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refriedwhiskey
09-09-2004, 05:05 AM
Hey, Flawed, I thought I'd move this to the appropriate forum.

In the Horror forum, you said "the fact is, Tolkien doesn't own the high fantasy genre, and he didn't create it."

I'm not sure that's entirely correct. The elements common to so many contemporary novels of what we call "high fantasy" all came from Tolkien: noble sylvan elves the size and shape of humans (before Tolkien, an elf was a little mischievous creature, like a sprite or a fairy); bellicose, bearded dwarves; orcs; evil wizards/dark lords in distant, dark towers; the race for possession of a tremendously powerful magic artifact; etc.

Is there another novel that brought all of those elements together prior to the publication of The Hobbit in 1937? Maybe you know of one; I don't. Certainly if there was one, it wasn't as well known or influential as The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

I think Tolkien did invent most of the conventions we find in today's high fantasy. He may have borrowed some words and some creatures from folklore, but even those he synthesized and changed to make them part of his own unique world.

I think any contemporary novel that contains these elements (or even a few of these elements) is, if not a ripoff of Tolkien, certainly in great debt to Tolkien.

Tolkien created Middle Earth in the image of ancient Europe and Britain because he was an Englishman who felt that his country needed a new mythology to call its own. So why do so many American fantasy writers set their own novels in worlds that feel so much like Middle Earth? I would much rather see a fantasy novel with a wholly original setting -- like Card's Alvin Maker novels or Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy -- than another novel set in another Iron Age or Medieval European setting with elements lifted from Tolkien.

And, unfortunately, in my experience, fantasy writers who try to emulate Tolkien -- whether consciously or unconcsciously -- tend to copy just the most superficial elements and miss what made Tolkien's novels so great.

(I definitely disagree with your assertion that Tolkien is not the greatest writer of high fantasy. He's far and away the best I've read. I'd be interested in checking out whoever you think is better.)

refriedwhiskey
09-09-2004, 05:25 AM
Another quick note, Flawed:

I don't want to say outright that your lack of appreciation for LotR is down to your age, but I tried reading it when I was in Jr. High, and I only got a little farther than you say you did (you got 80 pages in and gave up; I got into Chapter 7, with Tom Bombadil, and gave up).

Friends told me "oh, you have to skip this part and this part and this part," and I thought "Screw that. I'm not going to waste my time with a novel that's full of boring parts I have to skip."

But that was about 20 years ago. I tried again a few years ago, in anticipation of the release of the first Lord of the Rings movie. I figured it was now or never; if I was ever going to read these books, I'd have to read them before I saw the movies, because I sure as hell wasn't going to read them once I'd seen the movies and knew everything that happened.

And I loved them. I finished Return of the King and found myself wishing there was more. I'll definitely read them again in a few years.

This may not be the case for you, but I found I had to grow up, read lots and lots of great literature outside of fantasy, and come back to The Lord of the Rings before I could really appreciate it.

ChunkyC
09-09-2004, 06:35 AM
refried -- that was my experience with LOTR exactly the first time around. I've now read it twice (before the movies) and loved it.

Yeshanu
09-09-2004, 08:06 AM
I'm not sure that's entirely correct. The elements common to so many contemporary novels of what we call "high fantasy" all came from Tolkien: noble sylvan elves the size and shape of humans (before Tolkien, an elf was a little mischievous creature, like a sprite or a fairy); bellicose, bearded dwarves; orcs; evil wizards/dark lords in distant, dark towers; the race for possession of a tremendously powerful magic artifact; etc.

Actually, I think flawed is right in this. Tolkiein drew on many sources, such as Spenser's Fairie Queen, to create his elves. I have an essay somewhere in my files that gives some of the sources he probably used for his elves and other creatures, but the fact is, that elves or fairies in ancient times were not always little sprites or pixies, but taller and more majestic than mere mortal human beings.

Of course there are some things Tolkien did invent, like ents. And the languages were all his, though the runes (dwarf writing) were adapted from various sources.

So Tolkien didn't invent fantasy literature, and most of the creatures in his novel aren't of his initial creation (orc is just a corrupted form of the elvish word for goblin). What he did do was bring it back from obscurity, and write a story that resonates with modern readers.

