Where did the idea come from that fantasy is only elves, dwarves, dragons and escapism? How did Tolkien really change fantasy? One reply to The Daily Made.
On January 3, 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born, better known to the general public as JRR Tolkien and by his fans as The professor.
This year, AD 2022, therefore marks the XNUMXth anniversary of his birth. It would be a biblical patriarch's birthday but, alas, the Prof sailed towards the Mandos classrooms in 1973.
Two introductory words about Tolkien's life
I don't think we need to say who Tolkien is here but for the benefit of any newbies and especially our beloved Google, let's do it anyway. If you already know, go ahead and skip to the next point. If you want to read our articles on Tolkien, you will find them all at this link.
Before becoming a British philologist, linguist, academician and linguist, J. R. R. Tolkien he was a student of Old English and Germanic languages at Exeter College where he had won a scholarship in 1910. Five years later, at the outbreak of the First World War, he volunteered in the Lancashire Fusiliers infantry regiment, finished on the western front and was sent home only when he fell ill after six months in the trenches.
At the end of the war he resumed his studies, obtaining the title of Master Of Arts in 19 and becoming, in 21, a professor of literature at the University of Leeds. Between 1925 and 1945 Tolkien was Professor of Old English at Merton College and from 1945 to 1959 he taught English literature at Oxford University.
JRR Tolkien was also literary author. What interests us most here is his most famous production, that is, the one closely linked to the fantasy genre. In 1937, in fact, Tolkien publishes The Hobbit, first novel set in the secondary world of Middle-earth. Instead, in the mid-50s what is his most famous work comes out, The Lord of the Rings, published in three separate volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring (1954) The two Towers (1955) and The return of the king
After Tolkien, fantasy has never been the same: the wishes of The Daily Made
On January 3, on the occasion of the 130th anniversary of Tolkien's birth, The Daily Made published an article entitled After Tolkien, fantasy has never been the same, that we link to you here, because citing sources is always important and necessary.
The article is signed by Simon Vacatello, who defines himself as a journalist, author, narrator and whose profile on the newspaper's website reads:
I collaborate with various publications and I deal with cultural study. So many passions, so many interests, the most lasting of which is the analysis of the mythologies of paper, pixels and filmic film.
Scrolling through the titles of his articles I see cited Spider-Man: No Way Home, Get Back the Beatles, Cowboy Bebop, Tear off along the edges by Zerocalcare, Squid Game. In short, all highlights of the pop culture of the last period. The stuff we MUST talk about. Ok.
I admit it: I don't know Vacatello. And it may very well be my fault, which I experience more and more as a mix between a hermit with a bad temper, an ikikomori behind the times, and one with addiction problems but-no-I-have-everything-under-control.
But I know a little bit about Tolkien and a little bit about fantasy too, so when I read certain titles my hair stands on end like cats. So I went to read the article and in fact ...
What did Simone Vaccaro write about Tolkien and fantasy?
[...] The reason why we allow ourselves today to perpetrate this chivalrous rudeness between mummies is due to the way in which Tolkien has in fact changed forever the fantasy genre, which existed before him (ask Lord Dunsany, also adored by HP Lovecraft), but that after him was never the same (ask George RR Martin, who was inspired by Tolkien far beyond the two 'R' after the name).
Before the 50s, when The Lord of the Rings was published for the first time, the fantasy genre had always moved on a double track: on the one hand driven by the Celtic mythological imagery animated by dragons, elves and warriors of all kinds, immortalized in written form by the poem of Beowulf, by the another supported by the legitimate desire for escapism within which fantastic literature has always moved. Tolkien's merit was precisely that of codifying everything that had made that genre flourishing (starting from the concept of world building, i.e. the creation of a world whose existence is central and autonomous with respect to the number of characters that populate it) in a narrative system that goes beyond not only the escapist dynamic as an end in itself, but also includes a sort of commentary on the human soul and its relationship with the concepts of 'evil' and 'good'.
Pre-Tolkien Fantasy: Celtism and Escapism? But where?!?
The first part of the quote is a bit paracula, because we know that the most naïve fans (and / or ignorant as goats) consider Tolkien the "Father" of fantasy. Which would be like saying that Bram Stoker is the father of horror or even just vampire fiction thanks to his Dracula ignoring The Vampire by Polidori or Carmilla by Le Fanou.
Vacatello however cites two authors of the past, Lord Dunsany and Lovecraft. Will they be, as he says, two authors moved by the desire for escapism and will they deal with Celtic mythology? Let's check.
What did Lord Dunsany write?
Lord Dunsany, born Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, XNUMXth Baron Dunsany, is famous for his fantastic fiction. But regarding what is perhaps his most famous work, The gods of Pegāna, Gahan Wilson says:
Speaking in a highly original mix of English from the Bible of King James, Yeats's syntax and an imaginary from The Arabian Nights, [Dunssany] takes us into a beautifully sinister Valhalla, peopled with mad, spectacularly cruel and wonderfully foolish gods.
What did Lovecraft write?
We want to talk about the escapism of H. P. Lovecraft? One that in his most famous fantastic cycle, the one defined by August Derleth The Myths of Cthulhu, hinges your narrative on the concept that the universe is indifferent to the human condition and populated by monstrous and evil entities devoted only to destruction? Here is the incipit de The Call of Cthulhu in the version edited by Gianni Pilo and Sebastiano Fusco:
I believe that the most merciful thing in the world is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the middle of the black sea of infinity, and it was not meant to be that we sailed far. The sciences, each tending in its own direction, have so far done us very little harm; but, one day, the connection of disjointed knowledge will open up such terrifying visions of reality, and of our frightening position in it, that we will either go mad at revelation or flee the mortal light into the peace and safety of a new Middle Ages.
