Sunday, July 1, 2007

Tolkien - Chapter Four

Tolkien's Legacy

by Michael I. Colwill

J.R.R. Tolkien is a man who will be remembered whenever people talk about fantasy literature. He alone has given more to the genre today than perhaps any other author that has ever written in the genre. And all of this from the fame that came with the publication of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This devoted Oxford Professor of Philology and Literature gave birth to a story that is just that, a wonderful story. It was not a work of allegory that was attempting to spread Tolkien’s ideals and opinions among the minds of his readers. These stories were for the pure enjoyment of those who enjoy a good read during the evening after they’ve come home from work.

Because of his success Tolkien bent the road on which the fantasy genre was traveling. He not only gave the genre a formula to follow in his epic journey by a group of friends that have put aside their differences for the good of all, he revitalized it and made it popular once again. According to best-selling author R.A. Salvatore he “took all of the common folklore of western European culture and put them in an enjoyable format. He brought them to the masses, so to speak, and since publishing, books or games, is a business, that popularizing of the genre allowed it to blossom” (Salvatore).

No, it was not just books that were influenced by Tolkien. He also had a great influence on games of all sorts, but his greatest influence was probably on role-playing games. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons has long been one of the most popular of all role-playing games. And just by looking at the format of the adventures that take place one can notice the resemblance to the fantasy quest that occurred in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons a few individuals create characters that they will portray during the adventure which is led by the Dungeon Master, or judge of the rules. These characters can be one of many different humanoid races and can choose from one of many different adventuring careers. It was from Tolkien’s stories that the so called “party of adventurers,” or “adventuring company” came to be. So it is quite possible to end up with a party consisting of the same kind of adventurers that banded together in order to guide Frodo Baggins to the lands of Mordor in order to destroy the Ring of Power in the Cracks of Doom. In all the years that I’ve played the game it remains true that a group of people are bonded together for a time in order to accomplish some task of great importance, just like in The Lord of the Rings.

And it isn’t just Advanced Dungeons and Dragons that came about because of the ingenious story-telling of Tolkien. There is even a “Lord of the Rings” role-playing game that is based in Middle-Earth and takes place around similar characters that were in the novels. There are also several forms of video games and computer games that are based on the epic structure that Tolkien put in his books. At the time that he wrote the books, I’m sure that Tolkien had no idea how far spread his influence would be around the world.

Unfortunately, there are those out there who think that there really isn’t much to the writing of Tolkien. They think that it has nothing to share with its reader that will teach them something useful. And this is why, for quite some time, it was hard to find a copy of The Hobbit in the children’s section of your local libraries. One author who is very prominent in the fields of fantasy and science fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin, made this statement, “I shall never cease to wonder at the critics who find Tolkien a ‘simple’ writer. What marvelously simple minds they must have!” (Le Guin, 107).

Those critics who find Tolkien simple must have not read into the origins of the book. It is a work that was born out of a love for language, not out of an attempt to write an entertaining story. As Tolkien himself put it in the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, “I desired to do this for my own satisfaction, and I had little hope that other people would be interested in this work, especially since it was primarily linguistic in inspiration and was begun in order to provide the necessary background of ‘history’ for Elvish tongues” (Tolkien, 5). And so you see, it was the language that gave birth to the story, not the other way around. Sound like the work of a ‘simple’ writer?

Tolkien has been a great influence and inspiration in a lot of places and a lot of areas. However, it is in the area of writing fantasy literature that Tolkien’s influence is most clearly seen. It is not an uncommon thing these days to pick up a contemporary fantasy novel and notice the peculiar similarities to the epic quest of Frodo Baggins and his friends. There are probably no writers of fantasy out there today that have not read anything of Tolkien’s. And in all of those that have you can see the influence of the master.

One of these writers is best-selling author Terry Brooks. Terry Brooks is author of one of the best-selling fantasy novels of all time, The Sword of Shannara, having outsold even Tolkien’s trilogy. His story about the quest of a simple vale man against the great Power of Darkness, the Warlock Lord, is quite similar in format to The Lord of the Rings and Frodo’s own quest against the evil of Sauron. Terry Brooks admits to being influenced by Tolkien, along with every other fantasy writer out there today. “Tolkien’s influence was at least two-fold. He pioneered modern fantasy and he influenced an entire generation of writers in the field” (Brooks).

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks that modern fantasy writers have been influenced in a good way by Tolkien. Though recognizing the talents and accomplishments of Tolkien’s work in the area of fantasy, they do not believe that every writer who comes in contact with him produces good work based on what they have read. Brian Attebery, in his book, The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature, claims that “undigested Tolkien has produced some literary nightmares of the first order” (Attebery, 155). One author that is specifically mentioned by Attebery happens to be Terry Brooks. Trying not to disrespect the author “who may have intended homage to Tolkien,” Attebery claims that Brook’s novels “attempt to evoke wonder without engaging the mind or emotions, and they threaten to reduce Tolkien’s artistic accomplishment to a bare formula” (Attebery, 155).

