Note—I changed the name of this EUOLogy! Why would I do such a thing? Well, a lot of people found this article interesting, and were linking it around forums. The thing is, a lot of them were reading the title “How Tolkien Ruined Fantasy” and judging the entire article quite quickly.
It’s actually quite vogue in fantasy to hate Tolkien right now, and I decided I didn’t really want to be aligned with that camp. I love Grandpa Tolkien’s works, and think he was a master writer. I wrote the following essay because I found it curious that the ramifications of his entrance into publishing can still be felt. Realize I tend to exaggerate my opinion in these little essays because I get into them. Anyway, have fun reading!
The publication of Lord of the Rings was, perhaps, the worst thing that has ever happened to fantasy literature.
Now, you may assume I’m just making this statement to be inflammatory and controversial. You’re only half right. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I honestly think that LotR did some pretty awful things to fantasy. Not that Tolkien’s writing was bad—quite the opposite, actually.
Let’s look at the literary climate of the period. We had Narnia, of course, and though Howard hadn’t published many Conan books, he’d written about the character in short story form. There was also some very good dark fantasy being published in the pulps. However, almost all of these works shared a single attribute—they were what we call ‘Low’ fantasy. In other words, they were all related somehow to this world. High fantasy—fantasy that takes place in a completely different world—had yet to come to its own. This format has since become the standard mainstay of the genre, but the early fledgling fantasy stories were still associated strongly with science fiction, mythology, and fairy tales. These roots tied the stories back to this world.
Then Tolkien came along and published the greatest work of high fantasy ever written. I’d say he was about fifty years ahead of his time. And, since the novel genre itself is only about two and a half centuries old . . . well, comparatively, I’d say that publishing LotR was like a caveman discovering how to make a lightbulb while his pals were still working on how to make fire.
I just don’t think we were ready for LotR. By analogy, let’s continue with the caveman metaphor. What would society have lost if we’d skipped directly to the electrical age? Centuries spent learning, being creative, practicing innovation. Centuries that, essentially, we spent preparing ourselves to use the technology when we found it. Simply by being so amazingly good at what he did, Tolkien effectively stifled fifty years of innovation.
His work was so revolutionary that the market couldn’t deal with it. Readers wanted more books like LotR, but other authors weren’t ready to produce high fantasy yet. The only thing they could do was try and do what Tolkien did.
But they didn’t do what Tolkien did. They didn’t create a new world, with its own mythology, its own society, its own technology, its own races and creatures. This wasn’t their fault—they just weren’t ready to jump to that level. So instead they applied their considerable creativity toward copying Tolkien. Instead of creating true high fantasy, everyone created more low fantasy—but they used Tolkien’s world as a base instead of our own. The result was a kind of tainting of the entire genre, a ‘Tolkienizing.’ Fantasy didn’t mean ‘the genre where the author creates his or her own unique setting.’ It meant ‘the genre where the books include elves, dwarfs, wizards, and quests.’
You probably know this already. But I ask you to think—what would have happened if there hadn’t been a Tolkien? What would have happened to fantasy? Perhaps it would have continued in its vein, low fantasy dominating. And yet, maybe LeGuin and others would have still written their books, learning to create their own worlds without being forced to deal with Tolkien’s shadow. Like the cavemen learning to harness fire—how to develop it, make it their tool—the authors would have had to learn how to write fantasy books on their own.
But—for better or worse—we’re stuck with Tolkien. Many brilliant works were created in the Tolkien era; works I enjoyed, and still think are examples of excellent writing. I just wonder how much more creative, more powerful . . . more original they could have been if dear Grandpa Tolkien hadn’t come along and given us the lightbulb.
On May 9th, 2005, I received the following fine rebuttal of this essay by one of the website’s readers. With the author’s permission, I post it here. I think he makes some very good points, and since the main point of many of my EUOLogies is to inspire discussion, I wanted to post what Josh had to say. (Some line break, punctuation, and spelling changes were made to enhance readability.)
In “EUOLogy#17: How Tolkien Ruined Fantasy” you make the assertion that his creation came too far ahead of its time, thus causing its themes and species to dominate the fantasy genre and stifle the creation of complete worlds with their own creatures and magics.
I can’t personally disagree about the effect LotR has had on fantasy, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a “bad thing.” LotR by itself established the viability of certain creatures such as: dwarfs, elves, wizards, etc. in the minds of the genre’s readers.
In fact, I find that subconsciously I give legitimacy to those authors who incorporate some aspect of the familiar Tolkien into their worlds. It’s difficult for me to appreciate a fully independent world because I have nothing which I can immediately associate with locations, attributes and character traits. If I, an avid lover of fantasy and science fiction, have difficulty assimilating the entirety of a new fully independent world, than I imagine a casual reader would find it nearly impossible and quite probably frustrating.
However, with Tolkien’s help, anyone can pick up a novel and grasp the basics, allowing them to move on to the more complex social and religious dynamics of said novel. It seems to me that Tolkien provided the fantasy genre with a unique opportunity when he created LotR, namely that of a common language. And I personally believe that this “language” of familiar characters helps to reassure and make stories believable to readers new to the genre with the known and accepted.
It is only after we learn to stand that we can walk, and only after we can walk that we can run. This statement encompasses the cycle of the fantasy reader in that they begin with the familiar, and only after maturation do they proceed to novels that explore new and uncharted territory in the realm of fantasy. (Such as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Elizabeth Hayden’s Symphony of Ages, and your Elantris.) I too get tired of elves, dwarves, and sometimes even dragons. However, I have found that these constants in fantasy make the Ogiers, the Bolg, and dare I say it the Elantrians infinitely more interesting for their uniqueness and creativity.
Does Tolkien pervade fantasy? Yes. Did he ruin it? No. I think he saved fantasy when he made it accessible to everyone, from the lowest of the low in the social strata to the highest of the high. Tolkien gives every reader a leg up on every book that his ideas are mentioned in. It is only when readers step beyond the need for this aid that they can truly appreciate the white marble walls of the silver skinned.