Monday, January 3, 2011

Tolkien's Influence in Pictures

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.

30 comments:

  1. I think "furniture" is an apt way to describe it.

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  2. I agree with this assessment.

    I also think in today's market, D&D's amalgamation of various fantasy tropes (including Tolkien's) had such an influence on the culture than the core D&D values from the 1970s and 1980s influenced so many other games, comics, and computer games, that these tropes have supplanted Tolkien as a primary source for how we view fantasy races.

    Popular Culture has an impact on how we see things. Over the course of last month, I saw some historical documents about Santa Claus and it's interesting how certain images influenced them. Until Coca-Cola started having artists Draw Santa, a lot of interpretations of Santa was as a small, elf or gnome-like figure.

    I think the only problem with tropes is how it can be hard to break out of them..

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  3. I agree with your assessment on Tolkien and fantasy D&D. You did a great and simple summation.

    However I do believe Peter Jackson and his movies will be the default "Tolkien" fantasy inspiration. Along with the Harry Potter franchise and various video games.

    In general I believe the inspiration for fantasy will now come from visual media and written works will play less and less a role. Which is ironic considering now much more literary fantasy is available in bookstores today compared to the 70s-80s.

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  4. I wish I could recall the source, but I once heard Tolkien and fantasy compared to Mount Fuji and Japanese art. To paraphrase, "It's always the subject or in the background. Sometimes you can't see it at all. That's because you're standing on it."

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  5. Chris, that's an interesting quote since I seem to remember reading some place that Tolkien was partial to Japanese art prints.. I believe this was in Carpenter's Biography..

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  6. Gygax's distaste for Tolkien is moot. He wrote the fantasy supplement specifically because players of CHAINMAIL wanted to be able to run the battle of the five armies from the hobbit and stuff from LoTR. Gygax himself participated in these games. The rules that were simplified then into 0d&d (and the man to man melee rules found in CM are more complicated which led in part to 1e segmented combat rounds with the weapon speed section of the 1e DMG cut and pasted directly from CM) themselves come from Tolkien!

    A child may rebel and say he cares not for his father, but his own children are still related to grandpappy.

    D&D got it's start directly, not just metaphorically, from Tolkien.

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  7. Having recently reread the original D&D booklets and Greyhawk, I am confident in saying Tolkien was every bit as much an influence as ERB, Jack Vance, and Fritz Leiber. They are all part of the stew that inspired D&D.

    Thieves as implemented in Greyhawk are problematic, but I've seen plenty of variants (and they are easy to find in the OSR blogosphere) that have solved the problem.

    Tolkien only changed the "popular perception" of elves, dwarves and goblins (orcs) among the fans of fantasy. If you asked an average person on the street what an elf was they are more likely to describe a diminutive fairy-like laborer for Santa than a tall beautiful Quendi of Tolkien lore.

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  8. I would agree with what UWS said, earlier --- I also wonder if Gygax perhaps felt he HAD to make a big deal of how D&D and Tolkien's books had nothing to do with each other because of legal action against TSR for 'unauthorized use' by the Tolkien estate or Saul Zaentz or whomever. Didn't TSR also publish at least one "unauthorized" Battle of the Five Armies games in the 70s as well?

    However, I also believe that once you create something (a book or film or work of art or whatever) and send it out into the world to be 'consumed' by others, it isn't 100% yours anymore. People will apply their own meanings and interpretations and as the creator I think it's a fools errand to think you can stop them or dictate which is or is not valid. It's what I call 'the creator's paradox.' That which is shared is no longer 100% yours.

    Even if Gary wasn't thinking of Tolkien when he decided to include axe wielding dwarves, TREE-ents in the forest, furry footed hobbits, evil goblin armies, orc hordes or bow+sword+magic elves, etc., in D&D, that DEFINITELY was the most popular fantasy reference that the rest of us who picked up the rule books were using. And like most works of art/books/movies/etc., D&D is as much or more about what you do with it than it is an item that just sits on the shelf.

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  9. Saying Gygax had a "distaste" for Tolkien is an exaggeration at best. For LotR, maybe. But Gygax always spoke and wrote warmly of The Hobbit. And I strongly suspect that the claims about Tolkien not strongly influencing D&D were more motivated by legal, aesthetic, or egoistic reasons than factual ones.

    Besides shaping the default characteristics of the standard fantasy "races" in D&D (dwarves, elves, halflings), I would identify one somewhat more subtle (but no less essential) contribution that could have only come from Tolkien:

    The size and diversity of the adventuring party as it appears in D&D and similar games.

