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Author Topic: Sorry, J.R.R. Tolkien is not the father of fantasy... Discuss.  (Read 7575 times)

Offline Overlord

Sorry, J.R.R. Tolkien is not the father of fantasy... Discuss.
« on: December 24, 2013, 07:31:06 PM »
The following article was printed by Ed Power of the Boston Globe and I think encourages discussion:

Sorry, J.R.R. Tolkien is not the father of fantasy

The creator of ‘The Hobbit’ gets more credit than he deserves.

WITH THE “THE HOBBIT: The Desolation of Smaug” sitting atop the box-office list—as now seems automatic for each of Peter Jackson’s vivid renderings of Middle-earth—we’re treated to a new round of public accolades for author J.R.R. Tolkien. With each movie’s release, we’ve been reminded of the Oxford professor’s rarefied position in the genre: his epic imagination, unique storytelling abilities, and foundational role in fantasy’s history.

Modern fantasy is a vast and commercially successful realm. HBO’s gritty, bawdy “Game of Thrones” is one of the most successful shows on cable, wooing critics and audiences with smart dialogue and sophisticated plotting. Schoolboy wizard Harry Potter anchored a colossally successful book and film series, spawning college quidditch teams and making its author, for a time, wealthier than Queen Elizabeth. Online, an estimated 8 million subscribers play “World of Warcraft,” a multiplayer game that unfolds in a shared universe of sword-wielding heroes and horrific monsters. A movie adaptation is in the works.

Clearly fantasy has evolved in a way that makes it a touchstone in the culture. But how much of its success do we really owe to Tolkien’s influence? Questioning Tolkien’s status as the father of fantasy fiction might seem as presumptuous as marching into the villainous realm of Mordor through the front gate. But the closer you look at contemporary fantasy, the less Tolkien you see. Harry Potter owes more to Peter Pan than to Bilbo Baggins. The moral and political complexity of “Game of Thrones”—both the TV series and the George R.R. Martin books on which they are based—didn’t exist in Tolkien’s universe. (Those astonished by the lusty mix of betrayal, nudity, and casual violence in “Game of Thrones” are perhaps unaware these have been standard devices in fantasy for decades.) Indeed, Martin, along with the majority of notable fantasy writers of the past 30 years, sidesteps Tolkien almost entirely.

Tolkien may overshadow other fantasy writers in name recognition, and his high-handed purity and saintly protagonists may define fantasy in the popular imagination. But the real strengths of modern fantasy, what makes the genre increasingly popular, are qualities that come from other sources entirely. Most important is a parallel, overwhelmingly American, tradition of fantasy that has its roots in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s—and whose surprising influence and foresightedness suggests that sophistication doesn’t always come from the libraries of Oxford.


***

IN THE BROADEST sense, the roots of fantasy extend to the very foundations of world literature. What are “The Odyssey” and “Beowulf” but “Lord of the Rings”-style epics? Fantasy in the narrower modern sense, however—a distinct category of derring-do with a stereotypically medieval setting, where magic and nonhuman races mingle—began in the Victorian era. That period gave rise to fantastical storytellers such “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” author Lewis Carroll and William Morris, the noted British textile designer and socialist campaigner. Morris’s 1894 epic “The Wood Beyond The World”—a ripping quest novel in which the protagonist journeys to an unfamiliar world, makes the acquaintances of a comely heroine, and is menaced by ogre-like “mini giants”—can be seen as a direct precursor of modern fantastical writing.

That writing began to blossom as a genre with the rise of the pulps, the cheap and lurid fiction magazines of the first half of the 20th century. Chief among them was Weird Tales, which began publication in 1923. Established by J. C. Henneberger, a Chicago journalist, Weird Tales published gothic horror stories and lusty adventure yarns, the latter typically set in reimagined versions of Middle Ages Europe or Asia.

It was in the feverishly penned pages of Weird Tales, and rivals such as Unknown and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, that several of fantasy’s most authoritative voices gained prominence. One was Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian; another was Fritz Leiber, one of the acknowledged inventors of “low fantasy,” which emphasizes gritty realism and is skeptical as to the possibility of Arthurian chivalry in a pre-modern world. Weird Tales also published H.P. Lovecraft, the Providence-born horror pioneer whose dystopian dread informs much modern imaginative fiction.

