Fantasy and the problem with Tolkien

castle of dreams

Painting: Sue Vincent

It has to be said that Tolkien causes problems. Quite apart from being so addictive that, once read, you are likely to go back and read the books again, you may never find anywhere quite as rich as  Middle Earth within the pages of another book.

Anyone whose introduction to fantasy is via The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, will have a fabulously detailed, multi-layered and multicultural world permanently established in their imagination. Especially if you go on to read The Silmarillion too and become aware of the rich complexity and authenticity of the languages, histories and mythologies he created as the backdrop for his world. Tolkien’s elves, orcs and wizards will quickly become the standard by which all others are judged. The sheer scope of the story means that just about every possible trope is used, and every mythical or magical species is covered, along with a goodly armoury of magical weapons and the central motif of the Ring of Power.

Is there any reason to read or to attempt to write fantasy any more? It is almost impossible to write high fantasy these days without being accused of stealing ideas from Tolkien. For aficionados of Middle Earth, it is even harder to read fantasy without drawing comparisons. While creating what is arguably the best fantasy ever, the author has also inadvertently ruined the very genre he brought to popularity.

Or has he?

Our teacher read The Hobbit to the class of eager listeners in junior school, but I did not read Lord of the Rings until I was in my teens. Even though the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis were already so well-thumbed that the books were disintegrating, it was not until I read Tolkien that I heard of fantasy as a genre. There were only stories, fairytales, myths and legends. Oddly enough, that did not stop me from enjoying them all equally. I was reading tales of giants and talking trees, elves, trolls and goblins long before I came across hobbits. Although perfected by Tolkien, the lineaments of such characters were already drawn in my mind by the fairy-tales of early childhood. The quest is a familiar concept in myth and Excalibur is surely the most famous sword with which to prove kingship, even more so than Andúril, while the popular version of Merlin must surely outrank even Gandalf.

The first officially designated fantasy I read after Tolkien was Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, the opening book of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Lo and behold, the hero, Covenant, had a magical ring whose powers could save or damn the world. The ring was both feared and sought by the dark Lord Foul as Covenant traversed a land peopled with both characters and situations that could have been lifted directly from Tolkien. The parallels are striking in places, from the tree-city to the goblins, the extra-special horses to the healing vegetation. Yet the writer managed to make me forget all that by his creation of the Land. This is no Middle Earth… and the parallels that at first seemed gratingly familiar, soon diverged and developed into a rich tapestry of a tale with its own unique character and ‘feel’. Other fantasies followed, each creating a landscape and feeling entirely different from the last… and each sharing something with the reader that was unique in spite of a common heritage.

The truth is, we cannot blame it all on Tolkien. He himself drew heavily upon myth and legend, particularly the Norse myths. Most of the characters and storylines he uses so magnificently are familiar from our oldest tales. Even the Ring was not his idea. Odin, the Norse god, had a magic ring, although admittedly, Draupnir was an arm ring. Plato speaks of the Ring of Gyges that conferred invisibility on its wearer. Wagner’s Ring Cycle tells the story of a magical ring whose power resides in the ‘denial of love’ and can bring the entire world under subjugation. And every mythology has its Dark Lord in one form or another.

Fantasy is not just a way to escape reality for a while, it offers a means of exploring, understanding and explaining it. The battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is something we see played out on both the world stage and within our own natures every day. The sustaining qualities of the Quest, such as loyalty, endurance and vision, are those that serve us, while the betrayals and obstacles mirror our own. Just as stories reflect our own so do our own lives reflect the greater life around us. Just as we played at being grown-ups when we were children, fantasy allows the mind to experience a new mode of being in a symbolic landscape that can enrich our lives and present us with questions we might never otherwise consider. Without realising, we may learn much from a well-crafted tale.

Does it matter if it has been ‘done before’ no matter how brilliantly, when all our stories follow threads that lead back to the beginning of mankind’s fascination with storytelling? Stories have always taught through entertainment, by capturing the attention and imagination, engaging the emotions and settling themselves firmly in memory. Each tale appeals to something within us that answers with its own voice. Every storyteller brings something of themselves, something unique, to the tale.

71 thoughts on “Fantasy and the problem with Tolkien

  1. Fantastic and thought-provoking post, Sue, and I thank you for sharing it here today. What a great afternoon surprise!! And I love, and agree with, your conclusions. For me, it isn’t always in the tale itself, as much as it is in the author’s unique way of telling the story, and his/her ability to make me love the characters. And surely, every new fantasy offers the author a chance to do that. I know I’m willing to give them one, and most of the time, I’m not disappointed. Some are stronger than others, creating characters I can’t soon put out of my mind, but many, many are so good, I’ll never regret the time I spent wandering through those pages.

