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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
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Sunday, 17 March 2013

An Unexpected Backlash: A Tolkien Commentary

Hello hello! 

So,by now, most of you have probably seen 'The Hobbit'. I finally caught up to it in theatres just recently. I wanted to touch on the relevance of that, but I'm going to splice an analysis of Lord of the Rings in here too, and look at why the series has been so instrumental in creating the fantasy worlds of writers today. However, I also have a few choice remarks to make on culture and possibly colonialism, so don't expect an entirely comfortable post. Get your sword, your bow, and your axe; this could get ugly. 

For the sake of expediency, and because I don't have time to reread the entire trilogy AND The Hobbit AND The Sillmarillion (blech!) before writing this review, there may be a few factual detail errors. However, given my 'to be read' shelves on GoodReads and Amazon, I figured it was best just to get on with it. 

Photo belongs to the internets.

So, what makes the series so special? Let's have a look at some common misconceptions and ideas while we're trying to figure it out.

Lord of the Rings was the first book of its kind! Well...actually...

It's more than just clever marketing, certainly. Although The Lord of the Rings series was written during WWII and published in three volumes between 1954-55, it wasn't the first high fantasy work ever written. Before The Hobbit in 1937, Robert Howard's Conan the Barbarian hit the shelves in 1932. Weird Tales, the magazine that started it all, had hit shelves back in 1923, bringing stories of horror, science fiction, and the fantastic to pulp readers everywhere. Reading these contemporary works definitely reveals some very common themes. If you've read H.P. Lovecraft's work and a bit of Howard--which I have--you can see the overlap in the style of the antagonists, as well as in other elements. The spooky and mysterious forces even return in modern game narratives, such as DragonAge, The Elder Scrolls, and World of Warcraft. 

What LoTR did, though, was refine the style and give it a voice, a look, an emblematic work that encompassed new ground. Only children's stories had been written about knights and beasts and dragons, and before that, the mythology of a people. Tolkein managed to combine children's stories, folklore, and the organization of mythos into a single work. There's no getting around it--the Middle Earth stories are the sort of creation myth territory that had previously belonged to whole cultures. 

He single-handledly defined orcs (inventing those himself), dwarves, elves, and halfings/hobbits for generations of fantasy writers. He defined the period and setting (a sort of sparsely populated mediaeval Britain/Germany/France amalgam) for what high fantasy would become. He defined the idea of a big bad scary villain working through armies of henchmen. He codified the Merlin-like figure of a wise old wizard and crafted many tropes and archetypes that we still rely on. High fantasy, as it currently exists, just wouldn't have come to be without Tolkein, or would have been markedly different.

Source. Some time, we'll have a long talk about my mixed feelings about dragons, but this is a pretty epic picture. 

So, what can you possibly say about LoTR's impact that could be negative? He invented the genre, right?

LoTR begat many other authors' works. Ursula Le Guin and her literary descendents have diverged a bit, but both Arthurian structure and LoTR dominate the flavour and types of worlds created by modern writers. Stories revolve around magic and whether it ought to be used (or not), kings and their courts, power struggles, fantasy racism and ancient grudges, looming evil forces or ideological conflicts, the role (or lack thereof) for women, and Epic Grand Battle Royales. Tamora Pierce, Terry Brooks, Robin Hobb, George R. R. Martin, and many other authors have all experimented with variations on this formula, with varying levels of success.

There is some really wonderful high fantasy out there, but as one reads the list, certain patterns emerge. Even from titles alone, a tendency towards the mediaeval is obvious. That's all right on its own, surely, but a second glance reveals more. The vast majority, in fact, almost every single book, is set in some sort of British/Germanic/French/Nordic world. Mongolians, Chinese, Arabs, or Africans are the antagonist forces--sometimes cloaked in scales or green skin or in various deformities. While some books do deviate and head to a Middle-Eastern world--Tamora Pierce's Circle, Guy Gavriel Kay's canon, or G. R. R. Martin's Fire and Ice quintet--most stay firmly in the classic mediaeval Europe zone.

