For our Wednesday blog this week, we have the awesome Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch guest blogging on Tolkein and his influence on fantasy novels. Enjoy!
As no author has had a greater influence on Western fantasy than J.R.R. Tolkien, no author provokes more debate. The big issues of class, race and history are all continuously discussed (and at length) in a thousand corridors of academia and the internet alike. But the full extent of his influence on fantasy literature can often taken for granted.
Tolkien gave us ‘high fantasy’ – the epic quest, the lost king, the amorphous all-devouring evil. His is the legacy of warrior women (hiding as men), bellowing wizards with billowing cloaks, battles of five armies, magical fools, arrows of prophecy and the forbidden love between exiled prince and Elvish princess. All of these are now familiar tropes; the tropes that help define a genre that ranges from David Eddings to Brandon Sanderson, Dungeon & Dragons to Dragon Age.
As far as the high fantasy tradition is concerned, Aragorn is the star of the show. He’s a lost prince; a high-level ranger/wizard with a star-crossed romance and a throne eagerly waiting for his noble buttocks. But Aragorn isn’t the protagonist. Frodo is, and arguably, so is Sam. These chaps are nothing in the traditional sense of the hero. They’re utterly useless (unless you need some light gardening). Yet what they do is the important part of the book – Aragorn is ultimately little more than bait.
And, more than that? [SPOILER ALERT] Frodo fails. The upper-middle-class everymensch slogs his way across the world (note: whining with every step), overcomes incredible adversity, stands at the cusp of heroism, looks deep within himself and finds… that he’s not worthy.
This is the essence not of high fantasy, but of its antithesis, low fantasy. High fantasy assumes success and rewards those virtues – nobility, chivalry and moral fiber – that enable the hero to deserve it. Low fantasy is the reverse: it assumes failure, and relies on the hero’s baser virtues to reverse the odds: traits like cunning (also see: Bilbo), and, in the case of Frodo, blind luck.
There’s a lovely irony here, in that much of low fantasy supposedly stems from the backlash against “Tolkien fantasy”. But Tolkien’s work features Aragorn and Frodo, the high and the low. To take one without the other is to ignore half the story; which, all things considered, is a decent metaphor for the genre as a whole. Fantasy literature, as Tolkien demonstrated, can capture both the escapism of success and the agony of failure, not to mention everything in-between.