Ain't that enough?

refriedwhiskey
09-09-2004, 08:10 AM
Whatever his source material, I believe Tolkien did pioneer the contemporary fantasy novel, and much (if not most) of today's fantasy novels owe a tremendous debt to him. I doubt you'd find many fantasy novelists who would deny that.

Is he the "god of fantasy," to use Flawed's term? No. But I do believe he's the father of contemporary fantasy.

(And I also still think he's the best writer of contemporary fantasy. :p )

veingloree
09-09-2004, 03:07 PM
I think elves, dwarves etc *as they are normally used and describe in modern fantasy* are Tolkein's invention/reinvention/distortion. He didn't invent them from scratch but subsequenmt writers have based themselves on Tolkein and his imitators rather than going back to first sources. he created the kind of 'race steroetypes' that were then hardened in place by D & D etal.

Writing Again
09-09-2004, 04:36 PM
Not sure.

I personally like to harbor the delusion that my WIP fantasy is original, and for the life of me neither I nor any of my beta readers can think of anything out there like it.

Yet when I look at any one individual element in the story I can't find one single thing in it that is original. Not one.

Maybe when we write we are more like the people who customize cars and motor cycles than we are wont to admit. When we put it all together using the glue of our own personality and it works the observer says, "Wow, look at that." But underneath it is still just various parts from various cars filled in with bondo and extruded with fiber glass trim.

So Tolkein did the best job and Eddings did a pretty good job. Heck, we all want to be somewhere on the ladder. And isn't it better to be on the bottom rung than no rung at all?

Yeshanu
09-09-2004, 06:58 PM
Right on, Writing Again!

Personally, I think total originality is over-rated. People don't want originality, they want something that has some similarity to something they've already read, but different. Like the "new and improved" products in the grocery store...

As for new monsters, etc. A lot of the monsters in fantasy (and in D&D) came from ancient myths of many lands. If you check out a lot of the D&D monsters, you'll find they've mostly been lifted from the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Aboriginal cultures of the world, etc.

And let's be honest -- why go to the trouble of inventing something absolutely brand new when an old model exists that will do the trick?

Fantasy, like any genre, isn't about gimmicks like new monsters, spells or items. It's a story about people, and how life sticks it to them. How good the novel is depends on how well that story is told. Period.

Tolkien is considered a master by many (and Flawed, I respect your right to disagree here) because he takes a little guy (Bilbo in The Hobbit and Frodo in LOTR) and kicks him out of his nice comfy hole and sends him on an adventure for which he is wholly unsuited and unprepared. And the little guy triumphs.

We can identify with Bilbo and Frodo, even though they're not human beings. We quake at the dangers they face. And we cheer when they win.

The fact that giant spiders and a magic sword aren't entirely original doesn't even enter our minds during those scenes.

refriedwhiskey
09-09-2004, 10:44 PM
And isn't it better to be on the bottom rung than no rung at all?
Honestly, no. I don't think so. Not as long as there's even the remotest possibility finding a higher rung on a new ladder that's not so crowded. Know what I mean? Why would you want to be the least writer in a huge mob when you could stand out on your own?

It's the old question of being a small fish in a big pond vs. a big fish in a small pond. Personally, I wouldn't be the least bit interested in writing if I didn't believe I might someday be one of the best at what I do.


People don't want originality, they want something that has some similarity to something they've already read, but different.
I have long thought that was true of most fantasy fans, which is why so many fantasy novels (including the most popular ones -- Feist, Jordan, Eddings, Brooks, etc.) are all so similar to Tolkien and thus to each other. For whatever reason, the largest part of the fantasy-reading demographic is made up of people who want the comfort of familiarity, the same basic elements over and over again in very slightly different packages, rather than real originality.

This isn't true of other genres, though. If science fiction were like fantasy, for example, then all of the most popular novels would be slight variations on Star Trek or Star Wars.


We can identify with Bilbo and Frodo, even though they're not human beings. We quake at the dangers they face. And we cheer when they win.

The fact that giant spiders and a magic sword aren't entirely original doesn't even enter our minds during those scenes.
Well, my assertion is still that they were entirely original when Lord of the Rings was published. Until I see evidence to the contrary, I believe Tolkien was the first contemporary novelist to use all these elements that today are taken for granted as conventions of fantasy. As a result, LotR is taken for granted, and people incorrectly assume it's not very original because they've seen all of its elements in so many other fantasy novels -- but they're forgetting that LotR came first.

