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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Monday, 1 April 2013

An Unexpected Bounty: C. J. Marco's Counterargument!

Hello hello!

Today I have a bit of a treat. This is a repost from my friend Colin's blog. I challenged him to write a counterargument to my fantasy post on Tolkein. Do you agree? Or do you guys think I was right--that classic mediaeval European fantasy needs to be adapted to maintain its relevance?


All right, I'll admit it: I did not really care all that much for the prose in Lord of the Rings. I preferred The Hobbit, to be perfectly honest. The Hobbit recently hit theaters and is being released for home viewing today, actually. My aim here is to talk a little bit about Tolkien's works, a little about the film adaptation, and a lot about what Tolkien's massive body of work means for those who both write and read fantasy fiction.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (along with a dearth of other, less-known-to-those-who-are-not-hardcore-fantasy-fans works like The Silmarillion) are all set in the pseudo-medieval world of Middle-Earth, a place populated by mysterious, magical, wise, haughty elves, mine-dwelling, gold-greedy, proud dwarves, peace-loving, restive, often-hungry-yet-overlooked hobbits, and the race of Men, the wildcard race. Sound familiar? Probably. These are the most commonly-touched on tropes of the fantasy race mix. Magical objects and swords and runes? Check. Epic struggle between the forces of light and darkness? Oh yeah.  Why does it all seem familiar now? Because Tolkien took off the blinders and showed us how it was done.

Prior to the saga of Middle-Earth, such stories were the province of T.H. White and Le Morte d'Arthur as well as myths, legends, and a few sword and sorcery novels. The Hobbit primed the audience for the saga of the Rings trilogy.

Many people have said that the Lord of the Rings movies were better than The Hobbit, and any time that a fantasy epic comes out in theaters, it is always inevitably compared to LotR, though the reviews generally refer to Rings as being the superior in the mix. Why? Because it is just that damn good. The Lord of the Rings is one of the primary building blocks for fantasy literature, and it also shows on the silver screen. 

But, the well's run dry! Everything's the same as Lord of the Rings! Where do we go from here?

A wizard is never boring. Nor is he cliche. He entertains precisely when he means to. Source.

NO. High fantasy is thriving. It's bigger than ever right now. The Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, Diablo, Warhammer, World of Warcraft, and my personal favorite, D&D/Pathfinder, are all influenced to a certain degree by their mighty predecessor, but they are extremely varied and have potential to be even more so. Great stories will always be great stories, regardless of some possible similarities. The sheer number of fantasy products out there are naturally going to incur some overlap. Many of the product lines I mentioned earlier are also equally influenced by Moorcock's tales of the albino Elric, Howard's Conan the Barbarian, H.P. Lovecraft, Ursula Le Guin, Lewis' Narnia, and any number of other sources. In fact, Michael Moorcock has gone on record saying that "one thing I'm pretty sure of, I was not in any way directly influenced by Prof. Tolkien". (Source)

This would have happened even without Tolkien. Source.

Fantasy is still largely populated by pseudo-European characters and isn't LGBTQ friendly! Is there any hope?

Fantasy is taking great strides to get some variation in it, particularly in the fields of fantasy roleplaying games. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Pathfinder roleplaying game. According to company reps, all of the iconic characters (characters which personify the features of the classes they represent) are ostensibly bisexual, and include a black female paladin, an albino half-elf magus, a monk who appears to be from the Indian subcontinent, an Asian ninja, a middle-eastern oracle... the list goes on. There's only a handful of identifiably "European-looking" characters in the mix, and even then, they are not the majority, given that many other classes are either demihuman or near-monstrous races, such as orcs. The Paizo staff have actually said that they wanted to move away from the image of the "sword-wielding white guy"

The object of much scorn, Regdar was shoe-horned into D&D against the will of the design team. Sigh. Source.
Most of the Pathfinder design team worked for WotC back in the days of 3.Xe D&D. Regdar, the white-guy-with-a-sword of D&D, was almost universally hated by the design team, and so generally Regdar was typically the first to die in any artistic representation. This even carried over into 4e, where Regdar is both dead on the chapter intro for Rituals, and again in the Monster Manual in the medusa artwork. The team wanted a more diverse team of iconic characters, and instead, the corporate bigwigs forced Regdar upon them. 

For a little variation, culturally speaking, check out Legend of the Five Rings, which is set in a swords-and-sorcerers version of feudal Japan called Rokugan. It's a setting of pure epic fantasy, but it is mostly about warring clans of human samurai and the evil demonic overlord Fu Leng's treachery. 

Come to Rokugan for a break from your knights and wizards. Samurai and Shugenjas will fill the gap. Source.

