Fantasy without Tolkien

I had been meaning to write this post for a while: a speculative guess at what the fantasy genre would look like without J.R.R. Tolkien. There’s no one answer to this, since it’s actually the sort of question that hinges on what, exactly, the historical point of difference is.

If you stop Tolkien ever jotting down the famous line “in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” you prevent the publication of The Hobbit, and thus The Lord of the Rings – immense changes to the genre right there – but The Silmarillion would still exist. Whether it would ever see the light of day is another matter, but it is entirely possible that it may have developed its own little cult following, and without the author being side-tracked by Rings, it is also possible that we might have ended up with the thing being finished in Tolkien’s own lifetime (a complete Fall of Gondolin!). So no hobbits or halflings in the genre, but certainly Elves. You would also still have Tolkien’s influence on C.S. Lewis, leading to the latter’s science-fiction trilogy and Narnia. From there, you could imagine a recognisable strain of post-Narnian children’s fantasy, stretching down to J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. And Tolkien would still be remembered for his academic work, most famously his 1936 Beowulf article, The Monsters and the Critics.

But there are other potential ways of approaching this question. In 1940, Tolkien ran into severe writer’s block at the tomb of Balin. Suppose he never overcomes this, leaving Rings as a tragically unfinished work. That way you end up with both The Silmarillion and The Hobbit – all of the above then applies, but Tolkien also becomes remembered among the general public as a children’s author.

Or you could go down the darker route: Tolkien never comes down with trench fever in late October 1916, and is never invalided back to Britain. Since this represents the most dramatic change, this will be the scenario I’ll consider.

Given the casualties among the Lancashire Fusiliers, it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that that bout of trench fever saved Tolkien’s life.

Suppose, then, that Tolkien dies at the Somme, along with the more than a million others. Edith is left a widow back in Britain, and their children are never born.

What happens to Fantasy?

There is the argument that if Tolkien hadn’t done it, someone else would have: there was (and is) an enormous public appetite for high fantasy that Tolkien had the good fortune to stumble upon. Personally, I reject this argument – Tolkien’s creation reflects his unique intellectual background as a world-renowned philologist, and represents a lifetime of devotion and obsession. No-one else could have written The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, and I would point out that there is no equivalent in either science-fiction (no, not even Dune) or horror.

So fantasy would be different. In what respects? I think there are three parts to this: structure, content, and culture. Structure refers to the way fantasy stories are constructed, content to the actual nature of the narrative, and culture to the wider social impact of the genre.

Structure:

Before The Lord of the Rings, the primary form of fantasy writing was the short story. Novels certainly existed – William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End (1896), E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (1922), and Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) – but these were the exception. Dunsany’s short stories, together with the pulp heroics of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, and the weirder output of Clark Ashton Smith – this was fantasy fiction before Tolkien. With the arrival of Rings in 1954-1955, and then the post-1977 imitations, you not only had the novel replacing the short story as the template, but full-scale trilogies of novels. This has since expanded even further, culminating in modern multi-volume epics such as Steven Erikson’s Malazan or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

Without Tolkien, it is likely that the older short story tradition would have endured much longer, and those fantasy novels that did appear would be more likely stand-alones, rather than parts of a trilogy. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast also functions as an accidental trilogy, but it is hard to see that functioning as a template text after the manner of Rings – even if we ignore its comparative denseness, it is entirely possible to dispense with the third volume altogether. No-one wants to follow up a genre-defining couple of books with a minor add-on.

Admittedly, even without Tolkien, at some point the novel was going to become more prominent due to simple commercial factors. Printing costs dropped over the course of the twentieth century – making longer works more financially viable – and the traditional home of fantasy short fiction, pulp magazines, faded in the face of competition from television and other entertainment. Even so, it is not difficult to imagine a fantasy genre in the vein of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories – episodic adventures housed in a single volume – or fix-up novels in the vein of Michael Moorcock’s Elric output. Jack Vance may have never written Lyonesse, but his Dying Earth books would shine. Structurally, we are talking a fantasy genre very different from the doorstop trilogies of our timeline.

