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The generic "Tolkien Rebrand"

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Hexasi, Dec 5, 2019.

  1. Hexasi

    Hexasi Scribe

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    So recently I got into a couple of discussions with some friends about reading, and the subject of fantasy was brought up - one of them said that, to paraphrase, "fantasy is just Tolkien" - and a few days later at my local book club the same subject was brought up and it was all "no, we can't do fantasy next its all derivative of Tolkien" or "Oh you mean Lord of The Rings?" - I found this really confusing.

    Obviously these people haven't read much of the genre: I think that modern fantasy is doing all it can to distance itself from Tolkien and most of his influence lies before the 90s where epic fantasy got a massive boon. Your thoughts? I want to know what shapes this misconception.
     
  2. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Well, I think a significant amount of fantasy is derivative of Tolkien, and those works seem to be selling exceptionally well. I would actually say that most fantasy is derivative of Tolkien. But you don't really have to look very far to find very different fantasy works as well. But you do have to go looking.
     
  3. Hexasi

    Hexasi Scribe

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    I mean... are you sure? Browsing through my local bookshop I don't seem to see many. I think the most signifacant "Tolkien Rebrand" I've seen in a while is actually Wheel of Time (hear me out) - it doesn't really pick up its own feel until like book 5, and reads more like Tolkien before then. More like one of the last Tolkien rehashes if you ask me. By the way, not taking a crap on wheel of time fans its a great series
     
  4. SergeiMeranov

    SergeiMeranov Scribe

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    On some level I think this is mostly a pedantic argument. If you define Tolkien broadly enough and fantasy narrowly enough you could probably come up with some definitions under which all fantasy is in some way derivative of Tolkien, but what are you really saying when that happens? Is it that it's a non-fiction book in a made up world? If so, that's pretty broad credit to give to Tolkien even if he was the first one to do it in a large, commercial way. Even narrowing it down to books that use races like orcs and elves seems like a gross over-generalization.

    This is one of those things that I think people mean as a criticism or some sort of intellectual point that is actually meaningless. A different story is a different story, even if the basic elements of say a hero's journey are there and they both use orcs. Otherwise why isn't it fair to say "Well that's just a hero's journey story. Read that before. Hard pass."? So, in that sense, I'm not sure what these people meant by it being derivative but from the tone you described I think it was intended as dismissive which I think is painting too broadly the massive body of fantasy works that have been released since then. Certainly you have the books that, for all intents and purposes, mirror Tolkien closely and those are probably less noteworthy than others but could we really say A Song of Ice and Fire is derivative of Tolkien? Or what about the Black Company? Even Brandon Sanderson's various series.

    Ultimately, I think people that, derisively or dismissively, refer to fantasy as derivative of Tolkien are just people that aren't interested in fantasy. This isn't a bad thing. People have preferences obviously, but it also, to me, demonstrates either an oversimplification of the fantasy genre or a misunderstanding of it.
     
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  5. Hexasi

    Hexasi Scribe

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    Thank you for the insight :D
     
  6. Kasper Hviid

    Kasper Hviid Troubadour

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    I think there's a bit of the other-race effect. If you know nothing of the genre, then the tropes will seem so overshadowing that you can't see anything else.
     
  7. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    I’m going to go a little devil’s advocate and say that there’s some validity to it.
    Tolkien was the primary influence, more or less, on Dungeons and Dragons which is really probably the biggest franchise or brand in the genre.
    A lot of the young up-and-coming fantasy writers out there were probably raised on Tolkien (mostly through the Peter Jackson movies) or video games or anime that take elements from D&D.

    And based on my discussion with fantasy writers and enthusiasts, there seems to be an attitude that fantasy fiction can be defined by how similar or how different it is from Tolkien. Lord of the Rings has become the gold standard for fantasy.
    I often find it strange how obsessed many amateur fantasy writers are in creating languages and drawing maps or having Norse mythology-inspired humanoids inhabiting their setting (or just having a preoccupation with humanoid “races”). It’s probably safe to say Tolkien/D&D influenced those interests.
     
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2019
    Yora likes this.
  8. Yora

    Yora Maester

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    Of all the writers I would recommend for people to look at procedures, Tolkien would probably be the last. He did get a quite good book out of it at the end, but it took him decades and writing The Lord of the Rings was not his intention when he started it. It worked, but it really is not an efficient way to do it when your plan is to write a fantasy book.

    I also feel that a very large amount of cliches in fantasy come from people copying setting elements from Middle-Earth - because that's the way you create fantasy world - but with no understanding of the purpose they had in that specific setting. The Lord of the Rings really was a story about why elves and magic have disappeared from the world. Having elves abandon their kingdoms because they are driven to the sidelines by humans seems to be the default for most Standard Fantasy Settings, but in almost none of them is there a reason for it. It's just the way it is done.
     
  9. Kasper Hviid

    Kasper Hviid Troubadour

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    Never read it myself. But coincidently, I just came across a used copy, and cheap too. Anyone knows if it's any good?
     
