Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Tolkien Really is Derivative

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.

18 responses to “Tolkien Really is Derivative

  1. malcolmthecynic September 1, 2018 at 1:41 pm

    Sorry Jeffro, but this is getting incomprehensible.

    Look, you keep saying over and over that fantasy before Tolkien and fantasy during his era and after was different. You’re right. Who here has even argued with you about that? The issue here is that it has nothing to do with your main argument.

    You use the term “derivative”. Derivative…of what? I thought the point here was that Tolkien created something NEW and different…you know, the whole idea here is that what Tolkien wrote was something totally different from what Dunsany wrote. That what Tolkien created dominated the genre from the 70’s onward.

    Consider that the inspiration Tolkien took was from Old English and Old Norse mythology and sagas, and he used it to create from scratch a new mythology that he intended to be a sort of modern British epic.

    This is literally the exact OPPOSITE of derivative!

    So fantasy was different before Tolkien. Yeah. *Everyone* here has agreed with that. And what does that have to do with any of your claims about Tolkien?

    They’re bizarre, and I genuinely don’t think you know what you’re talking about when it comes to Tolkien.

  2. malcolmthecynic September 1, 2018 at 1:49 pm

    Okay, here is how this looks to me.

    You say “Tolkien truncated his creative palette!”

    We ask “How did he do that?” You give the example that he cut out religion from his stories, except you don’t give any evidence that he did it for any reason behind his own personal idea of what his story should be like. We point that out. You ignore it. We point out that religion was being used plenty in the stories published at the time and Tolkien didn’t have any reason to cut it out except he thought it would fit more the story he was trying to tell you ignore this.

    You claim Tolkien was subversive. We ask how. You make a wildly inaccurate comment about how he fought people with a broken sword. We point out this is ridiculous. You ignore this.

    Then you claim Tolkien was derivative. We adk how. You say it was because fantasy was different before Tolkien. We point out that this has nothing to do with Tolkien being derivative. You ignore this.

    Don’t be the Damon Knight of Tolkien to push your genre politics. There is no one or the other here.

    • jeffro September 1, 2018 at 2:23 pm

      I’m trying to point something out here. Yep. I am retiring the portions that don’t give me traction. And I’m also attempting to better articulate the points I have that do have some substance.

      Thanks for helping me think through what I really ought to say.

  3. H.P. September 1, 2018 at 2:01 pm

    Of course Tolkien is derivative. All fantasy is derivative, as Tolkien would be the first to admit (and, indeed, he did, in On Fairy Stories). This means Lord Dunsany was derivative as well. As Tolkien could tell you, because he read the writers who inspired Dunsany.

  4. Anon September 1, 2018 at 5:07 pm

    I’ve been holding off on commenting here, but I’m going to have to agree that your writing as of late is getting incomprehensible. I have no idea what argument you are trying make here. I’ve read the post multiple times, and I’m getting nothing.

    I don’t know why you abandoned the clear almost scholarly style of your book, for this… weird role play of an angry old man ranting, over and over for people to get off of his lawn. The title says that this post is about Tolkien being derivative, but I’m not finding anything that makes this argument anywhere in the body.

    I know you have said here in the comments you are trying to make a point, and I can’t tell you for the life of me what that point is. This reads more like a stream of consciousness that leaps around, without settling on anything. Each statement thrown out with the challenging attitude of ‘I’m right, you are wrong.’ And I have no idea what you are ‘right’ about. You don’t back up any of your assertions, and the quotes you provide don’t seem to have anything to do without you are saying.

    Are you saying that Tolkien is ripping of the past? Subverting it? That pulling from the past is bad? And then linking to a previous post about pulling from the past is good? That Tolkien is a hack? I have no idea. I find it hard to be believe that Tolkien was pulling an Alan Moore on fantasy, when he’s written so passionately about fantasy works that came before him, and tended to have a Romantic point of view, and maybe that wasn’t your point at all, and I’m misinterpreting it.I just can’t work it out, maybe i’m too short bus for this blog.

    What makes this all the more frustrating is that I know you can critique clearly. I have your book. So this change just doesn’t make sense to me. What good is all this passionate rhetoric if no one can work out what you are passionate about? I’m not trying to troll or insult, I’m legitimately confused here.

    • jeffro September 1, 2018 at 8:05 pm

      Tolkien– far more than his apologists want to admit– laid the foundations of a modernist or naturalistic approach to fantasy in Lord of the Rings. John W. Campbell tried to do something very similar with Unknown magazine around the same time. I think Tolkien was orders of magnitude more successful at it. Notably, the fantasy audience in his life time was mostly not ready for what he was doing– witnessed in, among other things, Gary Gygax’s struggling with Tolkien’s works and people using Lovecraft, Howard, Dunsany, and Burroughs as templates much more often before Tolkien took over that position within the field.

      Another way to put it: Tolkien wrote “Hard Fantasy” in a similar way that Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 is “Hard Science Fiction”.

      One reason that this is so hard to discuss is that Tolkien right now defines fantasy for most people. This just is not going to compute for them. For the same reason, this is why reading Dunsany is so mind blowing for so many people.

