And so in due course, J.R.R. Tolkien was given unto us, and lo, it was good. And the Professor published The Hobbit (82 years ago just the other day, actually), a tale cleverly disguised as a children’s story but which, in fact, contained all sorts of references to deeper and darker themes, and it was An Unexpected Success. A Major Unexpected Success. And the readership, bless its little avaricious hearts, clamoured for more. And so The Hobbit begat The Lord of the Rings, and thus the modern fantasy genre was born.
And the readership read, and all was good.
Except for one small thing…
This is my (tongue-in-cheek) high declamatory take on how we got to Today in the literary realm of Fantasy. Tolkien almost single-handedly launched what is now a huge genre in literature… and film… and video games… and board games… and all sorts of pop culture references. His influence has been immense. It’s impossible to overstate it. He is The Godfather of modern fantasy. Which is all fine, except for that one thing I just mentioned, to wit:
Tolkien’s influence has been so immense that it tends at times to overshadow those of us who came after. He’s a literary juggernaut. A behemoth. A one-man scop army. (No, that’s a deliberate literary reference, not a typo. Look it up.) Look at fantasy races, for example. There are a lot of stories out there to feature wizards --- especially irascible ones resembling Gandalf the Grey ---- and elves and dwarves and goblins/orcs and lions and tigers and bears, oh my. Tolkien’s influence overpowers. It’s like when you see the film version of something before reading the book (Cardinal Sin Number 1, by the way): if you saw The Lord of the Rings films first and then read the books (or tried to, which is not an easy thing for the Great Unwashed, but which is something we can talk about some other time), chances are you couldn’t see any face on Gandalf besides (the very talented) Ian McKellen’s. It’s limiting, in a way.
So the point of my little epistle today is to give one wee piece of advice to fantasy writers: lose the elves, people. And the dwarves. And the orcs. At least, Tolkien’s versions of them. And come up with your own races in their place. Now, sure, most of his races have been around in folk and fairy tales for a long, long time --- Rumpelstiltskin was a dwarf, for example --- but Tolkien’s specific take on elves and dwarves and wizards is so deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness that fantasy writers need to very consciously set out to do something, if not completely original, at least not so carbon-copyish that we immediately think of Legolas and Elrond and Gimli and Thorin and Gandalf (oh my). Because then your tale starts to veer dangerously close to fan-fiction, which in previous posts I’ve spoken out against for its lack of creativity and slavish imitation. Contrary to the old saying, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery, folks --- it’s mere creative bankruptcy. As I’ve said before, find your own well, dammit.
Now, imitation is not the same thing as inspiration, not at all, at all. Tolkien has inspired many of us, including yours truly. And some of my earliest work was quite imitative/derivative of Tolkien, yes… but I’m talking about when I was 14. Nowadays, more decades later than I would ever want to admit, I make conscious efforts not to be imitative/derivative of the Master, but rather to find my own voice and my own world… and people it with races that aren’t merely knockoffs of Tolkien’s.
So… tell the elves and the dwarves and the orcs to head back to Middle Earth, and dream up new races for your own magnum opus. It’s more work, but I think you’ll be glad you made the effort.