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Tolkien did not invent fantasy but he may have ruined it.

I heard somewhere that Tolkien is to epic fantasy what Jimi Hendrix is to rock music. Now, I love rock music and I call myself a Hendrix fan.

I like fantasy but strangely enough, I am not that into Tolkien.

It might be me.
Seriously, I can be at fault here.

Epic Fantasy (also known as High Fantasy) has become commercially successful. It is recycled endlessly; movies, TV-series, novels, games. You cannot escape it.

Ultimately, you cannot escape Tolkien.

Tolkien did not invent elves, goblins and dwarves. However, his vision of them has almost replaced their origin.

It has also left a curse behind. The curse of staying true to the traditions of epic fantasy, unwilling to bring something new to it.

Why does nobody accuse Tolkien of stealing material?
Not that I want to go into a discussion on Originality.
I am just saying.

At the same time, modern fantasy (after Tolkien) and its complexities and moral ambivalence has more in common with the grittier and darker fantasy genre (Low Fantasy) than that of Tolkien. He is much more a ‘black and white – and nothing in between’ type.

He is also a bit of a prude.

Modern fantasy is therefore more in the traditions of the pulpy weird fantasy from the US, beginning in the 1920s and 30s with its amorality, nudity, violence and gore. I.e. novelists such as Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian) and Fritz Leiber (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser) at the front.

Where am I at fault?

Is it a highbrow issue? I usually go for the underdog.
Is it a popular notion? I like what I like. Going against the flow as a default setting.

Does it simply come down to what I like?

In that case, I like my fantasy personal, dark, dirty and naked.



15 thoughts on “Tolkien did not invent fantasy but he may have ruined it.

  1. I have an objection (in fact two):

    1. Nobody accuses Tolkien of stealing because a) there is no such thing in literature except for plagiarism, which he just is not guilty of, and b) I believe it’s called a “homage” and/or “allusion” when you use elements of myth and refer to other works of literature (not “stealing”). A reason for this can be that using something you know about without copying it word for word appeals to us, especially to those interested in the original.

    2. High fantasy is commercially successful? Where? Only the LOTR and Hobbit franchises have really made anything of themselves and Game of Thrones isn’t really what I would call high fantasy even with the dragons. Sure, some authors still sell books but for movies and TV shows there really isn’t much at all. Oooh yeah there was Narnia, which kind of died after the first film.

    Now there is nothing wrong with liking what you like, but to claim that Tolkien ruined fantasy I disagree with. Yes, elves/goblins/dwarves were not like that before Tolkien, but he took something and made his own thing, which – in fact – is originality. Especially for his time. Is Tolkien a heavy read, full of unnecessary drivel? Perhaps. But he was a big nerd. He liked what he liked, too. It’s not really his fault that nobody who wrote high fantasy after him were able to have a mind of their own.

    When looking at the role women play in the settings of LOTR compared to for instance Conan, I think LOTR is slightly more healthy in terms of how powerful the women are (if there are any). Not good, mind you – just slightly better than one of many alternatives. 😉

    • I am sorry for my late answer but here is it anyway.

      Let me clear one thing up. My problem with Tolkien is not Tolkien per se. It is with everybody putting him and his work on a pedestal.

      1. I agree with you on the subject of stealing, i.e. plagiarism vs allusion. Not surprisingly, I do not care what Tolkien is guilty of or not.

      My point is that Tolkien is so holy that he is untouchable, and THAT I have a problem with. Everybody is homageing (did I just make up a new word?) his legacy to death. I am reading the same story every fucking time. No surprises, no challenges to me as a reader, no thrilling reading experiences. It seems that nobody dares to do something new within the genre.
      You could of course argue that J.K. Rowling did exactly that.

      By the way, did you know people are afraid of telling others they have not read Tolkien? Even worse, that they did not like it? They lie their hearts out instead. That is sick. And not in a good way.

      2. High fantasy is commercially successful from a production point of view. There has never been so many fantasy books or fantasy writers as there are now.

