Tolkien’s Influence on Fantasy

Rivendell by Tolkien

Here’s Tolkien himself, in a letter to Milton Waldman, probably written about 1951 but never sent:

“Do not laugh!  But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story . . .The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.”  *

He finishes with “Absurd.”

But I don’t believe that is aimed at those other hands and minds, it’s rueful self-mockery a few years before the first three volumes appeared and his grand vision was pot-shotted by critics, like Edmund Wilson, who refused to see any worth whatsoever in any part of it.

In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom maintains that literary works are based upon a misreading of those that preceded them.  After reading and rereading Bloom and considering his theories on poetry with regard to fiction, I’ve come to appreciate his literary insights (Bloom is particularly interesting about Shakespeare, for example, as well as Percy Bysshe Shelley) but I have come to disagree with that central tenet.

I believe it is not useful to maintain that readers’ take on books (or poetry) is wrong. Even though I can sympathize with writers when reviewers seem to be talking about someone else’s book altogether. Likewise, I understand Flaubert’s (somewhat recondite) frustration at sincere letters from readers who saw themselves and their tragic lives beautifully depicted in Madame Bovary, unaware that he intended for readers to perceive Emma Bovary’s romantic visions as delusion, the characters’ lives empty and pitiful, not grand tragedy at all.

Framley

I would maintain that ‘misreading’ (Bloom goes far enough to call it ‘misprision’) is incorrect; it implies that some judge (literary critic? Author?) can declare what is a ‘right’ reading. Convincing? Sure. Right? Ehhh (picture the hand tipping back and forth) not so much.

And the farther we get away from the time of publication, the more distant reactions of author, critics, and sometimes readers can seem. Take for example Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, which was beloved at the time of publication 150 years ago.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy rereading that book. But I am astonished when I read contemporaries’ takes on it—the bright, perceptive Mrs. Gaskell declared it a cozy book, one she wished “would go on and on.” To me, there are parts that almost verge on horror; it exemplifies just how thin the veneer of civilization is in human behavior, a view I don’t believe I am alone in. If you read Jo Walton’s brilliant Tooth and Claw, which is in direct conversation with Framley Parsonage, I think you might come to a similar conclusion.

Tooth and Claw

A great book, I feel, furnishes something for a variety of perceptual spectra, which in turn contributes to reshaping those spectra. A writer then draws from her experience and perceptual spectrum to shape her own stories.

Writers have been reflecting and refracting stories and myth as human culture evolves.  The more I read, the more I discover fiction reflecting history, back and forth. Sometimes a work seems to overwhelm new authors’ vision so much so that they retell the story from their particular experience.

I think here is the kernel of Bloom’s misprision: back in 1977, many Tolkien lovers such as myself found Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara to be a mawkishly cartoonish retelling of Lord of the Rings, its being reset as a post-holocaust tale notwithstanding.  In my young twenties’ arrogance, I wrote a bitter letter to Lester Del Rey proclaiming just that—and to my surprise received a letter back, crisply informing me that not only was I totally wrong, and the only person who thought so, but that millions of readers adored Brooks’ vision.

Well, a few years later, when I got into teaching, I discovered that del Rey was right about those millions of readers. I met young people who were not aware of Lord of the Rings, who found the Shannara stories exciting and engaging—some of these readers  went on to try Tolkien at my earnest recommendation, to find his work tedious, slow, and not enough interesting women.  In other words, for them, influence was irrelevant: the work stood on its own, and found an audience.

LOTR title page

Since that time, I discovered the influence of the LOTR in a surprisingly disparate number of novels since its original appearance in the 1950s, and not just Terry Brooks and David Eddings, et al.  Like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea contains some very strong echoes, as well as Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.  Barbara Hambly’s horror-fantasy The Darwath Trilogy does as well. 

There are many others. Until the Great Celtic Explosion, it seemed that every fantasy was shaped similarly, with the bad guys’ dark kingdom off to the East, and a great haven off to the West, perhaps echoing the dim historical memory of bloodthirsty horsemen thundering out of the east to hack and smash before riding on—and escape from tyranny and poverty to the west.

Map of middle earth

All these writers seemed to need to work the Tolkien influence out through their own vision, which then took off in highly individualistic directions; in each case many readers felt that the balance of Tolkien’s material was met and matched by the vision that these new writers brought to it. Certainly there is a third generation of writers in whose works one can still detect the workings of Tolkien’s vision: another strand of the great literature conversation is woven into the whole tapestry by collaboration between writers, readers, and influence.

