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.
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.
Ed Power is a writer and critic specializing in books, music and television.