    Conan, John Carter, Cugel, Elric and the like all operate either solo or, more commonly, with one or two trusted yet often disposable companions (James Bond still works that way). The adventurers of Merritt and De Camp work in a family/buddy quartet a la the Fantastic Four or the Penvensie children. Only in Tolkien do we see a group which is big enough to be a committee (9 in LotR and 14 in The Hobbit), made of mostly unrelated protagonists (the four hobbits in LotR resemble a Merritt-style sub-group) of different species. If Conan or Cugel meet beings like elves or wizards, it is as antagonists or unearthly beings. Dwarves and elves in folklore and myth are child-stealing Things or mischievous spirits. But in LotR, the races work together and share a basic "good" worldview. The notion that "solo adventures" are an atypical mode of RPGing is a huge departure from the literary ancestors of D&D, and I don't see where else this idea originates, except in Tolkien.

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  10. Thomas Denmark said, "Tolkien only changed the "popular perception" of elves, dwarves and goblins (orcs) among the fans of fantasy. If you asked an average person on the street what an elf was they are more likely to describe a diminutive fairy-like laborer for Santa than a tall beautiful Quendi of Tolkien lore."

    This may have been true a decade ago, but I think after the LotR films and WoW this is probably not the case, and it will become less true every passing year as the consumers of pop culture get older.

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  11. From a literary perspective, Tolkien represents a very different sort of take on fantasy than the likes of Howard, Leiber, Zelazny, and Anderson. Indeed, the likes of Howard, Lovecraft, and C.A. Smith are of a very different milieu than Leiber, Zelazny, Anderson, Moorcock, et. al.

    Gygax likely downplayed Tolkien's influence on the rules set because OD&D was designed for adventures that were much less the perilous quest against overarching, impersonal, nigh-omnipotent evil, but instead immediate and potentially lucrative. Tolkien's characters' driving force was to save the world, everyone else's motivation was to get rich or die trying. I think that's what it is meant when people say, "Tolkien played little (or no) role in the creation of D&D." Yes, elves, dwarves, halflings, and orcs are all drawn from Tolkien, like it or not. However, the adventure design and character motivation is much less so.

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  12. I really think that if someone who knew absolutely nothing about RPG's and the fantasy genre of literature sat down and read a myriad of authors (Tolkien, Howard, Lovecraft, Lieber, Dunsany, Moorcock, etc.), then was introduced to the original incarnation of D&D, that person would say, "Wow. It's all in there!"

    It isn't so much that D&D = Tolkien, it's that Tolkien was an influence on it -- just another slice of the pie.

    I'm also reluctant to believe that EGG hated the good professor's writings. I'm sure he downplayed Tolkien's influence in favor of other literary influences, and I'm sure there was a legal purposes for the public dismissal of Tolkien. I'm sure that he enjoyed the literature, but it just wasn't among his favorites.

    As James has pointed out, it is quite obvious what Tolkien has done for fantasy "furniture". Don't get me wrong -- I love the good professor's work, but I'm quite sick of every fantasy author out there trying to emulate him. There's more to the genre and to D&D than just Tolkien.

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  13. ..Oh, and Happy Birthday Professor!

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  14. Re: Tolkien and Japanese prints, you can clearly see that in some of his art. Look at how he treats water, for example, or the original cover of The Hobbit with the Moon seen through clouds.

    Re: out to make your fortune, Bilbo's quest plays with that a lot more, and of course it works out for Sam in an unexpected way. But yes, gold has no hold on them, which is why they end up with it.

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  15. Dave Cesarano said "OD&D was designed for adventures that were much less the perilous quest against overarching, impersonal, nigh-omnipotent evil, but instead immediate and potentially lucrative."

    I think this is a caricature of OD&D. It never specified which "sorts" of adventures it was made for. Overarching Quests, Greedy Forays. . . High Fantasy, Swords&Sorcery . . . the game doesn't "side" with either one. Let's not pigeon-hole the game when it never pigeon-holed itself.

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  16. Didn't Tolkien coin the very word 'dwarves' to signify the race? As he notes, the proper English plural of 'dwarf' is 'dwarfs'.

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  17. The thing is, Tolkien influences fantasy even when it is intentionally trying to avoid his influence.

    How much did Tolkien influence D&D? How much did Tolkien influence fantasy? In truth, those questions are much less interesting to me than the degree to which D&D has influenced fantasy.

    And, in a different vein, the widespread influence of D&D on computerized games. (You find levels, XP, and hp in games that are just about as far from D&D as you can imagine.)

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  18. I remember thinking, when I first read Gygax's Tolkien-disclaimer, thirty-odd years ago, "Oh ho, here's somebody trying not to get sued for blatantly turning LOTR into a tabletop game without permission." To my eyes D&D was clearly the offspring of LOTR. I thought of it in much the same light as the disclaimers we'd see on various RPGs in later years, telling us that the publishers didn't endorse or recommend the real world summoning of demons, casting of spells, etc.

    Over the years, as my reading embraced more of the other sources Gygax mentioned, I could see greater merit to the original disclaimer, but it's still obviously exaggerated. Gygax doth protest too much.

