The World Builders: Unto the Horizon

In this five-part mini-series, entitled “The World Builders,” I have listed the seven authors I believe have changed how we perceive the fantasy genre and explained the rationale behind each choice.

J.R.R. Tolkien and T.H. White helped revive fantasy after it had fallen out of popularity. Their published works in the early 2oth century laid the groundwork for what the genre would become, and set the gold standard for excellence by which later fantasy novels would be judged.

Tolkien, White and their contemporaries inspired a new era of storytellers. Authors like George R. R. Martin, Guy Gavriel Kay and Robert Jordan explored the limitations of the genre, and opened up new worlds of possibility. The fantasy fan-base grew and began to distinguish itself as independent of the science-fiction community. The most successful fantasy authors built up followings of devoted fans, who exchanged recommendations for great new fantasy books by word of mouth.

It wasn’t until the 1990s, though, that fantasy celebrated its mainstream coming-out. J.K. Rowling and her “Harry Potter” books played a pivotal role in introducing a curious mainstream America to the fantasy genre. The Internet, too, helped boost fantasy’s popularity. Die-hard fans built online communities where they could go to discuss the latest novels and genre news. As fantasy slowly earned acceptance among mainstream audiences, the old guard of fantasy readers delighted in a new wave of fantasy movies and spin-offs.

But in the last few years, their excitement has tempered to doubt. Fantasy’s new-found place in the spotlight—and, consequently, its growing market potential—has invited cheap imitations meant to appeal to a new class of less discerning fantasy readers. Some fans sense a threat to the genre’s integrity, and have been reluctant to accept books like Stephanie Meyer‘s “Twilight”—with its teen-romance plot and the token inclusion of bastardized fantasy creatures—as true fantasy.

Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight" series

Maybe someone who’s read the books can tell me what an apple, a bloody flower, a ribbon and a chessboard have to do with vampires. (Photo Source: Wikimedia)

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The World Builders: Wizardry and Vampires

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In this five-part mini-series, entitled “The World Builders,” I list the seven authors I believe have changed how we perceive the fantasy genre and explain the rationale behind each choice. Agree? Disagree? I would love to hear your input in the comments! 🙂

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100405_EasterEggRoll_683 by Daniel Ogren, on Flickr (CC Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

J.K. Rowling at the 2010 White House Easter Egg Roll.

6) J.K. Rowling
published “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” in 1997

What can I say? “Harry Potter” was my childhood, and millions of kids, teens and young adults around the world today would say the same. We grew up with Harry, shared in his joy and his grief. And if you weren’t a child when you read “Harry Potter” for the first time, J.K. Rowling somehow made you feel like one again.

With a flair for storytelling that only improved with time, she drew us into her magical world of wizards and muggles, duels and dragons, quidditch and curses. Each of her characters touched our hearts and taught us something about ourselves. They taught us how to be brave, how to love and how to forgive.

I think “Harry Potter” is where the popularization of fantasy really began. It was Rowling who turned kids who didn’t like books into lifelong readers, and turned kids who didn’t like fantasy into lifelong nerds. And that’s when the miraculous paradox began—it became cool to be a nerd. It became fashionable to wear glasses (in high school, I knew more than a few people who had ordinary glass lenses in their frames), and to talk about which Hogwarts house you belonged to. (Ravenclaw 4 life!) It didn’t happen overnight, but one bespectacled kid at a time, fantasy became mainstream.

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The World Builders: The Heirs of the Kingdom

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In this five-part mini-series, entitled “The World Builders,” I list the seven authors I believe have changed how we perceive the fantasy genre and explain the rationale behind each choice. Agree? Disagree? I would love to hear your input in the comments! :)

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3) George R. R. Martin
published “Dying of the Light” in 1977

George R. R. Martin has recently enjoyed a spike in popularity thanks to the HBO production of his epic fantasy series, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Before the televised adaptation, his works lingered in relative obscurity, but he has always been remembered among die-hard fans for his ruthless slaying of beloved characters and his seeming inability to meet deadlines for new book releases.

A Song of Ice and Fire Hardcover by Jemimus, on Flickr (CC Attribution 2.0 Generic License)

What many people don’t realize is that Martin was churning out works of speculative fiction long before the scene of direwolves in the summer snow came to him one day in 1991. Of all the authors who have attempted the creation of a secondary world akin to Middle-earth, only George R. R. Martin has even come close, in my opinion. Yet I hesitate to christen him “the American Tolkien” as some have done. As Martin himself has said, his style and Tolkien’s are apples and oranges. While Tolkien favored high language and eucatastrophic endings, Martin prefers gritty realism and tragedy.

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The World Builders: Reawakening a Genre

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In this five-part mini-series, entitled “The World Builders,” I list the seven authors I believe have changed how we perceive the fantasy genre and explain the rationale behind each choice. Agree? Disagree? I would love to hear your input in the comments! :)

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The Lord of the Rings

A small part of my Tolkien collection.