Fantasy has also been moving away from simple tales of a male youth who grows from being a lowly pigherd into the Chosen One who saves the world from a stereotypical "Dark Lord", as Frodo was, but those archetypes and tropes will ALWAYS persist in fantasy literature. Ari Marmell is an established writer who consistently breaks the mold when it comes to his fantasy literature. His novel The Conqueror's Shadow is an inversion, where the archetypal Dark Lord (spiky, skull-helmed armor and all) becomes the hero by taking on someone worse than himself. His companions are an ogre farmer, a witch who eats people, and a grumpy bound demon. And they're the good guys.

Corvis Rebaine, the Dark Lord who nearly crushed the world beneath his iron heel, and reluctant hero. Source.

Now, I'll geek out a bit more here and I'll say that Marmell's work is EXTREMELY well-written and his other works also diverge from the norm of the fantasy tropes. I am eager to read his book The Goblin Corps, which is apparently a novel told from the perspective of a bunch of goblins, who are usually cannon-fodder in other fantasy books, games, movies, etc. I am big fan of Marmell and, honestly, I think he may write some of the best dialogue I've I've ever read. Read it. It's worth your time.

As cultural perceptions change, we are bound to start seeing more variety in our fiction. Female characters have been taking a greater role in fantasy. The "boys only" concept of fantasy is already viewed as outdated. Racial and cultural diversity is being given greater emphasis. It's a matter of the new, young authors taking steps to look at the existing tropes and finding ways to turn them on their head.

TL;DR - Gimme the Bullet Points!

- Lord of the Rings made fantasy popular, but it's not the only epic out there.

- Not all fantasy is influenced by LOTR. In fact, there's some very popular stuff that was never touched by Tolkien's influence.
- The future of fantasy is diverse, glorious, and is not doomed to endless repetitions.
- Fantasy is evolving, shifting, changing as our cultural perceptions are changing.
- There will always be imitators of great authors - Imitation is still the sincerest (if most annoying) form of flattery.
- If a fantasy novel/movie/show/series/product moves you emotionally or really draws your interest, that is marvelous! Don't let anyone tell you that you don't like "good" fantasy. It's all subjective anyway.


Is there a work of epic/high fantasy you feel really moved you? Do you feel that fantasy is played out? What's your favorite world to lose yourself in? You can always reply here on the blog, or hit me up on Twitter @colinjmarco. I look forward to hearing what fantasy you enjoy. My particular tastes are pretty broad, running the gamut from anime like Record of Lodoss War, games like D&D/Pathfinder, movies like Clash of the Titans, and lots more. Let me know what you think. Am I out to lunch? 


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. Yay! I got first comment this time. ^_^

    Hmm. Well I initially posted in Michelle's argument saying that I agreed with everything she said. But, reading this fine counter-argument, and I agree with pretty much everything here too.

    I re-read The Hobbit in time to prepare for the upcoming movie, and was surprised and impressed at how good the book still was. Then I saw the movie and absolutely loved it. I plan to read The Lord of the Rings again soon, and then re-watch the films too.

    Beyond that, however, I would actually like to take a break from fantasy. I've had so much exposure to it over the past several years that I am noticing some definite familiarities. I am also reading A Feast for Crows right now, which quite frankly, has been a boring read so far.

    That having said, I do still love fantasy. I am happy that it's still so big, and that the genre is indeed reinventing itself and is not doomed to copy Tolkien and the other big-names over and over again. I just want to take a break and check out other things. Science-fiction in particular, as I have read few sci-fi books in my lifetime, and that is a world I would love to learn more about.

    Harry Potter is probably my favourite fantasy series. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows still is, as far as I'm concerned, the best novel ever written.

    1. I have to admit it's a good counterargument. I think my response still stands, and that we need to expand.

      I tend to go on genre binges--read ALL the literary fiction and classics, read ALL the space fuckery, read ALL the dystopia, read ALL the fantasy, read ALL the urban fantasy...and obviously, they tend to follow each other as I tire of each type!

      I think it's important for all authors to vary up their reading material and jump outside their genre comfort zones.

      It will be interesting to see where Rowling's legacy goes. So far it has manifested in people writing about schools and colleges for EVERYTHING, but her mix of childlike wonder and simple realism is very interesting. I'd like to play with it some time. Any thoughts on that?

    2. It's interesting to see where her legacy has gone already. Have you read The Casual Vacancy? It's apparently a very different book from Harry Potter. And it had a much weaker reception too. I haven't read the book yet, though I would like to do so sometime, just to see whether or not I like it. Regardless, though, I do admire her for having the guts to shake things up and try something completely different, even if (or especially because) it didn't work out as well for her.

      When you say you want to play with her mix of wonder and realism, what were you thinking of exactly?

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