11.28.12: An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences in Crafting The Codex Lacrimae, Part 3.3: Influence of J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis (Concluding Thoughts on an Aspect of Imagining the Middle Ages in Fantasy)
When I reflect on The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia, I share much of Cantor’s sentiment in the last two blogs, especially about how those works evoke aspects of a medieval world long lost. In that respect, Tolkien and Lewis were completely successful in conveying what Cantor called an “immersion” in the Middle Ages. The landscapes beyond the Shire of Bilbo and Frodo might be filled with fantastic perils such as the trolls, orcs, and goblins, gigantic spiders, a dragon, or Ring Wraiths of Mordor, but so, too, were the lands of medieval Europe filled with menaces that terrified the common folk everywhere throughout the Continent and beyond (be those enemies the Vikings of the 8th and 9th centuries, feuding German princes in the 11th, or advancing Seljuk Turks in the Crusades of the 12th and 13th).
The Road that led from Bag End was a metaphor for the kind of travel that medieval people used mostly: walking! (Go reread The Hobbit or LOTR and note how much descriptive storytelling in each of those works is devoted to walking; then remember Cantor’s observation about immersing the reader in the medieval mindset, and you might see what he was getting at.)
Then, there’s medieval warfare; if nothing else, all of Tolkien and Lewis’s works have the threat of war running throughout the books, either ending adventures with massive battles, or having the main characters affected at some deep level by the fighting that occurs in the stories. In the medieval period (500-1500 A.D.), you’re almost guaranteed to find war occurring somewhere in Europe at any point during that thousand years of history.
Thanks to the wonderful imaginations of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, these aspects of Medieval Europe (and many more) were evoked in the Oxford Fantasists works, and for most of the last century the fantasy genre has been better for their contributions (particularly in the translation those works have made to film!)
On the flip-side, however, one could also say that there’s been too much imitation of Tolkien and Lewis within the fantasy genre, imitations and regurgitations of their novels that too often lose much of what gave Middle Earth and Narnia such extraordinary originality and vitality: Professors Tolkien and Lewis’s knowledge of medieval literature and the source material that enriched the worlds these Oxford dons created. (In Tolkien’s case, he even went so far as to write The Silmarillion and include Appendices at the end of The Return of the King to situate his tales within an immense — and imaginary — historical-mythological narrative, an accomplishment that paralleled the work he did during his “day job” in teaching Anglo-Saxon literature.)
I think part of the problem was that the new, complementary mythologies that Tolkien and Lewis created were complex and vast enough to accommodate a host of imitators, authors who throughout the 20th Century didn’t have to understand anything about the “real” Middle Ages, and who thought nothing of simply adapting the ideas and creatures of Middle Earth and Narnia into their own fantasy settings.
When I was growing up, this kind of imitation (and, in some cases, barbarization) of the form always bothered me because (after completing the works of Tolkien and Lewis), I wanted something new and different.
Next time: How to Find Something Different (or, Define Epic Fantasy, then Depart from the Model of Tolkien & Lewis!)