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.

In 2004, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of “The Return of the King” won 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, becoming the first fantasy motion picture to receive that honor. This achievement proved what Tolkien fans have always known: No one, not even Hollywood, can deny the yearning to believe that Middle-earth arouses in us all. In a foreword to “The Hobbit,” fellow fantasy author Peter S. Beagle once wrote:

For in the end it is Middle-earth and its dwellers that we love, not Tolkien’s considerable gifts in showing it to us. I said once that the world he charts was there long before him, and I still believe it. He is a great enough magician to tap our most common nightmares, daydreams and twilight fancies, but he never invented them either: he found them a place to live, a green alternative to each day’s madness here in a poisoned world. We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers—thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.

2) T.H. White
published “The Once and Future King” in 1958

For all that his story is a famous one, T.H. White often goes unrecognized for his contributions to the genre. If you have seen Disney’s animated “The Sword in the Stone” or the acclaimed Broadway musical “Camelot,” then you know of T.H. White. Both are adaptations of White’s tetralogy, “The Once and Future King,” which chronicles the youth, education, reign and eventual fall of King Arthur.

Though I think we need not debate the importance of Arthurian legend as a precursor of modern fantasy, the story is not the reason for Mr. White’s appearance on this list. His real talent is an under-appreciated one, and that is his talent for crafting beautiful language. For me, there is nothing in the world so pleasant as the fluid sound of a sentence strung together with a master’s care, and T.H. White ranks among the best when it comes to the near-poetic style that one would rightly expect from a tale of King Arthur’s court.

Done well, the archaic voice adds depth, believability and enchantment to a work of fantasy. Done poorly, it becomes a mockery, and the spell is broken. As Ursula K. LeGuin wrote in her famous essay about style in fantasy, “To create what Tolkien calls ‘a secondary universe’ is to make a new world. A world where no voice has ever spoken before; where the act of speech is the act of creation. The only voice that speaks there is the creator’s voice. And every word counts.”

Here is a small taste of T.H. White making the words count in “The Once and Future King”:

He thought himself awake when he was already asleep. He saw the stars above his face, whirling on their silent and sleepless axis, and the leaves of the trees rustling against them, and he heard small changes in the grass. These little noises of footsteps and soft-fringed wing-beats and stealthy bellies drawn over the grass blades or rattling against the bracken at first frightened or interested him, so that he moved to see what they were (but never saw), then soothed him, so that he no longer cared to see what they were but trusted them to be themselves, and finally left him altogether as he swam down deeper and deeper, nuzzling into the scented turf, into the warm ground, into the unending waters under the earth.

“The World Builders” Mini-Series

Part 1: 7 Authors Who Changed How We Perceive Fantasy

Part 2: Reawakening a Genre

Part 3: The Heirs of the Kingdom

Part 4: Wizardry and Vampires

Part 5: Unto the Horizon

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5 thoughts on “The World Builders: Reawakening a Genre

  1. Interesting stuff. Agree with both to the limited extent of my knowledge. I’ve read both, although it’s been a while since I read The Once and Future King. But that excerpt is pretty fluid and exceptional, from what I can tell. I’ve always loved Middle Earth, and now that I think about it, you are probably right–he was probably the first to create an alternative world–but actually it wasn’t, because Middle Earth was understood to be the way Earth was long ago, before some great change (I think it was the destruction of the Ring).

    • @atoasttodragons Thanks for your comment! It’s true, Middle-earth is meant to be a fantastical re-imagining of our own Earth’s ancient history, but many people reading the books for the first time don’t realize that. I also think there’s some distinction between a world like Middle-earth and true “historical fantasy” worlds like Naomi Novik’s universe, where British soldiers ride dragons to battle against Napoleon. The only historical connection between Middle-earth and modern-day Earth that I’m aware of is the Elvish language, which Tolkien invented as a supposed proto-language of Finnish and Welsh. (P.S. Love your username! I intend to check out your blog when I get a spare moment!)

  2. Not yet read ‘The Once and Future King’ (though it’s on my ‘classics to-do’ list), though I must (quietly) admit to being a fan of the Disney re-imagining. Love the LeGuin quote, thank you for sharing. She quite correctly describes the standard any good author should aspire to.

    • @Paul Smith If you liked the LeGuin quote, you should check out the full essay, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.” When last I checked, a quick google search will bring it up in Google Books. She talks a great deal about language and its importance to fantasy. I think you’d enjoy it. 🙂

      I noticed when I glanced at your blog that you are looking to self-publish your first novel! Congratulations, and good luck! I’m still in the grueling stage of forcing myself to sit down every day and crank out a few hundred words or so on the rewrite of my novel, haha. I’m sure you know all about that.

      Thanks so much for commenting!

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