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Lord of the Reams: How a Paper Shortage Created Modern Fantasy

By Tom Anderson

Looking back from the second decade of the twenty-first century, we can see that the fantasy genre has gone from strength to strength. Whether it be dark and bloody imaginings like Game of Thrones, the TV adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, humorous and poignant lateral commentaries on our own world like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, or the use of fantasy worlds as a setting for children’s and young adult fiction, the genre reigns supreme over an increasingly large domain at our local bookstore. Yet almost all of this fantasy literature can be traced back to a single point of inspiration, something quite remarkable in any literary genre

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien did not invent fantasy. He himself grew up enjoying the fantasy stories of Lord Dunsany. He was a philologist (philology is the study of languages) who worked at the University of Leeds and, as a young soldier in the First World War, had begun speculating about creating legends and myths to form the background to invented languages. He initially took inspiration from Finnish mythology and language, very obscure in the English-speaking world, but went off on new and original directions. His ideas about creating alternative mythologies might have remained forever obscure, had he not published a rather comic and only tangentially related story which began life as a bedtime story for his children—The Hobbit. With some unexpected sales success, fans asked him for a sequel. As the Second World War loomed, Tolkien set out to write what he initially imagined might be a shorter second book starring Bilbo Baggins. The reality turned out to be rather different…

The influence of Tolkien on later fantasy authors is obvious and scarcely needs discussion. The essay collection Meditations on Middle-earth sees many of the most prominent of those authors discuss how the book influenced them, such as George R. R. Martin, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Pratchett, Robin Hobb, Ursula K. Le Guin, and even AH favourite Harry Turtledove—whose first serious story, as a teenager, was a fanfiction involving a Roman legion being transported to Fourth Age Gondor. The young Turtledove envisaged a reborn Witch-king of Angmar as his villain. Years later, as a Byzantine scholar, he reworked the story in an original setting inspired by a magical Byzantine Empire, and the Videssos Saga—complete with masked villain ‘Avshar’—was born.

Turtledove made more of an effort that most to subtly disguise these influences. The 1970s and 80s saw a ludicrous number of blatant and shameless rip-offs of The Lord of the Rings, including Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara and Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth. The young Terry Pratchett (to continue with the Terry theme!) wrote a story called The Carpet People which lifted the story of The Lord of the Rings wholesale but at least whimsically set it among tiny creatures in a carpet instead. As an adult writer, he went back to this story and rewrote it to put more of the unique Pratchett spin on it; not all authors seemed to take such an attitude. Brandon Sanderson took the unusual step of basing a character on Tolkien himself in his Mistborn trilogy, which might perhaps absolve him of ‘the Misted Mountains’ in his Stormlight Archive series.

Writers commonly lift names, plot elements and more from Tolkien’s book. Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga features names which are taken straight from Tolkien’s Sindarin language (such as moredhel and Valheru) and an almost identical Mines of Moria sequence. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time begins in a very Shire-like country (which he incautiously described as ‘an homage’) and, among many other examples, features a ranger who is the last descendant of a fallen kingdom in the north and is named Al’Lan Mandragoran. Clearly no relation to Aragorn. A short story in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea universe features a wizard who, unwilling to give up his real name as it would grant power over him, goes by the alias “Mr. Underhill”—the travelling name Gandalf gives to Frodo when warning him not to use the name of Baggins. More subtly, Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy features King Verity sitting atop a tower striving with the mental will of his enemy, in a sequence that strongly resembles a description of Denethor in The Lord of the Rings. George R. R. Martin (beyond borrowing the middle initials) craftily selected the chapter Fog on the Barrow-downs for many of the elements he took for A Song of Ice and Fire, perhaps knowing that that chapter is often missing from adaptations of The Lord of the Rings.

Writers did not always take these influences directly from the book, but they were often filtered through other sources. Games such as Dungeons and Dragons and Ultima (whose prototype game was named Akalabeth after the title of the legend of the Downfall of Númenor in The Silmarillion) took blatant and uncredited inspiration, lifting entire fantasy races Tolkien had created (often with ludicrously transparent pseudonyms like ‘Bobbits’ for ‘Hobbits’). Other games then copied them and the same concepts mutated. The Warcraft universe, now known to millions via its MMORPG, features things such as the Dwarves’ stronghold being named Khaz Modan, in reference to Tolkien’s name for Dwarves, Khazad, and their stronghold in Moria, Khazad-dûm. But Warcraft went on to explore the idea of a very different conception of Orcs, and similarly many of these books and games have eventually reached new and original ideas from their birthplace of plagiarism.