Concerning Tolkienian influence, and how it is reflected in the work of writers today, let me close with some remarks by Tolkien, again from the letters, this one to his son Christopher, in 1944: “…I coined the word eucatastrophe: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce).  And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.  It perceives–if the story has literary ‘truth’ on the second plane . . . that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made.” [p.100. LETTERS]

*THE LETTERS OF J.R.R. TOLKIEN, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, Houghton Mifflin, 1981

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Tolkien’s Influence on Fantasy — 56 Comments

  1. I like the thought of novels as a very slow conversation, over the ages. Or a blog, perhaps. Tolkien posts his trilogy, and then we reply, and somebody later on replies to us.
    I think of myself as one of the many descendants of JRRT. I doubt if any fantasy writer living today is free of his influence.

  2. I don’t mind influence and imitation and filing off the serial numbers–I’m a medievalist, we live for it–but I plowed through the first Brooks because I felt that if I was going to pan it, I had better read it first.

    Oh ye gods. Not just the point-for-point outline of LOTR, but the prose. The terrible, horrible, awful, no-good, very bad prose. I was completely unsurprised to discover later that he had been to law school.

    If you’re going to rip off, er, have a conversation with an influence, please be able to write. Please.

    Vast swaths of readers however are deaf and blind to prose, dive right through to the bones of the story and fix on that to the exclusion of all else. If the story is giving them what their hearts want or need, that’s everything. And Brooks gave them Tolkien’s bones in ways that made perfect sense to them. So that when they came to the original later, some even said, “Wow. Bad Brooks ripoff.”

    Readers carry on a different conversation than writers do. Which I think is why so many bad books, in terms of craft, sell so very, very well. Too much craft actually turns readers off. They want that story straight, and they want their tropes the way they want them. Writers who can give them that have their own strong gift–they’re translators in a way. Their conversation with their models becomes a clear and powerful conversation with their readers. Doesn’t matter if reviewers or other writers think the first conversation is a mess. The second conversation is a manifest success.

    • Very well put. Maybe that’s even a possible subject how what critics call bad prose works for readers. (My feeling is the easiest. We absorb what we call cliches–or even mixed metaphors–as labels for emotions, noting them but passing on. “A glint of humor flared in his eyes.” Not one of us has ever seen anybody’s eyes flare anything, much less humor/anger/sorrow/lust, but we all know what that means. Such expressions don’t engage us deeply, but entertain us enough for the story to rattle along.)

      • There are other readers though for whom such cliches as glinting eyes and heel turning throw them right out of the text and the book containing it against the wall — figuratively speaking. I have never thrown a book against a wall in my life, though I have closed it with terrible impatience and disgust and pushed it away far away, its presence in my precious space-challenged life to be removed as quickly as possible.

        Love, C.

        • I’m not going to throw a book because an author uses threadbare expressions. But I am going to suspect that, if I see too many, the plot might also turn out to be equally predictable. And though I might have enjoyed both–in fact, I did–when young, those ruts are too deep for me to enjoy that road anymore.

      • Lewis said something like that about Homer’s epithets in AN EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM. The same sort of thing turns up in fairy tales, which are none the worse for it.

        • Yes. I suspect it depends on what gives a particular reader pleasure. For some it’s the turn of a word, for others the turn of the plot. Whatever will pique and surprise–the rest can often be forgiven.

        • Oh, it’s splendid. I felt bad about laughing so hard, but I did.

          The essay seems to be part of a series of essays about authors influenced by Tolkien. The next one is a very interesting analysis of Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books. It explains why I hate them so hard, but it’s not itself derogatory of them for the most part.

          P.

      • That’s a great essay. Probably devotes way more attention to Sword of Shannara than the wretched book has ever deserved.

    • Readers want story, but generally are ignorant of what makes story. Thus they want Good Parts solely — only sequences of Buffy and Spike sexing, only battles and no domestic scenes, only Darcy and Elizabeth proposal and acceptance on the grounds of palatial Pemberly, only car chases and blowing up things, etc. (called blockbusters, I guess) repeated over and over. That’s not story telling; that’s the structure of porn.

      Love, C.

      • What I’m groping to express, I think … is that a lot of readers do not actually know why they are so affected by the Good Part they adore and want over and over — it’s because of all the rest of the elements skillfully and lovingly composed by the author to tell the Best Story she can.