  10. SergeiMeranov

    SergeiMeranov Scribe

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    If you're talking about Lord of the Rings the answer is "Hesitantly Yes". Saying the Lord of the Rings is a good book is a bit like saying Citizen Kane is a good movie. They were revolutionary in their time and had a large impact on their fields but at the end of the day you're still reading a book/watching a movie from 70-80 years ago.

    If you're in the mood for a very in-depth, old school fantasy book then I'd say read it. If you're looking for something similar to modern novels you will be disappointed.
     
  11. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    Honestly, I would say that the movie’s are better in most ways.
    I find most Tolkien fans are more fans of Middle-Earth rather than fans of the actual books.
    If it’s cheap and your curious, go ahead and buy it. No harm in taking a look at them.
     
  12. oenanthe

    oenanthe Minstrel

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    People who don't know much about fantasy aren't going to have a clear picture of the genre. you were talking to people who don't know anything about fantasy, that's all.
     
  13. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    It's less about Tolkein and more about D&D, Warhammer, Warcraft, and the others. They all use wizards and dwarves and elves and, strangely orcs, which were a Tolkein creation. They also print dozens of books under their brands which take up half the shelves.

    But I'd go further and say the entire notion of a humanized "fantasy race" is part Tolkein's legacy, and anything that uses them is going to feel "Tolkein-ish."

    But these stories still aren't that much alike. Many of them have characters on an inner journey that's quite different and fresh. And if you take a cursory glance into other genres, a cynic could quickly end up wondering if the romances, thrillers, horrors, even mobster stories don't all kind of look like one another. But that opinion is shallow. It's the same as those who think every plate of pasta tastes the same because their pallets aren't very well developed. Maybe it's not for them, or maybe they should give it more of a chance, but regardless, they're badmouthing something they're not equipped to understand very well.

    That's to say nothing of the great many fantasy stories which don't rely on fantasy races and look pretty much nothing like Tolkein....
     
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2019
  14. oenanthe

    oenanthe Minstrel

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    Faeries, though
     
  15. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    Yeah, I almost mentioned, but faeries tend to be less human and more otherworldly, and don't usually have their own human-like kingdoms the way elves and dwarves do. At least that's how they were traditionally. If you can picture a faery as your dinner guest or drinking buddy, that humanization comes from Tolkein.
     
  16. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    All literature is derivative. One could just as well say that all detective stories are derivative of Dashiell Hammett. Does that mean that Walter Mosley isn't worth reading? Nonsense.

    The person who said that is actually saying "I don't like fantasy and don't want to waste time on it, but I can't actually say that, so I'll say something that sounds informed and reasoned, and no one can gainsay me unless they work at it."
     
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  17. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Didn’t Lord Dunsany do some of that as well? Centaurs, maybe, among others? My memory is hazy on him.
     
  18. Seira

    Seira Minstrel

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    Some stuff is derivative of him but there were stories about elves and other planets before he did his work. I never did totally understand why everyone branded him as the creator of Fantasy when Fantastical stories/poems/myths/songs have been circulating for thousands of years. Maybe he was the first to do it in book form? Not sure. Watched the films as a small child but couldn't get through them as they were too long and complicated for me. I did try the books but found them too slow and a bit boring, although I loved the Hobbit. So not too familiar with them. I mean, when you really look at it, nearly everything is derivative of something else and if you're widely read you see it.

    I was chatting with this girl the other night and she's a die hard Hunger Games fan. I asked her what it was about the books she loved so much and why she thought others loved them so much. I'm a writer. I like to know what audiences think. She said "because they are original and nothing like it has been done before. Kid fighting each other in a competition." I thought, so nothing like Battle Royale then. She thought it was original because she's never heard of that book. I used to think Fantasy was all Tolkein like stuff and honestly, elves, dwarves, orcs, medieval settings - they just don't interest me because they seem to crop up so much. Then I started reading Fantasy and realized that's not all it is. People create their own races and that's my favourite. Fantasy with created races in a non-medieval setting. A setting they have created. To me that is Fantasy. Not piggy-backing of existing races and settings but creating your own or putting your own spin on it.

    That's just my opinion anyway
     
  19. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

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  20. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    Dunsay did 'the king of elflands daughter' which is a sort of human/elf romance. The elf kingdom is strange, yet...static.

    Dunsay also did the 'Pegana' set of tales, which is a complete mythology, and one of the inspirations for Lovecraft.

    That said, Tolkien's big accomplishment was to take assorted (mostly Scandinavian) mythological creatures, update them, and give them a world of their own. Prior to him, elves and goblins were sort of one-offs (the quasi exception being Dunsay's 'King of Elfland's daughter.' Other worlds as such didn't really exist (except for the like's of Lovecraft's 'Dreamlands' and Leiber's 'Fahferd and Grey Mouser' tales. Instead, the tales were usually set in fictitious countries - Cabel being the prime example here.

    What D&D did, crudely, was to combine the low earthiness of Leiber with Tolkien's races. That combination laid the foundation for much of modern fantasy.
     
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