Sunday 23 March 2008

Comment: Has Tolkien lost his crown?

Last night I was giving my nominations for the SFX "best genre authors ever" poll. In the end I aborted my entry, as I realised that I haven't read nearly enough of the 'classic' authors - or even the likes of Erikson - to be able to give a respectable answer. Oh sure, I could just vote for my favourite five authors, but that isn't what the poll is asking. Just because I like JV Jones a lot doesn't mean I should be putting her forward as a vote for best author ever. I've been meaning to read more of the older authors anyway, so will use this as a motivating factor. I'm sure there's plenty of exciting books out there that I have yet to discover.

Anyway, to the point. I briefly touched upon this in a previous post, but looking at the nominations put forward by SFX readers really got me thinking about Tolkien and his position as the undisputed master of fantasy.

While the views expressed on the SFX forums are only one way of registering your votes (you can send an email or leave a comment on the original article) it's fair to say that 90% of votes will be cast this way and that the results will be largely indicative of overall trends.

So, to put it bluntly, it doesn't look good for Tolkien. Dozens upon dozens of readers' nominations don't include Tolkien at all in their five choices, let alone as their number one choice. This of course got me thinking why this might be the case.

I thought at first that maybe some of the readers who didn't include Tolkien might be younger than those that did, and perhaps were not so much under his influence when growing up with fantasy (or not reading books that were as obviously influenced by him). This quickly proved to not be the case. A number of voters included the likes of Jules Verne, John Wyndham and H. G. Wells without including Tolkien, so this doesn't seem to be the issue.

No, I believe the issue is simpler: The Lord of the Rings - undisputed classic as it is - doesn't manage to stand quite so tall over some of the more recent works. The huge success of the likes of A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time and the Malazan Book of the Fallen have proved that you don't need to rely on The Lord of the Rings if you want imaginative, diverse fantasy on an epic scale. Martin hasn't been called the 'American Tolkien' for nothing.

Furthermore, while The Lord of the Rings is a brilliant story, Tolkien was not a brilliant writer. The plot for The Lord of the Rings plods along interminably at times and I don't feel that he got under the skin of his characters as well as more recent authors have done with theirs. I'm not disputing his world-building, which is magnificent, but I feel - although some will consider it heresy to suggest this - that some - no, many - of the more recent fantasists are superior writers.

Let's face it, Tolkien never constructed a plot as tight or enthralling as Martin's Storm of Swords. He lacked the characterisation of David Gemmell. His writing doesn't possess the close-up focus on characters that the likes of Abercrombie and Lynch provide.

In short, I think readers have started to realise that there are writers out there who are not just capable of telling stories no less enthralling than Tolkien's, but who are also superior writers. This is possibly why Tolkien does not appear with as much frequency in the SFX poll as you would probably have thought.

Has he lost his place at the head of the fantasy table? Only time will tell. I don't think his influence will ever fade - his work inspired far too many people for that - but I think it's fair to say that perhaps his star doesn't shine quite as strongly as it once did. Perhaps this is a good thing; it shows we have a number of highly-talented authors writing exciting works, and this can only be good for the genre.


Todd Newton said...

I enjoyed LotR and what Tolkien's work did to revolutionize the genre, but it's been historically proven that the pioneers of something new don't make it "best," they just make it "first." This is a common theme everywhere, why should it not be common with literature? Why are people afraid of saying that Tolkien is not the pinnacle of modern Fantasy?

Anonymous said...

The thing is literature at the time he wrote was a different ball of wax. Stories were more plot driven with a different sensibility. And I think, he also wrote in a similar style to some of the Icelandic sagas that he drew source material from. While there is the occassional allusion to emotion of characters, in a broad sense, the sagas were about actions and not thoughts.

Tolkein remains an important writer, but I have never considered his writing to be personally important. He retains the biases of the time. But, for the same reason I also don't care for a great deal of science fiction writing produced at the same point in time because of the focus on male characters, the focus on plot versus character, and the blatant agendas some of the writers have that I take issue with.

Anonymous said...

I happen to think that Tolkien still does retain his crown, and tend to view him more as a king with a hell of a good army doing the work for him now. I'm not about to rip people apart for saying they hate Tolkien or that they think he's not the tops. We all have opinions.

For me, the point made about not having deep characters and a plodding story is, to some extent, accurate. However, when viewed in the prism of his purpose for writing them, as mythology, I tend to find that his still slightly shadowed and non-deep characters work perfectly well.

I love Tolkien and his work, both the Middle-Earth works and those from without. I also think a lot of people tend to diminish Tolkien, and his writing, these days for the simple reason that it seems to be the "it thing" to do these days.

I can love Tolkien for all he brings just as easily as I can love Martin for all he brings. Each has extraordinary strengths and each is a writer of extreme ability and worthy of praises. But in the end, Tolkien will always be where I lay my hat...and that doesn't mean that he's my favorite author in the genre.

I actually hold Stephen R. Donaldson to be my personal favorite.