A Brief Note on Tolkien’s Influence on Fantasy

Inspired by J. Manfred Weichsel’s remark describing Fritz Leiber’s “Swords and Deviltry” as “a mix of Dunsany, Tolkien, and Piers Anthony.”

Tolkien is often heralded as the lord and father of Fantasy, but consider the following:

The Sword & Sorcery genre predates the Lord of the Rings by decades.

All of the classic first wave Sword & Sorcery had been written and was already old news when Lord of the Rings came out. Lord of the Rings was published at the very tail end of the Pulp Era, and would’ve likely had very little immediate influence on those writers.

Robert E Howard’s, C.L. Moore’s, and many of Fritz Leiber’s Sword and Sorcery stories predate the Lord of the Rings. Even relative late-comer and Edgar Rice Burroughs fan-boy Philip Jose Farmer had already won a Hugo Award a year before the Lord of the Rings was published.

It would be interesting to see how much, if any, influence the Hobbit had; compared to much of the fantasy contemporary with it, this debut is relatively straight-forward: a guy goes on a long walk with strangers who press-gang him and gets some treasure from a dragon. The Ring is just a plot device, and the encounter with Gollum part in a series of episodic encounters on the way to said dragon. Given the corpus of fantasy fiction upon which the 1920s and 1930s Sword & Sorcery genre was building, it’s hard to imagine The Hobbit making a significant splash or being regarded as any kind of “serious seminal work” by the writers hard at work crafting the foundations of the modern fantasy genre.

I really don’t think there is a smoking gun; you probably are not going to find any of the important and influential fantasy writers from the pulp-era saying in the 1930s or 1940s “Man, that Tolkien guy is gonna change the way people read and write Fantasy forever!” If there is, though, I’d love to see it!

9 responses to “A Brief Note on Tolkien’s Influence on Fantasy

  1. “you probably are not going to find any of the important and influential fantasy writers from the pulp-era saying in the 1930s or 1940s “Man, that Tolkien guy is gonna change the way people read and write Fantasy forever!””

    It’s hard enough to find people who said that in the ’50s when Lord of the Rings came out.

  2. Sword and Sorcery and Tolkien developed independently I think. Tolkien began writing his Middle Earth stories in 1919 even though The Hobbit wasn’t published until 1937, and The Lord of Rings in 1954. The Hobbit was written as a children’s book, not as a serious work of fiction and Tolkien’s work didn’t gain real attention until the 60s. Tolkien’s influence, from what I have read, had more of an effect on writers in the 60s and on. Moorcock wanted to write anti-Tolkien stories, Terry Brooks wrote The Sword of Shannara, etc.

    I think that because the popularity of Sword and Sorcery waned as Epic Fantasy’s waxed, the perception people had was that Tolkien was the “father of fantasy” because all the popular fantasy being put out was like Tolkien’s work.

  3. I flipped through a few books and couldn’t find anything particularly relevant. The Hobbit won awards, received very favorable reviews, and sold relatively well, but that doesn’t tell us very much.

    I’m not surprised that people will react negatively and vigorously so, but nothing you’re saying is at odds with the conventional wisdom: The Lord of the Rings only became huge after the unauthorized US paperback release and the influence of LOTR on fantasy kicked off in earnest in 1977 with the publication of The Sword of Shannara.

  4. It occurs to me that you could write a good and original book on Tolkien by focusing on his fantasy influences (he read and liked both Burroughs and Howard) and his early influence in turn (pre-Shannara).

  5. People usually throw in that weasel word, “modern” so they can claim their special author was the REAL first person to do the thing. Tolkein was the first “Modern Fantasy” author, if you define “modern” as being “Tolkein pastiche”.

    Kind of like how modern sci-fi was invented by a woman because the REAL start date of sci-fi is Frankenstein.

  6. -allyourstories- is right, they are separate strands mostly drawing on different sources.

    However, in terms of fantasy as a modern publishing genre I think Tolkien does deserve pride of place. The separation of “fantasy” as a publishing genre from other fantastic tales is arguably relatively late, about 15-20 later than Sci-Fi and Horror. The authors you mention are often science fantasy, and thus generally published as Sci-Fi, or in broad fantastic spectrum.

    The breakthrough fantasy novel wasn’t LotR but that warmed over version “The Sword of Shannara”. Hippies had been reading LotR and TSoS was bought as an attempt to cash in on it. It did and succeeded and publishers started scouring for more. Also, authors wanted to write their LotR. Stephen King says The Dark Tower is his LotR in terms of when he started to think about it and write it. Eddings and McKiernan both started from Tolkien influences, the former mixing his reading of the same medieval sources as Tolkien into his books. The later is, IMHO, one of the most under-rated writers of fantasy because of his writing a blatant LotR rewrite to provide backstory for his first book yet Dragondoom is one of the best quest fantasy novels out there.

    So as publishers embraced fantasy it was via a template built heavily on Tolkien and as a result a lot of modern fantasy refers to him (or D&D) more than Burroughs, Howard, Moore, or Dunsany even though the last of that list was a normal pastiche phase as late as the 70s.

    As a result Tolkien looms larger than he should for now. However, in 100 years I think it will be more balanced. Even then, though, he will be recognized as the figure in quest centered fantasy and I think reasonably so.

  7. Good points, though much of Dunsany, who influenced those Science Fantasy writers and was still writing contemporarily with many of them, is definitely “Fantasy” in the sense that it is understood today and separate from Science Fantasy.

    From what I’ve found, Tolkien was a fan of Dunsany, which is not surprising, I suppose, considering how Dunsanian much of the Silmarillion feels (particularly the earlier sections involving the creation of the world and races).

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