Nov 20 2009 5:57pm
LotR re-read open thread: responses in fiction

Offline life is busy enough, with few enough prospects for things letting up any time soon, that I am finally forced to admit it’s time for an open thread. So let’s go a little further afield this time, and talk about favorite (or otherwise interesting) responses to The Lord of the Rings in fiction.

Of course in a broad sense the very existence of fantasy as a publishing genre is a consequence of the success of The Lord of the Rings. And I’ve heard more than one writer say that all English-language fantasy has to, in some fashion, come to grips with Tolkien’s influence on the field. But I think it would be more interesting to talk specifically, about books or authors (though those of you who do write fantasy, I would be curious to hear your thoughts.)

Three things jump to my mind when I think of fiction that’s a clear response to LotR. First, the anthology After the King, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, which is subtitled “Stories in Honor of J.R.R. Tolkien.” I last read it almost seven years ago, and I’m taking it with me on this business trip to see what I think of it now. For instance, I would be pretty surprised if I didn’t still love my favorite of the anthology, Emma Bull’s fairy tale “Silver or Gold,” but I will make a conscious effort to look at it (and other stories) in relation to Tolkien, not just as a story. My memory of it doesn’t supply any obvious immediate connection.

Second, Guy Gavriel Kay’s first published novels, the Fionavar Tapestry. Kay assisted Christopher Tolkien with editing The Silmarillion, and I have always thought of Fionavar as his getting The Silmarillion out of his system [*], though large and important chunks of it also seem to be responses to LotR specifically—the women, the role of choice at crucial moments, probably more that don’t come to mind because I haven’t read it for a while.

[*] See also Sharon Shinn’s The Shape-Changer’s Wife, which feels to me like her getting The Last Unicorn out of her system but even even more so. There are probably additional examples to be found.

(Apropos of nothing but their awesomeness, check out the posters of the first-edition covers of the Fionavar Tapestry. I own The Darkest Road and the picture doesn’t do it justice.)

Finally, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. This comes to mind because the most recent, Unseen Academicals (which I haven’t had time to review yet; see our own Arachne Jericho’s review), has a thread in fairly close dialogue with LotR . . . in a way that’s not made explicit until 2/3 of the way through, so I leave it at that. But more generally Discworld’s roots as a parody of secondary-world fantasy tropes, and its later extrapolating those tropes into concrete worldbuilding, owe a fair amount to LotR. There’s Carrot the lost heir with the extremely non-magical but very sharp sword, female dwarves with beards (since non-dwarves can’t tell female and male dwarves apart), dragons, and a whole lot of stuff in The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic that I barely remember.

Fionavar and Discworld are very different, to say the least: Fionavar is swimming in seriously mythic waters, while Discworld is much more interested in the day-to-day. But they’re both part of a conversation with Tolkien’s works, saying “this bit, fabulous; but what about this bit, if we look at it another way?” And as such, they help me think about Tolkien’s works, which is a nice bonus on top of their being good stories in their own right.

What fiction responses to Tolkien do you particularly like or did you find particularly useful?

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Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at her LiveJournal and booklog.

Wesley Parish
1. Aladdin_Sane
There's a lot of fiction that's clearly started out as "fan-fic" of some sort or other. Some of it hasn't got any further than that, and some of it shows very little sign of intelligent life - in one of the Shannara series, the Druid starts channelling Terry Brooks' law prof, and it makes for eerie reading.

In many ways, Tolkien is like HG Wells. Anyone who wants to write fiction in that particular genre, has to deal with them. You find yourself digging through the various aspects of the published oeuvre, finding various imperfections here and there, and deciding to "do it better".

My own Lakhabrech stories
are partially in response to Tolkien, partially in response to Herbert. I never got used to the two facts that Tolkien had at one stage linked the orcs and the Druedain on one hand, and on the other hand, had provided a very thin and weak justification for them. So I set up my own answer to those sorts of problems, a subset of humanity that had been genetically modified and engineered as full-spectrum predators/scavengers - taking a dedicatory bow to the gods and goddesses of the story of Utnapishtim in the Gilgamesh Epic - to control the non-GE/Med humans' population explosion, but who had had a significant subset of them set themselves up as a free people - which then interbred in various circumstances, with the non-GE/Med humans ....

You either get used to Tolkien and never break free, or you take what you want and/or need, and change what you think needed to be changed ... it's much the same with other authors who have written genre-setters.
2. pilgrimsoul
I get tired of people trying to do Tolkienesque things better than Tolkien. Maybe it can be done. It hasn't been done so far.
3. Marc Rikmenspoel
I like Chris Evans' take on fantasy. He has been said to have crossed Tolkien and Bernard Cornwell. That is because his Iron Elves series includes elves, dwarves,and magic, yet is set in an environment reminiscent of Napoleonic-era Britain. There's an empire with outposts in the equivalent of India and Egypt, and the soldiers march in regiments, while shouldering muskets and wearing shakos.

