Everything I Think About Fantasy, I Got From Tolkien

By Laura Clark

At the risk of sounding obsessive, I firmly believe that the nature of the fantasy genre was changed irrevocably (and for the better) when JRR Tolkien sat down to write a sequel to his popular children’s story The Hobbit. Now, with the newest film adaptation, I’m struck anew by how much my concepts of fantasy come from this one man.

I don’t know about you, but when I think of fantasy all I see is Tolkien. When I think of elves, I see his tall, other-worldyinhabitnts of Lothlorien. When I think of dwarves, I think of the hardy Gimli fighting in Helms Deep. And when I think of epic battles against seemingly unbeatable foes, I’m riding into The Battle of Pelennor Fields.

Before I get ahead of myself, I know that Tolkien did not create the genre of fantasy. In fact, many of his ideas were borrowed from history. But what he did was recreate the genre of high fantasy and give it credence with a modern audience. His approach as an author was to create his own mythology by exploring and adapting elements from a number of historical mythologies and writings (particularly Old English and Norse). However, what happened as a consequence of his popularity and the rich texts he wrote was that modern concepts of fantasy became inextricably linked with the content of his work. For example, Tolkien’s elves (a mixture of Swedish elves and English fairies) are now the primary depiction of elves in works of fantasy (Eragon, anyone?). The Orcs of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise are shamelessly taken from Tolkien in all senses other than copyright recognition.

The structure and approach to the tale of the epic quest found in many fantasy novels today also tends to mimic the fundamental structure of The Lord of the Rings, whether consciously or not. An unlikely hero comes across an enchanted object and goes on a quest to deal with it, adopting a group of companions of various races. To paraphrase Michael Drout*, most fantasy writers seem to need to write their bad Tolkien knock-off before they can go on to write their own work.

Tolkien also lifted the demands of the fantasy genre, whether writing for children or adults. It is now expected that any fantasy novel will come with maps of the imaginary world, and the author must create at least one new language. Now, as most fantasy authors are not philologists like Tolkien, these languages are generally limited, but that expectation is part of the post-Tolkien fandom.

With all of this said, I’m not criticising modern fantasy for being derivative. I love modern fantasy, I love Tolkien, and I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. I also understand why this phenomenon has taken place; we are living with a generation of writers that grew up reading Tolkien’s fantasy. And when you read something as a child and you truly love it, what could come more naturally than mimicking it in your years as an adult author?

After all, we write the kinds of books we want to read.


*in the Tolkien course recorded by Corey Olsen – see here.

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