Now, I am citing classics of the genre. I'm not all that keen on high fantasy, as stated in previous posts, but there are some books here that I truly love. Pullman, Zelazny, Martin, Bakker, Rowling, Pratchett, Nix, Gentle, Goodkind, and yes, Tolkein, are authors I've absolutely adored and who have influenced me. However, even these interesting and fairly diverse voices tend to gravitate to that European mediaeval standard I've mentioned. LGBTQ people are an endangered species, diversity is limited to a few strange folk and tokens, and everything is based on a muddy mix of the worst of 11th century daydreams.

So, why insist that I dislike the genre if I've read so much of it? 

The problem is that reading one or two books in the genre, by and large, is like reading all of them. Sure, some of the authors have the excuse of time on their side, but new authors are still imitating their forebears with religious accuracy. Simply put, if you're reading high fantasy these days, you can count on a lack of cultural diversity and different ideas, and there's not much point in picking up a new book in the genre. I'm not saying the whole thing needs to be chucked out, or that these books are bad, per se, but I do think there's a danger of intellectual bankruptcy and negatively influencing younger, newer authors.

Source.  This is basically how I feel when I pick up a book and find out that it's exactly the same as a classic fantasy work. This has happened recently. Multiple times. 

So, why has Lord of The Rings continued to keep such a hold on the public imagination? 

I think some of it has to do with not only the greatness of the work and the shocking faithfulness of its adherence in works that followed, but also with comfort zones. I'm not going to rant about American/Eurocentric media right now, but I will say that it's simply what we're used to--Britain and Germany as cultural centres, with blurred understanding of how much even these two nations have changed in modern times. We know Tolkien and we know the works of authors inspired by him, and their sameness and familiarity may actually be a selling point. When people like something, they want more of it. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but when even smaller-name, newer authors feel compelled to repeat the same formulas--and the formulas come from only one or two sources--you're bound to encounter a lot of repetition. It's a standard epic escape route. 

Going back to an earlier point, not all the writings were intended to be this homogeneous. Arguably, a lot of these works cross into the real world, and when urban fantasy is lumped into High Fantasy (which it is on the Wikipedia page), you see a bit more wriggle-room and creativity. However, the idea of pushing boundaries isn't a welcome one in fantasy circles. Consider how many of the greats--even those writing in the present--have prominent gay or lesbian characters who are open about their sexuality. Answer: Very few. Even G. R. R. Martin's fiction, which does move away from the Euro-zone a bit, maintains misogyny (though it's explored) and 'European' main characters for all the named, prominent protagonists. 

It's also given people the wrong idea about the actual mediaeval era, which--according to scholarly research I've done--is essentially nothing like the books supposedly written to imitate it. Even without the more exotic and non-realistic aspects, the time between the fall of Rome and the rise of the Medicis in the Renaissance was a very busy period for human history, not just a wasteland of political struggle and plague. The myth has faded into legend, and some things that should not have been forgotten--such as the surprising diversity of mediaeval science and some tolerant attitudes towards gay people--were. However, it doesn't mean that it's the end of the world, or that the genre is doomed to continue cannibalizing itself and Tolkein. 

Okay, smartypants, how do we fix it? 

I've been leading up to this, but the answer isn't really that difficult: we need to diversify. I would read the living crap out of a book set in ancient China or Africa. Mediaeval setting and all. Most authors are Europeans or Americans (yours truly included, though I'm Canadian) and there are certain knowledge limits imposed by that. That said, we're running out of options; ideas are basically tapped dry, and being recycled at this point. Stretching beyond the classics and taking inspiration from other cultures--respectfully--could do a world of good. As well, adding new elements to the classic books, such as clashes over technology, LGBTQ and non-traditional marital structures, and different ideologies, would also change up the formula.  Some issues might arise from incompetent treatment of other cultures and LGBTQ people. That's going to be a problem as people expand their reach and subject matter, without question, and you can bet I'll have more to say about cultural appropriation in future. 

On the other hand, nobody really likes change as a process. It's uncomfortable. I can also anticipate a lot of screaming over destruction of the genre and that sort of thing. Given how well classic high fantasy has survived so far, I wouldn't describe that as a real problem. In fact, some authors have already started to mess heavily with the formulas, and to excellent effect. Bakker, one of the authors mentioned, does a pretty good job of changing around traditional elements in his Prince of Nothing series, in my opinion. Eve Forward's The Animist is another example of a book that bent a few rules by varying the races and species used.  