As an aside, note how common "elves" and "dwarves" have become as spellings, including in Evans' work. The spell checker as I type this is underlining "dwarves" in red, since proper English is "dwarfs," yet the latter looks strange in fantasy fiction.

I took more influence from The Silmarillion than from LotR. I have a head full of stories that lead up to final defeat and tragedy. Like Evans, I'm a historian (look me up and you'll find my published studies of World War 2 history), and since childhood I've been fascinated by the French and Indian Wars in north America. So, since around 1983, I've been imagining elves as Native Americans, cooperating with human ranger friends in a forest setting, somewhat like, say, Natty "Hawkeye" Bumpo and his comrades Chingachgook and Uncas in The Last of the Mohicans. Or maybe if Faramir and elves of Lorien joined forces. We'll see if any of this ever makes it into print, but if it does, you heard about it first here ;-)
4. AndrDrew
I loved that After the King anthology (as I recall the font on the cover left some ambiguity about whether that was a capital K or R).

Tolkiens impact on Fantasy setting is huge, not just in books, but in games as well. Every game (more so even than books) with elves and dwarves and whatnot has to decide, at some point "whether or not this is going to be like Tolkien". Are these elves tall, immortal, posessed of magic, grace etc. How well do these dwarves match up to the ones that delved too deep? And of course the Dwarf/Dwarves thing is almost a given in favour of Dwarves. Explicity rejecting the "LoTR version" still is an influence, it has to be done clearly, ambiguities have to be cleared up, because often folks are going to assume the "LoTR version" otherwise. It's a default setting, maybe because it's a mostly (I repeat: mostly!) consistent safe set of assumptions you can assume your readers are familiar with. Maybe that's lazy, but maybe it's just a kind of shorthand to avoid crazy infodumps necessary to make a whole different world from scratch. Tolkien: did the crazy-long descriptive passages of fantasy settings, so you didn't have to.

Speaking of defaults: rings. Rings are like some default Macguffin/Talisman, and I can't think where else that could have come from. Them and swords, but swords had more precedent for questiness, I think.
Liza .
5. aedifica
Marc @ 3: Have you thought about the fact that "elves as Native Americans" implies "Native Americans are nonhumans"?
Andrew Mason
6. AnotherAndrew
Mark Rikmenspoel: Tolkien is certainly responsible for making 'dwarves' generally accepted, but I think it has always been 'elves'. However, I believe he did popularise 'elven' in preference to 'elfin'.

As for responses to Tolkien; I'd like to suggest The Gammage Cup, alias The Minipins by Carol Kendall. This isn't what one normally thinks of as Tolkienesque fantasy; it doesn't have elves or dwarves or dragons or lost kings or whatever. What it has is hobbits. That is, it has small people (I'm not sure how we know, as they never meet full-sized humans, but I get that sense), living a secluded country, leading very dull and normal lives, except for a few eccentrics (clearly Took descendants). And the founder of their nation is called Gammage, obviously a hobbit name.
7. JoeNotCharles
I've always felt that M.A.R. Barker's Tékumel was a reaction to the Lord of the Rings, although I don't really know if he was directly inspired by it. According to wikipedia, he begun developing the world of Tékumel in the 1940's so I don't see how it could not have been.

Apart from the similar format of the authors' names, the two projects have very similar origins: labours of love by two linguistics professors, creating a detailed society in which to set their constructed languages, and only later publishing fiction based there. The difference is that Barker's world is based on Eastern and not Western influences.

Actually, the wikipedia page on Barker himself says that the project was "well-advanced by the time The Lord of the Rings was released". I can't find any interviews or anything by Barker discussing Tolkien, unfortunately.
8. EmmaPease
Rings have been around before. Most notably King Solomon's Ring which commanded jinn and the ring of the Nibelungs.

My own first experience in fantasy with a magical ring was The Bird Talisman by H.A. Wedgwood and illustrated by Gwen Raverat. The talisman, a ring, gave the power to understand and command birds. The tale was written in the mid-1800s and passed around the family but not illustrated by his great great niece and published until the 1930s.
Dan Layman-Kennedy
9. maestro23
My very favorite Tolkienian fantasy that isn't actually very much like Tolkien is Patricia McKillip's Riddle-Master, which reads a whole lot like LoTR traced back to its folkloric roots and then taken down a divergent path. So in looking at the Celtic and Norse source material for Middle-Earth, McKillip builds a different world out of many of the same components: out of fairy legends we get not elves but the capricious, sinister shape-changers; out of Odin we get not Gandalf but Har the wolf-king and the mysterious High One; and so on. And it's full of the same sense of the numinous, of a land infused with old magic and enchantment and hidden lore, but with a different tone and conveyed in a different sort of poetic language. A gorgeous book that obviously owes a deep debt to Tolkien, and couldn't have existed before him, but doesn't attempt to tell the same story in the same trappings with only the names changed.
10. debraji
aedifica@5, of course I can't speak for Marc@3, but in LOTR, elves and dwarves and men are really just different peoples. Tolkien clearly saw elves as people with a great love of nature and deep artistic skills, so I doubt any offense was intended.
11. Marc Rikmenspoel
I actually see Native Americans and Elves as being closer to nature than most others in their world. That's where the notion to consider them in similar terms comes from. Certain rangers, in fantasy and in reality, can become very similar to the elves or Indians, but that really serves to show how different they are from the rest of their own society.

