Mention in a crowd of book-lovers that you think J.R.R. Tolkien is the greatest fantasy author to ever live, and you’ll likely be surprised at how little argument you receive. To be sure, there will be some who profess an affinity for J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard; others may prefer their fantasy more realistic, and with heavy doses of death and dragon-fire, à la George R.R. Martin. At least one or two, if it’s a large crowd, will proclaim the superlative qualities of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga, although don’t ask them about the ending. And the more modern and forward-thinking at the gathering may be inclined to support Brandon Sanderson – a contemporary author just now coming into full bloom.
Despite all those arguments, there will be nearly no one who will say that your choice is a poor one. Every one of the authors just mentioned owes something to Tolkien’s world and lore, to say nothing of the fact that without Tolkien the entire genre of fantasy would not likely exist in its current form. But while few will argue with the validity of your choice, even fewer will be able to say why, exactly, Tolkien’s work is so indelible. Why can we, as readers, detect hints of Tolkien in Rowling’s wizards; dashes of the Silmarrillion’s epic conflict in Martin’s wars; and a sprinkling of the Ring’s seductive power in the corrupting influence of (male) magic employed by Robert Jordan? Is Tolkien merely a literary spice, seasoning and flavouring generations of writers after him?
The emotion behind the genre
What gave Tolkien such an outsized influence? His chroniclers have explored different explanations in far greater depth than I can here. But I do think there’s a relatively easy answer that is worth pondering. That answer is simply this: Tolkien set out, in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the proper feeling of fantasy. Tolkien himself referred to this, although he used the word “faerie,” or “fairy” rather than fantasy. In a famous address, entitled simply “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien gave a partial definition:
For the moment I will say only this: a “fairy-story” is one which touches on or uses Faerie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic—but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician.
In other words, the key feature of fantasy lies in its acceptance of magic, or of a magical realm, as a simple fact of life. That is the first part of what I think Tolkien is saying, but there’s something more there also. “Magic of a peculiar mood and power,” Tolkien states. What could he mean?
It might be helpful to think of a modern example. There’s a difference between “magic,” as used by any number of fantasy authors today, and “magic” as hinted at by Tolkien. There’s something more mysterious, more ephemeral, in the magic mentioned by Tolkien. It’s not a technical magic capable of being reduced to mere incantations, or an alchemical one to be found in a particular formula. It can be studied, sure; Gandalf and Saruman both studied magic, and both were powerful magicians. A side note, but it is worth noting that frequently in the books the study of magic is somehow tied to a fall into evil. Saruman’s study leads him astray – and centuries before him, the men of Numenor studied to prolong their lives, and were enslaved by Sauron.
Tolkien’s magic does not equal a magical science. The difference here is similar to the difference between certain technological thrillers. Think of the Mission: Impossible series. Technology provides answers to myriad problems, boosting the abilities of Ethan Hunt and his crew to impossible – dare I say, nearly-magical – levels. Compare that to the BladeRunner films. Technology exists there, yes – but there’s something strange about it. It’s the creation of an entire race of beings that exist as something more, or less, than human – an idea not dissimilar to some in Tolkien’s works. There’s a magic there, one that I think Tolkien would have recognized.
I’m not arguing that Tolkien’s definition of magic or fantasy is the only one; there is a wealth of good, even excellent literature in categories which Tolkien surely would have excluded from his “fairy stories” (and did, in his essay). And yet, that’s the mysterious aspect that Tolkien made widespread. He allowed an otherworldly sense to creep into his stories. He let the mystery of magic flourish, and refrained from explaining how it worked. It just did.
That same intangible sense of magic exists in the best fantasy novels out there today. Modern authors may feel more need to explain what lies beneath their magical systems; I suspect there’s something there which relates to the highly scientific world we exist in. The best authors rise above that tendency, or even find success through it. J.K. Rowling delves deeply into incantations and formulas, but at the end of the day, Harry Potter derives strength from something else, something beyond what incantations can give.
A proper feeling of fantasy resides most strongly in the genre of literature that bears its name, but that is not the only place one can find it. At least two other categories of writing carry strong hints of the Faerie of Tolkien’s stories. One he would certainly have recognized, and the other was just coming into its own during his lifetime.
To start with the latter: science fiction, at least in some forms, is strongly reminiscent of Faerie. There are exotic worlds and strange creatures, which seem to be part of a world (if one can stretch the definition a bit) that we recognize, but in which we are actually the outsiders. Tolkien hints at this:
Faerie 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.
There are certain genres of sci-fi that I am sure Tolkien would not include in the Fairy realm. So-called “hard” sci-fi, which focuses on the technological details of far-off worlds and space exploration (think The Martian) would not fit. I’m less sure about space operas like Star Wars, which do share some of the mystery and magic as embodied in the Force. C.S. Lewis, a contemporary and good friend of Tolkien’s, penned a three-volume space trilogy which reads far more like fantasy than science fiction. Stories in that vein share much with Tolkien’s idea of Fairy.
Histories and Myths
The other category which shares Fairy blood is the same genre from which Tolkien himself gained inspiration. Myths and fables were the lifeblood both of Tolkien’s work as a philologist and university professor and his stories. The ancient Nordic tales, the stories of the British Isles, all served as prototypes for Tolkien – not for the content of his stories, but for the style, mystery, and magic of them. A copy of Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf sits in my library, and even in a quick glance through the saga one can hear the echoes of “The Tale of Beren and Luthien,” or the song “Frodo of the Nine Fingers,” found in Tolkien’s works.
There’s no exact parallel to modern myths and fables, but in the better works of historical fiction I think there are shades of mythic sagas. These are more often found in older stories, of course, or more accurately of stories set in older times. A recent example, little-known, is the rather excellent No Snakes in Iceland, by Jordan Poss. Set in Viking Iceland, the tale blends the real-world with magical terrors and strange curses in a way Tolkien would have welcomed.
The lasting nature of Faerie
Once again, we come back around to Tolkien’s power. He unleashed fantasy into the modern world, set it free from the shackles of mere adventure stories or children’s fables. He harnessed the ancient power of myths and legends, and gave them new forms. His influence is not universal; he opened the box called “fantasy,” and countless sub-genres flew out. But when you read a book, whatever the story or setting, and a wondrous enchantment creeps over you; when you feel yourself transported to a different realm, and know the curses and magicks that wait you there; when that strange feeling comes, you’ve met a proper feeling of fantasy. You’ve met a child of Tolkien.