      • malcolmthecynic September 1, 2018 at 11:05 pm

        Tolkien– far more than his apologists want to admit– laid the foundations of a modernist or naturalistic approach to fantasy in Lord of the Rings.

        Not for nothing, but I don’t think this is true.I know what you’re going to say in response – “You see! People JUST CAN’T SEE IT!” – but I don’t mean that in the way you probably think.

        And the responses here attest to this.

        Every person I have talked to about Tolkien who is at all knowledgeable agree wholeheartedly that the folks who tried to redefine fantasy to mean “Tolkien-like” badly damaged the genre. Every single person who has commented here has agreed wholeheartedly that pre-Tolkienian fantasy is different and alien to post-Tolkienian fantasy.

        The issue here is with comments like “Tolkien is derivative” (even though you admit he’s the first to do this) and “Tolkien truncated his creative palette” (even though we have no evidence he did any such thing).

        You can prefer pre-Tolkienian fantasy if you like. You can dislike how too many people copied Tolkien if you’d like. But one thing you cannot do, at least not honestly or at least accurately, is claim that Tolkien didn’t make exactly what he wanted to make exactly the way he wanted to make it.

      • malcolmthecynic September 1, 2018 at 11:15 pm

        As far as pushing back against the forces of a civilization quickly spiraling into suicide – that is exactly what he did, by going back to the literature of civilizations long dead and superverting it, Christiainizing the pagan stories of old to create a new national epic for Britain. Heck, he was a monarchist in a world of democracies!

        Tolkien regressed so hard he regressed to myths and legends other people had barely looked at by the time he swiped them.

      • RandyJJ September 3, 2018 at 2:26 pm

        The Lord of the Rings is set in a world where “fantasy” is literally dying out. One of the big themes of his work is the loss of such things. Bear that in mind when you are criticizing Tolkien for losing aspects of fantasy.

        That everyone since then completely missed the point is no fault of his.

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  6. xy3001 September 3, 2018 at 9:07 am

    I have to ask, what do you think the word derivative means? I ask because there’s not a single word about Tolkien being derivative in this post, except for the title.

    It’s all about how Tolkien is different from fantasy writers that came before him. Being different is different from being derivative. In fact it’s virtually the exact opposite of derivative. So it would make sense to say that The Sword of Shannara is derivative of Lord of the Rings because of how similar it is to it.

    But it doesn’t make sense to say that Lord of the Rings is derivative of The King of Elfland’s Daughter because of how different it is from it. So, are you trying to say Tolkien derived from Dunsany, or that he’s different from Dunsany?

    • jeffro September 3, 2018 at 9:54 am

      There’s less depth and range to sword & sorcery than there is to Robert E. Howard’s Conan. That’s why I would say sword & sorcery is derivative. Same with “Lovecraftian” writing to H. P. Lovecraft. Or “Tolkienesque” writing to Tolkien.

      My claim is that moving from Dunsany to Tolkien, you see that exact same trend. There is a light that is being dimmed or shuttered as you move from Dunsany to Tolkien to Leiber to… eh… George R, R. Martin.

      If derivative is the wrong word to use to describe that dimming, I will find a different one or a different way to frame it that accomplishes what I want.

      • xy3001 September 3, 2018 at 10:56 am

        I love Tolkien, but I think many those who have followed his path lack something his work had. For lack of a better description I think many Tolkien imitators’ work lack soul.

  7. Robert Eaglestone September 12, 2018 at 10:11 am

    You’ve influenced me into re-reading Lord of the Rings. So far, so good.

  8. somercet November 12, 2018 at 1:37 pm

    I think I know what you mean about Tolkien: Dunsany wrote fairy tales, while Tolkien recast a “fairy epic” in the form of a modernist novel, a la Victor Hugo (“Les Misérables”) or Tolstoy. Writers like Tolstoy and Hugo wrote big novels to try and explain things (Enlightenment) while also showing how people perceive and react to those same things (Romanticism). See Irving Berlin’s “The Fox and the Hedgehog” for Berlin’s attempt to explain what Tolstoy was trying to explain in “War and Peace.”

    LotR is only different from most modernist novels because JRRT wasn’t trying to portray poverty or social reform, or trying to explain how history is really made. JRRT was trying to illuminate the (fictional) past, not the present. He was trying to update the sketchy characterization and nigh-inexplicable plots found in all truly old stories with fleshed out characters and motivations. LotR is still a fantasy work, yes, but like Bruce the Shark, JRRT wisely kept most of the fantasy and magic in the distant past or off the page.

    • somercet November 12, 2018 at 1:52 pm

      I forgot to add: Tolkien used a modern lens to view the past, as that past would have seen itself. His “successors” try to push modern dystopias, or post-modern critical theory, into the past. One approach is artistically honest, the other not.

      By all means, put a peasant-squeezing Prince John in your novel, and a Wat Tyler too, but write about them like princes and peasants, not “woke” sociologists.

      • jeffro November 12, 2018 at 2:07 pm

        My favorite part of The Lord of the Rings is when the hobbits return to the Shire and run out the socialists that had taken up residence there during their absence.

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