How J R R Tolkien ruined fantasy
(What I learned from Tolkien, part 3)
Ruined it for me, I mean. For a good long while. After I read The Lord of the Rings at the age of eleven or twelve, I went looking for fantasy novels that could equal Tolkien’s great work in scope and quality of writing and convincingness.
There were none.
I wanted books that held entire worlds between their covers. Worlds so authentic and real and detailed that I could believe in them and inhabit them, at least in my imagination. I tried novels like Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara and found it, despite the lovely Tolkienesque artwork of the Brothers Hildebrandt gracing its pages, vastly inferior to the work it tried so desperately to emulate.
It’s ironic that the first ground-breaking work of contemporary genre fantasy was also the greatest example of it, and has remained unmatched by anyone since.
Eventually I found what I was looking for -- books that were entire worlds -- in Frank Herbert’s Dune series. And from there, still looking for that kind of depth and richness, I went on to read immense novels like War and Peace. It was a long time before I returned to reading fantasy, and when I did, I still read very little of it, because only very little of it seemed good to me anymore.
When I started working on my own fantasy trilogy, at my daughter’s request, I knew that I wanted the world I was creating to have depth and authenticity. So I began slowly, and for the first couple of years of the project, did little more than draw maps, and write histories of the realm I wanted to bring into being. That is, I didn’t start by writing a story but by creating a world for the story to happen in.
And that even included an attempt to create a language, called Arqan, based on a mingling of Finnish and Inuktitut, for one of the peoples in my imaginary world to speak. I abandoned that made-up language at a certain point, when it became clear that most of the the story wasn’t going to take place in the far north, as I’d originally thought. It was a very “northern” sounding language, at least to my ears, but there was no longer a character in the story to speak it. Well, I can save it for another book, perhaps.
Anyhow, Tolkien spoiled fantasy for me because his work taught me not to devour books one after another but to read them with care and love and attention, to demand a lot of them, more than most fantasy novels of the time could deliver. To challenge myself as a reader, and then as a writer, to push beyond what I knew and was comfortable with.
Illustration: detail from a painting by Cor Blok, showing Gandalf telling the story of his battle with the Balrog to Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. In Blok's inspired rendering, Gandalf's body becomes the mountain on which the battle and its aftermath (his rescue by the eagle) takes place.