While there's a good discussion to be had about the realistic value about fantasy (and sci fi) stories for the real world, there's also a need for even the most fantastical works to relate to contemporary circumstances. Our circumstances are just so different from fifty or sixty years ago that travelling back to the make-believe mediaeval Disneyland setting designed in that era is no longer realistic. Real Britain has a very diverse population, women comfortably work in many different industries (and men demonstrate far more than mere combat skills, proving to be excellent solo parents), and equal marriage is becoming a very important issue worldwide. Fantasy just doesn't represent this very well, and a few updates will help the genre stay relevant and interesting for our children and children's children. And that's why we need to dethrone Tolkien as the one and only golden standard of fantasy, especially for new authors: if things stay the way they are, fantasy will fail to move forward. We'll have the classics, sure, but those little pockets of racism and sexism will remain, and no culture needs that. 

So, in conclusion: I actually like a fair bit of high fantasy, and have respect for many authors in the genre, but it's already suffering from some serious inbreeding. I haven't touched on the issues in science fiction, and I will get to that eventually. For now, it's time for you guys to tell me your thoughts: is fantasy oversaturated with a certain setting style? Is it just the traits of the genre? Or do we need to change things? Any recommendations of new and unique fantasy series are also very welcome. I want to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the good kind of crazy. Find me on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr. Watch out for my fantasy-themed spring: interviews with fantasy authors, content related to fantasy films and reviews, and some political commentary--the phuquerie you've come to expect from me. Keep checking back to see those surprise posts, too. This is your darling SciFiMagpie, over and out! 


  1. Michelle you are so right about people not wanting to move from their comfort zone and I speak from experience. Having read all 13 books in the ‘Wheel of Time’ series by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson I found myself starting at the beginning of the series rather than entering a new fantasy world. It was the same with Terry Pratchett.

    However, rather serendipitously, I have written exactly the sort of unfamiliar thing you are looking for here. A mashup of the ‘Harry Potter’ formula of real world and magic world existing side by side, and what I know, which is what it is like to live in rural Africa. My book, Switch! Is a young adult fantasy, packed full of cultural diversity and African mythology, with some unstable magic thrown in. The added bonus of writing from Africa is that if one shifts the action just a little way out of town one has all those dangerous animals to weave into the plot as well.


  2. Michelle, great article! I'm going to read it again to fully absorb it all (it's sunday morning and I don't have coffee yet) but I think you really have a point here. I've never honestly sat back and dissected the classics concerning modern issues because the old familiarity of it IS reassuring--like revisiting our ancestors or our heritage. It is time to re-think the genre and mix it up a bit.
    I also think I'm going to have to check out the above-mentioned book, Switch. Sounds interesting!

  3. Michelle, I would like to use this article on my blog, with your permission. The blog is about writing a fantasy novel, "The Obsidian Mirror," based on the archetypes, myths, legends, and cultures of the Americas--something that's barely been explored in fantasy. I have yet to find a publisher for the novel, but I only finished it recently. You can see the blog at http://obsidianmirrorblog.wordpress.com/ and read the first chapter at http://obsidianmirrorblog.wordpress.com/about/first-two-chapters-of-the-obsidian-mirror-an-urban-fantasy/. I'd like to use this post because you have mirrored my thoughts, and it's why I wrote the novel in the first place. Please contact me at kdoylekeenan@gmail.com. Thank you.

  4. So glad all of you loved it! If you know of any books or know a non-traditional fantasy indie author you are welcome to post your books here. :)

    I also find certain settings are underused in fantasy. Small town America or Britain is common, and the big cities are very often given the love, but my native Canada is sadly neglected.

    What do y'all think about science fiction? is it just as trapped in Star Trek and Asimov's legacy or is it freer and more diverse?

  5. Chris Wooding is an author who is good at breaking out of this mould. His Braided Path trilogy is a Japanese-inspired feudal high fantasy series with the main character being a non-fetishized bisexual woman. The world she lives in is very much ruled by men but the story is about the dangers of that, the dangers of people who lose their grips on themselves and abuse their power to subjugate women and disabled/different people. He's about my favourite human on the planet as well so I may be a little biased.