      Hollywood, independent cinema and TV is not keeping up with that pace when it comes to epic fantasy, I agree. However, they are rampaging through every motherfucking supernatural, sci fi, superhero and urban fantasy story out there. Some of them clearly is low fantasy but they even share traits with the epic fantasy genre.

      On the subject of women in fantasy settings, do not get me started!

      I do not however confuse powerful women with fully clothed women.
      More clothes on does not automatically make it a feminist work of art.

      • I shall persist! Not necessarily in disagreeing, but, you know… I would like to point out that you asked whether Tolkien should be accused of stealing and I answered your question. If you aren’t interested, don’t ask. 😉

        I read Conan the way you read Tolkien apparently – except it’s more low brow and it’s predictable in a different way. Not as a travel log but … I have nothing to compare it with, I just find it boring. A little caveman-ish?

        THAT SAID I find Tolkien boring too – but worth it. It’s like reading Ibsen or Joyce; it should be read in the context of historical and cultural value and not necessarily because it’s so damned wonderfully written. There were passages of LOTR I literally suffered through because the setting was so rich, the concept behind the story so epic, that I desired to continue reading. Not everyone has the patience for that and I don’t really mind. People gawk at me when I tell them I don’t like Hamsun, and while I can’t be persuaded to like his work I do recognize that some do and that he deserves a position on a list of classics.

        Tolkien might be homaged to death, but that’s hardly his fault OR (most of) his fans. Take it up with the fucktards who actually abuse his work to sell crappy stories. 😛

        On a side note: JK Rowling did write something original, but she drew even more heavily on already established myths and creatures, as well as inventing some of her own. And the ending? Biblical. Which is also done to death but not necessarily unworthy of praise.

        And about feminist works of art: No, clothing doesn’t “make” a character, but a naked character is less likely to be taken seriously because people will more often be busy jerking off to them instead of actually checking if they bring something to the table. Which is sad.

      • Let’s agree not to disagree … or something 😉

        I understand what you say about Tolkien and him not stealing. I totally agree with you on that.

        When I asked why no one is accusing him, when everybody is so willing to accuse everybody else of stealing from him, I wanted (perhaps in a poorly way) to give an example of Tolkien’s holy status.

        Me accusing Tolkien was not the point. Accusing fans of Tolkien, of blindingly follow a mass hysteria was.
        The title does seem to blame Tolkien. True. Without Tolkien, no Tolkien fans. Easy peasy.

        Let me be clear, I recognize Tolkien. I also recognize Ibsen, Joyce and Hamsun. Although I am not that into neither of them personally. People that gawk at you for not liking Hamsun, I do not care much about.

        The fucktards are on my to-watch-list 😉

        Ignoring naked (but strong) women (and their effects, and conseqcuences besides masturbation) will only continue the bad stereotype. Embracing the good ones, although naked, will push the limits and therefore expand the stereotype. We give meaning to the world; therefore, we have the power to change it.

  2. Barbarella says:

    I like dark, personal, sexy and gritty fantasy.
    I like Tolkien too. Prude or not. I like the friendship, the honour and glory, I like that the small person get to play such a big role. I like the bitter realistic ending for Frodo, and the extreme evilness of the evil. I do miss more female characters, although I really like Eowyn the Nordic Valkyrie of the books ( not the simpering Aussie in the movies). Tolkien shaped my childhood morals, gave me arachnophobia, and ultimately made me marry my own Sam. So sorry, I don’t agree. There’s room for all kinds of fantasy in my heart.

    • Sorry for my late answer.

      Epic fantasy is exactly that, EPIC!
      I love an epic story. For the same reasons as you.

      However, for some reason I am reading Lord of the Rings as a bad travel log. I liked The Hobbit better though.

      As I stated in another reply, my problem is not with Tolkien per se, but what has become of his legacy. Which is as drowsy as LOTR.

      Let’s agree to disagree!
      And not shun people that do not agree. With either of us.

