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!

Children of Hurin

So, I’m finally getting around to reading the Children of Hurin. Like most of the writings of the first age, there is a lack of immediacy to the tales, and something of a deep required foreknowledge of the subject matter to appreciate the setting, at least compared to the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. To an extent, I feel this is exacerbated by all of the kings of the Noldor whose names start with F. Still, once you get past the first chapter, which is a lot of recap on what elf kings ruled where, did what, and were killed in what ways, the story of Turin becomes a fairly quick paced and enjoyable narrative history.

I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks for me with the First Age is the shortcomings of the Map of Beleriand. That Angband, the site of many of the most memorable scenes and battles (the 400 year siege, Battle of Unnumbered Tears, Beren stealing a Silmaril), is nowhere on the map of Beleriand caused me no end of frustration and speculation.  It’s… somewhere north of Dorthonian in the desert Anfauglith? Imagine if, in Lord of the Rings, Mordor were off the map in some nebulous “East of Gondor…” off the map?

I do give Chris a lot of credit in this volume, as the geopolitical boundaries of the First Age have probably never been presented in a clearer or more concise fashion outside of Appendices and supplemental writings. I’d have to give the Silmarillion a re-reading for comparison sake, but I feel that the regional scope of the narrative is much clearer in Children of Hurin. I suppose one of the difficulties is that since the First Age covers such a long period, the geopolitical shifts are not documented as well as a history map geek such as myself would like. This is a bit of a tangent here, but I’d love to see a period by period map documenting migration of the tribes of elves and humans and the southward push of the orcs from the north. I’m sure this exists somewhere that I haven’t bothered to look because I don’t have money to burn on Tolkiencyclopedias.

But anyway… Children of Hurin covers a period during which a great deal of the changes took place, beginning with the end of the 400 year siege of Angband, which turned the north into a wasteland and Dorthonian became sort of a pro-Mordor, as the men were driven out and Orcs took over. Who brought their armies and from where, when Maedhros and the other elves and men and dwarves launch their failed attempt at revenge during the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, gives a nice crash course of Politics and Kingdoms of Beleriand 101.

Can I recommend Children of Hurin as a high fantasy for someone who’s new to Tolkien? Honestly, no, it’s not a particularly good introduction. What it IS good for is someone who enjoyed the Hobbit and/or Lord of the Rings, wants more, but still finds the Silmarillion and the Lost and Unfinished Tales of Middle Earth a bit impenetrable (the Quenta was quite a jump from LotR for my 11 year old self) or rough around the edges (“Hahaha! you mean the Noldor used to be gnomes in the first drafts? lame!”).  Would I watch a Peter Jackson movie based on this?  Probably.  Yeah.

(Also, hell yeah!)