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8 Ways Tolkien Changed Modern Fantasy Forever

Photo of JRR Tolkien

Is it possible to overstate Tolkien’s influence on the fantasy genre? The Lord of the Rings casts a huge shadow, defining tropes, cliches, and standards in a way that perhaps no other work has done to another genre. But just how much did Tolkien really change modern fantasy forever?

No other work has so defined its genre than Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Fantasy Before Tolkien

Fantasy novels certainly existed before Tolkien, and even before the popularity of the novel there were fantastical tales of magic and dragons.

Writers who created fantasy stories before Tolkien include:

  • J M Barrie (Peter Pan)
  • Lord Dunsany (Time and the Gods)
  • Robert E Howard (Conan the Barbarian)
  • Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)
  • L Frank Baum (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz)

The goal of characters in such fantasy novels (or fairy tales, as they were often known) often focused on returning to the modern world from the otherworld they had found themselves transported to. As such, the fate of the fantasy world itself was often secondary.

And that fantasy world rarely changed these characters. They experienced invisible cats, messianic lions, and flying children, but often left the fantasy world as the same person who entered it.

Tolkien might not have been the first to take his fantasy world seriously, but it certainly made the most successful effort in creating a world where the fate of the entire world rested on the heroes’ shoulders, and those heroes changed (to varying degrees) as they travelled.

I contend that this made a huge difference to the fantasy genre. Imbuing fantasy with stakes that demanded to be taken seriously asked readers to take the genre seriously. But it also allowed Tolkien to create a world that was more than a temporary and frivolous dream. Middle-Earth has endured in our imaginations because Tolkien built it to endure. It didn’t vanish when someone returned to the world we know or woke up; Middle-Earth persists past the last page of the book.

How did Tolkien influence modern fantasy?

Fantasy as a genre existed before Tolkien, but his influence has meant he is the father of modern fantasy. From the geographies of fantasy worlds to the people found within them, Tolkien’s ideas of fantasy are so pervasive that you might not realise the way you think of an elf, for instance, is almost entirely down to him.

Did Tolkien invent elves?

No, but his reinvention of them changed how we’ve viewed them ever since. The ‘Ljósálfar’ of Norse myth were long-lived, immortal, or even god-like (ring and bells?). But the English had since come to think of elves as small, mischievous, often invisible fairies! Tolkien popularised the Nordic view of elves, and even changed the way we spell the word!

Did Tolkien invent dwarves?

No, just like elves, dwarves have existed in mythologies for centuries. Tolkien’s conception of dwarves as underground dwellers seems to be inspired by the Norse ‘Dökkálfar’. Although Dökkálfar were often called ‘dark elves’, they are described as dark, short, and often fascinated with jewels. Sound familiar?

Did Tolkien invent orcs?

Yes. While Tolkien had a little help in creating orcs, he can take the majority of the credit. He admitted to drawing inspiration from George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, and the word ‘orc’ comes from a number of older words for monsters (including ‘ogre’). But our modern conception of orcs is almost all down to Tolkien.

Did Tolkien invent ents?

Pretty much, and we’ve seen plenty of similar tree spirits ever since. Prior to Tolkien, tree spirits were more appealing; the Greeks called them ‘dryads’, and depicted them as beautiful young women. Tolkien appears to be the first one to write about walking, talking tree creatures.

That said, Faerie folklore features many tree creatures. In fact, this rhyme sounds rather like it was written for the scene in which the ents storm Isengard!

The Elm grieves, the Oak hates,
The Willow walks, if you travel late.

Did Tolkien invent Balrogs?

Yes, although he likely took inspiration from Norse myths: the word ‘Báleygr’ was often used to describe Odin, and it means ‘fire-eyed’. While there’s a huge distance between that and the demonic Maiar of fire and shadow, every idea has to start somewhere, and Balrogs likely started with Odin.

While you don’t see many balrogs in modern fantasy, they inspired the sort of demonic creatures in fantasy that led to the hand-wringing over the “devil-worship” in Dungeons and Dragons. Fantasy was never the same after that.

Did Tolkien invent the fantasy setting?

Medieval fantasy isn’t new; the legends of King Arthur were medieval fantasy, after all. But the influence of Tolkien means that a psuedo-medieval setting is the standard used by the majority of fantasy novels. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, even some high-profile ones (such as Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series), but Tolkien has inadvertently led to the fantasy genre becoming preoccupied with medieval Europe for decades.

Did Tolkien invent fantasy languages?

Tolkien wasn’t the first to invent languages, but he was the first to create such comprehensive languages for a fantasy novel. Tolkien invented no less than ten languages for Middle-Earth:

Black Speech

Tolkien had studied languages for decades, which is why he was not only able to create so many fictional languages (also known as ‘conlangs’: constructed languages). Many writers have since aped Tolkien’s linguistic efforts, for better or for worse.

Did Tolkien invent fantasy trilogies?

Tolkien envisioned The Lord of the Rings as six books; it was his publisher, Allen & Unwin, which insisted on printing it in three volumes to reduce its financial risk. But multi-volume fantasy was certainly uncommon before Tolkien, whereas now it’s a struggle to find a fantasy novel that doesn’t stretch over at least three books.

Fantasy after Tolkien

Perhaps without meaning to, Tolkien established a ream of tropes and cliches that many fantasy writers have been following ever since. Elves and dwarves, medieval settings and quests across it, dark lords and trilogies. Tolkien’s influence can even be felt in novels that avoid these tropes, as writers deliberately write an “anti-Tolkien” novel.

Readers looking for books like The Lord of the Rings can find writers such as:

But if you’re looking for something that tries to step out from beyond Tolkien’s shadow, try picking up:

Of course, even these books bear the marks of Tolkien’s epics. But if a writer strays too far out of the genre in an attempt to leave Tolkien behind, they’re probably writing something other than fantasy. Besides, while Tolkien’s shadow might stretch far across the fantasy genre, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The fantasy genre would not be what it is today without him.

Some writers might be tired of hearing their work described as “like Lord of the Rings” when it is anything but. That said, Tolkien’s influence didn’t just define the fantasy genre; it created a readership and a legacy that allows us to write our novels and find people who want to read them. That means we owe Tolkien a very great debt!