And yes, I was actually thinking of "elven" versus "elfin," thanks for correcting that for me.
Michael Grosberg
12. Michael_GR
Marc@3, If you're going to set the native american - french wars in fantasy terms, I would say the french are in this case the invaders, the "other", so they should be the elves. Being elves, they are paler than normal humans, and they have better magic (=technology, in real world terms).
13. DBratman
Some of the stories in After the King were very good, but none of it felt very Tolkienesque, i.e. having a spirit and ethos inspired by Tolkien - those few stories obviously imitating Tolkien the least of all. Overall it gave more an impression of "These are some contributions to the field he founded."

What did feel Tolkienesque to me was about half the stories in Tales Before Tolkien ed. Douglas A. Anderson. As the title implies, these stories predate his work, so if anything they influenced him rather than vice versa. But some of the authors are doing their own thing in a Tolkienesque spirit, including (perhaps surprisingly) John Buchan.
Clifton Royston
14. CliftonR
I think Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is an intentional response to LotR in two major ways:

First, the relation between elves and humans in the former is entirely opposite and modeled more on traditional views of the Fae in folk tales and ballads, as heartless, ruthless, capricious, and generally hostile to humans. Given that culture or personality, put humans in the role of invading their lands, and you get a very different relationship than you do in Middle Earth - unremitting hatred and search for revenge.

Second, the role of prophecy on the people caught up in it. I wouldn't want to spoil the books for other readers, so I'll be a little vague, but they do ask a question seldom asked in genre fantasy: here everyone is, the last hope of the good guys, and they're structuring all their hopes and their whole lives around a few couplets of ancient song - and how on Earth can they be so confident they've got it right?

Part of the Greek cautionary tales of prophecy is that people were always misinterpreting it. "You shall destroy a great empire." turned out to mean the king's own. That doesn't happen much in fantasy.

How would LotR have turned out if (say) "The Crownless again shall be King!" had been just wrong? Or if it had indeed been correct, but meant something entirely different than they had thought? (Say, Frodo's decision to elevate himself to Overlord with the aid of the Ring.)
15. DemetriosX
Another obvious response to Tolkien would be David Eddings' Belgariad, which was originally conceived as a means of looking at world building and prophecy.

I tend to have a rather negative reaction to most of the post-LotR responses that I can think of. Prior to LotR adult fantasy was a highly varied field, covering everything from high fantasy to fable to a sort of urban fantasy. All that was wiped away in the 70s, leaving only Tolkienesque high fantasy. At least one fantasy author told me outright sometime in the mid-80s that Del Rey (meaning here very much Lester and Judy-Lynn) would not accept any other sort of fantasy and, at the time, they were the only game in town. There was a slight shift about that time, with some authors taking a somewhat different take on things, but it was really still quest-based high fantasy. Urban fantasy eventually established itself and we now have dark fantasy, retold fairy tales, and whatnot, but the real wealth of variety that existed in the first half of the 20th century is still missing.
Michael Ikeda
16. mikeda

The "Crownless again shall be king" line isn't a prophecy. It's just a line from a poem that Bilbo wrote after meeting Aragorn.

There ARE some genuine prophecies in LoTR. A key one is the "not by the hand of man will he fall" bit about the Lord of the Nazgul. Which is a classic misleading prophecy as the Nazgul Lord falls at the hands of a woman and a hobbit.

There's also Malbeth the Seer's verse about the Paths of the Dead. However, Aragorn isn't relying on the prophecy in itself, he's relying on Elrond's advice to remember the prophecy (the implications of which reinforce Galadriel's earlier advice).
Andrew Mason
17. AnotherAndrew
Mikeda: there's also the 'sword that was broken' poem.

Rings; another example is Gyges' ring in Plato's Republic - this even had the same effect as Sauron's ring, invisibility, though you had to turn it, rather than just put it on.
18. Trebuken
Dennis L. McKiernan. I used to hate his work becasue I felt it was little more then plagiarism -- being so similar to LOTR. Yet I enjoyed almost everything about Mithgar and became very forgiving, espeacially after 'Dragondoom'.

