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.