An Unexpected Backlash: A Tolkien Commentary

This is a guest blog by Michelle Browne, author of “The Loved, the Lost, the Dreaming.” She is also the author of “SciFi Magpie,” where this blog post was originally published.

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So, by now, most of you have probably seen ‘The Hobbit’. I finally caught up to it in theatres just recently. I wanted to touch on the relevance of that, but I’m going to splice an analysis of Lord of the Rings in here too, and look at why the series has been so instrumental in creating the fantasy worlds of writers today. However, I also have a few choice remarks to make on culture and possibly colonialism, so don’t expect an entirely comfortable post. Get your sword, your bow, and your axe; this could get ugly.
For the sake of expediency, and because I don’t have time to reread the entire trilogy AND The Hobbit AND The Sillmarillion (blech!) before writing this review, there may be a few factual detail errors. However, given my ‘to be read’ shelves on GoodReads and Amazon, I figured it was best just to get on with it.

Photo belongs to the internets.
So, what makes the series so special? Let’s have a look at some common misconceptions and ideas while we’re trying to figure it out.

Lord of the Rings was the first book of its kind! Well…actually…

It’s more than just clever marketing, certainly. Although The Lord of the Rings series was written during WWII and published in three volumes between 1954-55, it wasn’t the first high fantasy work ever written. Before The Hobbit in 1937, Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian hit the shelves in 1932. Weird Tales, the magazine that started it all, had hit shelves back in 1923, bringing stories of horror, science fiction, and the fantastic to pulp readers everywhere. Reading these contemporary works definitely reveals some very common themes. If you’ve read H.P. Lovecraft’s work and a bit of Howard–which I have–you can see the overlap in the style of the antagonists, as well as in other elements. The spooky and mysterious forces even return in modern game narratives, such as DragonAge, The Elder Scrolls, and World of Warcraft. 

What LoTR did, though, was refine the style and give it a voice, a look, an emblematic work that encompassed new ground. Only children’s stories had been written about knights and beasts and dragons, and before that, the mythology of a people. Tolkein managed to combine children’s stories, folklore, and the organization of mythos into a single work. There’s no getting around it–the Middle Earth stories are the sort of creation myth territory that had previously belonged to whole cultures.

He single-handledly defined orcs (inventing those himself), dwarves, elves, and halfings/hobbits for generations of fantasy writers. He defined the period and setting (a sort of sparsely populated mediaeval Britain/Germany/France amalgam) for what high fantasy would become. He defined the idea of a big bad scary villain working through armies of henchmen. He codified the Merlin-like figure of a wise old wizard and crafted many tropes and archetypes that we still rely on. High fantasy, as it currently exists, just wouldn’t have come to be without Tolkein, or would have been markedly different.

Source. Some time, we’ll have a long talk about my mixed feelings about dragons, but this is a pretty epic picture.

So, what can you possibly say about LoTR’s impact that could be negative? He invented the genre, right?

LoTR begat many other authors’ works. Ursula Le Guin and her literary descendents have diverged a bit, but both Arthurian structure and LoTR dominate the flavour and types of worlds created by modern writers. Stories revolve around magic and whether it ought to be used (or not), kings and their courts, power struggles, fantasy racism and ancient grudges, looming evil forces or ideological conflicts, the role (or lack thereof) for women, and Epic Grand Battle Royales. Tamora Pierce, Terry Brooks, Robin Hobb, George R. R. Martin, and many other authors have all experimented with variations on this formula, with varying levels of success.

There is some really wonderful high fantasy out there, but as one reads the list, certain patterns emerge. Even from titles alone, a tendency towards the mediaeval is obvious. That’s all right on its own, surely, but a second glance reveals more. The vast majority, in fact, almost every single book, is set in some sort of British/Germanic/French/Nordic world. Mongolians, Chinese, Arabs, or Africans are the antagonist forces–sometimes cloaked in scales or green skin or in various deformities. While some books do deviate and head to a Middle-Eastern world–Tamora Pierce’s Circle, Guy Gavriel Kay’s canon, or G. R. R. Martin’s Fire and Ice quintet–most stay firmly in the classic mediaeval Europe zone.

Now, I am citing classics of the genre. I’m not all that keen on high fantasy, as stated in previous posts, but there are some books here that I truly love. Pullman, Zelazny, Martin, Bakker, Rowling, Pratchett, Nix, Gentle, Goodkind, and yes, Tolkein, are authors I’ve absolutely adored and who have influenced me. However, even these interesting and fairly diverse voices tend to gravitate to that European mediaeval standard I’ve mentioned. LGBTQ people are an endangered species, diversity is limited to a few strange folk and tokens, and everything is based on a muddy mix of the worst of 11th century daydreams.

So, why insist that I dislike the genre if I’ve read so much of it?

