In the Fantasy Genre: What is Tolkien?

Tolkien's monogram, and Tolkien Estate trademark
Tolkien’s monogram, and Tolkien Estate trademark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What makes a story Tolkien-esque?

I don’t think there is a single answer. His main published works go from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Ring (LOTR) to The Silmarillion. That’s a children’s adventure story, a fantasy epic, and a mythopoeic work (and yes, I had to look that up; it didn’t exactly roll off the fingers). They are all fantasy, the first heavily so with a lighter, more whimsical touch on setting, the last in some ways mostly setting. Any of these can serve as the model for a reader as to what is Tolkien.

For me, though, it’s the middle work that defines Tolkien-esque: a mix of characters, plot and, above-all, setting. It’s not setting couched as a story (which The Sillmarillion has always felt like to me) nor is it a fantasy story with some setting sprinkled on it (which is more The Hobbit for me, as well as many fantasy classics over the last 30 years).

LOTR is a setting become story: the plot and characters capture and illustrate the setting, one that is deep and whose “bones” go back to the beginning of the world. But the story also illustrates the setting without being subservient to it. The setting is not lost nor inconsequential but neither does it submerge the story and characters. It is this harmonious blend that strikes me as Tolkien-esque and one that is so hard to find on the shelf (or achieve as a writer).

I’m sure many might find it curious that the length of LOTR nor its many sub-plots and locales are not critical to me in capturing a Tolkien-esque feel. I do like a long, healthy read but perhaps its all those, very, very long epics since the 70s that seem to end up focused more on a franchise and less on good plot and closure that cause me to omit that from my criteria. And again, it’s my just own opinion. There are many ways to view his works.

The title page, of the book "The Silmaril...In Putting the Fantastic into Fantasy, I commented on my desire as a fantasy reader to find strong fantasy elements in the fantasy stories. This, of course, carries over to what I write. So, too, does the desire to have a “big” setting with a long history that matters to the characters and plot but without becoming the end-all of the book. It’s a delicate balance, one that only time will tell if I’ve achieved.

It makes me nervous to share this because I’m sure it seems arrogant but it isn’t arrogance that drives me to post this so much as self-realization. As I read other blogs and authored my own over the last year, I’ve come to wonder, what makes me write? What do I want to contribute? Well, it’s this Tolkien-esque balance as I see it that motivates me. So there it is 🙂

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7 thoughts on “In the Fantasy Genre: What is Tolkien?

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  2. Nicely said.I myself have postulated that a crucial aspect of Tolkien’s fantasy, moreso than any other author I’ve read, is his commitment to making everything beautiful. Beauty can be terrible, sure, and tragic, but none of his stories (not even in The Silmarillion) are vulgar or ugly. That’s why I keep coming back to him, for one. Guy Gavriel Kay can write incredibly beautiful stories too, but not purely so, for they always have quite a bit or ugliness in them. George R.R. Martin, from what I can tell, writes an awful lot about the vulgar and ugly. But Tolkien didn’t need to. The evil he wrote about was always in context of the eventual victory of Holiness. And that, in addition to all the pretty elven names, the gorgeous descriptions of far off places, and the gentler poetic story elements, help keep Middle-earth a place storied in Beauty.

    1. I hadn’t thought about that before but your point on the beauty of Tolkien’s stories really makes sense to me. I think that is at least partly because the underpinnings of his stories is a very strong sense of myth. Not that all myths are beautiful but it does add to his tone.

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