We should also consider that Tolkien himself was writing as a response. I have read that Tolkien was - in a sense - creating a mythology for Great Britain. He borrowed heavily from mythology in creating Middlearth.

Tolkien is a transitional point in fantasy, not a starting point.
Sam Kelly
19. Eithin
Juliet E. McKenna has an interesting take on elves and dwarves in her Einarinn books; she presents them as particular phenotypes rather than species, fully capable of interbreeding and treated as somewhat dodgy foreigners rather than mystic alien creatures.

The terms "elf" and "dwarf" are never used, but Forest Folk live in camps and tend towards sharp features, thin bones, and red hair; Mountain Men live in stone fastnesses and tend towards short, heavy-set frames and blonde hair.

This is pretty historically accurate - it's how most of the Matter of Britain works, with the slow intermingling of communities as legend fades into everyday fact.
Andrew Foss
20. alfoss1540
I look at Tolkien-influenced Fiction very much like Lovecraft-influenced Horror - only Lovecraft explicitly encouraged it of all his followers are friends. And looking at the Watcher outside of Moria, it is likely that Tolkien even was influenced as well.

It is not always fair in that Tolkien created the setting for fantasy. Others worked in it prior to him, but he perfected the genre - and gave it its own section at Barnes and Noble. So it is natural that others will follow in his footsteps. So as an influencer of modern fiction, he is up there with the biggees.

He brought a fictional legacy to the world.

Thanks JRR
Kate Nepveu
21. katenepveu
Hi, all.

Aladdin_Sane @ #1, and yet the second Shannara book, _Elfstones_, is generally thought to be pretty good--I certainly remember it as the best of the lot.

I also don't think there's anything wrong with fanfic and that quality & fanfic origins are different axes, but that is probably an argument for another time.

pilgrimsoul @ #2, but what you do you define Tolkienesque as?

Marc Rikmenspool @ #3, I'd never come across Chris Evans before, so thanks for the mention.

As a historian, I imagine you're aware of the pitfalls of fictional portrayals of American Indians, so best of luck with your stories.

AndrDrew @ #4, I know that Roguelikes have Tolkien influences (my Roguelike of choice, NetHack, has a Ranger class, for instance, besides Elves & Dwarves as races), which I think comes from D&D, yeah? Otherwise I'm pretty ignorant of games. But you're absolutely right about setting defaults, and that (plus Shakespeare) is I think one of the things Pratchett was writing against in _Lords and Ladies_, the Discworld book about nasty cruel ballad-style elves.

AnotherAndrew @ #6, also Carol Kendall is also a writer I'm not familiar with. But yes, Gammage is very very suggestive in context . . .

JoeNotCharles @ #7, if Barker's Tekumel wasn't influenced at all by _LotR_, that's some pretty bad luck on the timing . . . =>

maestro23 @ #9, yes, when I read _Riddle-master_ I definitely got the impression it was saying _something_ about Tolkien, but unfortunately I didn't understand it so I don't know what. I keep meaning to re-read it now that my favorite of McKillip's books, _The Forgotten Beasts of Eld_, has proven less good than I remembered. But that's an excellent example and well-regarded in the field.

CliftonR @ #14, I somehow managed to get out of my epic fantasy phase without reading Tad Williams. But there have certainly been interesting things done with prophecies in more recent fantasies--a trilogy I read in which the destined savior is killed at birth, that kind of thing (though I think that _LotR_ relies much less on prophecy than other works).

DemetriosX @ #15, and the Belgariad would be one of those works that relies on prophecy much more.

And mmm, I don't know about the lack of variety, but maybe this is a function of what I read because I _don't_ really read much high fantasy. What kinds of strands do you see in pre-Tolkien fantasy that we don't have now?

Trebuken @ #18, yes, Tolkien was working within a great deal of existing mythology, but I was talking about his influence on commercial publishing.

Eithin @ #19, that treatment of quasi-elves and quasi-dwarves is also a small part of Sarah Monette's final Doctrine of Labryinths book, _Corambis_. Which is also about the arrival of technology and how it interacts with magic.
22. Chris Willrich
I haven't read it, but John Bellairs wrote that his _The Face in the Frost_ was a response to Tolkien, or at least to Gandalf. He was taken by the idea of a wizard who seemed in many ways like an ordinary human. "So I gave Prospero, my wizard, most of my phobias and crotchets." (Quote from the Wikipedia article on Bellairs.) I wonder how much Rincewind, Harry Potter, and so many other quite human wizards owe to Gandalf as well. On the other hand, every portrayal of Meriln I've seen has emphasized his humanity (remember Nimue?) so maybe Gandalf's just one step along the path.
23. TheMarchChase
Chris Willrich @ 22
Another Gandalf/Merlin guide is Merriman Lyon from Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising Sequence. Obviously, Merlin more so than Gandalf, as it s fairly obvious that Merriman is Merlin.