I have to disagree with Attebery on this point. In his argument he claims that Brooks has copied many of the elements that are found in The Lord of the Rings. He believes that these elements were deeply rooted in Tolkien’s own life and philosophy. With this I cannot argue. I know that Tolkien’s creations were deeply rooted in his life. However, Attebery also claims that:

To attempt to copy Tolkien is necessarily to misread, to mistake the mechanics of his tale for the substance. Roger Sale makes a good case for The Lord of the Rings as a study of “modern heroism,” very much the product of two world wars and the upheavals of English urbanization. Elves and rings and hobbits are part of Tolkien’s way of confronting his life. (Attebery, 155-156).

Even though every writer will be in some way influenced by the events that surround him, Tolkien did not write The Lord of the Rings based on the World Wars and other incidents that affected his life. Humphrey Carpenter quoted Tolkien’s friend, C.S. Lewis, as saying of The Lord of the Rings, “These things were not devised to reflect any particular situation in the real world. It was the other way round; real events began, horribly, to conform to the pattern he had freely invented” (Carpenter, 190).

Terry Brooks gives a little insight into the different things that have influenced him, and into how Tolkien has influenced him:

My writing was mostly influenced by the European adventure story writers of the past century—Stevenson, Scott, Dumas, etc. I started out as a writer thinking to do something along those lines, but not in an historical context. Tolkien gave me the format I was looking for. So I cloaked the traditional adventure story in fantasy trappings (Brooks).

And Brooks does not pull his plot ideas from Tolkien, but rather from events that he reads about in newspaper and other places. “All of my work deals with current issues, if you take a close look. Environment, violence, family disintegration, and so on” (Brooks). Where Tolkien stays away from the real events that go on about him, Brooks draws from these. I do not see how Brooks could possibly be called a bad imitation of Tolkien. He has simply absorbed Tolkien and used his format to give life to his own ideas.

Another fantasy writer that has been influenced by Tolkien is best-selling author R.A. Salvatore. Salvatore has written over 25 novels, all in the fantasy genre. And he, like others, recognizes Tolkien as a true inspiration for him to become involved in more classical reading and eventually his own writing. Salvatore recalls his freshman year of college when his sister gave him the boxed Tolkien series for Christmas:

I remember reading The Hobbit and wondering why I had never realized how enjoyable and fulfilling reading could be. I changed my major to communications so that I could take more literature courses and went on to appreciate the classics—Shakespeare, Chaucer, and James Joyce. Those same classics, brought to me through Tolkien, were my truest inspiration (Salvatore).

Salvatore was introduced to the fantasy world by Tolkien, and has since gone on to bring life to his own worlds and creations. He is another example of a writer who has come in contact with the work of Tolkien, absorbed it, and moved on to his own writing. He gave an appropriate thank-you in his dedication of one of his books, The Woods Out Back, to the master of fantasy. “To the memory of J.R.R. Tolkien and to Fleetwood Mac, for giving me elfs and dragons, witches and angels, and for showing me the way to find them on my own” (Salvatore, The Woods Out Back).

I have one more example to share with you of someone who has been influenced by Tolkien. That amateur writer is me. I have aspirations of one day being published as a writer in the field of fantasy. And Tolkien has been a great inspiration to the work I have done so far. This past summer I read Humphrey Carpenter’s authorized biography of Tolkien and drew information and inspiration from the love and dedication that Tolkien had for his own work. That coupled with the experience of journeying through Middle-earth while reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings has influenced and inspired me to devote myself to the stories that I work on. And like Tolkien’s work, mine has become a labor of love.

One of the many things that I have learned from Tolkien is the need to pay attention to detail. Tolkien wholly devoted himself to the perfection of his work, which contributed to the great quality it possessed as a finished product. He has also reaffirmed something that I learned the hard way, the need for maps while writing stories in a created world. In a January 1971 interview with BBC Radio 4 program ‘Now Read On…’ Tolkien was quoted as saying, “I had maps of course. If you’re going to have a complicated story you must work to a map otherwise you can never make a map of it afterwards” (Interview). I attempted to map out a story that I wrote about a year after it was finished and discovered the difficulty in this.

Like Tolkien, I wish to give people a story that will allow them to dream for a few hours of things that can only be seen by their minds eye. I want them to run with the unicorn, fly with the dragon, and dance with the elf. In his letter to me, R.A. Salvatore told me to “do the master proud” (Salvatore). I can only hope to carry on the legacy started by Tolkien as well as the others have that came before me.


Attebery, Brian. The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

Brooks, Terry. Letter to the author. 6 Apr. 1997.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown.” The Language of the Night. Ed. Susan Wood. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons: 1979.

Salvatore, R.A. Letter to the author. 11 Apr. 1997.

Salvatore, R.A. The Woods Out Back. New York: Ace Books, 1993.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1954.

1 comment:

Jason Heath said...

Another high-quality post! I think that it's great that you are putting these essays out on your blog. Very interesting reading.

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