What I call Tolkein’s Legacy of the Rings doesn’t kick-start the fantasy genre. It originates in the roots of story telling.
Fantasy was not new to readers in the 1950’s. Throughout the 1920’s pulp magazines like Weird Tales published fantastical stories for a wider American audience. Fantasy stories established authors like HP Lovecraft, Robert E Howard, Edgar Rice Borroughs, each building detailed fantasy worlds and mythos.
Lord Dunsany’s 1905 Time and the Gods features a detailed creation mythos. His 1924 The King of Elflands Daughter features a fully realised elvish culture with marriage and politics and a magic system. Just like we see in Tolkien’s Silmarillion
Lewis Carroll’s 1865 Alice in Wonderland features a young, curious protagonist on a fantastical adventure, seemingly without fear.
The Wizard of Oz, Hans Christian Andersen’s and the Brothers Grimm fairy tales all feature child characters who journey through wondrous worlds of wild adventure. In the end, the characters return to the real world and confront adult responsibilities.
The Chronicles of Narnia sends children who to a land where time passes quickly and returns them to confront their issues back home. Dorothy returns from Oz with the knowledge there’s no place like it.
Worlds of Wonder
Often whimsical and nonsensical, these worlds communicated themes and object lessons. The un-reality of these worlds didn’t matter. Time might pass more quickly or slowly than in our world, accelerating the character’s learning. Many of these are portal fantasies, where characters literally escape the real world.
Sir Philip Sydney’s The Faerie Queen is the escapist hit of the Elizbethan era, where humans enter the dangerous magical world of immortal spirits.
Tolkien cites the Old English epic poem Beowulf as a major influence. It’s a close relative of the tales of Gilgamesh and the often fantastical Mahabarat. Norse and Egyptian myhtology are filled with heroes, gods and monsters.
Greek myth celebrates heroic quests featuring iconic monsters; Medusa, the Sirens, Cyclops, the Minotaur in his labyrinth, the Kraken.
In wider European tradition, we have tales of the Wild Hunt, Herne the Hunter and the White Hart.
Lore and Archetypes
These sit in the canon of folklore, somehow disconnected by time, culture and beliefs. Tolkien went further. Middle Earth is the real world. There is no reference to our everyday experience of industry, world wars, or nuclear politics.
Moreover, Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings defined the fantasy archetypes
Consider the pointy-hatted, hair gray-bearded wizard, Aryan elves, the Dark Lord and classes of characters that Dungeons and Dragons formalised in role-playing games. The Lord of the Rings changed the fantasy genre through these tropes.
Middle-earth is a wholly invented world, rich in culture, history and most importantly for Tolkien, language. Middle Earth lives through a collection of languages from imagined cultures and histories. The setting, characters and stories are ‘bonus content.’
Tolkien gave a depth to Middle Earth. While a little English whimsy carries over from the Hobbit, Lord of the Rings is a fully realised adult world. While the hobbits are child-like, they are not child-ish. They undergo their rites of passage. Middle Earth is a featured character, with geography, history, weather, a map. As in Greek drama, the clock ticks down to apocalypse.
The Lord of the Rings defined tropes and archetypes so successfully, it became the template for fantasy for decades. Writers mimicked his writing style as well as the idea of deep world-building.
A linguistic hobby became a cornerstone of an entire genre. Successive writers go to great lengths to design languages with the same depth and originality as Tolkein’s elvish. It’s almost a stamp of authenticity in the fantasy genre
The bookshelves and TV are overflowing right now with wizards, thieves and rangers; orcs, elves and dwarves.
The Lord of the Rings continues to cast a long shadow. It’s the legacy of the rings.