The pulp writers were contemporaries of Tolkien, but operated in a far darker milieu. Howard’s Conan stories are rip-roaring and full-blooded, a tapestry of amoral protagonists, exposed flesh, and gory action. Leiber showed fantasy could be urban—and urbane. His wry Lankhmar series is set in a vast fetid city of the same name; his recurring “heroes,” Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are, respectively, a thuggish hired sword and a wiry thief. Through their eyes, Leiber investigates the murky side of human nature, the characters indulging in such unTolkien-esque pursuits as boozing, wenching, and dueling. A cesspool of inequity, populated with feuding guilds, conspiratorial cults, and cutthroats lying in wait, Lankhmar feels vividly alive in a way Middle-earth arguably never does: You can almost smell the exotic spices, the open gutters, the freshly spilled blood.


WARNER BROTHERS

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins.

Tolkien, meanwhile, was giving the world a different sort of fantastical writing. Middle-earth represented a lifetime’s work for the Englishman, who started sketching its fabulous races, swooping topography, and imagined languages as early as 1917, on sick leave from the army. His first novel, “The Hobbit,” was published in 1937. Typical of Tolkien, it contains plenty of peril and lots of backstory, but it is ultimately simplistic in its moral outlook. A heroic quest is undertaken by a doughty band, an evil dragon is defeated, and important lessons are learned. Granted, one of the heroes is killed at the end—but it is a noble passing, a respectable warrior’s death. “The Lord of the Rings,” the more ambitious and grandiose trilogy that followed, synthesized Anglo-Germanic heroic literature with a similarly black-and-white worldview, one colored by the conflicts of the 20th century. There is good and evil in Tolkien and very little between. The moral ambivalence of those American fantasy magazines—and of the world we actually inhabit—is largely absent.

Tolkien’s work did one undeniably important thing: It reached people who had never even heard of Leiber, Howard, or Weird Tales. The book particularly caught on in colleges, colonizing a highbrow new audience for what had been a fairly marginal and pulpy genre. As “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” achieved a critical mass of fandom through the late 1960s and early 1970s, fantasy and Tolkien started to become synonymous in the wider culture.

***

AT THE PEAK of Tolkien’s ascendancy, a new force arrived that would drive the development of fantasy: hobby gaming. First published in 1974 by two war-gaming fans with a taste for epic adventure, the complex pen-and-paper “role-playing” game Dungeons and Dragons quickly began to redefine the genre. D&D put fantasy’s tropes in the hands of a new audience who might have been disinclined to sit through hundreds of pages of Tolkien’s plodding prose, and provided a way to mix and match them. In a way, it open-sourced the genre.

D&D did borrow characters straight from Tolkien—its imagined realms teemed with dragons and orcs, halflings and dwarves. D&D’s designers, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, were clearly well-versed in Middle-earth, and it is often assumed the game represented an early kind of Tolkien fan fiction. But its roots were far more diverse. D&D’s intricate magic system is thought to have been based on American fantasy writer Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth” cycle; the gaudy, grubby warrior medievalism of the game owes more to the lurid imaginings of Robert E. Howard than to Tolkien’s donnish pastoralism. The game’s chief motive is usually a treasure-driven quest of shifting alliances or a straightforward monster-slaying spree—a far cry from Tolkien’s noble band united to save the world from creeping evil.

Forty years on, that more worldly and cynical sensibility exerts far more influence on fantasy—and on the wider culture—than does Tolkien. “World of Warcraft” and other popular online gaming franchises, as well as the popular collectible card game Magic The Gathering, flow from the distinctive sensibility established by Dungeons and Dragons. Many of the authors responsible for some of the most influential works of the post-Tolkien era are gamers themselves. George R.R. Martin has role-played, as has Terry Pratchett, creator of the greatly loved “Discworld” books. Dungeons and Dragons was likewise an inspiration for Steven Erikson, whose sprawling “Malazan Book of The Fallen” saga is, in terms of universe building and narrative ambition, perhaps the most significant fantasy sequence of the past decade.

