Few genres owe a greater debt to one person than fantasy does to J.R.R. Tolkien. With The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he created an entire tradition of sword and sorcery, setting the standard for the sorts of characters, storylines and settings that would appear in works of fantasy for more than 50 years, and still influence fantasy culture today.
In a way, it’s almost amazing how recently the Lord of the Rings trilogy was published. It’s not even 60-years-old and yet it’s easy to assume that our perception of elves, dwarves and wizards has extended back centuries. That’s not the case at all, though. The traditional medieval fantasy tropes hail almost exclusively from Tolkien’s works.
For fantasy’s popularity and mass appeal, it should be commended. People often think of fantasy as an incredibly niche genre, but like any particular brand of media, the most celebrated, triumphant examples will usually be able to attain mainstream success. For fantasy, there’s obviously no better example than Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations — beloved blockbusters that even managed to sweep the Academy Awards with its third installment, Return of the King. And after years in production hell, Jackson’s equally ambitious adaptation of The Hobbit hits theaters this December. An Unexpected Journey, the first of three Hobbit installments, will no doubt capture the public’s adoration once again.
Though that’s all well and good, this one particular franchise has grown so ubiquitous in nature that it’s difficult, if not impossible, for many of those involved in fantasy — readers and authors alike — to think about the genre independent of Tolkien’s influence. There’s a notion that “fantasy,” especially in regard to literature, means a medieval world of magic, filled with multiple species, both humanoid and monstrous, in which a collection of unlikely heroes must go to war against some sort of malevolent force and the dark creatures that serve it. This viewpoint can, on occasion, be hugely limiting.
It’s important, first of all, to point out the distinction between fantasy and epic fantasy. The former can refer to anything depicting a world unlike our own or a world similar to our world, but with additional, fantastic elements. The first word, for instance, that comes to mind when describing the newly released and final Twilight film isn’t likely to be “fantasy,” but the term still applies.
Often, though, fantasy is used as shorthand when describing epic fantasy, the more specific sub-genre that The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings call home. This is the world-shaping, massive scope, good-and-evil-journey stuff that seems especially hard to create without falling into the beloved and reliable — yet at this point all too familiar — framework that Tolkien established. When it succeeds, it still feels somewhat derivative, and when it fails, the result can be as distressing as the Eragon series, a body of work that likely taught young readers that a book can be awful.
Fortunately, though, the recent trend has been to challenge the genre’s accepted norms. Two especially successful examples come to mind, one that has broken through to massive commercial acclaim, and one that hasn’t. The former is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which despite beginning more than 15 years ago, has only now truly exploded in the public consciousness. The series characterizes itself by being as un-Tolkien-esque as possible. The world is brutal, motivations are anything but heroic, presumed lead characters can die for trying to do the right thing and there’s heaps of violence and sex thrown in for good measure.
Thanks to HBO’s adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire in the Game of Thrones series, Martin’s world and his characters are reaching a far broader audience than ever before, an audience that has become totally invested in a story that challenges so many preconceived notions of what epic fantasy is supposed to address. Many have sought out the original books and found them deeply compelling springboards back into the kind of quality genre writing that hasn’t gotten mainstream attention since the Harry Potter series.
Those interested in reading more in the vein of Martin would do well to look into the second modern fantasy writer who has the potential to become just as popular somewhere down the line. Since putting out his first book The Blade Itself six years ago, British author Joe Abercrombie has earned an extremely dedicated following who finds his intensely dark, morally ambiguous and occasionally twisted sensibilities to be the Holy Grail of what modern fantasy is capable of achieving. Though he’s relatively new to the game, he more than makes up for it by releasing work at a speed that far outpaces that of his contemporaries — this week’s release of the highly anticipated Red Country marks his sixth novel in as many years — and a writing style with more wit, grit and personality than just about anything on the market. He hasn’t yet earned the attention of readers outside the fantasy circle, but if he maintains his quality and pace, it’s just a matter of time.
Frankly, it can’t happen soon enough, because whenever epic fantasy tries to break new ground, it’s usually assessed in terms of how closely to Tolkien it adheres. But with writers constantly adding their own brand of complexity and style, soon that standard might start to change so that fans will discover every type of story the genre can offer.
Michael Chasin is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies. His column “Fandomination” runs Fridays.