I'm usually pretty good at remembering important dates of interest to the hobby. So it's with some sheepishness that I admit to having forgotten what would have been the 117th birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien on January 3. I suppose some will no doubt see this as further evidence of my "war" against acknowledging the professor's influence over the creation of Dungeons & Dragons. Like my reservations about the thief or my low opinion of Dragonlance, my willingness to take Gary Gygax at his word when he repeatedly stated that Tolkien was but a minor influence on the game he co-created has become the stuff of humor in certain quarters. The really funny thing is that my opinion on the matter is not born out of dislike of Tolkien or Middle-earth, but rather the opposite. It's precisely because, in my later years, I've become such an admirer of Tolkien's work that I find it hard to credit much commonality between his writings and D&D -- or indeed any fantasy roleplaying game, including those that were in fact set in Middle-earth.
When I was a child, I of course read The Hobbit and, later, The Lord of the Rings. I liked both well enough, but, beyond taking certain visual cues from them, I can't honestly say that they had much impact on my playing of D&D. Indeed, I found much of The Lord of the Rings deadly dull. There was too much poetry and song and a lot of it read more like a travelogue than an epic fantasy. I know for a fact that I used to despise the "The Scouring of the Shire," part 8 of Book VI of The Return of the King, seeing it as anticlimactic in the extreme, whereas now I am convinced that it is in fact the true climax of the entire novel. If one is so inclined, feel free take this all as yet further evidence of my dislike of Tolkien and use it to explain away my blindness as to his "obvious" influence on Gygax.
One of the reasons I have grown to admire Tolkien as I grow older is that I see more clearly now that, despite caricatures to the contrary, The Lord of the Rings is not in fact about the triumph of good over evil. That may be the theme of Tolkien's impersonators, from Terry Brooks on down to Peter Jackson, but Tolkien himself would have laughed at the notion that the history of this world was anything more than a "long defeat," as he so eloquently described it through the voice of Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring. For Tolkien, we may in this life experience glimpses of what the final victory over evil might be like, but they are fleeting and even the greatest of our victories always brings with it terrible loss. As others have noted, The Lord of the Rings is not an epic but an elegy and creeping senescence makes me appreciate elegy ever more.
I find it hard to imagine how one could argue that D&D, whether in its Golden or Silver Age forms (or later), is an elegaic game. It's always been a vehicle for escapism and while Tolkien acknowledged the salutary effects of escapism, The Lord of the Rings is not a work of escapism. To read it that way, to treat it that way, is to misunderstand it on just about every level. More to the point, as an example of escapism, it's woefully boring. That's what I thought as a kid and that's how Gygax described it on more than one occasion. That's why D&D is full of orcs and balrogs and halflings and treants: they're the things a shallow reading of the novel remembers about it. They're cool and shiny and easily given stats for use in your next dungeon crawl. But meditations on the inevitability of loss in a fallen world aren't quite so compelling for gaming, which is why no edition of the game has ever encouraged or supported that kind of play.
And I don't think that's a bad thing. Much as I admire and agree with Tolkien, I'm not sure I'd enjoy playing a game about the themes of his own works. I have real life if I want to experience the long defeat. When I game, I want an escape from that, if only for a little while, and D&D, based as it is on escapist pulp fantasy, has done a fine job of providing that. For myself, the two are not contradictory but complementary, which is why I raise a belated toast to Professor Tolkien on the memorial of his birth. He wrote a tale that has immeasurably enriched me and will no doubt continue to do so as I read it again and again. I can't say that of very many authors, which is why, despite my heretical beliefs regarding his influence over my hobby, I hold him in the highest regard.