By contrast, the most Tolkien-esque strains of fantasy have largely tumbled by the wayside. Terry Brooks’s “The Sword of Shannara,” a surprise blockbuster that reached The New York Times Best Seller list in 1977, was so indebted in tone and structure to Tolkien that today it reads like the literary equivalent of a covers record. That isn’t to suggest that people have stopped writing, or reading, fantasy that follows Tolkien’s old-fashioned sense of moral certainty. But these books have dwindled steadily in number and cultural heft, so that today “classic”—i.e Tolkienesque—fantasy exists as merely a subcategory of a wider genre.

Why has fantasy fiction prove so enduringly popular? Clearly part of the appeal lies in the way it speaks to our imagination. More than that, however, it lets writers work through complicated moral questions at a distance from the real world. It explores very human themes—loyalty, ambition, how to govern a society—in a setting imaginary enough to avoid coming across as partisan or preachy.

The works that do this best—most recently “Game of Thrones,” “The Malazan Book of the Fallen,” Joe Abercrombie’s “First Law” novels—draw their mood and internal architecture from books with a very different worldview and moral code than “The Lord of the Rings.” Tolkien will always have his place in the canon; after all, it’s fun to lose yourself in “The Hobbit” for three hours in a theater. But as people read the books and watch the bloated movie adaptations, it does no service to the genre to suggest that his work is the model for all that followed. It makes it all too easy for those new to these fantastical worlds to assume Tolkien’s prudishness, his sometimes archaic prose, and his Boy Scout characters are failings not of one man stooped over a desk in postwar Britain, but of all fantasy—for all time.

---

Link to original article by Ed Power:
http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/12/22/sorry-tolkien-not-father-fantasy/pljM6NOC54JmFaqY8bzNSI/story.html

Ed Power is a writer and critic specializing in books, music and television.
« Last Edit: December 24, 2013, 08:04:49 PM by Overlord »
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Offline Overlord

Re: Sorry, J.R.R. Tolkien is not the father of fantasy... Discuss.
« Reply #1 on: December 24, 2013, 08:01:39 PM »
Quote
'the most Tolkien-esque strains of fantasy have largely tumbled by the wayside ... The works that do this best—most recently “Game of Thrones,” “The Malazan Book of the Fallen,” Joe Abercrombie’s “First Law” novels—draw their mood and internal architecture from books with a very different worldview and moral code than “The Lord of the Rings."'

To me, modern fantasy is built upon many of the foundations that Tolkien laid down. What the author of the article seems not to see is that rather than authors having discarded these foundations, they have built upon them with bricks laced with today's attitudes and values. That is, to me, evolution; and evolution leads to something that although recognisable is very, very different to what you began with (e.g. the ape and the human, the raptor and the modern bird, etc). Just because an extensive change has occurred it doesn't mean that we can write it off as being unimportant. As an example, without Tolkien's work would Martin, Brett, Rothfuss, Jordan, Sanderson, etc be writing books with lore so indepth that they require 200,000, 300,000, even 400,000 words to tell their tales?
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Offline Yuan François

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Re: Sorry, J.R.R. Tolkien is not the father of fantasy... Discuss.
« Reply #2 on: December 24, 2013, 08:23:55 PM »
This may be a taboo here in the world of fantasy, but...
I've never read Lord of The Rings.
Neither have I ever read Game of Thrones.
Maybe it's this belief I can reach their scale by my share whits alone. That I can conjure up my own medieval realms after reading a history book...

Anyways, after reading the article, I have to agree that his writings aren't necessarily the foundations or the first picture from which we paint. However, it's that main ingredient in most fantasies. A role model, but not the only model. Tolkien made his mark on the genre, and we all can look up to his works, but I don't think every writer should use it as their base.

Quote
'the most Tolkien-esque strains of fantasy have largely tumbled by the wayside ... The works that do this best—most recently “Game of Thrones,” “The Malazan Book of the Fallen,” Joe Abercrombie’s “First Law” novels—draw their mood and internal architecture from books with a very different worldview and moral code than “The Lord of the Rings."'