    The post you have made here is something that has been bothering me as well, and I hope that more take note of this and try to break the boundaries a little. The problem is that risky things do not necessarily sell and may have a hard time getting off the ground. Here's hoping it manages it!

    1. Hi Lilly! Welcome to the blog. THANK YOU for the recommendation...I am definitely loading that onto my GoodReads shelves.

      I do find that able, cis, hetero Canadian/American/British people sometimes find it hard to remember that others' experiences are different. (Keep in mind that I'm cis, mostly able, and white Canadian myself!) It's easy to marginalize many groups by simply forgetting they exist, and I think that's what a lot of authors tend to do. It's not intentional racism (mostly) so much as accidental ignorance or simply not running into an issue firsthand.

      As a result, people forget that fiction should represent reality, and get lost in a smaller, narrower personal reality. I really suggest to any aspiring authors that you check out volunteering or try to work in retail and other people-centric occupations; while not all experiences you have will be pleasant, learning about people is invaluable and very necessary. It is impossible to write well without being involved in the world.

      Touching on disabilities, I work with the disabled (peripherally) and even a little interaction has totally changed my perspective on that area. I did really like how Martin explored disability in Jaime and other characters, so props for that. I'm thinking I might need to do some research and write up a partner post to this one on abilities, and how that's treated in both sci fi and fantasy. As I mentioned, I do plan to try to put sci fi through the ringer for sticking to traditionalism, too.

      I also found myself exploring these issues in my new work--there are trans/non-gendered, gay, lesbian, bi, multicultural, and blind characters (though I don't know if I had anyone who was all of those at once) and the reason they're in the story is mostly just because it felt right, and because they fit. The world is an insanely diverse and beautiful place, and not reflecting that in our books is just silly. Y'all can expect that, down the line, you will get some HIGH FANTASY from me (that's right) that will address these issues. I will grant that I'm a sci fi girl foremost, and sometimes an urban fantasy and horror story will sing to me, but I think I need to take my own advice if I'm going to preach atcha.

      This was a mini blog of its own! Would anyone like to punch some holes? I'm waiting on a friend's opposing blog post, but I'd love your feedback too.

  6. Hi Michelle.

    I haven't commented here in a while, but I want to say that this is an excellent post. And, of course, I agree with everything you said. I remember a long time ago you had a post on here comparing fantasy and sci-fi, and you stated that although you loved both, you preferred sci-fi. I responded to that and said that I preferred fantasy, but now, I'm thinking that I should retract that statement.

    I'm reading through book #1 of Robert Jordon's "The Wheel of Time" series, and although I'm enjoying it, I have already picked up on a lot of familiar elements. I did buy some sci-fi books a couple months ago to help diversify by reading experience. But sci-fi has its own conventions too, and I'd love to see you do an essay where you tackle that.

    But especially, I would love to see your take on a high fantasy. I think you'd do a really good job of it, and you'd find a way to put a much-needed spin on it.

    1. Thanks as always, Ian! I am not going to lie, I am sort of pleased that you like sci fi more than you did. It's good for a person. I would love to hear your observations on sci fi too. What issues have you noticed with it?

    2. Well that's the thing. When I think about it, I haven't really seen or read enough sci-fi to be able to spot all the cliches. Whereas with fantasy, I'm familiar with things like elves, old wizards, and evil warlords, because in general I've had a lot more experience with fantasy. That's why I bought those sci-fi books, to balance my exposure between the two genres a little more.

      I will say that, sometimes, I prefer fantasy because there's more of a sense of warmth and wonder to the worlds, whereas sci-fi tends to showcase more desolate and bleak worlds. But sci-fi can be magical too in its own way, and it really depends more on the author and the specific work than the genre. "A Song of Ice and Fire," for example, is fantasy, but it's also more downbeat and dreary than anything sci-fi I've ever seen.

      I guess I admire it when people can appreciate all sorts of different genres and different forms of storytelling. And when it comes time to compare one thing to another, it seems like a lot of people always have to regard one as being superior to the other. For a while, I was like that with fantasy and sci-fi, and how I preferred fantasy. But the more I've thought about it, the more I've thought to myself, why can't it be both?


As always, be excellent unto others, and don't be a dick.