1) J.R.R Tolkien
published “The Hobbit” in 1937

Tolkien, the undisputed master of modern fantasy, grand-daddy of a hundred thousand quest-adventure trilogies and RPGs. Just imagine—without Tolkien, elves would still be living under mushroom caps, dwarves would all look like Tyrion Lannister instead of Gimli son of Glóin, and orcs…well, orcs wouldn’t even exist as a species unto themselves.

I debated excluding Tolkien from this list, only because it feels trite, even unnecessary, to mention him as an influential fantasy author. Everyone who reads fantasy knows who Tolkien is, even if they aren’t fans of his works. (I can forgive readers who can’t bring themselves to wrestle through “The Lord of the Rings.” Like aged whiskey and stinky tofu, Tolkien is an acquired taste.)

But I reject the claim that Tolkien’s works were unoriginal or uninspired. He reawakened a genre that had slumbered for a thousand years, and he brought it to life on a larger scale than ever before. Yes, fantasy existed before Tolkien. Check out this list on Goodreads if you want to learn more about such stories. But they were only that—mere stories, not secondary worlds that lived and breathed as characters in their own right. That is what Middle-earth is: It is a character, indeed it is the central character, of “The Lord of the Rings,” and that is why Tolkien tops this list as the man who single-handedly changed fantasy forever.

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The World Builders: 7 Authors Who Changed How We Perceive Fantasy

Fantasy is “in” like it’s never been in before. Starting in the late ’90s and continuing well into the new millennium, we have witnessed the explosion in popularity of fantasy movies, TV shows, books, video games, merchandise and more.

The critical point for me here is that they are popular, even with mainstream audiences. Fantasy has always had a core following of geeks and gamers and D&D devotees (people much like myself), but never before has the genre been so embraced as a part of pop culture.

Today, it’s not only okay but cool to wear a t-shirt emblazoned with a fire-breathing dragon. The runaway best-seller successes of the last ten years have been series like “Harry Potter,” “Twilight,” “Inheritance” and “The Hunger Games.” At the writing of this post, “Big Bang Theory” is TV Guide’s most popular show on network television, and that’s a show about a bunch of nerds. In June, TorrentFreak crowned HBO’s adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series “the most pirated TV show of the season.”

Sure, the unredeemable jocks and American Idol” fans are still out there, but the numbers don’t lie. Fantasy is now cool.

For You Are Crunchy and Good With Ketchup! © Laughing At Dragons

Does this mean I get to take my dragon t-shirt out from the back of my closet?!

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Recovering Through Fantasy: How a Wounded Veteran Found Solace in Tolkien

In belated honor of Veterans Day, I want to talk a little bit about recovery.

Recovery can mean a lot of things. It can mean recovery from an illness, recovery from a disappointment, recovery from a lie, a hangover, an injury, an addiction. Some recoveries take hours; others, decades. There are some things from which you can never truly recover. But everyone knows that recovering is easier once you realize that you’re not the only one struggling, when a friend or a stranger reaches out and takes your hand.

For Jim Beverly, the strangers who eased his recovery were Aragorn and Frodo and Gandalf. Beverly was a private in the U.S. Army when he took shrapnel to the hand and knee in a 2003 attack, and in the period of frustration, rage and despair that followed, Beverly turned to Tolkien’s trilogy for solace and companionship. I found this story at TheOneRing.net, and I wanted to share it here.

A long-time reader of fantasy and familiar with interpretations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world by Peter Jackson and Ralph Bakshi, Beverly’s doctor asked him what one thing he needed the most.

“Something to read.”

Knowing the soldier had enjoyed The Hobbit during artillery school, the doctor had something in mind.

“As part of his treatment plan,” Beverly told TheOneRing.net in Atlanta at the 2011 DragonCon, “He brought his personal copies of the Lord of the Rings to me.

“He told me, ‘This is not a loan, it is a gift.'”

The same books were once given to the doctor in a time of need and in Beverly he found someone who could use them and would treasure them appropriately.

“They spoke to me. They had elements that I was dealing with at the same time. Hope and dread, adversity, perseverance and an overwhelming enemy.”

It should not be surprising that Tolkien—himself no stranger to the terrors of warfare—could write of war and death and grief with poignant elegance. Tolkien served as a signals officer in World War I and witnessed such blood-soaked battlefields as the Somme. Nowhere in “The Lord of the Rings” is the duty and burden of the soldier shown more vividly than in the character of Faramir. In “The Two Towers,” Faramir tells Frodo, “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”

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On Firsts of the Month I Am Prone to Delusions of Grandeur

Have you ever wondered why everyone makes New Year’s resolutions on January 1st?

What’s so special about January 1st? What’s wrong with June 24th or November 17th or April 3rd? It’s all so arbitrary. If you were truly committed to your resolution, would it matter that you made it on the first day of the year rather than midsummer’s eve?

But “firsts” are seductive like that. I blame the cyclical nature of our calendar for this phenomenon. After all, January 1st is still just the day after December 31st, Monday is still just the day after Sunday, and time marches ever onward without the least concern for how we choose to chop it up into convenient slices. Yet, invariably, the dastardly “firsts” lure us into believing that this time we’ll wipe the slate clean, start anew, and overcome character flaws that have plagued us since the womb.

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