Okay, so originally my plan was going to be to talk about J.R.R. Tolkien’s works in some detail, but I don’t actually have any of the books with me, so this post will be a bit more meta than I’d expected. I hope I’m being coherent here, I’ve been sick all week and it’s hard to concentrate on the topic.
So, Tolkien. I’m sure even non-fantasy fans are at least somewhat familiar with the Lord of the Rings; if not the books, probably the movies. This isn’t high fantasy, it’s the high fantasy. There are Tolkien scholars. Yes, people get actual degrees in analyzing someone’s imaginary world. It’s not really the story that everyone’s interested in, which ends up boiling down to pretty standard hero’s journey material, and all those other things you expect to see in an epic (fyi, A Game of Thrones is also epic fantasy, although its tone is drastically different).
In creating Middle-earth, Tolkien borrowed quite a bit from humankind’s original fantasy– mythology, folklore and legend– and took much of the rest from his studies of linguistics and literature as a professor at Oxford University. The sheer scope of Middle-earth and the amount of material on it, its geography, its races, its language, and just about everything else is staggering. This is a man who was absolutely qualified to create an entire creation mythos, and invent an entire system of language for an imaginary race. The Silmarillion, which details the story of Middle-earth’s creation all the way up to the beginning of the Third Age, reads like a combination of a bible and a history book. It’s something I can enjoy separately from Lord of the Rings, and in some ways I prefer it.
See, I’m one of those weird fans who read the books first but actually prefers the movies, because the movies are trying to tell an entertaining story, and that’s ultimately what I’m most interested in. Sometimes I don’t really feel like getting told over and over that Hobbits = Englishmen = good; Sauron = devil = bad; the Ring = the devil’s temptation, etc. (I’m not making this up. This was very much an intentional allegory on Tolkien’s part.)
Also no one likes reading all those lists of people begating other people in the bible, and he uses that way too much in what’s supposedly an adventure story about saving the world.
Anyway, I’m not saying Tolkien was a bad writer because he was too heavy-handed, since his stories can be perfectly enjoyable and read on their own without all that analysis. He is, after all, responsible for pretty much all the fantasy material that I love, and thus his works have a special place in my heart (and my bookshelf).