        Love, C.

        • It is instructive to talk to readers of romance novels about this. As you know, Bob, there are romance fans who read a romance novel a day, like vitamins. It can’t be the SAME romance novel, either. It has to be a different romance novel that is exactly like the others. These are the women (it is almost always women) who have a standing order at the B&N to hold one copy of every Harlequin romance that appears for them, or who turn up at the Goodwill store to donate five shopping bags full of read-once bodice rippers.
          Clearly this appetite is very specific. The reader knows exactly what she wants, and she doesn’t notice or care about what we talk about when we talk about writing.

          • Yes! I saw this happen when my mom went through her romance phase, during the late seventies and early eighties. She and the local women organized themselves, each buying certain lines since none could afford them all, and trading them back and forth at the local used bookstore before donating them. Every time I visited while her husband was ill (every week or other week) I would read through a sack of them, absorbed by the patterns I saw developing.

  3. What does Lester Del Rey know?
    Literature is like any other art form. Modes and genres conflict and/or enrich. Some artists respond to and remake previous works. Others reject them all or think they do.
    I think JRRT fed a desperate hunger and also unleashed previously suppressed creativity. He made fantasy a “legitimate” pursuit.
    So yeah. What you said.

  4. I am so with you on Terry Brooks. I tried reading it when it first came out but just couldn’t — it was so bad.

    I love that Tolkien quote. That “sudden glimpse of Truth” is the thing I love best about reading fantasy, though it can be found in other genres too.

    • Yes–Tolkien’s letters are wonderful for the reader of fantasy, full of intelligent, passionate, sometimes funny, sometimes moving conversation about why an Oxford don spent his life writing what he wrote.

  5. I had to pop in an assure you that I know precisely how you felt about Sword of Shannara. I never read another one of his books, and certainly don’t plan to. I finally partially forgave Brooks for the plagiarism after reading an article that pointed out that it was Sword of Shannara that convinced bookstores that they could sell fantasy. I still don’t understand why the JRRT and family didn’t sue.

    • Well, by the time it came out, fantasy was already on the rise, but I suspect that Brooks’ tale gave it another exponential leap. I have no idea about actual numbers: as a teen and young person of the time, I went from seeing no fantasy on the shelves other than a very few kids’ books and weird stuff like the Land of Mu, to finding the Ballantine boxed paperbacks (which our local tiny bookstore could not keep in stock after 1967), the Ballantine fantasy series, and thence ever wider. You could still read everything coming out until the late seventies, but by the eighties, it began to be impossible to keep up.

  6. A friend of mine read Brooks first, and in her own words, her encounter with Tolkien later was “Oh, this is Brooks done Right”

    (yes, she knew the publication order. I’m just saying your students’ reactions are not universal)

    Also, the impression I get here of that reply from Lester Del Rey is, um, not kind.

    I think we’ve been over the ground of Tolkien influence many times, and to me the most interesting question is never “Is that influence good or bad?” (Because at this point, it IS) it’s “Which ways has this been positive, and can that be winnowed from the ways it is negative?” Because Tolkien’s strengths are not the great dark lord threatening the world storyline, or the heroic characters, or the fact that the true hero is of humble origin instead of heroic, but that is what seems to be copied. So we get imitations revelling in farmboys who are secretly princes (Blurring the hobbits and Aragorn hopelessly and losing some of the reason the hobbits were such strong characters thereby.) Instead of in depth and sorrow and the cost of war. We get elves mourning for their upcoming departure from a fading world that doesn’t seem to be fading particularly.

    Because, as Foxessa says, a lot of readers *think* they know what were the good parts, and ask for more, only to find that those good parts feel thin (And yes, derivative) if copied mindlessly, without all the more hidden pieces of the writing that make them hold power over the reader. What Jo Walton called the spear behind the spearpoint, and what I have heard other writers discuss under other names. That crafting discussion is no doubt tedious to readers who don’t write, but it forms the bones of why one story captures the epic spirit even though it has fewer of the same obvious trappings, while another gives us the feeling of a paint by numbers.

    Also, why half Amazon’s recommendations fall flat; what they think are the likenesses are, um, not always.

    • Well, and the “good parts” are different for different readers. Some wanted more dwarves. Some were focussed on the elves. Some on Aragorn. I knew someone who wrote hobbit fanfic–the rest of Middle Earth might not have existed.