One of my favorite reactions to Tolkien is Pat Murphy's "There and Back Again." It is a re-telling of "The Hobbit" as science fiction, and works very well.
24. DemetriosX
Kate @21: Not counting those who were primarily horror writers (M.R.James, LeFanu, etc.), I would say that the major pre-LotR adult fantasists are Dunsany, Cabell, and Peake (and when I started to write this sentence there was a fourth, but he has been driven out of my head already by a nasty cold). Of those, none has a true successor today. Peake seems to have had some influence on China Mieville and a small part of Dunsany's work has influence today filtered through Lovecraft's Dreamlands. Nobody really does anything like Cabell, although he has many who claim to be inspired by his work.

Two other fantasists that deserve mention would be M. John Harrison and his Viriconium cycle (another major influence on Mieville, I would say) and Fritz Leiber. Leiber is best known for Fafhrd and the Mouser, who were pastiches/parodies of heroic fantasy, but he wrote a number of other varieties that really stood alone and just aren't seen anymore. At most, there is a Leiber thread running through the dark and gritty fantasies of today.

And that is what I think is missing. Virtually all of the non-high fantasies we see to day have a strong dark and/or gritty element to them, even the various fairy tale retellings. Mind you, I like quite a lot of this stuff. But there was also a lighter vein that we no longer see. No fabulists like Dunsany, no rollicking storytellers like Cabell. Those threads appear to have been pruned from the genre.
jon meltzer
25. jmeltzer
#24: I suspect you were thinking of Eddison. Have a tissue ...
26. Violette Reid
When a iconic writers like JRRT emerge, it is difficult for others not to be influenced. I think all writers imitate others writers they admire in some kind of way. The problem comes when there is absolutely no originality. Violette L. Reid, author of "The First Chronicle of Zayashariya: Out of Night" and "Violette Ardor: A Volume of Poetry."
27. pilgrimsoul
@Kate #21
Great Question, but it is easier to say what it is not. I am middle aged and remember so many attempts "to do it better" than JRRT. A lot of writers seem to have said to themselves: "JRRT can't create real characters. They aren't alienated and don't think about sex all the time. So what I'll do is write a similar story where these flaws are fixed. And then fantasy will be REAL!" So we get a lot of watered down Medieval or Celtic with TONS of alienation. Boring.
Actually I like recently published fantasy better as the writers have created their own worlds rather than impose their worldviews on Middle Earth.
28. Ben Adaephon Delat
I've always like 'Nine Threads of Gold' which was a short story by Andre Norton in 'After the King' -- it's been years, but it seemed like good set up, even if I could never find any follow-up stories.
29. pilgrimsoul
@Kate #21
Ok. Tolkienesque. Let's try this on--an unashamed and unapologetic preference for good over evil, magnanimity over selfishness, and beauty over ughliness--while acknowledging the other qualities exist more in sorrow than in anger.
Other writers appear to be embarrassed by nobility and so dilute it with cynicism. JRRT did not.
I hope this makes sense.
Soon Lee
30. SoonLee
I was put off Guy Gavriel Kay by the Fionavar Tapestry as it felt too much like him channeling Tolkien. I haven't gone back to him though I understand his later stuff is very different. The Pratchett Discworld books are so very clearly a parody (at least in the earlier books), coming as they do after the flood of Tolkien imitators that I never felt that Pratchett was ripping off Tolkien.

For me, it's the formulaic derivations of LotR (whether intentional or not) that bore me. But books like Mary Gentle's "Grunts" (elves vs orcs but told from the orcs' PoV) or Glen Cook's The Black Company books (about a company of mercenaries who are pragmatic rather than noble, where good and evil are not absolutes), are responses to LotR with something new to add to the ongoing conversation.

I'm in general agreement with the idea that works like LotR (in fantasy) & Dracula (in horror) are such major works that they cast a very long shadow on all that come after, and writers (and readers) have to make that accommodation.
31. DemetriosX
jmeltzer @25, YES! E.R. Eddison is exactly who I was thinking of. We probably see his influence filtered through Harrison in Mieville, the Ambergris books, and so on, where the city is as much a character as any other figure in the book.

But it's all so dark. SoonLee @30 mentioned Glen Cook. His Black Company stories are also very dark, but I don't see his stuff so much as a reaction to LotR (at least not directly) but somehow connected to fantasy RPGs. His Garrett PI stories have a lot of humor (though still often dark), but there he's really channeling Hammett and Chandler.
jon meltzer
32. jmeltzer
Is there any evidence that Tolkien was aware of Cabell? He knew Dunsany's work well enough to quote from it in letters, and he had met and acknowledged Eddison as a peer (though criticizing his work).
33. DemetriosX
jmeltzer @32, I don't know if Tolkien was aware of Cabell, but he almost certainly would not have approved of his work. Indeed, the two men held rather diametrically opposed ethoses (ethoi?).

