Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Like teenagers desperate to prove their independence, rebelling against Tolkien seems to a rite of passage for many fantasy writers and it's not hard to see why. The odds that any work of fantasy is ever going to become as well known or influential decades after its publication is slim, New York Times bestseller lists to the contrary. A far more attainable goal, therefore, is to generate controversy centered on Tolkien and then to bask in the fleeting notoriety. The simple fact is that most of the popular understanding of "fantasy" is Tolkien-derived: orcs and hobbits and elves and dwarves -- indeed the very fact that lots of people think "dwarves" is a proper English plural for the word "dwarf." Likewise, the idea that fantasy must involve an Epic Quest™ against a Dark Lord™ who can only be defeated by destroying the Ancient Maguffin™ is pervasive, thanks in no small part to the success of Tolkien's works. For a lot of people, that is what fantasy is all about.
Now, I can fully understand wanting to get out from under the influence of Tolkien, the desire to do something -- anything -- different in fantasy. Heck, that's been a constant refrain of this blog from the start. But I think there's a difference between wanting to do something different and denigrating one's forefathers in the genre. That is, one can be different without being anti-Tolkien. Gene Wolfe, to cite an example that comes immediately to mind, is very different from Tolkien but he's not anti-Tolkien. To put it somewhat more crudely: Gene Wolfe is pro-Wolfe. He holds no adolescent grudges against Tolkien; he is not vexed that Bilbo Baggins is orders of magnitude more well-known than Severian. In short, Wolfe isn't trying to knock Tolkien down a peg and his fantasies are better for that.
For myself, I plan to spend this 120th anniversary year of Tolkien's birth continuing to read The Lord of the Rings to my daughter. There's a reason this novel has proven so enduring, no matter how much some may wish otherwise.