I had this post dated since last year to coincide with Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. My intent was to explore people’s love for Tolkien and his work, which includes The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, because my job as a writer is to figure out why people enjoy certain stories. Tolkien stands out more than any writer I can think of, having inspired imitators like no other. While people adore Harry Potter, outside of Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, there are far fewer boy wizards gracing book covers than elves or dragons. I do not wish to besmirch anyone of my profession, but a particularly successful and prolific author, who I will simply call not-Tolkien, penned a novel about a human, a dwarf, an elf, and a halfling (a small beardless dwarf), embarking on a quest to find the lost home of the dwarves, a mine abandoned after a dragon moved in. If that’s not plagiarism, I don’t know what is! And yet, agents and editors continue to give the Tolkien wannabes freedom to Xerox. Tolkien’s greatness so overshadows the genre, publishers seem to be falling over themselves in a rush to make more of it. My question, ultimately, is why? In 2012, I looked to find an answer, and gave up.
On strictly literary terms, The Hobbit is unremarkable. While charmingly written, it’s no Shakespeare. The plot is intentionally simplistic, being intended for children. There is no symbolism in it, nor grand literary themes, and even the characters are fairly one-dimensional, with the exception of Bilbo Baggins. In the nine-hour documentary accompanying The Hobbit Blu-Ray, Peter Jackson admits the greatest challenge to making the film was giving the twelve dwarves distinct personalities. But wasn’t that Tolkien’s job? How can there be so much love for a book when twelve of its main characters are all clones of one another? Even Snow White’s seven dwarfs were all unique for Middle Earth’s sake!
Some people say Tolkien can be excused of his shortcomings. He did it first, after all. But the fantasy genre dates back millennia, to Homer’s Odyssey, and continued through the middle ages with the Arabian Nights, the Viking and Finnish eddas, and the Grimm’s Brothers. Shakespeare had a hand in it, as did Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote A Princess of Mars in 1912. Other fantasists who predate Tolkien include H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and Conan creator Robert Howard (1906-1936).
Tolkien is mostly credited for the obsessive detail he gave to his world. As an Old English professor at Oxford, he was in a unique position to create the languages for the races of Middle Earth, not to mention phonetics for the names and places compositing his world. To this day, fantasy writers feel it necessary to do the same, to make up dialects for their races despite knowing nothing about linguistics, and the genre has suffered as a result. Tolkien developed elf speech in a sincere effort to explore language, but when others copy him, it feels contrived. And if you’re going to write about elves at all, you had best do something original, otherwise, why shouldn’t I re-read The Lord of the Rings? Fantasy is supposed to free our imaginations, not limit us to Anglo-European mythology. After reading a good book, readers should feel transported, not thinking, “Oh, this author must have really liked Tolkien.”
This is not to say Tolkien’s influence on the genre is all bad. On the plus side, there is greater pressure among writers to think more deeply about their settings. While it is far from necessary to turn every novel into a pseudo-history, it’s a powerful thing when a fictional world is built upon a narrative foundation that predates it.
What sets The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings apart is that they do not feel invented. They fall under a category I like to call found stories. Like Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, The Lord of the Rings does not seem to have been invented so much as dug up from the ground, which is why it’s impossible to imitate the author and get the same results, because any imitation, by its very nature, loses that sense of discovery.
Watching Jackson’s The Hobbit, I could not help but feel inspired by the stirring music and sweeping landscapes. The story touches an integral part of our identity, bringing about what we have long forgotten but yearn to remember, a shared collective memory of swords and wizards and monsters, a mythical past that never was. Robert Holdstock, author of Mythago Wood, calls these hidden cultural memories mythagos. This isn’t magic I’m talking about, but paleo-psychology at work. People shown paintings of open landscapes feel a sense of comfort, because our ancestors felt more secure in places where they could spot predators. Goblins, orcs, and trolls are remarkably human, terrifying us because they conjure latent fears of our Neanderthal enemies. Wargs are nothing more than nightmarish versions of wolves. But despite the dangers, our species has always been nomadic. We’ve colonized every niche and corner of the globe. It is not in our natures to sit at home, reaping the rewards of money and progress, but to wander new frontiers, go searching for new challenges to overcome. In this twenty-first century, we have lost a great deal due to the fact that there are no more Middle Earths to discover. We feign contentment, like Bilbo Baggins at home, while yearning for Gandalf to come knocking, inviting us to adventure.