The Father of Modern Fantasy
“I am in fact, a hobbit in all but size.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien
I was perusing the meager book selection at the local Goodwill and feeling frustrated by the abundance of abandoned self-help and cook books when it caught my eye. My fingers flung toward the binding, and I closed my eyes briefly in expectation of the found treasure.
Could it be? I brushed the binding softly and smiled as I wrapped my fingers around the book and withdrew it from the dusty shelf and flatly laid my hand against the faded and torn, but still in-tact, dustjacket. The motherload.
No. It wasn’t a 1st Edition or a long-lost copy that was valuable in a monetary sense. It was simply another beautiful and well-read copy of one of the books that changed not only my life but the life of the person who had held it before me. It was just another well-loved copy of one the books by the author who has left his mark not only on me, but also on generations upon generations.
As I opened my eyes, I was startled by an older man who was looking at me strangely. I chuckled softly and placed the book into my basket, slightly embarrassed.
He smiled at me oddly, and we both kept looking at the shelves in front of us. A conversation was struck about the books, and the topic of my goal to become a professor of Literature arose.
As he finally peeked into the basket and observed that my found treasure was a copy of of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, he rolled his eyes and made a maddening observation.
“Well, it’s no Harry Potter."
I believe my jaw actually dropped as I stared back at him.
“What?” I said in shock. “But Tolkien is SO much better than Rowling,” I said, jumping to defense of the literary master who had changed my world forever and showed me what true literature actually is.
“Harry Potter has had a much bigger impact on people. It’s the most popular series in the world right now, and if you are going to be a teacher, you’ll have to teach the books.”
“I’m sorry,” I retorted. “But J.K. Rowling is a storyteller who created a popular fictional series for young adults. J.R.R. Tolkien, on the other hand, was a master storyteller who created worlds and languages and peoples that have captivated children and adults alike for decades. His works are true literature that have influenced many authors since... including Rowling.”
The conversation went from there, and I don’t remember much else of it except for the feelings I took away from it. Shock. Disbelief. Disappointment. And an avid determination to help others understand the sheer genius and beauty that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien has shared with the world.
I do not intend to disparage J.K. Rowling or any other author, but the continued comparisons of other authors to this master storyteller is something that has more than once set me rabid about the mouth.
I know that many others would share the belief that Tolkien is among the greatest writers of all time and has created one of the greatest fantasy worlds t0 ever have been shared in text, but let me add my humble and awe-inspired thoughts on the man who wrote the world I want to live in and sometimes forget isn’t real… or is it?
The truth of the matter is that I could spend my days and nights discussing this man and his literary works ad nauseum. As a lover of his work and a student of literature in general, I have spent hundreds of hours investigating his past, reading his work, and writing about the man and works both.
His body of work speaks for itself as to why the world that he created is the richest, best and most comprehensively created fantasy land that an author has ever deemed to share with the world, but perhaps this brief intro to the man and his genius will help to garner more appreciation for that world he so masterfully created.
Tolkien was a very bright and talented child who’s love for language began before most children were speaking in full sentences. By the time he was in his teens, he had begun to create his own languages and went on to study literature and language at Oxford, learning from those who had influenced and inspired him as a child and becoming a philologist and true master of numerous languages, both real and created.
His love of and skill with words served him well throughout his life, and this love is evident in the true beauty of the languages that he created within his created world of Middle-Earth.
One of the most remarkable things about the languages that he wrote within the books is that they are not only melodic and beautiful languages, but they actually adhere to the rules of language. It was these created languages that influenced Tolkien to make a world that was big enough and beautiful enough to contain them.
~ "The invention of languages is the foundation. The 'stories' were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows."~ Tolkien
As someone who loves language but does not possess the linguistic ability that Tolkien seemed to be born with, I find the languages in his books to be like songs that I hear in a foreign language: I do not understand the words, but my heart understands the stories within through the music and the passion the singer conveys.
On the topic of beautiful music that moves, Tolkien went so far as to write epic and beautiful songs, both in English and in his created languages, to include in his stories: Songs of heroes and villains, of love and of loss, of treasure and of war.
Tolkien was also a gifted artist, and he used this skill to complete his stories with beautifully and creatively crafted maps and images that help the reader to feel truly immersed and captivated by his world.
As you read his books, you feel not as though you are reading a piece of fiction that is held bound by the paper and cardboard and stitching that holds the book together, but you feel as though that world has left the page and surrounded you, pulling you into it. The paper falls away, and the characters and songs and stories become so real and vivid to you that you love them, hate them, fear them and fight for them yourself.
Those characters are also so much larger than the paper world that fails to contain them. Tolkien was a man who held out as long as he could from joining the war that changed the world, not because he was a coward but because he was a man of feeling and insights that perhaps were lost on those around him at the time. Like any writer, the experiences in his life informed his writing, and the characters and plots that he created are evidence of this.
Though a storyteller myself, Tolkien I am not, and I lack the words to fully describe why the world of Middle-Earth is so far superior to that of other fantasy worlds, but it is not just the beautiful languages and songs and images that he included.
Nor is it the magical landscapes and adventures that the characters find themselves amidst. It is not the characters so human with their rich complexities and charm. Nor the history and background of this magical world. No. It is all of them together. And so much more.
The Hobbits so delightfully mirror the Englishman that Tolkien wanted to be and show a strength that shines through humor and simplicity. The elegance and honor of the Elves reflect the dignity and grace that we all crave to be able to attain. The Men show such resilience and strength that it is all-too... human and relatable. The villains are all lurking on the other side of every mirror and in the darkness that we try to hide ourselves from but see everyday in the world around us. The heroes are the same as those we see in the mirror and wish to be and have been in the past. Tolkien reminds us that even the smallest and most frightened of us can be mighty and heroic!
“Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons; it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien poured himself into his writings in a way that many are unable to do. -- The fallen friends and family, the heartache of being separated from the one you love and from watching those you love suffering, the fear and disgust with watching the natural world around you being turned into something new and unnatural, the hatred and coldness that men can show.
No other writer in history can claim to have been as thorough or masterful in their creation of a fantasy world. Though many have successfully created fantasy lands, they seem to all have built upon our existing world or knowledge of it. Where their imagination failed them, Tolkien's soared into unreached heights as he crafted his rich and complex world with love and patience, bleeding his soul onto the paper. His impact on the world of fantasy literature has never been met, and I do not believe it ever will be.
Tolkien’s works of fiction read more like beautifully crafted historical texts and songs handed down through generations than mere works of fiction. His characters, fueled by the languages and world that he created for them, have reached the hearts and intellect of young and old for decades and influenced generations of writers and readers.
The main duty of a fantasy writer is to create a world where the reader can escape, to create characters who the reader can love and become, to create a story and world that feels so real that it pulls the reader in, and they forget, if only for a time, that it is not reality.
To truly be the best fantasy world, the created place must be all-encompassing. It needs to have a language as well as people and lands, and it needs to be a place that feels both fantastic and real at the same time. No other writer has ever accomplished this as well as John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. He will always be the one writer to rule them all.
“The Father of Modern Fantasy.”
“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which 'Escape' is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
― J.R.R. Tolkien