In my own mind, if Fantasy authors were arranged into one massive over-simplified family tree, it would feature two great dynasties: Tolkien and Peake. Under Tolkien, people like Eddings and Donaldson, under Peake, writers like Clive Barker, China Mieville, maybe even a dash of Neil Gaiman, with people like Lovecraft a distant uncle or second cousin.
The further you move down the tree, the more mixed it becomes, probably reaching a crux with George R R Martin, where the two great families merge. Following it down to modern day, it seems that convergence has strengthened the Peake dynasty but the Tolkien dynasty has almost died out.
Tolkien is incredibly unpopular these days, and this saddens me. As a writer, I defintely see myself as part of the Tolkien dynasty, where all the cool kids… they’re so Peakes. You can’t mention elves and dwarves without people raising eyebrows and muttering about derivative fiction.
I like Paul C Smith. He’s clearly from that “other family” but he’s intelligent and makes good points without snark. And so when it comes to his points on Lord of the Rings, I do agree with most of them.
Tolkien’s real strength, in my honest opinion, is his worldbuilding. And by that, I’m not talking about Elves and Dwarves, but the way he breathed life into his world. Very few writers are able to convey that there’s something different round every corner, that every place has its history, but Tolkien is the master of this. What he does is take us from the safe confines of the Shire (safe because we know everything about this part of the world) and into stranger and stranger places, panning the camera out as he does so, becoming less and less precise, to give us this sense of scale that is truly mind-blowing.
Of course, this means the books are a little uneven. Getting through the first book of the Fellowship of the Ring can feel like treacle, as it can feel that Tolkien is a tour guide rather than a storyteller.
But as the story progresses, there’s another thing that grows. As we become less and less safe, so the feeling of hopelessness looms ever greater in the story, to the extent that towards the end, even Gandalf, guardian and stalwart of hope basically exclaims “we’re fucked.”
A lot of the characters in Lord of the Rings get accused of being a little shallow, that because of the story of good versus evil, characters aren’t allowed a shade of grey. I disagree with that to some extent. All the characters are fallible to some extent, all have fears and wants. Look at characters like Boromir, Denethor, even Theoden to some extent. They give into their fears and in doing so are corrupted. Look at who the real hero of LOTR is: Sam – a character who for most of the novel is a comic foil but whose pureness and unwavering devotion save the day. That’s not pedestrian.
That’s not to say that the characters are perfect. Gender is poorly represented by today’s standards, there are few women in Lord of the Rings. Yet, whilst we might bemoan the masculination of Eowyn (having to dress as a man to enter battle), I think for the time this was incredibly forward thinking. She defeats the witch-king by being a woman and laments being expected to stay at home. Pretty commendable by 1940s standards.
As a result, I get very dismayed when fantasy’s latest crop of L’enfant terribles start picking on Tolkien like a bunch of hoodies hounding some old guy who has pissed his pants. I’m not saying we should ignore the faults, or treat Lord of the Rings as some unquestionable sacred cow, but at least have a little respect.
Tolkien’s biggest fault, as I can understand it, is his popularity. I can never understand people who renege against the popular. I can understand not liking something, or thinking something doesn’t deserve the level of praise it gets but to dislike it based solely on its popularity… that seems very shallow to me.
But I understand, how the popularity of Lord of the Rings has plagued the genre. Lord of the Rings cast a shadow over the genre, and influence so great that everything got benchmarked to it. And that meant that to the general populace, unless it had elves and dwarves and a Joseph Campbell plot, it wasn’t ‘proper’ fantasy. And so there were years of derivatives, and understandably, some fantasy fans (not just from the Peake dynasty) pushed back saying “we don’t want these sorts of things” which in an overgeneralised statement has resulted in this real push back against Tolkien.
But, I’d argue that a derivative novel is a derivative novel, whether it has elves or cacti people, and this kick back at anything vaguely Tolkienistic is shortsighted. Likewise, kicking out at anything that isn’t Tolkienistic is counter-productive.
I’ve said to people for years that what genre really needed was something popular enough to widen the public’s perception of fantasy beyond that of Tolkien. I think to a large extent, Harry Potter did that (although I’d probably argue that Rowling belongs to the Tolkien dynasty rather than the Peake one). I think it’s helped the general populace (i.e. people who don’t read fantasy) to be more open to different types of fantasy, but still think there’s some way to go. What we really need is a New Weird novel that gets Lord of the Rings / Harry Potter level of sales. Even as a Tolkienist, I’d love that. As a reader, like most people, I think I’m a bit more complex than to be able to placed solely in one camp. (I love Lord of the Rings, though later novels leave me cold. Huge fan of Clive Barker but have never read Peake).
Surely, then, we should break up the dynasties, or merge them into one great family called Fantasy. There are bigger challenges for us to face, new dragons to slay, than to spend all our time infighting. Brother against sister, daughter against father. It’s like some George R R Martin novel! Diversity is good, people. Respect for things you don’t like (but others do) coupled with honest, snark-free debate, is even better.