      A great many of the influenced stories were all about a quest for a thing that would give them power. I don’t recollect any quests to destroy one.

      • Yes, the good parts are different – and a part of how and why most (Especially the best of) the Tolkien-inspired works can take such different directions. (The three you mentioned, Hambly and Garner and Le Guin, plus McKillip, were early and relatively clear in their influence, and none of the three of those I read is like the others.)

        Interesting note about the lack of destroying of sources of power. I *do* see that plot, but almost always as the destroying/surrendering of an internal power to achieve some other goal (Ursula Vernon recently mentioned a couple of examples in Disney – Ariel, Rapunzel – as well as the horror example of Carrie, while praising Frozen for NOT going that route). Not usually as the destruction of a corrupting external force.

        (And Vernon is ALSO right that it’s often a woman whose internal powers are taken away, though the further we go from Disney they less true that has to be.)

        But the underlying structure that leads to those good parts is pretty essential, and best if, in addition to being admired and appreciated by fellow writers for its much more hidden execution, it goes unnoticed by those who don’t do the same kind of crafting.

          • You must. It is out on DVD now. If there is a conversation, FROZEN (and its precursor, ENCHANTED) are finally saying something useful about Disney princesses. And women in fantasy. And women with power. This is going to be an important work. (Proof? Every girl over the age of 2 has seen it already. It’s going to be part of the brains of an entire generation of women.)

            • Oh, I do want to see it! It’s just that it came out around the time I had a stroke, and I am still trying to catch up with media I missed for a few months.

  7. From afar off, peering at the forest through the wrong end of a telescope….

    Of JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL, someone said that York wrote as though Tolkien had never existed, and English fantasy had carried on from LUD IN THE MIST. House-bound fantasy in a cosy stuffy house.

    Did anyone before Tolkien carry on from the Romances which mostly happened outdoors, trekking through Brocilande? (And has anyone dissed Brocilande as DWJ’s ‘Fantasyland’?)

    BTW, remember when we and Rachelmanija were talking about YA dystopias and I described a picture of a child in an inner city looking over a wall into … the world of the books he’s standing on? I just came across it again and posted it at my LJ.

    • Oh, yes–I see a line from Lord Dunsany and perhaps George Macdonald and William Morris to Sylvia Townsend Warner (though I think she was more smug than they ever were, the emphasis on the country house being the house in question) and so on straight up to Jonathan Strange which (I thought, anyway) re-introduced the element of the numinous. Not to be found in Sylvia Townsend Warner or Hope Mirilees.

      • On that line, when the story ventured out of the house with carved woodwork, it stayed within ornate prose. Tolkien got out of both.

        How was the prose in the outdoor trekking Romances?

          • From Houseboatonstyx’s first comment; “Did anyone before Tolkien carry on from the Romances which mostly happened outdoors, trekking through Brocilande? (And has anyone dissed Brocilande as DWJ’s ‘Fantasyland’?)”

            • Ah. It seems to me that travels through strange lands go way, way back. It was a definite fashion there at the end of the 1600s and well through the eighteenth century. Some of the foreign lands were obvious forms of satire, but some were fairy lands, especially French contes, if I recollect aright.

              There were revamped forms of those in the nineteenth century, too. Didn’t Morris and Dunsany write some? I haven’t reread any of those for years–never really liked them. No humor, and no women of interest.

  8. I think that the order in which the reader hits the book is important, but not so much as the time of life or interest. And it is the weirdest things that resonate–I distinctly remember at sixteen that one of my favorite sayings in response to Mom’s standard ‘are you drinking enough water?’ was that the water in the neighborhood was so bad that the only civilized thing to do was to heat it up and sit in it. When I discovered that Tolkien had written a song in praise of hot water, I immediately fell in love. I don’t think it would have mattered if the rest of the book had been awful, but of course it wasn’t. But I’m sure that being determined to find it delightful probably helped it along enormously. Sometimes when I come across books by writers that I enjoyed as a teenager, I find that I am too jaded or sophisticated to really enjoy those any more. Sometimes when I reread the same books I read earlier, I have the same problem. This leads me to the conclusion that it isn’t the writers so much as me responding to the writers. Let’s face it–a good trashy novel is a good trashy novel and sometimes it doesn’t do to be too critical (although it is damn hard not to be). It’s like getting a dog at the pound: someone somewhere is going to love it.