There would also be much less emphasis on developed world-building. Partly this is down to there being less page space, but the major reason is Tolkien himself. Tolkien’s greatest genre influence is in creating the consistent impression of vast historical depth. Without him, the genre precedents would fall back on real-world settings (urban fantasy, historical fantasy, H.P. Lovecraft, J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, et cetera), with secondary worlds being much more patchwork quilt in style. Consider Dunsany, Burroughs, Smith, and Howard – the setting serves as backdrop, rather than a character after the manner of Middle-earth. Even Mervyn Peake, whose setting is genuinely immersive, prefers atmosphere over world (Titus is the 77th Earl of Groan. One gets the impression that Peake paid little attention to Earls 1-75, or where Gertrude came from).

Content:

A genre of shorter stories and less worldbuilding is inherently more favourable to monster-of-the-week Sword & Sorcery than Tolkienian Epic Fantasy: you focus on a protagonist or two, have them overcome their immediate obstacle, then move on. The influence of Howard and Leiber would shine much brighter in this scenario, and while there is still plenty of room for Fate of the World stuff (c.f. Moorcock’s Stormbringer), that would be the exception, rather than the rule. Taking George R.R. Martin as an example, think the Dunk and Egg novellas, rather than A Song of Ice and Fire. This is a world without Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, or any of the more recent multi-volume epics.

If Fantasy without Tolkien would be less Epic – less interested in massive power-plays and massive battles – it would also paradoxically be less interested in the ordinary person. One thing that distinguishes The Lord of the Rings from the likes of Beowulf is that the protagonists are not larger than life heroes, skilled in the arts of war and magic – they are hobbits, very mundane and humble. The only things Frodo and Sam have going for them are grim determination and their moral choices. A more traditional story would have focused on Aragorn as the hero, and so, I think, would a genre without Tolkien. Even the likes of Fafhrd of the Grey Mouser, less grand than Conan and less tragic than Elric, survive by virtue of their street-smarts and competence. Frodo Baggins wouldn’t stand a chance.

Then there are the Tolkienian tropes. Orcs? Well, Tolkien was influenced by the likes of George MacDonald’s goblins, but I don’t think there would be anything so elaborate as the Orcs. In a monster-of-the-week setting, it would be better to mix up the followers a bit, which also means that the erstwhile Dark Lord figure is more likely to be a small-scale sorcerer, cult leader, or Mad King. Dwarves? They would be Dwarfs instead, and associated with the likes of Snow White and Wagner – creatures of folklore, certainly, but unlikely to be a defined fantasy “race” as such. Elves are trickier: Poul Anderson’s Broken Sword (1954) makes extensive use of them, and shows that even independently of Tolkien, fantasy could make these creatures something other than small winged Victorian fairies. So, yes, I think a genre without Tolkien would still have Elves – albeit less common, and ones with a more sinister and malevolent edge than those of Middle-earth.

In the absence of Rings establishing a clear demarcation line, I think it is also likely that the traditional overlap between fantasy and science-fiction would have endured much longer (recall that not just Burroughs’ Barsoom, but also Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros and David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus (1920) are technically extra-terrestrial adventures). Science-Fiction generally would remain the more prominent of the speculative genres, and there would be no incentive or motivation for publishers to split fantasy away. Insofar as you would encounter “pure” fantasy, I would speculate that Dunsany would remain a key template. Peake is too dense, and Howard’s social views would become problematic to a modern audience. Or perhaps the pure fantasy strain would be heavily influenced by Arthuriana? The Quest narrative would obviously exist without Tolkien (indeed, Tolkien inverted it – Rings is all about trying to get rid of the artefact, not recover it).

Culture:

Geek culture would exist, no doubt, but I think it would be heavily weighted towards science-fiction: the likes of Doctor Who and Star Trek. While the creator of Dungeons & Dragons was hesitant about identifying Tolkien’s influence, Rings unquestionably influenced the people who started playing the game. Without Tolkien, would there be a viable audience for Tabletop RPGs? I am sceptical. Without that sort of shared community – whether in game-form or otherwise – I think you are looking at fantasy being a very, very niche interest.

The one possible exception to this that I remain unsure about – Harry Potter. Harry Potter falls into the old-fashioned genre of boarding school stories dating back to Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Rowling added wizards and magic, and the rest is history. Could she have done this without Tolkien? Of course – Merlin and Arthuriana would still exist, though Voldemort likely would not have been the “Dark Lord”. Would she have done this? Uncertain. Rowling was very nearly not published as it was. Would a publisher take such a risk without a well-defined fantasy genre? The million dollar question. Perhaps we would be looking at a science-fiction Harry Potter instead…

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One thought on “Fantasy without Tolkien

  1. Pingback: An alternate history: Tolkien lives to be 100. | A Phuulish Fellow

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