The more I have thought about these other branches of fantasy, the more I see that they haven't necessarily died out. It is much more that they have lost market share and newer authors are hard to find. There were an incredible number of authors working in a wide variety of fantasy sub-genres in the mid-twentieth century. Today, non-quest-based high fantasy is hard to find and I can't think of many authors who work in that area (Gaiman, Mieville, one or two others, but only Gaiman gets much recognition).
jon meltzer
34. jmeltzer
Well, there is George R. R. Martin- four books so far of a nasty, bloody succession war with no real "good guys" in the Tolkienian sense.
Clay Blankenship
35. snoweel
#14: I heard a Tad Williams talk about MST. He said it was his "conversation with Tolkien." I remember he addressed the idea in Tolkien that things were dwindling or declining (e.g. the magical power of the Elves).

An interesting example is Jacqueline Carey's The Sundering (I have only read Vol. 1, Banewreaker), which is mostly from the POV of the chief lieutenants of a Dark Lord very much like Sauron, (He rebelled against his fellow Valar or whatever they are called here.) only this time the Good vs. Evil line is not so clear cut.

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Robert Jordan. I believe he said he intentionally put some LotR-like touches in The Eye of the World. The beginning came across as a bit derivative (young boy and friends leave backwater village on a quest, led by a wizard/Aes Sedai and a ranger, pursued by black-robed riders and spied on by crows) but it certainly diverged after that.
Eli Bishop
36. EliBishop
jmeltzer: GRRM has said he wasn't much interested in epic fantasy till he read Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn -- so, if Williams was writing in response to Tolkien (dunno, I haven't read that one yet) then you could call Martin's series a response once removed. It certainly works that way for me-- I don't think it's as simple as "no good guys," there are at least a half dozen characters (out of 20,000) who are pretty admirable, but it's definitely more multi-sided than two-sided. The Others(*) have been set up as a vaguely Sauronian ultimate threat, but they're not so much the source of evil, more like the big problem that creeps up on you while you're distracted by your own evil.

(* Who, come to think of it, kind of resemble Tolkien's elves, but snowy and evil. Wait a minute: elves from the North Pole... and a religion involving a red god, who manifests in the fireplace... and a magical beast killed by antlers... folks, I'm sorry if this is off topic but I think I've just established that A Song of Ice and Fire is about Santa Claus.)
37. Formerly Underhill
To jmeltzer @ 34: But there was a good guy - it's just that because of the grimness of the book he was stuck in he had to die early. And Jon Snow might still come out of this as mostly a good guy. I'm rooting for him, although I don't think it's really looking all that promising. A really tough bunch of books for any character hoping to both keep hold of honour and continue breathing. However, I think they are more morally nuanced than LOTR - where aside from a small amount of scripted wavering around "choice points" the characters are good, or bad. I love the gradual redemption that seems to be creeping over Martin's Jaime Lannister... maybe even he will achieve 'good guy' status in the end. But do any characters in LOTR start out bad and end up good? Does anybody thrash around in moral ambiguity? That kind of behaviour is just not "Tolkienesque."
Wesley Parish
38. Aladdin_Sane

Perhaps the question should now be asked: what did Tolkien set out to do better than much of the previous "fantasy" that he liked and/or despised? He didn't write in a vacuum.

As it happens, a major problem with the Tolkienesque fantasy writer these days is that they start from Tolkien, and ignore his sources. I can claim as a child to have been aware of stories about woodland spirits who might or might not have been friendly to mankind, quite independently of whatever people were writing about in fiction, and to have been warned: "Bai masalai i kaikaiim yu tasol!" - "The woodland spirit's going to eat you!":

The nearest to that experience we actually get in the "West" are the urban myths and conspiracy theories and tales about alien abductions ... and needless to say, people seem to take them seriously, instead of seeing them as myth for the taking and using ...
39. pilgrimsoul
@Aladdin_Sane #38
You make a good point and ask a good question--not that I have a good answer. But it is so that many are taken with Tolkein and LOTR as their source. The level of understanding of the source varies--as I am sure you realize.
Liza .
40. aedifica
pilgrimsoul @ 29: You could be describing Elizabeth Moon's Paksennarion trilogy (which I was surprised no one has mentioned here yet). Very enjoyable.
Soon Lee
41. SoonLee
snoweel @35:
Re:things dwindling.