    SO nice to have you here today, and I hope you’ll come back any time you want to share your thoughts with us. 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Marcia. I’m not sure Covenant was ever a character to love, but one could certainly understand and empathise with him. I do not read as voraciously as I did once upon a time, but I read every day an for relaxation, almost always choose fantasy. Only occasionally do I find a book that I do not connect with or one that does not teach me something.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ” Each tale appeals to something within us that answers with its own voice” Oh, how true, Sue; I’ve never thought of it in that way before. A lovely post that has sent me searching through my bookshelves for that now tatty copy of The Hobbit. x

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Glad I was directed here. All you have written resonates with me, including books of early influence. My own fantasies, and also ‘serious’ music (where I have called the albums Quests 1. 2. 3 3 etc.), are all based on a ‘Quest’ theme, and inevitably borrow from the classics of that genre. Nevertheless, I am quite happy that I am not plagiarising. As with music, the scope of where one takes a fantasy theme is infinite.
    I wonder why the link to ‘Wake-Robin Ridge’ is coming up with a loading error? The next ones seem OK.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. It has been lovely to read in someone else’s words a thought that has been constantly in my mind whilst jotting down my own story of parallel worlds inhabited by creatures of ours and our ancestors dreams.You have given me the incentive to continue in my fantastic quest, with my own trusty companions and enchanted weaponry, wherever it may take me.

    Liked by 3 people

    • A writer must follow their own vision. No matter how well we may plan, the end result will never be the same as the initial spark of an idea… who knows where the adventure will lead? And it is an adventure… as much for the writer as the reader 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  5. This is a fine piece of writing/essay that put me to thinking and closely reflects my own introduction to an acquaintanceship with fantasy fiction. It may be the reason I love Madeline L’Engle, children’s and YA writer even as an adult. My students introduced me to her when I taught sixth grade, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Excellent points all, Sue and Marcia’s comment outlines my own thoughts on the matter. It isn’t the elements of the story itself that captures my imagination, or even the worlds they create — it’s the writing talent and the unique point of view of the author. As they say, there are only so many plots in the human repertoire (and plot elements, I might add) – everything else is perspective.

    Perhaps its my theatre background. I can see the same exact play with a change of cast many times – as long as the director’s vision is strong and the actors are wonderful, I’m captivated every time.

    Now THAT would be a fun challenge to follow – a bare bones story outline, same setting basically, specified number & type of characters and GO! I can’t imagine any of the writers I follow telling the same tale – and I’m willing to bet they all would hold my interest.
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Well said. The final paragraph sums everything up. Tolkien is the yardstick by which all other works can be measured. In the same way, “Stagecoach” by John Ford is yet another genre yardstick by which all other Westerns are judged.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Reblogged this on Wind Eggs and commented:
    I’m going to offer a different slant on Sue Vincent’s blog Fantasy and the problem with Tolkien (spoiler alert: she doesn’t see one), and I hope you think about both. Whether you’re a reader or writer.

    I stumbled across the Lord of the Rings in 1969, stuffed on the back shelf of the libraries science fiction section. I spent a month reading it (I was a sophomore in high school.) At the time, only one other student in my school had read it, a geeky redhead named Peter Polhemus who was really into those Avlon Hill war games with the dice and big grids. At the time fantasy didn’t model Tolkein and I read more eagerly. But at the time, novelists didn’t shoot for trilogies and quadrilogies and septlogies. They wtote books, and if they turned into a series, they didn’t try to put a number on them.
    Two things happened. I aspired to other books that captured characters as vividly as Tolkeins. Someone introduced me to Lewis and the Perilandra series, and from their I picked up the Lion, the With and the Wardrobe.

    But I also got ahold of Vonnegut, and Philip Roth, Anthony Burgess, Orwell, Keasey, Huxley sand even the pulp of Robert Howard. I realized it isn’t the formula that drives a narrative (unless you wanted to knock out a book overnight because you were stoned and bored, Monty Python wasn’t showing nightly then and Texas PBS didn’t broadcast Doctor Who because he was a fop.)