To me, modern fantasy is built upon many of the foundations that Tolkien laid down. What the author of the article seems not to see is that rather than authors having discarded these foundations, they have built upon them with bricks laced with today's attitudes and values.

That too.
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Offline SuperBob

Re: Sorry, J.R.R. Tolkien is not the father of fantasy... Discuss.
« Reply #3 on: December 24, 2013, 08:31:06 PM »
I think he's arguing something that no one really argues. Tolkien didn't invent fantasy, or epics, or magic, or monsters, or gods, or fairies, or sword and sorcerers. What he did was invent worldbuilding as an art. Most "fantasy" before this took place in the real world or in legendary/mythical settings. This idea of inventing a new world, even if it is based on our own, is something Tolkien brought to the genre.

He also brought together some of the coolest myths from many cultures, which people continue to use. Because he borrowed from so many cultures, and people know the books more than the many mythologies, it is easy to see why people assume everything is copying Tolkien instead of using the same primary sources.


Offline ScarletBea

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Re: Sorry, J.R.R. Tolkien is not the father of fantasy... Discuss.
« Reply #4 on: December 24, 2013, 09:01:37 PM »
A bit like SuperBob, I wonder if people really believe Tolkien started all fantasy writing...
I feel Tolkien is a bit of a name that non-fantasy readers like to use to show they're "up there with the geek crowd", a bit like mentioning the Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy, or nowadays, 'Game of Thrones', like non-fantasy people call ASoIaF.
They just don't know any better, so it all starts and ends with Tolkien...

(as for me, to be honest, all the fuss and the films and the tv series just put me off things: if I hadn't read Tolkien a couple of decades ago, and started ASoIaF several years ago, I wouldn't do it now with the big focus :-\)
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Offline Algon 33

Re: Sorry, J.R.R. Tolkien is not the father of fantasy... Discuss.
« Reply #5 on: December 25, 2013, 09:14:43 AM »
Of course Tolkien didn't invent fantasy, as its the oldest genre of all. But what he did do is re-invent it. Others had of course done so in the past, but so did Tolkien. He laid the groundwork for modern fantasy, so when you look at it now, of course this three/four story building doesn't look like Tolkien, at least near the top, but at the ground floor, you see how he inspired it. The leaves of a tree look nothing like it's roots, but they grew from there none the less, and the roots look even less like seeds. So whilst Tolkien didn't create it, we owe modern fantasy to him (in part). I'm with Overlord on this one.

Offline pornokitsch

Re: Sorry, J.R.R. Tolkien is not the father of fantasy... Discuss.
« Reply #6 on: December 26, 2013, 08:51:53 AM »
Also agree with you and Overlord. This article is a weird sort of trolling. It assumes that there are a lot of people that believe something that is factually inaccurate... and then berates them for it. Which is weird, as those people don't seem to exist.

Offline Overlord

Re: Sorry, J.R.R. Tolkien is not the father of fantasy... Discuss.
« Reply #7 on: December 26, 2013, 03:44:45 PM »
Also agree with you and Overlord. This article is a weird sort of trolling. It assumes that there are a lot of people that believe something that is factually inaccurate... and then berates them for it. Which is weird, as those people don't seem to exist.

That sums it up very well.
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Offline nbhagat

Re: Sorry, J.R.R. Tolkien is not the father of fantasy... Discuss.
« Reply #8 on: December 28, 2013, 03:04:25 PM »
How is this not trolling?

Offline Aprella

Re: Sorry, J.R.R. Tolkien is not the father of fantasy... Discuss.
« Reply #9 on: December 29, 2013, 01:59:15 PM »
Tolkien is indeed not the father of fantasy... he is, however, the founder of modern fantasy. But fantasy isn't stagnant. It moves and explores new possibilities. That also means that fantasy writers move away from the typical Tolkien like settings. It will be very boring otherwise!

Beowulf, for example, is also fantasy and it is a lot older than Tolkien's work. And those it really matter who laid the foundations of (modern) fantasy?