    I still wonder to this day whether the primary impetus behind the overblown denial of Tolkien's influence was fear of possible legal action, or Gygax's simmering annoyance that everyone recognized the influence of Tolkien but constantly overlooked the other sources of inspiration he held dear?

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  19. Besides shaping the default characteristics of the standard fantasy "races" in D&D (dwarves, elves, halflings), I would identify one somewhat more subtle (but no less essential) contribution that could have only come from Tolkien:

    The size and diversity of the adventuring party as it appears in D&D and similar games.


    I guess you never heard of:

    Jason and the Argonauts
    Robin Hood and his Merry Men
    The Seven Samurai

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  20. The Water Margin, the classic Chinese righteous bandit story, which has 108 Merry Men. :)

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  23. 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.


    The trend of turning fearsome mythical creatures into harmless bogeymen began in the Middle Ages, when the official position of the Church was that such creatures (a) did not exist and (b) were a holdover from heathen times -just a part of quaint stories told by ignorant yokels. Elves and dwarves aren’t the only ones. The Cherubim were depicted in ancient art as terrifying gargoyle-like monsters, only to be transformed into chubby babies with wings. Dragons were also given this treatment: Look at most medieval depictions of St. George slaying the dragon and it looks more like he’s slaying a scaly dachshund, not some monstrous fire-breathing beast. Giants were also greatly feared, though for the better part of a century they’ve been best known for selling peas. Don't get me started on what's been done with vampires!

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  24. suburbanbanshee said...

    The Water Margin, the classic Chinese righteous bandit story, which has 108 Merry Men. :)


    I should also point out that a common cliche in countless war movies is where a squad or a bomber crew or the crew of a ship is made up of several ethnic groups and classes (at least one stereotypical Southerner, Italian, Polish, Jewish, farm kid from the Midwest, with an Irish sergeant and WASP lieutenant per group) who not only put aside their differences to fight the enemy, but become loyal friends. Depending on when the film was made, they sometimes allow non-whites to join.

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  25. Sorry about the triple-post. Yikes!

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  26. @Elfdart

    I think you're close to the mark. Gary himself said he based the DnD classes on battlefield forces: fighters = infantry, cleric = medic, thief = spy, magic-user = artillery. DnD did evolve out of wargames, after all. I see the roots of the adventure party in Guns of Navarone-style commando teams with diverse skills, backgrounds and ethnicities.

    Besides the Water Margin, Chinese literature also has a multiracial monster-battling adventure party featuring a monkey sorcerer/fighter, a pig-man, a river-ogre and a human monk -- the 16th Century novel Journey to the West!

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  27. There's also The Wizard of Oz, where there's a girl, a dog, a lion, a tin robot and a bundle of straw shaped like a man.

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  28. What most surprised me when I read The Hobbit was the idea that the protagonist was "A Burglar." The word is used several times and perhaps "thief" as well. And that whole first chapter is all about a party gethering to make plans to go into a dungeon and kill a dragon and get treasure. The "high fantasy" stuff about saving the world that we get in LOTR isn't there.

    I don't know when Bilbo Baggins was created compared to the Gray Mouser or other S&S "rogues" but you could consider adding "thief" (in the sense of someone who sneaks around underground looking for lost treasure) to the list of the furnishings JRRT provided.

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  29. Yes, elves, dwarves, halflings, and orcs are all drawn from Tolkien, like it or not. However, the adventure design and character motivation is much less so.

    That's more or less my ultimate position, when push comes to shove. I think Tolkien's biggest influence on D&D (and fantasy generally) is in terms of what I called "furniture," but the underlying ethos of Tolkien's works is largely absent in it.

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  30. As said above, Tolkien created the word "dwarves", which did (does?) not exist in the English language.

    In terms of literary fantasy, aside from the fantasy race furniture James mentions, Tolkien's most ubiquitous legacies are thematic (the quest against the Dark Lord by the beleagured forces of big-G Good) and structual (the fat fantasy epic, with it's trilogy now extended to the 12+ book "cycle"). Modern fantasy as a genre is unthinkable without these - including the many subgenres that now exist, IMO, mostly as a reaction against the trend begun by the professor. Without his decades-long obsession with reconciling his two irreconcilable passions - the Judeo-Christian mythos with the Anglo-Germanic - high fantasy and all its sprawling, brawling, unkempt brood would never have been born in their modern guises.

    Re: D&D, I agree with all that James says about D&D's myriad other influences. I think that the party model, however, without which D&D as we know it does not and could not exist, is directly attributable to Tolkien. Of course there are other examples in literature where folks buddy up in groups, but I don't think we need to go to "Jason and the Argonauts" or any other left-field edge-cases to see where D&D got this from.
    The Fellowship in Moria, in the book or the movie, is the canonical dungeon-crawl in pre-D&D fantasy literature.

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