If the Internet is to be believed, I am not only the guy who hates thieves but also the guy who believes J.R.R. Tolkien exercised no influence over the conception and development of Dungeons & Dragons. That's why I've decided to commemorate the Professor's 119th birthday by looking briefly at the ways that Tolkien's conceptions have forever altered our notions of fantasy, not just within the narrow confines of the hobby but in the world outside it. And even though I continue to hold that, thematically, Tolkien's world has very little in common with D&D, there's also no question in my mind that D&D as it exists today would have been impossible without the prior existence of Middle-earth.
Rather than blather on at length about this topic, I thought a few pictures might make my point far better than anything I could write here.
Before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, these fine fellows were probably the most popular conception of dwarves in a fantasy context. Heck, before Tolkien, the plural "dwarves" wasn't generally used in English, as witnessed by title Disney chose for his film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Opera aficionados might well have been familiar with Nordic dwarves through Wagner but they're nearly all portrayed as evil, grasping semi-monsters rather than serious and honorable (if still avaricious) craftsmen that D&D and wider fantasy have adopted as their own.
Even more dramatic a shift is clear when you look at popular conceptions of elves. Before Tolkien, elves were generally portrayed as diminutive and vaguely comical (or, more rarely, sinister). The tall, noble firstborn of the world have their roots in Norse legend, but, until Tolkien, that conception was definitely a minority one. Now, outside of Santa's workshop, it's nearly impossible to find an "elf" who doesn't look like one of Legolas's kin.
And, of course, these fellows didn't exist at all until Tolkien. They -- and their knock-offs -- are now everywhere.
Certainly, there were lots of "goblins" lurking in the popular imagination before Tolkien, but "orcs" did not. Likewise, the notion of their being a vast horde forged in service to a Dark Lord is nowadays a staple of fantasy literature (and gaming), but it's of relatively recent vintage and, once more, Tolkien is perhaps its most influential source.
I could go on and on illustrating how many fantasy tropes have their origins in Middle-earth, but I hope my point is made simply by selecting four relatively straightforward examples. It might be an exaggeration to say that J.R.R. Tolkien singlehandedly invented modern fantasy, but he is certainly one of its main progenitors, particularly when it comes to the "furniture" of the genre. Tolkien's peoples and creatures have had a profound impact on the imaginations of nearly everyone who's worked in fantasy since the 1960s. It's safe to say that, without him, fantasy would have been a very different thing than what it became. In that sense, we're all in Tolkien's debt and ought to lift a glass in his honor on this day of his birth.