Thursday, January 6, 2011

Tolkien and Howard still The Two Towers of fantasy

Not to beat the subject, like Fingon, to death, but neither writer is trod into the mire by a comparison to the other. The shortest distance between these two towers is the straight line they draw and defend against the dulling of our sense of wonder, the deadening of our sense of loss, and the slow death of imagination denied.

–Steve Tompkins, “The Shortest Distance Between Two Towers”

With my first Black Gate/Silver Key post of 2011 I thought I’d kick off the New Year with one of those big, bold, declarative, prediction type posts. So here it is: J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard are firmly ensconced as the two towers of fantasy, and as the years pass they will not only remain such, but perhaps will never be dethroned.

Although they arguably did not blaze the trail, Tolkien and Howard set the standard for two sub-genres of fantasy—high fantasy and swords and sorcery, respectively—and no one has done either better before or since.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website .

12 comments:

David J. West said...

Dead on Brian-they are the Argonath of fantasy. No one in fantasy, regardless of sales/popularity of late, can hold the same flame in weaving a new genre.

Lagomorph Rex said...

This is a great post, and I agree with the idea that the Argonath is the best comparison. They stand on either side of the river, hands outstretched as if shouting "no further" and all the other authors paddle about in the water for ever.

As for that fool on Black Gate citing Rowling as the top.. She is more in the vein of Lewis than anything.. and I actually remain very displeased with the calls for making her an "Honorary Inkling"..

Clovis Cithog said...

From the first D&D box set::

"These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don't care for Burroughs' Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard's Conan saga, who do not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find DUNGEONS and DRAGONS to their taste. But those whose imaginations know no bounds will find that these rules are the answer to their prayers. With this last bit of advice we invite you to read on as enjoy a 'world' where the fantastic is fact and magic really works!"

E. Gary Gygax, 1 November 1973
Tactical Studies Rules

Taranaich said...

Fantastic piece, Brian, couldn't agree more.

If Rowling's tower does, in fact, topple Howard and Tolkien, then it's the equivalent of knocking down St Paul's Cathedral and St Peter's Basillica for the Liechtenstein.

Lagomorph Rex said...

Another important thing vis-a-vis Rowling is, how many kids read her books because they genuinely like to read, and how many read them because they are popular and sell a boatload (thus adding to both counts) and then don't pick up anything ever again unless its a media driven sales machine?

I've only read the first one, I plan to read them all this year as part of an effort to read more Female fantasy authors.. but I don't really remember them being anything special when I tried it before.. granted when everyone tried to get me to read them was right when the mania was starting to set in and it repulsed me enough not to want to be part of the crowd.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

David: The Argonath of fantasy: Awesome, wish I had thought of that myself!

Lagomorph: Yes, I was pretty shocked and amused by that first comment too. I can't even comment so much on the quality of the Harry Potter series, as I've only read the first book. It's incredibly popular, obviously. But it's very, very premature to be talking about it as one of all the time great series, and Rowling as one of the all-time great fantasy authors. We need at least 20-30 years, in my opinion, before we can begin to view and assess the impact of her work on the genre and her influence on new, emerging writers. We have that data on Tolkien and Howard; it doesn't exist (yet) for Rowling.

Eric D. Lehman said...

I enjoyed the Harry Potter series very much (the first one is not great, and they get better as they go along; the 7th book is very well done). However, I heartily agree that we need a lot longer to judge someone's actual influence. Popularity and influence are two different things. It may be that someone like Rowling will be influential in creating a very specific 'genre' of fantasy (which we can see now in bookstores, but may pass away). Or it may be that she is forgotten, like thousands upon thousands of authors that you and I have never heard of, but were the stars of their time.

Present popularity is nothing. Numbers 'sold' mean very little. In the early 1970s the Bee Gees were considered the most popular and influential band in the world. "Bigger and better than the Beatles!" some said. Hmm.

Watch the film Amadeus for a great exposition on this idea.

Brian Murphy said...

Popularity and influence are two different things.

I agree Eric. I have not seen Amadeus but I hope to one day.

Anonymous said...

I think REH is more I don't know the words in english a kind of niche author an author for minorities in the vast field of fantasy, see how he doesn't even appears in lists of best books or sagas of fantasy
Francisco

Lagomorph Rex said...

Even if REH himself dosen't appear in many lists himself.. the works inspired by him clearly are influential..

If you look at the catalogs of Ace and Daw books in the US in the 70's and 80's its basically a who's who of stuff inspired by REH, conversely Del Rey as a publisher was started as an imprint in order to launch a work which was heavily inspired by Tolkien, The Sword of Shannara. And for the longest time those three companies basically published the bulk of all Fantasy published in the US.

ACE sort of fell by the wayside when Tom Doherty left and founded TOR books... And also the Black Company..


Personally after having thought about it more.. I think Rowling may just be the newest in a succesion of popular authors in the side-genre of "First worlders visiting secondary world fantasy" ala Barrie, Carrol, Lewis, etc.. I know not everyone classifies these books as their own sub-genre.. but I feel they fit best there..

Lagomorph Rex said...

gah.. that was supposed to be " ACE sort of fell by the wayside when Tom Doherty left and founded TOR books... which released The Wheel of Time, And also the Black Company.. sort of bringing the ring closed on the sub genre specific companies"

Brian Murphy said...

I think part of the problem with Howard too is that, outside of The Hour of the Dragon, he didn't write any book-length works. He's never going to appear on any "top 10 fantasy fiction novels" lists as a result. It's also why he's remained niche to a degree, IMO--short fiction has largely fallen out of style for whatever reason.

But that doesn't diminish his inflence. I've heard him cited as an influence by a lot of respected authors, including Gene Wolfe, David Gemmell, Fritz Leiber, Steven Pressfield, H.P. Lovecraft, L. Sprague de Camp, and Karl Edward Wagner, among others.