J R R Tolkien is lauded as the “Grandfather” of modern fantasy. He created the world of Middle-Earth and told some incredible stories with it that generations of readers have read and loved. Not stopping there, his work went on to inspire another whole host of writers who in turn went on to create a multitude of books, rpgs, video games, tv shows and movies.
As an avid reader and lover of the fantasy genre, I have no problem whatsoever with this. In fact I eagerly look forward to the new (good) fantasy books. What I do have an issue with is the outright ripping off of Tolkien’s work by far too many authors. It’s insulting, it’s unethical….and it makes for terrible reading.
What is this “ripping off” I keep ranting about? In my humble opinion it is the transplanting plot elements and word building wholesale from middle earth to your story until it’s barely recognizable as an individual work. To elaborate.
Tolkien had fair elves and dour dwarves (Yes he calls Dwarfs Dwarves) who don’t get along with each other in his books. And he obviously favors the elves (The poor dwarves aren’t even a proper race crated by Ilúvatar, they were made out of stone by Aule of the Valar). How many fantasy novels have this exact same combo? Did their writers even realize that most of middle earth is presented from the point of view of the hobbits and they only saw a very thin slice of the world. Only one of the seven dwarven houses is truly introduced, and the elves are almost all gone by the time of the novels. Yet most writers don’t consider any of this and simply transplant them fully into their books. And lets be honest, they are really not presented well, at all.
Tolkien had orcs in his books. They were presented as irredeemable and barbaric. They represent evil. Considering they started out as elves corrupted by Melkor, they show just how low a people can sink if they follow the wrong leader and his teachings. Alas, many a writer introduces orcs into their work just to give the villain a convenient army and the hero something to fight and kill without any icky moral ramifications. And no, calling them Trollocs or Urgals is not subtle at all.
The dark lord also featured prominently in middle earth. In fact there were two of them. They also represented evil in the world of middle earth, and were behind pretty much everything that went wrong. Tolkien is effectively implying that if it wasn’t for Melkor the age of the elves would have gone on forever, a paradise on earth, and if it wasn’t for Sauron the human kingdoms of Numenor and Gondor would have endured forever. He is saying that men devoid of evil are capable of doing good works that last through the ages. Alas, again many an author has ignored all of this in favor of creating an all encompassing villain for the hero to heroically vanquish at the end of the triology. The dark lord reduced to noting but a plot device (Ofcourse most of our ripoff authors have the good sense not to call their villain a dark lord, no they use far more subtle titles like the “Warlock Lord”).
The wise old wizard is another much abused Tolkien cliché. Gandalf did go by a lot of aliases, but even he would be miffed by these faces he had been forced to wear. Not to mention the fact that he has been reduced to history narrator and quest giver. Let’s face it, Gandalf has a good reason for most of what he did. He was forbidden to fight directly, so he went around making nice with the leaders of the various kingdoms and cultivates a friendship with Aragorn with a long term plan of restoring Gondor into a powerful buffer state between Sauron and the west, it was the same with the lonely mountain. Even though they never came out and said it, most of their actions during the books were politically and militarily motivated. His sole purpose for existing sure as hell wasn’t to coax the hero out of his village and to give a lecture about world history, he did as much as, if not more than Fordo and Aragorn to stop the dark lord.
The one ring is another oft abused cliché. The magical artifact that allows the hero to save or damn the world. Not to mention letting a farm boy who doesn’t know what he’s doing half the time to vanquish dark lords. There are so many of these in fantasy (swords, rings, staffs, elfstones etc) but few of them are well done. The one ring was a huge gamble, it almost corrupted Fordo. And it almost fell into the hands of the enemy more than once. In fact it took balls of steel to sent it with a hobbit on the commando mission to take out the dark lord. All of this is once again ignored in favor of the plot hook artifact.
There are so many others, like the elven love interest and the race representative companions, but I’m skipping them in favor of ranting about the plot ripoff’s. This happens in more than novels. The hero meets the wise old wizard, gets the quest, finds the one ring, meets the race representative companions, goes off on the journey, is pursued by the ringwariths, fights in the last battle, uses the one ring to vanquish the dark lord at the last moment. Tolkien did it and he did it well. And it can be done right by others, so long as you don’t loose your individualism and make it obvious this is the same plot as LOTR. Sadly it has been done terribly far two often. So terrible in fact that the plot feels like it was produced by a robot. I’d say a teenager, but a teenager has done a better job than some adults (Eragon…..not great, but better than some I might name)
All of this is making no mention of the sheer amount of world-building Tolkien put in to his work. A large amount of Tolkien’s success is down to his world-building. Using his creations in lieu of taking the effort to build your own world doesn’t give good results.
With all that said, I need to note that it has been done right, so you really don’t have an excuse (Tad Williams and his Memory Sorrow and Thorn trilogy has every one of the above mentioned elements and still manages to tell a great story. In fact you need to look very closely to find the parallels). More than one writer, game etc has done homage to Tolkien and still managed to keep the reader entertained and tell a unique story. Ripping off old Tolkien can be done right.
This post might seem opinionated and blunt, but I love reading, and I want to read good engaging fantasy. Not boring predictable fantasy.