The irony of all this slavish devotion to copying parts of the precise story, characters and setting of the published Lord of the Rings is that Tolkien himself was the exact opposite: his mind was a bubbling cauldron of creativity and possibility that often fell victim to indecision and unnecessary redrafting. The first part of The Lord of the Rings, from the Shire to Rivendell, was rewritten no fewer than six times as the conception of the book changed. Tolkien’s son Christopher eventually published the book’s working notes in The History of Middle-earth and they are fascinating to read. For example, in the first draft there was no The Shadow of the Past chapter and the book was going to be another lighthearted romp, right until Gandalf meets the Hobbits on a lonely road in the Shire…and then Tolkien decided on the spur of the moment to change the mysterious cloaked figure to be not Gandalf, but a sinister threat. The Black Riders were born.

This is one of many examples of literary ‘what-ifs’ in the canon of The Lord of the Rings, and any one of them being different would have changed all those works of fantasy previously discussed. Aragorn was originally going to be a hobbit adventurer named Peregrin Boffin who had been tortured in Mordor. Right up until shortly before publication, his nickname was Trotter not Strider, and Tolkien almost changed his actual name from Aragorn to Ingold. This is true of almost every character and location, sometimes changed repeatedly in the same draft: Frodo was once Bingo, Gondor was Ondor, Treebeard was a villainous giant who filled the narrative role of the later Saruman, Gimli was Burin, Merry was Marmaduke. The character of Arwen was not even conceived until the first draft had almost reached its end, and originally Aragorn would have had a romance with Éowyn. Ironically, two of the few plot points settled relatively early on in the writing process and considered thematically critical to the overall plot by Tolkien—the encounter with Tom Bombadil and the wights, and the Scouring of the Shire—were missed out of Peter Jackson’s 2000s film adaptation.

We can therefore say that the other writers copying any of these changes would likely have produced a somewhat different fantasy landscape here and now; one is tempted to quote Frodo and say that ‘the Enemy can only mock, he cannot make; not real new things of his own’. However, there was one inspiration from The Lord of the Rings that was entirely out of Tolkien’s own control, and that is the one that shall be discussed here.

Tolkien did not, of course, invent ‘the trilogy’. The term goes back to Ancient Greece and there are plenty of examples of works of art predating his birth that draw upon the idea of being split into three parts. But nonetheless, one of the way in which The Lord of the Rings influenced other fantasy writers was the popularisation of ‘the fantasy trilogy’ as the default unit of any series. Standalone novels are rare, with even new arrivals from new authors expected to be the first volume of a trilogy. Just looking at the bookshelf in my local bookstore and giving a very small sample, I can see Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, Brent Week’s Night Angel Trilogy, Trudi Canavan’s The Black Magician Trilogy, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy, and so on, and on, and on. Longer series are often composed mostly of trilogies, like Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga. Even George R. R. Martin and Robert Jordan’s A Song of Ice and Fire and The Wheel of Time (respectively) were originally conceived as trilogies—and are described as such in the bibliographies of some early printings—before becoming distended far beyond their original planned wordcount. The fantasy trilogy model has even begun to spread to other genres of literature and media.

So the ultimate irony is that The Lord of the Rings is not a trilogy! It was conceived as a single continuous story, divided into six ‘books’ (in the sense of internal divisions) plus a set of appendices. The only reason it was published as three books was due to the aftermath of wartime paper rationing in the UK, along with publisher George Allen & Unwin suspecting (incorrectly) it would not sell well. Paper rationing had already had an impact on the writing of The Lord of the Rings; Tolkien had rewritten drafts on top of drafts, had used the backs and even fronts of any document he had to hand, had even agreed to mark the essays of an American student so he would be able to write his drafts on the back of them! Even in the 1950s, rationing was still extant in many areas of British life and this influenced the decision to release it as three books. Tolkien disliked this decision and also having to come up with titles for what he regarded as an unnatural grouping of the parts of the book. Some rejected titles he came up with were The Shadow Grows and The Return of the Shadow for Volume 1, The Treason of Isengard or The Ring in the Shadow for Volume 2, and The War of the Ring for Volume 3. He eventually settled on The Two Towers for Volume 2, it being deliberately ambiguous which of the several towers important to the two books comprising that volume he meant. The final titles for Volumes 1 and 3, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King, may have been inspired in part by a 1930s film adaptation of an Edgar Wallace story, The Fellowship of the Frog, which received a sequel The Return of the Frog. Tolkien disliked The Return of the King as a title because he felt it gave away the ending, but went along with what his publishers wanted.

Now imagine what the fantasy bookshelves would look like if the idea of ‘the fantasy trilogy’ had not been implanted in the minds of millions by pure happenstance and circumstance. Yet they might also be different in another way. Tolkien did see one advantage at least to the trilogy model—it would give him time to write an extensive set of appendices for The Return of the King (which ended up repeatedly delaying its publication). It was through these appendices that generations of readers appreciated the depths of the ‘worldbuilding’ that had gone into Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the languages and the calendars and the distant glimpsed vistas of the alternate mythologies he had created as a younger man. Considering how many writers this depth inspired, perhaps it is worth the tiresome and entirely accidental trope of the ‘obligatory fantasy trilogy’ which so many writers now see as their default book format, regardless of how much or how little story they have to fill it.

More consequences articles are in the works!



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