creatures like dragons, but he also focuses primarily on his own Big Bad creation -a form of deadly ice monsters, called White Walkers, threatening to take over all of the south, which besides being evil, sound refreshingly unlike Orcs.
This trilogy of fantasy novels, beginning with The Golden Compass in 1995, like Chronicles of Narnia features children in the lead roles. I first read the trilogy as a kid, but even then knew I was encountering many themes I wouldn’t fully understand until I was an adult. The only thing I can recall Philip Pullman borrowing from Tolkien and the High Fantasy genre is the creation of an alternative world, and the grand struggle of good vs. evil. Beyond that, Pullman pulled the focus of his novels toward themes of physics, philosophy, and theology. It’s also interesting that Pullman’s work was an inversion of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Beyond that, Pullman’s work features an entirely different species of supernatural, most notably his use of dæmons: the beloved animal embodiments of inner-selves.
Harry Potter is another children’s series, and is well known for its series of both novels and films. Like Lord of the Rings, Harry’s story consists of a major evil entity who seeks to rule over the world and destroy lesser races. It also centers around wizards. However, J.K. Rowling wrote her wizards rather differently than had previously been done; she often made them goofy, ordinary people. It was never inherent that every wizard be as wize or powerful as Gandalf the Grey or Saruman the White. Though Rowling used familiar races such as giants, elves, and goblins, she made sure hers stood out from previous uses of the same races. Her goblins were highly intelligent. So brainy, in fact, that they were entrusted with the wizarding bank, and her elves were not beautiful or cold -- they were hideous and generally timid creatures.
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are not the only major influences to high fantasy. Other notable contributions include Malazan Book of the Fallen and The Worm Ouroboros. But, it seems Tolkien’s work is often viewed as the canon, and more than the themes of distinct worlds, epic stature, and anti-heroes, many have found the need to imitate his versions of elves, dwarves, and more. If Dungeons and Dragons is any hint, much of Tolkien’s world seems to permeate virtually every vehicle of fantasy, and what might be considered fan fiction -slightly altered versions of his stories- has long been viewed as acceptable to publish. A good amount of fans may eat this type of fantasy up in order to diminish Tolkien cravings. However it’s the original works, who respect Tolkien’s example yet provide original ideas and creations, whose popularity endure the passing of time. For writers, it may be wise to examine your material and question: “how much of this is based on assumed fantasy basics?” And “how much can be changed to diminish direct ties to the hundreds of books that came before it?” For readers, too, it may be tempting to grab the newest Tolkien look-alike, and opt for the fantasy novel that looks entirely unfamiliar. Who knows? You may find that the cure for Tolkien cravings is within an unexpected and strange new world.
Elizabeth Eckhart is a film and entertainment blogger for DirectTVcomparison.com. She first picked up The Lord of the Rings when she was twelve and read The Hobbit shortly after. One of the fondest memories she has is explaining to her grandfather during the theatrical premiere of The Two Towers that no, they weren’t continually showing flashbacks, there were in fact, four different hobbits.