I had a similar response to Larry Niven's "The Magic Goes Away" where magic was powered by mana, a finite non-renewable resource. As mana ran out, the magical properties of creatures go away (unicorns turn into horses) & spells no longer work, which is a pat explanation for why contemporary attempts to cast spells from ancient grimoires are doomed to failure.
Eli Bishop
42. EliBishop
I liked GRR Martin's twist on that idea, too: magic's been dwindling not so much because the world is declining or because something's getting used up, but because it partly depended on the presence of certain creatures who don't happen to be around now, at least in this part of the world. So, less of a cosmically significant change, more of an ecological one - which starts moving back the other way at some point, thus totally confusing all of the half-assed magicians who had never seen any of that stuff work particularly well before.
Kate Nepveu
43. katenepveu
Chris Willrich @ #22, _The Face in the Frost_ is great stuff, funny and spooky and mysterious. You can get it from NESFA Press in their collection _Magic Mirrors_.

"On a shelf over the experiment table was the inevitable skull, which the wizard put there to remind him of death, though it usually reminded him that he needed to go to the dentist."

TheMarchChase @ #23, I read _There and Back Again_ while not realizing that I was coming down with a migraine, so I doubt I gave it a fair shake . . .

DemetriosX @ #24 & 33, of course you realize the inevitable response (besides "get well soon") is to offer counterexamples . . . but you didn't ask, so I'll restrain myself.

However, I will ask what you thought of Susanna Clarke's _Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell_, which someone-or-other (Jo?) has called a fantasy written from the alternate world in which _Lud-in-the-Mist_ was our _LotR_.

I haven't read _Lud-in-the-Mist_, but I liked _JS&MN_ a lot.

pilgrimsoul @ #27, 29: yes, it's hard to interest me in a secondary-world, medievaloid, Northern-European-ish fantasy these days too. As for nobility & cynicism . . . I agree with Jo that a rating scale would be useful, because I'm often in the mood for different points along the axis.

SoonLee @ #30, if you like historically-based fantasy you might be interested in Kay's _Tigana_ or Sarantine Mosaic (_Sailing to Sarantium_, _Lord of Emperors_). Kay's obviously still interested in some things Tolkien was (history, preservation & transmission of culture & art) but no longer in an epic-fantasy kinda way.

jmeltzer @ #34, see also Erikson's Malazon books.

snoweel @ #35, yes, the first Jordan book has some very _LotR_-homage moments (also an Ent-like species), which I also recall hearing were deliberate. Certainly the created history, the scope, and the relationships to our history & culture are the kinds of things that were popularized by _LotR_.

EliBishop @ #36, I think I've just established that A Song of Ice and Fire is about Santa Claus

Is _that_ who killed Jon Arryn?!

And snoweel, SoonLee, EliBishop: one thing I wish people _hadn't_ taken from _LotR_ is the magic-dwindling thing, becuase it makes me cranky (among other things, I am suspicious of nostalgia). And if you're in a secondary world, not one that's eventually going to become ours, there's no intrinsic need for it.
44. DemetriosX
kate@43, I enjoyed JS&MN and wanted more when I reached the end, but I also frequently wanted to scream, "Get on with it!" at the author. I suspect that was more the result of her choice to write in a Regency style than anything else.

As I said @33, more and more authors come to mind who are working outside the LotR-space, but they aren't easy to find among all the rest. But I also think the situation has changed a lot in the last few years and we may be getting back to where things were up until about 1970. There was a sort of near extinction event about that time. From roughly the mid-70s to around the mid-90s, there was very little fantasy that did not fit the LotR template. And it simply wasn't as successful or as well marketed. Interestingly, this applies primarily to the US market. Most of the exceptions I can think of are from the UK (or Canada in the case of de Lint).

Still, we are seeing more and more "speciation" in fantasy as authors are throwing off the shackles (imposed by publishers) and exploring new niches.
Kate Nepveu
45. katenepveu
Perhaps weirdly, I did _not_ want more when I finished reading _JS&MN_, and the idea of a sequel fills me simultaneously with delight and trepidation.

Sometimes I just treasure the possibilities of a world-opening ending (here), or the uncompromising bleakness of a harsh-but-right dark ending.
46. Jim Henry III
Michael_GR @12:
Marc@3, If you're going to set the native american - french wars in fantasy terms, I would say the french are in this case the invaders, the "other", so they should be the elves.

I think the original poster was talking about the French and Indian Wars, i.e. the war between the British colonists in what later became Usonia, sometimes on their own and sometimes assisted by the British army, on one side, and the Native Americans allied with the French on the other side. So I suppose a fantasy analogue would involve one sentient species colonizing a world or region previously inhabited by another sentient species, and then the natives fighting the colonists with the assistance of others of the colonists' species. Or maybe the analogue of the French would be a third species; maybe mapping the Indians to elves, as the original poster suggested, the British colonists to humans, and the French to dwarves, gnomes or what have you. I'd prefer to have all three analogues be nonhuman, all similar enough to humans that it's easy to sympathize with them but all definitely nonhuman, to avoid the political/philosophical problems with identifying Indians == nonhuman, British colonists == human that another poster warned against.

