And why not? J.R.R. Tolkien completely reinvented the genre with the book The Hobbit, forever changing the lives of generations of fantasy nerds, including you and me. His writing led directly to a resurgence of the genre. He's the ultimate authority on all things high fantasy. He's been copied and mimicked by countless authors, from the most amateur writers of fan fiction to renowned bestselling authors. He's influenced them all, and with good reason.
|In Hobbiton, © Tara Hunt|
But what made him successful in the first place? What made his works break out with such distinction? He certainly wasn't the first to write novels in the genre. We have numerous examples of castles and knights throughout medieval history. Countless tales of dragons and assorted monsters have survived from the earliest works of history, including Beowulf and even the Bible. Rumors of those able to perform magic, witchery, sorcery or any other "dark arts" are equally as old.
|Angry Dragon, © Jonathan Dalar|
I think it's hard to say just what made Tolkien's works so great, except for the fact that everything was right. The characters were varied, interesting, and believable. The setting was wonderful, from the green, rolling hills of the Shire to the eerie muck of the Mordor swamps. His childhood, schooling, and service in World War I certainly contributed to his writing. He was first and foremost a linguist, which would have immensely broadened his writing palate. And he published in a time when the world seemed desperate to escape into an alternate world of fantasy.
Since then, much of the fantasy published has been derivative, at least in some form or another. And that's alright. It helps define the genre and give it boundaries. After all, what is high fantasy without those elves, dwarfs, goblins, and orcs?
|Bamburgh Castle, © Nigel Chadwick|
We need certain elements to remain in fantasy, but what helped Tolkien's works stand out and endure was his creativity and imagination. He went beyond what was established in fantasy at that time and made his own boundaries. His creativity went beyond his peers and into new territory.
|Wulfgar, Celtic Warrior © Jonathan Dalar|
And that's what we need to see in fantasy today. We need it to blend with other genres, creating a variety of new sub-genres. We need authors to break the established molds and let their imagination separate from that which they grew up reading and spread into new territory.
We need heroes to fight dragons, but we also need them to fight other, as yet unnamed monstrosities. We need fresh voices to spark new interest further into the unknown, as the early pioneers Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, William Morris and others did.
We've gotten that to some extent already. J.K. Rowling did exactly that for young adult fantasy, blending the mundane world with the wonders of Hogwarts. And even if some of us older and more cynical readers aren't completely enamored with her stories of a twelve year old boy's discovering his magic wand, we have to admit it was just the boost of energy the genre needed.
|Jacobite Steam Train over the 21 Arch Viaduct near Glenfinnan, © Paul Ashwin|
It isn't exactly high fantasy, but it's soundly within the fantasy genre. And it works. Rowling pushed the boundaries by not only creating an epic fantasy story appealing to generations, but also ventured into new territory in doing so. Before, we had stories told of alternate fantasy worlds such as Tolkien's, David Eddings and others. We had stories with portals that took us from our world into an alternate time or reality, such as in some of the works by Stephen R. Donaldson. And now we have the world of Hogwarts, that blends and blurs the realities of the magical realm with our own.
It seems we see literary agents, editors and publishers clamoring on almost a daily basis for "the next Harry Potter". Everyone is looking for the next big break-out in fantasy, particularly young adult fantasy. It's a hot ticket at the moment, and rightly so. After all, Harry Potter made a lot of people a whole lot of money.
It's only a matter of time. It's probably out there already, being typed out on a laptop somewhere between college classes, or in stolen moments when the kids are asleep and the spouse is watching prime time television. Maybe it's yours. I'd say it's mine, but only if we were talking about science fiction. Regardless, when we find it, the genre will be a little better for it.