  9. I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth

    I think Tolkien was dead right, there. When you read something that’s got that shard of Truth to it, it slices right into you, and hurts, but a brilliant, joyous sort of hurt.

    (Tried Sword of Shannara as a kid–but after I’d read LoTR. Considered it an absolute ripoff and gave up on it.)

  10. With Tolkien (and I read him in HC before the pbs) I was amazed at his world and swore he stuck his arm through a portal and grabbed some history books from another world. And I read him, enough times to notice the battering ram had a name (Grond), but it was always a fascinating history. Barbara Tuchman writes those, too. So, no I wasn’t impressed with his prose.
    That was mentioned in response to some other comments. And Sha-na-na never worked at all.
    But my reply here was inspired by the comment about echos in the Weirdstone. Which caught me by surprise. Because I have never even considered that. It was written starting in 1957 right after LOTR but it was published in 1960 before the world wide Tolkienmania.
    If there are echos in the books they are perhaps echos of the same cultural heritage. Names and sounds out of the Elder Eddas etc. Nordic-British culture.
    While there’s a dwarf or two and a Wizard, there are also Svartmorts, Stromkarls and others of that ilk but nary an Orc in sight.
    But perhaps I’m being a little pictish about it.

    • Grond: the same name as a long artillery piece in WW I, if I remember right. Whether that particular fact is correct or not, I remember the reread that overlaid images from WW I on his story (which always read to me like a history of another world), making it that much more poignant.

      You could be right about Garner. Just because I thought I saw the Tolkien pattern doesn’t necessarily mean it’s there. Sometimes we impose our own experience over something.

      • Have you read the third WEIRDSTONE book? I reviewed it when it came out, here on this blog. I would love to know your opinion of it. The first two books were a fine reply to Tolkien’s trilogy, but this third one is totally, amazingly Garner’s own.

  11. No time for an essay, but LOTR… bad bad thing of power, evil must be destroyed. People have to resist it’s power.
    Riddlemaster? bards and harping and shapechanging and the passing of a “power” that must “be for the world to be” from the current holder to his heir?
    If all trilogies and fantasy are Tolkienesque just for being trilogies and fantasy then Tolkien is just Shakespearean for dealing with kings and sorceries and power.
    Aside, can you imagine Tolkien written by Shakespeare for the stage?
    It’s a good thing Alfreda learned her magic before Tolkien was born let alone published.

  12. and dissing romance is a sign that a lot of it hasn’t been read.
    At a point in time where I had read hundreds of sf/f and money was tight with a couple kids reading also. Even used sf/f was half cover $3, but the over stocked piles of romance. Ten cents a pop.
    As for the writing. There is art and many of them are very good. Think, you’re telling the same story each time and have to make it fresh.
    Sturgeons law applies everywhere. But I will mention Lass Small who has a voice every bit as unique has Ray Vukevich’s.
    And a passing thought, how do you get better, writing. A person who had basic skills for being a writer started writing in 1987. She wrote romances then adding some mysteries too them and science fiction and fantasy and she published 10 or 12 a year and after a couple hundred if you had any skill you get better and better. While I may find a new sf/f writer and have to try to judge whether it will be good, I know I can buy a Nora Roberts book and be amazed at how she tells the same story with the same characters who have to fall in love and still make it different and interesting. And she does.
    Some of the other writers also have “worlds” they have created with interlocking places and plots that are amazingly detailed. Again the book maybe 60K but 10 of them or twenty is 600K or a million words, you can build a lot of world in that amount of words.

  13. I loved this idea of fantasy being a continual conversation – a back and forth of shared stories. And conversations can be arguments (China Mieville vs Tolkien?), but arguments and retellings and “translations”, as Judith Tarr suggested, all have their readers, and all inspire new conversations. And things get even more interesting when we talk across the borders of genre.

    Sorry, this is not a very coherent post, just that the idea of a giant interweaving conversation between creative minds, across generations and continents – that makes me happy.

      • It is said that this is what the invention of writing has done for us. It allows human beings to converse, not only through space but through time. When I pick up the Iliad and read it, I am touching Homer’s mind. And I can answer back.
        One of the things I was doing when I wrote HOW LIKE A GOD was, I was writing a book for C.S. Lewis. The hero is even named for him. You like myth in the modern day, professor? Watch me take your tropes and fly!