How lightly huh?
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And what did other pre-Tolkien fantasy authors write?
But let's also take, for example, Averroigne's cycle of Clarke Ashton Smith, composed of short stories and poems published between 1930 and 1951. We will see that Smith certainly refers more to fiction of Cape and Sword, than to the Celtic one, and has a pseudo-French setting.
And if we take the work of Robert ervin howard which goes from 1925 to 1936 we quickly realize that in creating his Hyborian Era and all its propagations that go both forward and backward in the time of its fictional history, Howard has certainly taken a lot of hands from the Celtic imaginary and Scandinavian. Just think of the Bran Mak Morn cycle or stories like The Daughter of the Ice Giant by Conan.
However, Howard has placed items next to us Mediterranean e orientalizing. A patchwork to which George RR Martin is certainly indebted for his secondary world of A Song of Ice and Fire.
And as for escapism: Yes, OK. But certain characters, like the shadowy Kull of Valusia and the aforementioned Bran, are not exactly the light-heartedness over and over.
And even if we wanted to go looking for the elements mentioned on purpose?
Here, we could also find works such as the cycle ofIncomplete Charmer di Lyon Sprague de Camp, whose first three books are published between '41 and '53. De Champ harks back in part to the Nordic myth and is certainly an adventurous and light-hearted narrative, but it is also very, very modern, and uses the myth as a background, not as the substance of the narrative.
And looking for elves, dwarves and trolls, we could run into them The Broken Sword di Paul Anderson. This book, however, was published in 1954, therefore at the same time as The Lord of the Rings, not after, as one would think when reading Vacatello. Furthermore, The Broken Sword it presents those elements because Anderson and Tolkien basically refer to the same sources, albeit in a completely different way.
Elves, dwarves, dragons and where to find them: in Post-Tolkien fantasy
The point is that Celtic-Nordic-medieval inspired fantasy with more or less thickness was a consequence of the success of The Lord of the Rings. And this certainly happened not because of the Professor, but because a lot of publishers over the years have seen fit to ride the wave and give "even more Tolkien" to a bulimic audience.
What fantasy was written between the XNUMXs and XNUMXs?
And it wasn't immediate either, because at the time things traveled at a much slower pace than they do now.
Hence, the fantastic fiction at the turn of the 50s and 70s is more related tolegacy of pulp magazines than to the epic-chivalric imagery. I am thinking, for example, of the cycle of Fafhard and Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber, ranging from '47 to '88. Or to the Elric cycle of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock, whose original core sees the light between '65 and '77.
When did you start seeing "Tolkien" fantasy?
If, on the other hand, we are looking for fantasy novels, they are full of Elves with long bows, Dwarves with axes and hammers, Prodi Knights with shining armor and long swords, Wizards with long colored robes, Orcs / Trolls ugly and evil and Flying Dragons with the breath of fire or anything else Tolkienian, we have to look at the late 70s and gradually over the next two decades.
Just think of the Shannara cycle of Terry Brooks, which starts in 1977 with The Sword of Shannara, which is practically an I.l lord of the rings in version young adult. Or to the saga of Dragonlance di Margaret Weis e Tracy Hickman, which emerged in '84 with The dragons of the twilight fall in autumn, in which the adventures are based in a setting of Dungeons & Dragons of Tolkien inspiration. Even Robert Jordan, to place the mammoth project of de The Wheel of Time, had to give a "Tolkien-like" implantation to the first novel in the series, The eye of the world, from 1990, a plant which then rapidly disappears in subsequent volumes.
Tolkien's Legacy: Wealth or Burden?
Tolkien's impact on the fantasy genre was certainly HUGE. Positive or negative? I think it depends a lot on which aspects are considered. And, in any case, no blame can be attributed to the Professor, who certainly gave a very particular depth and depth to his work. On the one hand it has enriched readers and authors of generations, but he also set up models which, in the works of his followers, have often become clichés.
It is as a result of THAT wave that US publishers today pay very little attention to THAT kind of fantasy of dwarves, elves, wizards and dragons. On the contrary, today they try to explore influences from other cultures. And in this way, after all, they offer a variety that was already present in the fantastic before, but which had been swallowed up by the logic of the market.
So, although it is undeniable that, as Vacatello says, Tolkien's work has changed the fantasy genre, so much so that there is a Pre and a Post Tolkien, this change has more aspects. On the one hand there is the undoubted literary value of the Professor's writings, on the other hand a long-term success and the ability to enchant readers, but finally there were also the choices of the publishing houses that tried to replicate a formula winning.
Furthermore, the description that is made of pre-Tolkien fantasy is completely wrong. Escapism and lightness, which certainly are and have been among the characteristics of the genre in many of its forms, have never been absolute rules, quite the contrary. And as for the proliferation of Celtic-Norse pseudo-Middle Ages in Western fantasy, that was a consequence, nefarious and certainly neither intended nor imagined by Tolkien, of the success of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and, subsequently, of The Silmarillion.
And without detracting from Tolkien's undoubted merits and his enormous influence on the genre, It is frustrating to always read articles on fantasy written so superficially.
Why, diocristo, would it be enough to know two things on the cross and take a look at Wikipedia, huh?
Yes, that would be enough.