DemetriosX @31:
jmeltzer @25, YES! E.R. Eddison is exactly who I was thinking of. We probably see his influence filtered through Harrison in Mieville, the Ambergris books, and so on, where the city is as much a character as any other figure in the book.

I don't see it. Cities are not a major element of either The Worm Ouroboros or the Zimiamvia trilogy. The earliest fantasy I can think of where a fictional city is a primary setting is Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series, several of which stories are set in Lanhkmar, a clear antecedent of not only New Crobuzon and Ambergris but Ankh-Morpork (more than any city in Tolkien). Going further back, there are cities in some of William Morris' books, IIRC, but I think they are all primarily set in the countryside and wilderness. The Emerald City in the Oz books is tolerably important, especially in the first two books, but it doesn't have the personality of Lankhmar or its successors in recent New Weird fantasy.

Some invented-world fantasies where cities have interesting geography and personality, but aren't at all in the New Weird mold, are Lawrence Watt-Evans Ethshar novels.
David Levinson
47. DemetriosX
kate @45, perhaps "wanting more" is an overstatement. It's just that I felt as though the story was finally starting after umpteen hundred pages and all that had gone before was just background. It was as though LotR had ended when Frodo & company passed through the gate into the Old Forest.

Jim Henry III @46, perhaps you are correct. It has been years since I read Eddison (and didn't really care for him all that much) and my recollections are vague. I had thought that Memison played a greater role than it may have. Maybe Mervyn Peake is a better place to look for influences on Leiber, Mieville, and Harrison. While not a city, the great pile of Gormenghast is very much a character in the first two books of the trilogy. (Place also comes close to acting as a character in Dunsany's Pegana fantasies, though it is more the country in that case and it is not so strong as Lankhmar, Viriconium, or Ambergris.)

Watt-Evans was one of the first successful post-LotR writers to make the effort to shrug off the template that had been imposed by the marketeering publishers. He started out really by subverting the template more than outright rejecting it, but I think that helped him be moderately successful. The Misenchanted Sword was my first exposure to his work and it was the first time I noticed that virtually all of the contemporary fantasy I had been reading was all of a kind.
Chris Meadows
48. Robotech_Master
I realize I'm a little late to the game here, but I wonder if Kate might consider taking a poke at Mirkwood by Stephen Hilliard, the Amazon-self-published "historical novel" whose author recently settled with the Tolkien Estate over the lawsuit he filed in response to their cease-and-desist letter. (It's available on the Kindle store for $2.99.)

And perhaps The Last Ringbearer, the fan-translated Russian fanfic/retelling of the saga from a Mordorian, "history is written by the winners" perspective. (It's available free on-line, and there's a fascinating, extremely-lengthy essay on Salon Magazine a couple months back where the author explains in extreme detail what drove him to write it.)

I'd include links, but I'm not sure how many links would cause this post to get held for approval. And I don't know if anyone would even see it to approve it. :)
Kate Nepveu
49. katenepveu
Robotech_Master, the Tolkien estate did not impress me with that episode in the least. (Not that they care about my opinion. Still.)

_Mirkwood_ sounds entirely like not my kind of thing.

Thanks for reminding me about _The Last Ringbearer_--it sounds massively difficult to do well, but it's worth at least a quick look, so I'm downloading the mobi version now.
Chris Meadows
50. Robotech_Master
Funny, I thought Mirkwood would in one sense be right up your alley, given that one of the major issues it apparently plays with is the lack of strong female characters in the original series, which has been discussed quite a bit in these threads.

(I'm planning to snag it and check it out myself after I finish working my way through LotR. For three bucks, I can afford to indulge my curiosity.)
Kate Nepveu
51. katenepveu
Stephen King has probably filled my lifetime quota for books about authors getting tangled up in their own work.
Chris Meadows
52. Robotech_Master
By the way, here's a couple more "responses". Though they're not necessarily direct responses.

I remember some conversation was going on about orc societies, and whether orcs were redeemable and so forth. There's an interesting series by David Weber, the "Bahzell" series, based on the setting of a D&D campaign he game-mastered, which focuses on a society of (the setting's equivalent of) orcs, some of whom are striving to rise above the reputation of bloodthirsty barbarians they've been saddled with—and the stir (to put it mildly) that it causes when one of them becomes (the setting's equivalent of) a Paladin.

It's sort of at two removes from Lord of the Rings, since it's based on D&D which steals like mad from LotR rather than on LotR directly, but it's an interesting perspective shift. All three books in the setting thus far are available as free e-books (at lower left on that page).

Another series that's not exactly a direct response to Lord of the Rings but shares a similarity in that it's a high fantasy series with a great deal of world-building involved is the Chronicles of the Kencyrath by P.C. Hodgell. It owes more to Lankhmar and Gothic novels than Lord of the Rings's pseudo-folklore base (though, like Tolkien, Hodgell draws her own maps). These books are also available as DRM-free e-books from Baen, though not for free.

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