It's something I think of as "Jimi Hendrix syndrome." People who grew up listening to Eddie Van Halen and Stevie Ray Vaughan hear Jimi Hendrix and think "He's good, but he's not the guitar god people make him out to be" -- because they've heard EVH and SRV and the like, and Hendrix doesn't stand out in that group the way he did when he was alive and performing. But the important thing to remember is that Hendrix did it all first -- the flash, the speed, the distortion, the feedback, the showmanship, the acrobatics -- and these later guitar gods wouldn't even exist without Hendrix.

It's the same with Tolkien. He may seem to disappear into a crowded sea of fantasy novels that are all vaguely similar -- but there was a time when he stood alone, and that sea wouldn't exist without him.

aka eraser
09-10-2004, 01:42 AM
I'm with you refried and your Jimi analogy is an apt one.

I read early fantasists before I read Tolkien; George MacDonald, William Morris, Lord Dunsany and others. They certainly sparked my appetite for more and Tolkien's work, when I finally read it some 30 years ago, was like sitting down to a sumptuous banquet.

I still enjoy derivative works (in the hands of modern masters ) because there is a sense of comfort in wrapping oneself up in a new-but-familiar-ish book. But as I've lamented on my site, with popularity comes dreck and even some talented, promising (*cough* Jordan *cough*) writers have succumbed to the bloated-is-better philosophy.

It's hard for me to fathom how anyone who enjoys fantasy today cannot acknowledge JRR as "da man."

HConn
09-10-2004, 02:27 AM
Well, my assertion is still that they were entirely original when Lord of the Rings was published. Until I see evidence to the contrary, I believe Tolkien was the first contemporary novelist to use all these elements that today are taken for granted as conventions of fantasy.

Did you mean hobbits? Or giant spiders and magic swords?

Yeshanu
09-10-2004, 02:59 AM
Not as long as there's even the remotest possibility finding a higher rung on a new ladder that's not so crowded. Know what I mean? Why would you want to be the least writer in a huge mob when you could stand out on your own?

Not if it's the wrong ladder for you.

I've had to think this one through, and I decided that I'd rather write unoriginal fantasy than original stuff in a host of other genres.

And sci-fi, I think, is a unique genre as far as originality is concerned. As our scientific knowledge increases, science fiction must keep pace or it loses the believability factor. Magic and dragons and elves don't have any such problem. Nor does Romance, Horror, Mystery or other genres, because they don't try and extrapolate what the future of humankind will be like.

So...

Everybody on this board, I think, knows I'm a Tolkien fanatic, and there's not likely a fantasy reader/writer in existence who doesn't acknowledge that the modern popularity of the genre is due solely to him.

But he didn't create it.

Hobbits are "little people, half our height" who have the ability to hide themselves from sight. It's not Tolkien's elves who were drawn from pixies and brownies and such...

Giant spiders, are of course, highly unoriginal, and magic swords have been around for centuries. (Ever heard of one named Excalibur?)

The only race I would say might be entirely original are the ents. I don't think there are any instances of talking "tree shepherds" in medieval or ancient myths and fantasy, though it might be fun to research.

So his brilliance was not in creating something entirely new. It was in taking something very old and bringing it to the attention of modern readers in a way so compelling that the course of modern literature was irrevocably changed... :grin

ChunkyC
09-10-2004, 04:15 AM
You're right, Yesh. There are elves in stories by the Brothers Grimm dating back to the 1700's, and in Aesop's Fables. Elves and Dwarves are seen in ancient Norse mythology. Here's a great place for looking stuff up:

Encyclopedia Mythica (http://www.pantheon.org/main/search.html)

I don't think anyone will argue, however, that Tolkien is the father of the modern fantasy genre.

Lori Basiewicz
09-10-2004, 04:38 AM
The only race I would say might be entirely original are the ents. I don't think there are any instances of talking "tree shepherds" in medieval or ancient myths and fantasy, though it might be fun to research.