The problem is that reading one or two books in the genre, by and large, is like reading all of them. Sure, some of the authors have the excuse of time on their side, but new authors are still imitating their forebears with religious accuracy. Simply put, if you’re reading high fantasy these days, you can count on a lack of cultural diversity and different ideas, and there’s not much point in picking up a new book in the genre. I’m not saying the whole thing needs to be chucked out, or that these books are bad, per se, but I do think there’s a danger of intellectual bankruptcy and negatively influencing younger, newer authors.

Source.  This is basically how I feel when I pick up a book and find out that it’s exactly the same as a classic fantasy work. This has happened recently. Multiple times.

So, why has Lord of The Rings continued to keep such a hold on the public imagination?

I think some of it has to do with not only the greatness of the work and the shocking faithfulness of its adherence in works that followed, but also with comfort zones. I’m not going to rant about American/Eurocentric media right now, but I will say that it’s simply what we’re used to–Britain and Germany as cultural centres, with blurred understanding of how much even these two nations have changed in modern times. We know Tolkien and we know the works of authors inspired by him, and their sameness and familiarity may actually be a selling point. When people like something, they want more of it. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when even smaller-name, newer authors feel compelled to repeat the same formulas–and the formulas come from only one or two sources–you’re bound to encounter a lot of repetition. It’s a standard epic escape route.

Going back to an earlier point, not all the writings were intended to be this homogeneous. Arguably, a lot of these works cross into the real world, and when urban fantasy is lumped into High Fantasy (which it is on the Wikipedia page), you see a bit more wriggle-room and creativity. However, the idea of pushing boundaries isn’t a welcome one in fantasy circles. Consider how many of the greats–even those writing in the present–have prominent gay or lesbian characters who are open about their sexuality. Answer: Very few. Even G. R. R. Martin’s fiction, which does move away from the Euro-zone a bit, maintains misogyny (though it’s explored) and ‘European’ main characters for all the named, prominent protagonists.

It’s also given people the wrong idea about the actual mediaeval era, which–according to scholarly research I’ve done–is essentially nothing like the books supposedly written to imitate it. Even without the more exotic and non-realistic aspects, the time between the fall of Rome and the rise of the Medicis in the Renaissance was a very busy period for human history, not just a wasteland of political struggle and plague. The myth has faded into legend, and some things that should not have been forgotten–such as the surprising diversity of mediaeval science and some tolerant attitudes towards gay people–were. However, it doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the world, or that the genre is doomed to continue cannibalizing itself and Tolkein.

Okay, smartypants, how do we fix it?

I’ve been leading up to this, but the answer isn’t really that difficult: we need to diversify. I would read the living crap out of a book set in ancient China or Africa. Mediaeval setting and all. Most authors are Europeans or Americans (yours truly included, though I’m Canadian) and there are certain knowledge limits imposed by that. That said, we’re running out of options; ideas are basically tapped dry, and being recycled at this point. Stretching beyond the classics and taking inspiration from other cultures–respectfully–could do a world of good. As well, adding new elements to the classic books, such as clashes over technology, LGBTQ and non-traditional marital structures, and different ideologies, would also change up the formula.  Some issues might arise from incompetent treatment of other cultures and LGBTQ people. That’s going to be a problem as people expand their reach and subject matter, without question, and you can bet I’ll have more to say about cultural appropriation in future.
On the other hand, nobody really likes change as a process. It’s uncomfortable. I can also anticipate a lot of screaming over destruction of the genre and that sort of thing. Given how well classic high fantasy has survived so far, I wouldn’t describe that as a real problem. In fact, some authors have already started to mess heavily with the formulas, and to excellent effect. Bakker, one of the authors mentioned, does a pretty good job of changing around traditional elements in his Prince of Nothing series, in my opinion. Eve Forward’s The Animist is another example of a book that bent a few rules by varying the races and species used.
While there’s a good discussion to be had about the realistic value about fantasy (and sci fi) stories for the real world, there’s also a need for even the most fantastical works to relate to contemporary circumstances. Our circumstances are just so different from fifty or sixty years ago that travelling back to the make-believe mediaeval Disneyland setting designed in that era is no longer realistic. Real Britain has a very diverse population, women comfortably work in many different industries (and men demonstrate far more than mere combat skills, proving to be excellent solo parents), and equal marriage is becoming a very important issue worldwide. Fantasy just doesn’t represent this very well, and a few updates will help the genre stay relevant and interesting for our children and children’s children. And that’s why we need to dethrone Tolkien as the one and only golden standard of fantasy, especially for new authors: if things stay the way they are, fantasy will fail to move forward. We’ll have the classics, sure, but those little pockets of racism and sexism will remain, and no culture needs that.
So, in conclusion: I actually like a fair bit of high fantasy, and have respect for many authors in the genre, but it’s already suffering from some serious inbreeding. I haven’t touched on the issues in science fiction, and I will get to that eventually. For now, it’s time for you guys to tell me your thoughts: is fantasy oversaturated with a certain setting style? Is it just the traits of the genre? Or do we need to change things? Any recommendations of new and unique fantasy series are also very welcome. I want to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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