After the King: Tolkien’s heirs

22 Oct

It is something of a relief, having looked last month at his critics, to turn this time to Tolkien’s many admirers. It would not be true to say that there was no such thing as epic fantasy before Tolkien: there was a tradition of English and Irish writers before him, such as E R Eddison and Lord Dunsany, and a parallel tradition also of American writers appearing in pulp-magazines such as Weird Tales and Unknown. The Lord of the Rings however altered reading tastes rapidly and lastingly. Several hundred English-language fantasy novels are currently being published annually. The influence of Tolkien on them is often apparent from their titles – Guardians of the West (David Eddings), The Fellowship of the Talisman (Clifford D Simak), The Halfling’s Gem (R A Salvatore) and so on, to name just a few. Most writers do better at concealing their literary ancestry, but the first works even of authors who have found their own highly distinctive voices, like Stephen Donaldson or Alan Garner, habitually betray deep Tolkienian influence. Terry Pratchett, whose works have now been reliable best-sellers for almost forty years, began with what is obviously in part an affectionate parody of Tolkien, The Colour of Magic. Tolkien furthermore provided much of the inspiration, the personnel and the material, for early fantasy games and for role-playing games of the Dungeons & Dragons type. Spin-offs from these into computer games are still developing and multiplying. Middle-earth has become a cultural phenomenon, a part of many people’s mental furniture. Any full study of Tolkien’s legacy would have to be at least book-length – and will not be attempted here – but there is some interest in recording what at least a few of his most evident emulators have found most inspirational in Tolkien.

At the most elementary level, reading Tolkien produced a strong desire for more stories about hobbits – a desire which Sir Stanley Unwin had identified as far back as 1937. Writing stories about hobbits pure and simple has remained difficult, however, as hobbits remain so clearly a Tolkien invention. Various evasions have been tried but none of these efforts is very successful at catching the hobbit flavour, of course increasingly anachronistic even in its ‘modern’ or Edwardian aspect, especially for American writers and readers. At a slightly higher level, some fans seem just to want to write and read The Lord of the Rings all over again. In Diana Wynne Jones’s excellent and not at all Tolkienian fantasy Fire and Hemlock (1984), the heroine discovers The Lord of the Rings at the age, seemingly, of about fourteen, and reads it through four times running. She then immediately writes an adventure story about herself and her own mentor/father-figure: “how they hunted the Obah Cypt in the Caves of Doom, with the help of Tan Thare, Tan Hanivar, and Tan Audel. After The Lord of the Rings it was very clear to her that the Obah Cypt was really a ring which was very dangerous and had to be destroyed. Hero did this, with great courage.” But when she sends her story to Tarn Lynn, he only writes back, “No it’s not a ring. You stole that from Tolkien, use your own ideas.” The deflating comment seems appropriate to a good deal of Tolkien imitation, whose drive is to have the same thing again, only more of it.

The most obvious example is Terry Brooks’s generally derided, but still commercially successful, The Sword of Shannara. Rumour has it that when this came out in 1977 it had been commissioned by astute editors who knew they could sell anything sufficiently Tolkienian. If so, the editors were right. The Shannara sequence is still running forty years later, and is up to thirty-two volumes. Yet the strange thing about the first volume at least is the dogged way in which it follows Tolkien point for point. A group is assembled to retrieve a talisman from the power of a Dark Lord. It is ‘retrieve’, not ‘destroy’, which is one point of dissimilarity, but the group assembled matches Tolkien’s Fellowship very nearly person for person. There is a Druid, or wizard, Allanon (= Gandalf); a dwarf, Hendel (= Gimli); two youths, central characters, who take the place of the four hobbits; two elves, one more than Tolkien’s Legolas, but then one of them is called Durin, a Tolkien name; and two men, Menion and Balinor, corresponding closely (Balinor too has a younger brother) to Aragorn and Boromir. Gollum is reincarnated in the person of Orl Fane, a gnome who gets possession for a time of the Sword of Shannara and dies trying to regain it. The Ringwraiths re-appear, ‘deathlike cry’ and all, as flying Skull Bearers, while the phial of Galadriel is replaced as a weapon against them by the Elfstones. As if that were not enough, the plot-outline is followed very nearly point for point as well. There are analogues to Sauron, Denethor and Wormtongue. Individual scenes are quite closely imitated: the hobbit-analogues are attacked by ‘Mist Wraiths’ (like the barrow-wight), a tentacle creature in a pool (like the Watcher by Moria-gate) and by a malevolent tree (Willow-man). The similarity is so close that in a way it is hard to tell how good or bad the result is. Anyone who had not read The Lord of the Rings might find it highly innovative – but I doubt that many of its original readers fell into that category. What The Sword of Shannara seems to show is that many readers had developed the taste for heroic fantasy so strongly that if they could not get the real thing they would take any substitute, no matter how diluted.

