Mythology vs. Fantasy Fiction
I'm a Lewis/Tolkien fan. But I'm not much of a fantasy fiction fan, and yet, those two authors are credited with creating the genre. I don't think it was their intention to do so. Mythology and fantasy fiction are two very different things. The writing of mythology is an ancient and hollowed tradition, dating back to the dawn of civilization, and is an art form that has been refined and purified over thousands of years. Fantasy fiction is a modern phenomenon that adheres to the structure of modern commercial fiction and Hollywood screenplays (visual/image/scene-driven writing). Many fantasy fiction writers are imitating Tolkien without having the same understanding of mythological tradition that he had. Tolkien had a keen grasp of the Classics and ancient mythology and became a world renowned authority on them (i.e. Beowulf). His writing continued that ancient tradition.
The evidence suggests that Tolkien desired to create a national mythology. As he wrote in a letter to a reader and explained how he saw English literature's lack of legendry: “England had no stories of its own, not of the quality that I sought, and found in legends of other lands." He sought to build a mythology exclusively for England, and I believe he succeeded. He was doing more than just creating a fantastical world for the sheer novelty of it, and the term "fantasy fiction" probably never entered his mind; he was building a mirror with which to examine the homeland he loved. He was also building a world into which he could drop the beloved languages he had created (Quenya and Sindarin) and watch them run free across the plains of his fictionalized mythological history. As a philologist he loved languages more than stories, and Middle-Earth grew from the development of his languages instead of the more common sequence of work for fantasy writers, where they first invent a world with the intention of writing a novel about their new world, and then try to create things for the world to make it seem plausible, such as language and history and culture. Tolkien started with the language. Therefore his writing is more the work of philology rather than fantasy fiction.
I guess this post betrays my annoyance with contemporary fantasy fiction. Many of the most successful fantasy novels written in the last thirty years don't come from the same level of scholastic intensity as Tolkien's philological and literary pedigree as an Oxford don (not to sound too snooty though, because many authors today have just as vivid imaginations as Tolkien). However, Tolkien's writing mingled with his genius with language and mythology places his work in a different category. There is a unique shine to his writing - a timeless mastery and beauty that raises his work to the level of classic literature like Dickens and Dumas and Shakespeare. My beef with the fantasy fiction world is that it creates this appearance of commonality and familial equality with Tolkien and fantasy fiction. It creates this false sense of shallowness about Tolkien that is unfair. Many people uninformed about Tolkien often associate him with the less literary works of popular culture and fantasy fiction, and almost assume that he was a writer who probably attended comic book conventions and played Dungeons and Dragons in his spare time.
Tolkien is classic literature. Not fantasy fiction. Fantasy fiction is what fans of Tolkien created, not what Tolkien himself was writing. Tolkien was writing masterpieces that should be regarded on the same level as classics such as the Iliad and Beowulf. He was a master in the craft of mythology. That cannot, and should not, be said of fantasy fiction writers.
In the composition world, when masters of their craft emerged, like Mozart and Debussy, hordes of imitations quickly followed. After Debussy became a legend in his own time in Paris, people complained that everything being written afterwards just sounded like Debussy. It eventually led to culture getting sick of the "Debussy" sound and preferring something else. But generations later, Debussy stands alone as the master of his craft, not those who imitated him.
Ok, I'll step off my soapbox now. On that note, here's a link to a new movie coming out called Gentlemen Broncos - about the zany and sometimes silly world of fantasy and science fiction writing. It's written and directed by the same guy who did Napoloeon Dynamite and Nacho Libre (Jared Hess). I hope I'm not bashing fantasy writers too much - there are a lot of great fantasy books out there (just because I'm not a huge fan of fantasy doesn't mean I haven't read and enjoyed fantasy books). I guess I'm just tired of hearing undeserved comparisons with Tolkien when people discuss popular fantasy books.