|"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"|
I remember as a kid reading “Mother Goose” and fantasizing about weird critters and why that woman had so many kids that lived in a shoe. My Mom gave me art books for entertainment in the gravel road isolation of rural Mississippi, where AM radio was unreliable. I didn’t realize my favorite painting “Starry Night” was by one of the greatest painters of all time, Vincent Van Gogh.
Therefore, I had an idea of “elf,” “dragon,” and “magic” before I ever read the Tolkien classic “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings,” which I didn’t get around to until college. Like other Dark Fantasy fans, I love the story and consider it a must for fiction readers. The main message of this masterpiece screams loud to even the casual reader: The smallest can be brave and make the biggest impact in good vs. evil. In other words, it’s a wonderful “underdog” story, where little Hobbits save Middle Earth from the horrors of Sauron. (But the hairy feet, with all due respect, Mr. Tolkien?). Never mind.
So there’s the “before” and “after” LOTR for fantasy: Once one has crossed the LOTR, there’s no going back. The education is now a solid bachelor’s degree in Elves, Dwarves, Half-Elves, Dragons, Orcs, Wizards, Hobbits, Wraiths (Nazgul), Ents, Upper Demons (Balrog), and special humans (Aragorn). After the experience of this epic, we not only know the story, we know the characters, and know the creatures, and have re-learned whatever we thought they might have been before.
So is this a bad thing? Answer: No. Tokien gave us more than just a great read with LOTR; it’s legacy rings loud today as it is still widely read, made very popular in films, role playing games, and inspires we writers to use such characters in a variety of ways as we weave our own fantasy in our stories. So when I tweet “Orc” most know what I’m talking about. “Elf” most writers think of Tolkien’s elves (may be exceptions), and probably the most controversial is “Dragon,” since these fascinating mythical creatures are in so many world cultures. Meaning, Eastern dragons are not necessarily talking dragons, and are not necessarily dragons that carry riders. Even with the dragon variables, Tokien still gave us an unforgettable dragon in Smaug.
I haven’t come so far in my writing journey that I have forgotten or put aside the work of Tolkien. I have my gripes, like the lack of female characters and the poorly understood goal of Sauron. These days, as a GRRM reader, I don’t consider “A Song of Ice and Fire” a new LOTR. Why would one epic stand against another? No, epics stand out on their own as detailed fantastic stories with well-developed characters, complex plots and sophisticated backgrounds. Regardless of the next big popular series, the Tolkien prototype will always be with us.