Another example of the relationship between Tolkien and later admirers is again a first novel, the Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner (1960). Garner is at once the most like and the most unlike Tolkien of the authors mentioned here. Garner is English, has written several ‘young adult’ novels of great distinction and originality, and adult novels such as Strandloper and Thursbitch. He is a native of Cheshire, England, and most of his books centre on Alderly Edge, a place as personal and as full of mythic potential to him as the West Midlands were to Tolkien. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, then, is set on Alderley Edge, in modern times, though it starts off from an old local legend. It has no hobbits, its central characters being two children. But like Frodo they have come by accident into the possession of a vital talisman being sought for by a Dark Lord who (a reversal of the Tolkien theme) wishes to destroy it to put an end to the protective magic of the white wizard, Cadellin. In their association with Cadellin the children find themselves in contact with dwarves, a troll, and various orc and Ringwraith analogues. The similarities of plot are not strong (unlike Brooks) and the book’s personnel could come as easily from traditional myth and legend as from Tolkien’s re-creation of it. Yet the Tolkien influence remains pervasive, on the level of scene and even more of phrase – something which could well be unconscious. Fenodyree the dwarf tells the children, as they crawl through the tunnels: “so deep did men delve that they touched upon the secret places of the earth… There were the first mines of our people dug, before Fundindelve: little remains now, save the upper paths, and they are places of dread, even for dwarfs.” It seems a half-memory of Gandalf speaking of Moria, the Dwarrowdelf, “too deep they delved, and woke the hidden dread.” The children are also tracked by black crows in scenes strongly reminiscent of the spying crebain in The Ring Goes South. What Garner has learned here is perhaps only the trick of varying style, allowing a proportion of archaic (or in Garner dialectal) language to tinge some characters’ speech and some narration, to make it strange but still comprehensible.

Having looked at what authors have taken from Tolkien, consciously or unconsciously, it may be worth finally considering what they have not. One interesting feature which no one has attempted to copy in any detail has been Tolkien’s continual insertion of poems, in very different styles and often complex meters. It could be that this is too much trouble, but another factor is probably the sheer depth of Tolkien’s involvement with literary tradition: fantasy writers are not brought up the way he was any more. Along with this goes a lack of interest in literary gaps, errors and contradictions. Fantasy authors are very ready to raid works like the Elder Edda or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for material, but not to rewrite them, point out their mistakes, and ‘reconstruct’ narrative which is no longer there. A further feature which no one has ever tried seriously to copy is Tolkien’s structuring of The Lord of the Rings – the very careful chronological positioning, the cross-checking of dates, distances and phases of the moon being too great a challenge for most. Nevertheless, it would not be true to say that Tolkien’s imitators have responded only to surface features. Authors like Michael Swanwick, Avram Davidson, Jack Vance and many others, value authenticity and what Tolkien called the “flavour that rooted works have”, because they have been shown their value. No one, perhaps, is ever again going to emulate Tolkien in sheer quantity of effort, in building up the maps, languages, histories and mythologies of one invented world, as no one is ever again going to have his philological resources to draw on. Such parallels could be drawn out at great length, and could be applied, in different ways and to different extents, to writers such as George R R Martin, Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb, Tad Williams, Guy Gavriel Kay and literally hundreds of others. I do not think any modern writer of epic fantasy has managed to escape the mark of Tolkien, no matter how hard many of them have tried. Most of them would probably not see it as a mark, or would accept the word only in the sense of something to aim at. Naturally all of them want to write individually, and very often they do. But one might still think that, like Diana Wynn Jones’s heroine at a much simpler level, what all of them want to do is to produce the same result, satisfy the same appetite, as that achieved or satisfied by Tolkien.

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6 Responses to “After the King: Tolkien’s heirs”

  1. vacuouswastrel October 22, 2017 at 3:52 pm #

    Not sure where you see the Tolkien in The Colour of Magic – to me, it seems like pretty straightforward parodies of Leiber, Lovecraft, McCaffrey and… is the last section Vance? Most what he’s parodying predates Tolkien, anyway.

    To suggest an author who does emulate Tolkien’s use of poetry (and who generally seems to follow Tolkien’s views on the purpose of fantasy fiction, while changing most of the surface details): Stephen Donaldson.

    • ashsilverlock October 22, 2017 at 7:42 pm #

      Interesting, I thought it was pretty obvious from e.g. the hero(es) getting attacked by trolls, getting imprisoned in a tree, coming across enchanted/sentient weapons/items, getting fascinated by dragons, being threatened by spirits and demigods, and so on. Not to mention Pratchett’s oft-stated admiration for Tolkien and use of specific Tolkien creations like orcs in later Discworld books. Although I’m not denying at all that he also parodied other authors such as Robert E Howard, Charles Dickens and even William Shakespeare, in addition to the ones you mention.

      • vacuouswastrel October 23, 2017 at 10:19 pm #

        Well, of course he was aware of Tolkien, but I’m not sure there’s much direct, specific influence in The Colour of Magic. The sentient sword, for instance, is clearly a parody of Stormbringer (and all the talking swords of myth) – Tolkien doesn’t even have any sentient weapons, does he? (other than Turin hallucinating one sentence from Anglachel). I don’t think anyone gets imprisoned in a tree in Tolkien either, but it’s a really common motif in myths – Osiris was imprisoned in a tree, and so was Merlin. Lloyd Alexander wrote a novel about a wizard imprisoned in a tree a few years before TCOM came out. The dragons are from McCaffrey, and the various spirits, demigods and trolls are common enough features in Sword and Sorcery.

        Not saying that there’s not some peripheral osmosis.

      • Nathan October 24, 2017 at 12:47 am #

        I think Pratchett’s take on dwarfs and trolls owes quite a bit to Tolkien, but they didn’t really come into play until the second Discworld book. But then, the first two were really one long story.

  2. mirrortac October 23, 2017 at 6:42 am #

    Reblogged this on The Wizard's Sword and commented:
    I too have been influenced and inspired by Tolkien but have introduced other worlds and beings.

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