Tolkienators

There is nothing better than a really good book.

If you’re of a certain mindset, there is nothing better than a really good Fantasy book.

Fantasy takes many forms, and there are elements of Fantasy in many genres. Indeed there is often heated debate in both the reading and writing communities as to exactly what constitutes ‘real’ Fantasy. Few people however would argue with the assertion that Tolkien ‘The Daddy’ of the Fantasy genre; even if his work is not their favourite, they can at least acknowledge that it was the beginning of something magnificent, something we now call High Fantasy.

When you are a lover of High Fantasy there is nothing greater than delving into the worlds of your favourite authors. My personal favourite has, for many years, since I first read her Assassins Trilogy, been Robin Hoob. No matter how many books I have read since, I’ve always come back to Hobb. My paperback versions of her first three epic trilogies became so worn I hunted down hardback editions. Even then, I couldn’t bear to part with those beloved books, so I actually own two copies of most of her books. The reason I love her writing so very much is that she is able to portray her characters so completely, and create her worlds so uniquely. The latter ability is a real sticking point for me when it comes to books, for while there is nothing I love more than a good Fantasy novel, there is nothing I like less than an unimaginative Fantasy novel.

 

As much as an unimaginative Fantasy may seem like an oxymoron, it happens surprisingly often. This most often seems to happen when writers get stuck on repeat: it is as if they have a template for all the elements a High Fantasy should contain, and they use utilise them all in the same—or at least a very similar—manner.

Perhaps the best example of this are Tolkienators,  by which I do not mean fans of Tolkien, but rather Tolkien Impersonators; authors who attempt to write like Tolkien, to recreate his works, or fashion their plots, characters and world after his, often without realising they are doing it. There are few things (with the exception of Vampels), that I find more annoying than picking up a new novel and finding that, contrary to the belief I held when I bought it, that it was something I had not read before, it was in fact, Lord of the Rings … in disguise.

This happened to me yet again, very recently, when I finally got around to reading the first book of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. This is one of those series that I’ve always intended to read, but never quite got around to. When I finally did, I was, it has to be said, extremely disappointed.

I wouldn’t say this is a series people have raved to me about, but it is certainly one that has been recommended to me a lot over the years, and one that most of my friends who are also Fantasy lovers have read. The cover even boasts that it out-Tolkiens Tolkien, and that I suppose should have been my first warning.

I got approximately a quarter of the way through, and stopped reading. There were three reasons for this:

 

1)      I was bored – the novel lacked pace and was riddled with unimportant details (one of my pet hates among Fantasy authors; if I read the word ‘brocade’ one more time I will likely kill someone, and you can thank Karen Miller for that).

2)      The basic plot and main characters were very familiar, from the over-arc of Good vs. Evil, to the motley band of travellers.

3)      I was BORED.

As with several things I have read in recent years – most notably A Song of Ice and Fire – Robert Jordan has taken the most beloved aspects of Lord of the Rings, redressed them very slightly, and plunked them down in a world that is effectively the same, but with a different name. His Wizards are called Gleeman, his Hobbits are human, but still very much naive to the ways of the world outside the Shire … sorry, I mean the Two Rivers, and the Orks and Trolls have merged to become Trollocks. The stakes? The fate of all things good. The baddie? Some dude who once did terrible things and has now come back to repeat said awful deeds.

The only saving grace is that Jordan saw fit to include women who actually do something useful.

Yes, Tolkienators are very prone to repeating the formulas they saw working so well in Lord of the Rings: a reluctant protagonist (Frodo/Rand/John Snow), and his three faithful companions. George RR Martin even had the audacity to name his version of Sam, Sam, although thankfully he compensated somewhat by making John Snow infinitely superior to Frodo (in my humble opinion at least). I have often wondered if Martin’s full name truly is George Raymond Richard, or if he did not in fact change it to this, so that he sounded more like JRR Tolkien.

Many people excuse these repetitions by harking back to that old line of ‘but it’s inevitable; Tolkien is The Daddy of High Fantasy’. But is he though? Is he really? And even if he is, can we still use that as an excuse? After all, Tolkien earned his place in the history of Fantasy by being so very original.

Without a doubt, JRR Tolkein is A Daddy of High Fantasy, but he was by no means a single parent. CS Lewis stands at least as high in the family tree, as do Ursula K Le Guin and Mervin Peake. Moreover, even if we acknowledged that every High Fantasy novel ever written was influenced by Tolkien, that does not mean they must eternally repeat these patterns: Robin Hobb is but one of a great many shining examples of a break from this particular mould.

So why do so many authors write the same story? On a cynical level, one assumes because they know it sells, yet if I am bored of this formulaic approach to Fantasy, then surely others must be also; if I am clamouring for more original offerings in Epic Fantasy then SURELY other people are wanting the same thing.

 

If you’re writing a High Fantasy novel, take a good hard look at it. Does it echo the work of someone else too closely? Have you mirrored the plot of one of The Daddy’s (or Mummy’s) of Fantasy? Are your characters reminiscent of those found in someone else’s work? If so, you might want to consider re-writing. It might not even take a lot, just a little bit more imagination on your part, to ensure your sidekicks are more than just an overweight guy with confidence issues, and a duo comprised of ‘The Clever One’ and ‘The Comically Stupid One’.

You will find there are many aspects in High Fantasy where a certain amount of repetition is unavoidable – the epic scale, the races, creatures, beasts or monsters, the DRAGONS – but once again, I point you in the direction of Robin Hobb, and tell you that breaking the mould will do wonders for your plot lines, not to mention your character arcs.

Aädenian Ink will be opening its doors to submissions in 2014. If you are submitting to us – even if your work isn’t Fantasy – make sure what you send is truly unique. Bear in mind the pitfalls of emulating the masters: not only has it now been done to literary death, you shouldn’t want to be ‘the next Tolkien’ or ‘the next George RR Martin’. You most certainly should NOT want to be the next Stephanie Meyer. Be original, be creative, but most importantly be YOU.

You are amazing; why would you want to be someone else?

 

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