Tolkien is derivative.
He was very much a man of his time. His work today is recognized as being inherently conservative and deeply Catholic. And yes, it is truly a masterpiece, one of the great works of the English language. But he also was a man of his times. He was thoroughly immersed in modernism. He was surrounded by snide progressive hecklers that chided him mercilessly. He went from being shell shocked in The Great War to watching the countryside be utterly consumed by “progress”.
I hate to say it, but this is not at all the proper context for someone to write the definitive fantasy story of all time. If you haven’t read the signature fantasy works that predate his influence, you won’t be able to imagine this being the case, but the man really did pull his punches. He tiptoed around themes and questions that deserved to be met head on. He truncated his creative palette for the same reason authors do today: he wanted to be taken seriously and he knew there would be consequences for not walking the line.
What’s the alternative, you ask? Well… if you want to see what a full-throated expression of what an unadulterated fantasy genre could be like without the taint of Modernity and despair, then look no further than Lord Dunsany.
My favorite story of his is “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean.” I will say nothing to spoil this one for you. Seriously, go read it. No commentary can do it justice. I can’t name a single story that can compete with this one in terms of its capacity to produce undiluted wonder. It is the very definition of fantastic. In comparison, every author after Dunsany might as well have hid their light under a bushel basket.
For people wanting a more explicit handling of the central problem that “real” Fantasy must necessarily address, see “The Kith of the Elf Folk”. If “half elfs” are just another fantasy race in your imaginary worlds, I have to say… you are brain damaged. This is a sort of dementia that is on par with vampires being divorced from Christian lore and concepts of damnation. The correct answer for what is going on with this are unimaginable to most people because Tolkien either toned down his answer or else was so careful in filing the serial numbers off of what he produced that people could enjoy his work without thinking deeply about the consequences of elves and men intermingling when the former are necessarily barred from heaven.
For a third Dunsany story that brings something different to the table than either of these, I recommend “The Journey of the King.” Now, many people have chided me saying that reading “Appendix N” is not sufficient for people to get a solid grounding in the roots of fantasy. Don’t read a pile of yellowed paperbacks and pulp magazines, they say, but go read the stuff that the Appendix N authors themselves used for inspiration. It sounds good. It sounds smart. And heck, I actually agree with it. But without a doubt the one book that casts by far the longest shadow over the fantasy genre is going to be The King James Bible. This story shows why. If you want to tackle life’s toughest questions, if you want to create something that sounds authentic, like it may have really happened in the ancient world… if you want to be fluent in the patterns of language that create a palpable sense of portentousness and wisdom, if you want to tap in to that part of the human psyche that still had this very real concern that we’ve done something to offend a primal and jealous force… then read that book!
Or at the very least, go read Lord Dunsany and see how his immersion in that particular volume gave him a power and a command of the language that no creator since his time has enjoyed.