Tolkien: Lord of literature

The first volume of The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, was published in 1954 by J.R.R. Tolkien. His work has had an influence on series such as Harry Potter and games such as Dungeons & Dragons, said Robert Tally Jr., Texas State University English associate professor.

The shadow of J.R.R. Tolkien has long reigned over the lands of Earth and fantasy literature.

Some modern day authors may have been influenced by Tolkien’s imagination to create a fantasy world of their own.

A novel for the ages

Shortly after Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937, he began writing The Lord of the Rings, said Shaun Gunner, The Tolkien Society chair, in an email. Seventeen years after The Hobbit published, the first and second volumes published in 1954 followed by the third volume in 1955.

“As an author, Tolkien created a vast world full of incredible locations and characters all dreamt up from his impressive imagination,” Gunner said.

In many ways, Tolkien set the gold standard for fantasy writing and for the creation of any imaginary world, said Kevin Porter, UTA English associate professor, in an email.

Robert Tally Jr., Texas State University English associate professor, said in an email that Tolkien’s publisher at the time wanted to break the book into thirds, giving way to The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

Tally said The Lord of the Rings is the magnum opus, since Tolkien left The Silmarillion unfinished. Of all his works, Tally said The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were his most popular.

People loved the world Tolkien created for its beauty, complexity, consistency, seriousness and moral clarity, Porter said.

Gunner said through each of his characters, readers could capture a different aspect of human condition and nature, making the stories more accessible and realistic.

Part of what made his works so great was the fact that Tolkien created more than characters, Gunner said. He gave them histories, backgrounds and genealogies dating back 1,000 years.

“Even before the films, these stories have sold hundreds of millions of copies in dozens of languages,” Gunner said.

Tolkien’s influence

Some common archetypes seen throughout fantasy literature weren’t common before Tolkien’s writing, Gunner said. Archetypes include a fantastical realm with its own geography, history and languages, a world with various beings and a battle of good versus evil.

“Tolkien’s biggest accomplishment may be his enormous influence,” Tally said. “Not only on the genre of fantasy literature, but also in medieval studies, modern literature and popular culture.”

Amber Dunai, Texas A&M University-Central Texas assistant professor, said in an email that Tolkien’s meticulously developed Middle-earth inspired fantasy and speculative fiction writers to develop their own worlds to set their stories in. Tolkien also helped popularize the medieval-inspired settings for fantasy.

Without Tolkien’s works, Tally said it’s hard to imagine J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, the "Game of Thrones" TV series or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods would exist. Tolkien’s influence goes beyond the realm of books and movies by influencing video games or other forms like Dungeons & Dragons.

Dunai said George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is set in a medieval world in which Martin crafted his own lands like Tolkien did. Although Martin has been called the “American Tolkien,” his works differ in how they were more influenced by medieval history and politics and have a more realistic approach in the series, she said.

Some of Tolkien’s races, such as orcs, dwarves, elves and halflings, are also present in the role-playing tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons, Dunai said. Tolkien’s influence had also spread to massively multiplayer online role-playing games.

Now, people want more than a made-up language. Tolkien contributed to audiences’ expectations for viable grammar and lexicon in literature, film and video games, Porter said.

Back again

Every thought and detail Tolkien put into his works created a coherent, clever and impressive world, Gunner said.

The many magical beings, objects and places found in Tolkien’s world are some of what Porter said he loves about his work. Another is the way Tolkien portrayed the courage the Hobbits and others had in their quest to destroy the One Ring.

Dunai said there was a psychological appeal in Tolkien’s tendency toward eucatastrophe: the sudden turn from almost-certain defeat to victory. A term he created himself, Dunai said.

Readers love Tolkien’s work, primarily because he writes in a realistic way, Tally said. People become enchanted, because they’re strangers to a new world and are at home in that world.

“Tolkien’s world is our world,” Tally said. “But seen differently, at a different time and with different effects.”


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