    That’s when they started cranking out the trilogies and then octologies. And every one bored me to tears. Why? Because I knew exactly what would happen. The hero would travel to a new land with strange creatures and a new language the author just knew I needed to learn because people in other dimensions don’t talk like us, and have different customs (athough they all wore medieval clothes, bore medieval weapons and the world was littered with exotic animals). By the time I was forty I had to explain to my son why I didn’t want to read another fantasy series he recommended because a hero is a stalker instead of a hunter isn’t really different. I could tell him the plot of his series before he told me: New world, hero(ine) who doesn’t know he/she’s the chosen one, magic talisman, new vocabulary, arch villain trying to take control, band of allies, quest, other species the hero must meet (and us too).

    When I would sit in writing circles as soon as someone opened their story with “Falderin adjusted his breeches and listened for the hooting of the horned wart owl,” I went to sleep.

    So why did Potter work when so many failed. Because Rowling created compelling characters. The formula ranked second.

    Tolkein ultimately lead me to a love of literature that led me to Thomas Pynchon, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Saul Bellow, Doris Lessing.

    Doris Lessing. She wrote sci fi/fantasy that broke the mold. Her Canopos in Argos series still occupies a place on my shelf even though I couldn’t make it through the first rwo hundred pages of Lord of the Rings the last time I tried to read it.

    You see, I realized I’d outgrown it after five or six readings. Like Lewis, the language and characters never conveyed emotion and depth like their contempories Lessing, Iris Murdoch and Joh Fowles.

    So why do I still celebrate the Lord of the Rings? Because it was a gateway to truly great literature for a (literally) sophomoric 10th grade mind. But sooner or later we must push the envelope of our reading, just as Frodo pushed the envelope of his courage. When others turned back to their comfort zones, he and Samwise pushed deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness, into unfamiliar terriory, into realms that challed upon them to sse every resource they had. We should follow their example.

    Liked by 6 people

  9. Pingback: Fantasy and the problem with Tolkien | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

  10. I think I’d look at it from a different angle. The Lord of the Rings is brilliant, fantastic world building and memorable characters. Because it’s so good, authors have borrowed or copied (often very badly) almost everything that Tolkien created. Now all elves are rather effete, with long blond hair, held back with a silver thingy with a gemstone in it. You don’t have to have elves in fantasy writing, but if you do, they don’t have to look like Orlando Bloom. Nor do you have to stick with a patriarchal society of warrior folk where the women are pale and beautiful backdrops. The Ultimate Evil isn’t obligatory, especially when the author can’t think up a valid reason for the Ultimate Evil’s existence or fucntion. I think it’s more lack of imagination than anything else that has created so many Tolkien read-alikes, not that he said it all and there’s nothing else to say.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I haven’t read the whole of the Harry Potter series, I have to admit… These days I only buy fiction by authors I know personally as a rule. I mostly read non-fiction or old favorites, of which I have one or two laying around 🙂
      I enjoyed the last book of Lord of the Rings; the characters seem to deepen and adress some complex issues there, but I know what you mean…the fatigue and hopelessness of the quest is written in some detail.


    • Final Installment Syndrome. 😦 So often, the last book is anticlimactic. Or we’re bummed while reading, because we don’t want it to be over. (That happens to me a lot. Sometimes I refuse to read the final one, because I can’t stand saying goodbye. I’m a dork.)

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: Fantasy and the problem with Tolkien — The Write Stuff – Stacy Bennett

  12. Wonderful post that rang true with me, a fan on Narnia and Middle Earth since grammar school. I passed on the passion to both children. So now I am off to find Lord Bane’s Foul and see what it holds for me. Maybe it will fill the hole left by the last of the Harry Potter books. I think most readers/writers have a child’s heart!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it is the child within to which fantasy speaks so strongly, Noelle.
      I’m re-reading the Covenant books at the moment and though the inner critic keeps whispering, it is drowned out and hushed by the child 🙂


  13. Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:
    An interesting discussion of all things fantasy and Tolkien’s influence on the genre. I don’t think fantasy has been ruined by Tolkien, but it is so grand that it easily trips up authors seeking to write their own take on fantasy.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Great and thought provoking post, my friend. Ever since I got into reading Tolkien (after years of practicing English), I never found any other fantasy novel that could top Mr Tolkien’s creation. It somehow ruined me for any other fantasy book. Then again, it’s fascinating to read how many writers gained inspiration from it.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Pingback: Food for thought on Fantasy writing | Bloggetry

  16. Pingback: Superwoman, excusues and a re-post… | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

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