The impact of JRR Tolkien on the fantasy genre is a massive one to be sure. For many, he would be one of the only fantasy authors they can name, which is very impressive given the age of his works. I’m not here to give any sort of analysis or review – there’s very little I could say that hasn’t already be said on the matter of The Lord of the Rings.
I do find myself in the rather odd position of finding The Lord of the Rings to be simply good books and a great achievement in fantasy. Not my favourite works of fantasy, nor, I would say, the best I have read – but that does not make their accomplishments any lessened. Indeed, while many will praise Tolkien as the be all and end all of fantasy, there is also a continual trend stretching back many decades, where Tolkien is held up as a useful target for those trying to make their mark in fantasy. True, there is little that gets my eyes rolling faster than the phrase “The Greatest Fantasy Since Tolkien!”, but at the same time, I much of the criticism leveled at Tolkien throughout the years comes across as alarmingly disingenuous to me. In a way this does make sense – to gain attention via vandalism you have to perform your vandalism on something visible.
In short, my point is that Tolkien is an author whose legacy is surrounded by a good deal of nonsense of all kinds. This is a natural consequence of being such a benchmark within a genre. What is impressive is how this nonsense arises from both those seeking to bolster Tolkien’s legacy and those seeking to undermine it.
There are those who consider Tolkien to be the Omega of Fantasy – which, fair enough, that is a matter of personal taste, and I am not so crass as to start attacking that in this forum. What does cause me to gripe is the idea that Tolkien is the Alpha of fantasy as well. In this view, fantasy “really” begins with Tolkien, who then influenced countless inferior knockoffs as well as Dungeons and Dragons, which provided the main thread of fantasy development until the modern day when thankfully we began to receive some variation.
This view either pretends that fantasy before Tolkien did not exist or assumes that it was somehow of lesser importance – essentially relegating things from the Pulp era and beyond to historical footnotes, before Tolkien came and made fantasy “serious”. I’m not going to get into a debate over whether Tolkien was objectively or subjectively “better” than absolutely everything that came before him. But this outline of the history of fantasy is, I believe, a gross oversimplification. Tolkien’s genius lay in taking existing mythological elements and weaving them into an entirely new framework. His work was less of a foundation stone, and more of a, at the time, unique shifting of fantasy to a more European context. It seems strange, when many consider fantasy synonymous with “Medieval Europe” in their minds, but previously, much weird fiction could be argued to have looked more to the exotic within history, being attracted to Greek, Roman or even Arabic sources.
For example, the locations in Conan the Barbarian’s “Hyperborea” hold more with Ancient Mediterranean culture than Medieval Europe, and Conan ranged far and wide beyond his homeland into ever more exotic cultures. Tolkien was unique in bringing fantasy to a more European setting without relying on the purely historical or the fairy-tale. He also focused much more on aspects of cosmology and what we now call “world building”, at least in a more structured way than what had come before.
But how much did Tolkien affect the “mainstream” of fantasy after this? Many point to the reoccurrence of the same fantasy races in Tolkien. However, that I would attribute more to Dungeons and Dragons. True, Dungeons and Dragons may have aped Tolkien in this regard, but for the most part, the context of these races is nearly entirely changed. The Elves, Dwarves, Orcs and Hobbits of Tolkien all had very specific roles to play within his narrative which are not generally found outside of his work, or only copied at the most surface level. Beyond that, fantasy of the Dungeons and Dragons era is marked more by bizarre and imaginative monsters that have little to do with Tolkien’s work. Indeed, the creators of Dungeons and Dragons in mentioning their inspirations put Tolkien as only one among many. Though Tolkien was a landmark island in the river of fantasy, the water had started flowing long before him, and would continue on long past.
Indeed, I feel that trying to paint Tolkien as simply a fantasy “template” does a great disservice to his work as making it seem more prototypical and “basic” than it actually is. His linguistic work has rarely been matched (M.A.R. Barker is the only name who comes to mind as a challenger on that scale), nor has his dedication to winding together fictional histories and mythology. At the same time, it is also a disserve to later writers to automatically reduce their varied inspirations and styles to simply another measurement against Tolkien. The fantasy genre has a much deeper history than that which, I feel, deserves acknowledgment.