  3. I just want to second the shout out to a pulpier, less intellectual, and more visceral fantasy. Tolkien’s project is valuable as an intellectual exercise, but to me it falls short on enjoyment. I would point out though that his theory about the relevance of the fantastic is very inspiring, although it’s religious subtext might make it less accessible to many people. So i would recomend Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf over Lotr when it comes to asigning Tolkien a place in the unfolding history of the fantastic.

    Would also like to point Christine in the direction of Michael Moorcock, a british writer whose fantasy writing is close to the pulp origins of fantasy but still manages to bring something new to the fantastic table. A forerunner for writers like Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore.

    • I totally agree with you!
      And as I have said in earlier replies here, I do not have a problem with Tolkien per se.
      Except that I find Lord of the Rings a bit boring.

      I have not read Tree and Leaf. I might just check that out.

      Thank you for pointing me in that direction!
      He is now on my to-read-list. Do you recommend everything?

      • On Moorcock: He has been a prolific writer since the 60’s and has written so much that i have not read even a considerable portion, but what i have read has generally been good.

        I have read a handful of Elric stories, most of them great. Elric is his most famous creation and is clearly in the sword & sorcery vein with magic swords, living caverns, demon summoning, violence and rescuing not-so-virgininal damsels-in-distress. Elric stories are described as a reversal of Tolkienesque cliches and the Elric character is the antithesis of Howard’s Conan the Barbarian.

        I’ve also read Moorcock’s time travel novel “Behold the Man”, which tackles religion like no other sci-fi i’ve heard off, and the non-fantastic fantasy novel “A brothel in Rossenstrasse” which is about a writer and his young girlfriend seeking refuge in a brothel during a fictional siege in a fictional city in a made-up European country in the late 19th century. Lots of insanity, drugs, politics and sex. (Moorcock and Alan Moore are friends/mututal fans and some of the themes for Lost Girls is from this book)

        On my reading list is Moorcock’s 2011 Doctor Who novel: “The Coming of the Terraphiles”.

      • Thank you so much for the reading tips! 🙂

        As we speak, I have ordered both “Behold the Man” and “A Brothel in Rosenstrasse”. Surprisingly not the Elric stories. I might come around to those too.

        I love “Lost Girls” by Moore and Gebbie!

        Ooooh, Doctor Who! 🙂

  4. Pingback: Guest Post – Tolkien did not invent fantasy, but he may have ruined it. | HarsH ReaLiTy

  5. I followed the link from OM to get here, and I enjoyed reading this post!

    I agree that Tolkien is treated too deferentially by fans of the fantasy genre. He is imitated so prevalently, I think, because he is read widely and his take on fantasy is a shorthand for other fans of the genre. For example, if I’m writing a story about elves, then I can assume most people will think of pointy ears, aesthetically pleasing looks, and a superiority complex. The heavy lifting of establishing background is already accomplished, so I can focus on other things. This is useful for shorter fictions, but it detracts from longer stories where it looks like the effort of creating a world was half-done.

    That being said, I don’t think Tolkien has ruined fantasy. Quite the opposite, I think he should be credited with helping establish its popularity. By making a story that many people have read and will recommend to others to read, it creates more fans of the genre. While most of those fans may be content to limit themselves to Tolkien-style fantasy with its dense prose, random songs, and meandering plot, some will choose to expand their horizons to other fare.

    And for those that do, they have places like this blog to find out how much more enjoyable fantasy can really be!

    • Thank you so much for your comment, and for your follow! 🙂

      You are spot on about him being treated too deferentially and imitated so prevalently.

      Yes, he should be credited, and he is. My point is that sometimes a legacy can become a curse.

      I do not have a problem with people choosing Tolkien. I have a problem with people not knowing that there is something else out there.

      Or, that they do. Reading it secretly and ashamed. Afraid of the Tolkien-police.

      • I used to be afraid of the Tolkien-police, but now I have a magic phrase to make them go away: “Tom Bombadil.” If they start defending him out loud, their own words echo silliness in their minds, and they soon stop. Because, y’know, his pants are green and his boots are yellow.

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