How Tolkien Ruined Fantasy

Anyone who knows me knows how I love Tolkien’s work. It was dear Frodo who drew me into books and writing. So, as an avid fan of his work, why would I say that Tolkien ruined fantasy? It’s simple.

There is one inexplicable truth in writing that will always plague us: very few authors are capable of being truly original. Yes, I said it. Tolkien was one of the few authors to truly brave the depths of the unknown. He created such a complex world, the likes of which has not been seen before or since, along with numerous fantastical species and at least fifteen new languages. His work became such a sensation that has left its mark on every generation of writers since. Therein lies the problem. Every time a new sensation comes along, every up and coming writer must take a stab at replicating it.

Let’s look at Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series for a moment. A young man (Frodo) finds a mysterious artifact (the One Ring) and learns that he has a great destiny to save the world. So, he sets out on a perilous journey with his mentor (Gandalf) and sidekicks (Merry, Pippin, and Sam). After much mortal peril, our young hero saves the world and defeats the evil king (Sauron). Hurray! World saved, job done.

In the early 2000’s, The Inheritance Cycle was published by up and coming novelist Christopher Paolini. It took middle schoolers nationwide by storm. A young man (Eragon) who is a bit of an outcast in society suddenly finds a mysterious artifact (a dragon egg) and learns that he has a great destiny to save the world. So, he sets out on a perilous journey with his mentor (Brom) and sidekicks (the dragon Saphira and the elf maiden Arya). After much mortal peril, our young hero saves the world and defeats the evil king (Galbatorix). Hurray! But wait! Brom is actually Eragon’s father and Eragon’s smitten with Arya! Romance and intrigue abound!

Really? Because last I checked there was an elf maiden in the Lord of the Rings too (Arwen). But she’s in love with Aragorn, not Frodo. So surely that means they’re different. Wait a second…Aragorn…Eragon…Arwen…Arya. (You know it’s bad when spell check keeps trying to change Eragon to Aragorn. Even my computer thinks it’s too close.) And thus, Christopher Paolini tops the long list of Lord of the Rings rip offs.

Ok, ok. Surely not every fantasy book is like that.

Enter The Original Shannara Trilogy, published back in 1977 by one Terry Brooks. A young man (Shea) suddenly finds out he has a great destiny to save the world. He sets out on a perilous journey with his sidekicks (Flick and Menion). They are pursed by the Skull Bearers who have a striking resemblance to certain Ring Wraiths that we know and loath. The heroes defeat their foes, save the world, and the author blatantly sticks the word “original” in the title (therefore it must be). And yet it is number 2 out of 38 on GoodReads’ list of Most Obvious Tolkien Imitators.

This brings us back to how Tolkien ruined the fantasy genre. You have better odds of winning the lottery than finding a truly original fantasy book written any time in the past century. But why? How could only four books (five if you count The Silmarillion) cover the length and breadth of an entire genre?

The Hobbit starts off the series in its use of fairy tale and the ever-present heroic quest. The Lord of the Rings encompasses fairy tales, heroic quests, medieval romance, and high fantasy tropes. The Silmarillion covers high fantasy tropes and more heroic quests.

When you realize how many subgenres Tolkien truly covers in the whole of his work there suddenly becomes no room for experimentation without stepping on the toes of fantasy’s greatest literary titan.

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