Check out this bit from Barbarian Book Club:
I honestly came to the challenge and expected to read a few fun stories, sword and sorcery types. Instead, I read Dunsany and everything I thought I knew about fantasy was demolished. I’ve spent the last two weeks devouring his work and won’t stop until I’m done with everything I can find. Reading modern fantasy without going back to Dunsany is like eating just a bit of frosting and some sprinkles instead of the whole magnificent piece of cake.
Pardon me for saying it, but… hey y’all, I told you so!
You thought I was off my rocker. You thought I’d gone off the deep end. You thought I was unhinged. Mentally disturbed. Deranged even. Too bad for you, I wasn’t!
So let’s talk about this. Why would it be fair to argue that Tolkien was in fact derivative? You’ve got to admit… there’s a lot more challenge to arguing that than the usual line you get about the sad, sad man that was heroically fighting a rearguard action to preserve all that was good and right and true as the captains of civilization’s remnants steeled themselves to commit to a truly titanic self-destruct sequence.
Oh, but that stings, doesn’t it? Face it. You don’t even want to entertain the thought. Well hey, cut the feigned outrage routine and think for a moment. Consider this thought from one of Tolkien’s pub mates:
Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.
What is it then that Tolkien shared with, say, Frank Herbert that would have united him against the era in which Lord Dunsany hailed from?
There is a profound break there. You see something similar in the gap between Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Not that Leiber wasn’t a supremely talented writer that has a well deserved place in the fantasy and science canon. Not that I can’t recommend that you read and enjoy his work. But something vital fell through the cracks in a matter of a couple of decades– to the point where people that think they are heavy into sword and sorcery are going to be stunned when they finally have a first hand encounter with the man that laid the groundwork that established the conventions of that genre in the first place.
The gap between Tolkien and Dunsany is very much like that. But it goes even deeper and is more astonishing. How even to begin to describe it? I would put it this way: Lord Dunsany wrote pure, undiluted fantasy. The Lord of the Rings in contrast follows along with the precepts of what would ultimately be termed speculative fiction.
And there is indeed a world of difference between the two.