What about the wood nymphs of Greek myth? Mythical creatures who looked after the forests? I could see a correlation between the two and an overactive imagination like Tolkien's could make the necessary changes to create the ents.

arainsb123
09-10-2004, 04:45 AM
I, personally, don't enjoy Tolkien-ripoffs *cough*Eragon.*cough*

Which is why it was so much fun to parody them in my recently completed manuscript.:grin

refriedwhiskey
09-10-2004, 05:00 AM
Did you mean hobbits? Or giant spiders and magic swords?
HConn, I meant all the various elements that appear in The Hobbit and LotR and have become familiar conventions of contemporary fantasy. They weren't always conventions, and it was Tolkien who first brought them together in the mix we see over and over in the works of the many writers who imitate him.


I've had to think this one through, and I decided that I'd rather write unoriginal fantasy than original stuff in a host of other genres.
I can't even begin to identify with that point of view. Never mind other genres -- how about writing original fantasy? I think we need it.


And sci-fi, I think, is a unique genre as far as originality is concerned. As our scientific knowledge increases, science fiction must keep pace or it loses the believability factor. Magic and dragons and elves don't have any such problem. Nor does Romance, Horror, Mystery or other genres, because they don't try and extrapolate what the future of humankind will be like.
But who says fantasy has to be "magic and dragons and elves"? Why isn't there more fantasy that's not just another writer playing in Tolkien's yard?

And I think you're wrong about science fiction being a special case. It's not evolving technology that gives science fiction more variety than fantasy. If that were the case, then you could look at any given period in the history of science fiction and see the same kind of homogeneity we see in fantasy. But it's not like that because, for whatever reason, readers and writers of science fiction are more interested in exploring a wide variety of ideas and settings, while so many fantasy folks seem content with more of the same. You don't see the that kind of homogeneity in the mystery or horror genres, either.


So his brilliance was not in creating something entirely new. It was in taking something very old and bringing it to the attention of modern readers in a way so compelling that the course of modern literature was irrevocably changed...
That's exactly what I'm talking about when I say Tolkien took all these elements and changed and synthesized them into something new, and in so doing pioneered the contemporary fantasy novel.

ChunkyC
09-10-2004, 06:19 AM
I meant all the various elements that appear in The Hobbit and LotR and have become familiar conventions of contemporary fantasy. They weren't always conventions, and it was Tolkien who first brought them together in the mix we see over and over in the works of the many writers who imitate him
Can't argue with you there, refried.

Flawed Creation
09-10-2004, 07:10 AM
wow, look at the controversy i've sparked.

i scanned the thread, and have a few thoughts.

on reflection, you may be right about him pioneering the modern high fantasy novel.

Edited: however, the point is that no matter what was around then now there's plenty fop high fantasy around, some of which is just as good. so you can't say that it's tolkien's plot that sets him apart.

please remember that i have read Tolkien. i read the Lord of the Rings when i was 6 or 7, and i loved it. (my father read me the fellowship, we took turns reading the two towers to each other, and i read the return of the king by myself.)

it's now, at 14 that i don't have the attention span.

i observed the comment that "we can identify with the hobbits, even though they aren't human."

the hobbits, are, in my mind, the single best part of tolkien's work. and the real reason we identify with them so well is that they are human. the "humans" of middle-earth are anything but. the hobbits act like people, and have a normal persons concerns. they seem to be the only ones who mind missing meals, are concerning about being yanked out of their homes, etc. they do, however find the capability to be heroes inside them.

by contrast, the men of middle-earth hardly seem real at all. Aragorn is nothing but a comic-book superhero. Boromir is obsessed with his own glorification, faramir lacks definition, and denethor is a caricature.

Gimli and Legolas lack personalities oter than "Elf" and "dwarf". this may be what causes him to seem worse in retrospect. as the first modern elf and dwarf, they defined the stereotype, and are therefore extremely stereotypical.

Tolkien's ents were very well done, as were the orcs. i really enjoyed reading him, and i loved the movies. i just don't see him dominating the field the way so many seem to. i think he could be significantly improved by a substantial cutting of his trilogy. if it were about 30% shorter, it would flow better, bog down less, and maintain more tension. obviously not everyone agrees.


i'm trying to think of someone as good as tolkien. off the top of my head, i could recommend melanie rawn. her "dragon prince" books contain a unique and orignal world, with a lot of detail and complicated politics, an interesting form of magic which doesn't dominate the storyline or close plot holes, and is significantly mroe readable.

refriedwhiskey
09-10-2004, 09:12 AM
so you can't say that it's tolkien's plot that sets him apart.
I don't say that. I don't think I've even implied that.

