It was impossible to do a Christian History issue on J R R Tolkien without paying some notice to the flourishing genre of fantasy writing. Essentially, Tolkien created the genre with his The Lord of the Rings. Where has fantasy writing gone since Tolkien? What are some worthy members of the genre? We asked writer Aaron Belz to look into this matter, and he came back with the following fascinating report:
Christian History Corner: The Lord of the Rings: What Harvest?
A reader’s guide to the best of epic fantasy
Aaron Belz, introduced by Christian History managing editor Chris Armstrong
Early one morning last week, a Christianity Today International executive joined thousands of other Americans by driving out to a major retail chain to snag a newly advertised $15 copy of the The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers DVD. He arrived to find the bins already cleaned out.
Had he then headed to his local bookstore, our colleague would likely have found a similarly brisk trade in Tolkien’s trilogy itself. Not that those books needed Peter Jackson’s help: They long ago entered the rarified ranks of the blockbuster bestsellers.
But the millions of DVDs and books sold represent only the “camel’s nose” of Tolkien’s influence under the tent of popular culture. Because that brilliant, devoutly Catholic Oxford don created not only a phenomenon, but an entire genre. Little did he know, as he sat with C.S. Lewis in the latter’s Magdalen College rooms in 1936 and determined to write “the sort of books they liked to read,” that within a half-century, entire bookstore shelves would groan under the offerings of his admiring imitators.
In Christian History‘s new special issue dedicated to Tolkien, author Aaron Belz provides a handy guide for readers who want to sift the wheat from the chaff in this abundant harvest of “Tolkien-esque” fantasy novels. Here is his survey of the best of these novels—divided into children’s books and books for older readers:
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When The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954-55, nothing like it had ever been seen. This epic tale in its elaborately devised world sent shock waves through the publishing world. It was, in the words of Tolkien biographer Tom Shippey, “a one-item category.” But soon, it was clear that the category was destined to overflow. J.R.R. Tolkien had done nothing less than found a new genre.
There were fantasy writers before Tolkien—notably George MacDonald, with Lilith, Phantastes, and his Curdie stories. But The Hobbit gave epic fantasy its shape, creating Middle-earth and populating it with halflings and monsters that would become stock figures for scores of authors after him. What Tolkien had created, as George R. R. Martin has said, was “a fully realized secondary universe, an entire world with its own geography and histories and legends, wholly unconnected to our own, yet somehow just as real.”
Understanding how Tolkien did this is key to knowing both why his stories are valuable literature and why so many people have imitated him.
Raiders of the Lost Word
One element of Tolkien’s genius was his knowledge of philology, the history of language.
Although casual readers might assume words such as hobbit and orc, and town names such as Withywindle, derive from sheer imagination, Shippey demonstrates in his J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (2000) that the language of Middle-earth has roots in the real world.
Early English was largely oral; we do not have a complete record of the way Norse, Celtic, German, and other languages shifted and settled to form Modern English. Like geologists imagining continuities in an incomplete fossil record, philologists conjecture what kinds of words might have appeared in intermediary stages, in some cases being able to identify words that must have been, even though they aren’t recorded. This is how Tolkien arrived at much of the language of Middle-earth.
Tolkien also showed genius in the way he wove together themes and storylines into symphonic movements, a technique Shippey terms “narrative interlace” and also identifies in Beowulf (a much earlier example of epic fantasy).
Narrative interlace allows a lot of action to happen simultaneously and to be told out of sequence. It also allows for the kind of geographically expansive narrative necessary for epic fantasy. The effect is dramatic, enabling a multi-threaded plot to drift through multiple volumes without seeming ponderous.
After J.R.R., the deluge
As these two elements are what made it possible for Tolkien to create an entirely separate world, they are also key elements in the fantasy writing of Tolkien’s legion followers. For better or worse, fans have been so moved by Tolkien, so addicted to the forests and winding roads of Middle-earth, that they have invented their own worlds. Although there are scores of obvious, middling imitations—series such as Terry Brooks’s popular Sword of Shannara and Kenneth Flint’s Sidhe—there are a number of worthy suitors as well.
One distinct strain is books geared for younger readers. The true primogenitor of these might be C.S. Lewis, whose Chronicles of Narnia were published around the same time as Tolkien’s trilogy, though well after The Hobbit. (A strong case might be made for Tolkien’s imprint on Lewis’s imagination, however.) Soon there followed Alan Garner’s Alderley Tales, which includes The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963).
Based in obscure Celtic mythology, Garner’s story tells of two contemporary English children who, while on holiday, discover a powerful moonstone that belongs to a friendly wizard. Their attempt to return the stone is thwarted by an evil witch, but the forces of good ultimately prevail.
Rising Dark & Wrinkled Time
Susan Cooper’s five-volume Dark Is Rising series (1965-77) tells an almost identical story: children vacationing in Cornwall discover an ancient map that leads into a world of Arthurian enchantment; eventually, the boy hero discovers that he is last of the “Old Ones.”
A similar entry in American fiction is Madeleine L’Engle’s ever-popular Murray Family series (1962-78), which begins with A Wrinkle In Time, the tale of a boy and girl who go searching through time for their scientist-father, battling the forces of evil along the way.
Prydain, Anthropos, and Potter
More examples are found among the works of Anne McCaffrey, who has written more multi-volume series (13) than most authors have books. Although McCaffrey’s writing is suspiciously prolific and not at all comparable to Tolkien’s in quality or depth, there can be no doubt that her dragon-ridden world is inspired by Middle-earth.
Others include Lloyd Alexander’s five-book Prydain series (1964-68), the final book of which won the Newberry Medal, and John White’s six-volume Archives of Anthropos, a distinctly Christian work which begins with The Tower of Geburah (1978).
It is impossible to survey the epic fantasy genre without mentioning the latest flame in the fire, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter collection (1997- ). Rowling herself acknowledges a debt to Lewis, not Tolkien, and her stories fall neatly within the children’s-fantasy paradigm established above: school-aged kids, minding their own business, find themselves magically transported into a world of witches and wizards. There they discover that they’re actually worth something—that they are powerful, wonderful, and necessary.
Earthsea to Discworld
Tolkien has also made possible thousands of fantasy titles for adult readers. The best of these is Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series, which began in 1968 with A Wizard of Earthsea and recently expanded to a fifth volume.
Le Guin is nearly Tolkien’s equal in terms of prose and narrative. She invents a world similar to Middle-earth, and her hero is a halfling—a boy, actually, endowed with magical powers. The Earthsea series is not as philosophically weighty as The Lord of the Rings (nor even as serious as Le Guin’s later works such as The Dispossessed, which speculates quite convincingly on the nature of time), but it is highly engaging.
Another worthy entry is Stephen Donaldson’s three-volume Thomas Covenant series (1977), which almost seems a response—or as Tom Shippey puts it, a “rebuttal”—to The Lord of the Rings. Donaldson’s hero is an adult American and not at all exemplary in terms of moral fiber or courage. Others too numerous to mention include Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker (1987-98) and Terry Pratchett’s spoof, Discworld (1983- ).
Each of these transports the reader into a carefully detailed alternate world. The best of them bring the “realities” of their world to bear on our own, leaving the reader richer for the sojourn.
But none would be what they are without the pattern of the acknowledged Father of Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien.
Aaron Belz is a freelance writer and a doctoral student at Saint Louis University, Saint Louis, Missouri.