Re: Sorry, J.R.R. Tolkien is not the father of fantasy... Discuss.
« Reply #10 on: December 31, 2013, 06:09:37 PM »
I think this is just an attention-grabbing headline that has no real meat to it. 

We call Newton the Father of Physics, despite the fact that people were dabbling in what would become physics before him, and that most of what came after was wildly different than what he was doing.  It's like saying that modern fantasy is like quantum mechanics.  Did Tolkien/Newton envision this when they were working?  No. Does that mean that their titles are wrong? No.  They were game-changers in their fields, and rightly deserve their titles.
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Offline AJDalton

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Re: Sorry, J.R.R. Tolkien is not the father of fantasy... Discuss.
« Reply #11 on: January 01, 2014, 11:40:36 AM »
Yup, there's Homer, Beowulf, Greek myth and so on.

Tolkein is important for having described the Anglo-Saxon mythos that informs/underpins English cultural identity (and even the language itself). It hadn't been done before.

It could be argued that Tolkein was the first commercial author of fantasy in modern times. However, I'd go with HG Wells (30 yrs earlier) and the Time Machine (the Morlochs and the Eloi).

Many English authors of fantasy inherit their 'cultural voice' from Tolkein. Not all do, however. Abercrombie is famous for saying he doesn't read much fantasy at all. I tend to be influenced by Machiavelli and Marlowe more than Tolkein.

Why does any of this matter? Cos the English language now influences everyone around the world. (And Hollywood and the UK book industries are globally powerful to boot.) You can't escape the British cultural references within the English language. You can't escape Tolkein.
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Offline Evazorek

Re: Sorry, J.R.R. Tolkien is not the father of fantasy... Discuss.
« Reply #12 on: January 03, 2014, 10:14:26 AM »
This is a great read and a really interesting discussion point. Tolkien's influence in modern fantasy is an easy connection to make but as you state, he was adapting the conflicts of the world during his lifetime and placing them in a fantastical setting. His works and creations have certainly become recognisable as tropes within fantasy but there was plenty of fantasy writing before him which deserves credit for the evolution of modern fantasy.

I am a huge fan of both fantasy and history, so seeing an article on the history whilst focusing on the influences of a particular set of authors within fantasy was incredibly engaging. I would like to contribute more to this discussion but I am at work so I am going to have a think and possibly post again later. :)
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Offline Algon 33

Re: Sorry, J.R.R. Tolkien is not the father of fantasy... Discuss.
« Reply #13 on: January 03, 2014, 12:02:12 PM »
This is a great read and a really interesting discussion point. Tolkien's influence in modern fantasy is an easy connection to make but as you state, he was adapting the conflicts of the world during his lifetime and placing them in a fantastical setting. His works and creations have certainly become recognisable as tropes within fantasy but there was plenty of fantasy writing before him which deserves credit for the evolution of modern fantasy.

I am a huge fan of both fantasy and history, so seeing an article on the history whilst focusing on the influences of a particular set of authors within fantasy was incredibly engaging. I would like to contribute more to this discussion but I am at work so I am going to have a think and possibly post again later. :)
Well according to Tolkien he wasn't. He himself stated that he despised allegory. And if he was going to base LOTR on the World Wars, he said he would have made it so that the alliance and Sauroman had to team up against Sauron. So that's what the man says.

Offline Evazorek

Re: Sorry, J.R.R. Tolkien is not the father of fantasy... Discuss.
« Reply #14 on: January 03, 2014, 01:09:28 PM »
I know he always disputed the fact but there has been plenty of speculation about the hidden metaphorical aspects of the series that have been interpreted by others in recent times. It might not be an exact allegorical copy of the times, but its hard to deny that similarities can be drawn concerning the over arcing themes and conflicts within the series. The whole good versus evil theme on a global scale be it our world or middle earth.

Even characters such as Aragorn who give rousing speeches before the gates of the enemy at their last stand and who is considered a great leader of men. There is plenty to be looked at with regards to how the books may have been influenced by the unstable global climate of the times.

He might not have intended for such comparisons to be made but our work is always influenced by our experiences and the world around us, so to completely disrepute any connection seems a bit far fetched to me in my opinion.
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