It's the quality of his writing; the depth of the world he created; and the effectiveness with which he develops and supports his themes throughout the novel. Those are the things that set him apart.

Well, those things and the fact that he was first. :)


the "humans" of middle-earth are anything but.
The humans of Middle Earth are not supposed to be humans like us. They're the precursors to humans like us. They're the last of a race of beings far superior to us. If Aragorn seems like he's a super hero, it's because he's one of the last humans with the blood of Numenor in his veins -- in that sense, he *is* superhuman. He's 83 years old but looks like a relatively young man because his life is less than half over.

I agree that the Hobbits are the most human characters in the novel. But of course they are -- they, and Frodo in particular, are the viewpoint characters. They seem the most human because Tolkien wanted us human readers to identify with them and sympathize with them the most. It didn't happen by accident.


Gimli and Legolas lack personalities oter than "Elf" and "dwarf". this may be what causes him to seem worse in retrospect. as the first modern elf and dwarf, they defined the stereotype, and are therefore extremely stereotypical.
Here's a question for you: How can the first examples of *anything* be stereotypical? :D

Gimli and Legolas only seem like the stereotypical dwarf and elf today because they've been copied so many times by lesser writers that their personalities have become stereotypes.

I still think you should try LotR again someday, Flawed. You don't like it now because you're a very different person than you were when you were 6 or 7. But in another ten years (or even another five, considering how much we develop and change in our teens) you'll be a very different person than you are today.

Maybe you won't feel any different about it at 24 than you do at 14. Then again, you may just love it -- and probably for entirely different reasons than when you were 6 or 7.

HConn
09-13-2004, 12:02 AM
This is also a response to Liam's post on the old thread in the horror forum.

I just wanted to point out that there were decades of popular fantasy writing before Tolkien, and not just Lord Dunsany and so on. There were hundreds of stories in Wierd Tales in the 20's, and there were lots of other magazines that sold to the same market.

Conan stories were being published in the thirties, Fahfrd and The Grey Mouser stories in the forties.

Tolkien's real contribution was academic rigor to the world-building. That, and he brought the genre out of the pulps and into a sort of Oxford respectibility (for some, at least.)

refriedwhiskey
09-13-2004, 05:10 AM
Well, there's also a huge difference between the world Robert Howard created for Conan and the world Tolkien created for his hobbits. Both worlds have been imitated a lot -- but Tolkien's is far and away the most imitated.

Nyki27
09-13-2004, 07:54 AM
I've just been reading through this whole thread and trying to pick out bits to comment on. Basically, I'd agree that Tolkien is the single most important fantasy writer. I wouldn't say that he invented the genre certainly, but I see him as funnelling all the various bit in together, and they came out as something changed, which is still with us. There were all kinds of earlier examples, from Homer to E. R. Eddison, but Tolkien took the same elements and gave them the distinct flavour they still have. For instance, you can compare LOTR with Morris's The Well at the World's End, which basically has the same plot (to take just one example, where they cross the mountains and come to a golden city ruled by a beautiful queen). But you just have to compare what's actually going on in the two books to see how much Tolkien transformed the genre.

Incidentally, orc is actually an Anglo-Saxon word for a monster; but the joke is that it only occurs once (in Beowulf) and no-one's quite sure what it actually means. The actual form (in the plural) is orcneas.

There is non-Tolkien fantasy being published - Mary Gentle, for instance. But it's the way of popular culture to take something good and produce lots of crap imitations. The best hope is that occasional good ones get through as well, just because they can't tell the difference.

keltora
09-15-2004, 09:14 PM
Considering that fantasy finds its roots in folklore and mythology, Tolkein is not its founder by any means. What he did do was encourage a revival of fantasy as a publishable genre. But he was predated in this by authors like George MacDonald and T.H. White.

I am one of those who could not read LOTR until after I saw the movie, so there is no influence of his anywhere in my work (and it amuses me when reviewers say there is--in truth, most of my work was influenced by folklore and fairytales from the 17th and 18th centuries...