December 18, 2003


Once upon a time, there were fairly straightforward retreads of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings like Terry Brooks’ first Shannara book. Simple enough: after Lord of the Rings turned into a commercial success, use some of the recognizable motifs, characters and plot devices to bootstrap a ho-hum work to greater commercial success. Nothing to get too exercised about.

Now we are in a different moment. I recently read China Mieville’s all-out assault on JRR Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, and disagreed vehemently with much of it, especially the specific criticism of Tolkien himself. I think, though, that Mieville is right in one respect: the further iterations of Tolkien have led to the withering of imagination, the forging of invisible chains on a generation’s creativity.

That’s what genres are: a set of implicit, understood rules and motifs that organize and typify creative work. There’s nothing wrong with genre: it gives a writer a place to hang his or her hat, a platform on which to stand, a prior organizing principle. If genre becomes too apparently constraining, it can even provide a creative opportunity, by allowing a creator to entertaingly violate its constraints and rewrite the rules, or it can spur a quest for new sources and wellsprings. The proliferation of Tolkienesque fantasy trilogies is clearly what led George Martin to look for a different template in his Song of Fire and Ice, and he found it in the Wars of the Roses and similar narratives of late medieval Grand Guignol, or what Guy Gavriel Kay similarly was able to do with the Byzantine Empire.

What worries me is when genre conventions, through obsessive reiteration, begin to dissolve into a grammar of creativity, invidiously naturalized as necessary first principles, so that younger writers come along and never even think to rebel against them, any more than we might rebel against the sun rising or water flowing downhill on any given morning.

You can see this happening now with many computer games and other derivative forms that draw upon fantasy motifs, but the book that really brought this home to me was Christopher Paolini’s Eragon. It’s gotten a lot of press because of the young age and evident drive of its author, and I agree that aspect of the book is really neat.

Paolini is living every young fantasy geek’s fantasy, and it's hard to be too churlish about that. But the fact is, the book on its own merits is pretty terrible, though in the last third or so of the book, it begins hazily to take shape as a minimally adequate work of fantasy in its own right.

In the first two-thirds, though, it is impossible not to be dismayed by the shackles weighing down Paolini’s imagination, not to mention his prose. This is no cynical, calculated imitation. It is more that Paolini has absorbed certain motifs in through his pores. We have the mishmash of Northern European names; we have dwarves who make underground cities, immortal elves who come from oversea, ugly humanoids who are orcs in all but name, dark spirits who could double for ringwraiths; we have dragons who are psychically impressed by riders; we have magic that derives from speaking the primal language of the world. We have a protagonist who is seemingly a boy of humble origins but who in fact is a child of destiny, with mysteriously unknown parents, who is fated to rise to the pinnacle of noble power and authority. The book ends up reading like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign with all the spontaneously and unconsciously derivative gestures that such campaigns invariably entail.

I don’t blame Paolini for any of this, but I think it is time for the readers of fantasy, including teenagers, to step back from the secret language of genre convention and ask why any of those conventions should be so. In the end, Tolkien’s great achievement is that he did an immense amount of scholarly work to create a total world. That’s the key to his success with so many of his readers. If we sense there is more to Tolkien’s world than what we see in the pages of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, it’s not because Christopher Tolkien continues to spew out every scrap of paper he can find in the trunks in his father’s attic, it’s because the original works drew upon a vast body of existing, lived mythology and gave those myths a little shove in a new direction.

The more distant fantasy becomes from a rooting in something organic, the more shallow and alienating it feels, unless the author troubles to do something even more difficult, which is to systematically build a largely unanticipated imaginary world from the foundations on up. You can only do that as an aspirant author by interrogating each and every one of the rules and conventions you use to build the world. With Paolini, I felt like I wanted to hop in a time machine and visit him when he was 15 or so and ask him a long series of questions as Eragon started to take shape in his mind:

1. What are dwarves, and why do they live underground? Where did they come from?
2. What are elves, anyway, why should your world have them, and why do they come from ‘oversea’?
3. What exactly are the languages that people in this world speak that yield you names like ‘Galbatorix’, ‘Ra’zac’, ‘Murtagh’, ‘Arya’, 'Saphira' and so on? (I especially find fantasy words with apostrophes in the middle annoying as hell given that they make no linguistic sense whatsoever unless they’re related to some common orthography or pattern of speech in the imaginary world being described.)
4. Why does magic exist in this world?
5. How can a dragon be born with an ‘adult’ consciousness? Does their consciousness exist in some mystical or physical way before the dragon itself is born? If not, how can Saphira possibly speak with evident experience about the way the world is with such speed? Why do dragons have telepathic powers? What do they get out of being associated with human or elf riders?
6. Why do the ‘Urgals’ [the faux-orcs] exist? Why are they instrinsically, genetically brutish and evil?
7. Why are there ‘evil spirits’ waiting to possess humans who use the wrong kind of magic? Where do they come from?
8. Exactly how does the Emperor Galbatorix exert power over his subjects, anyway? Why is his power strong in some places and weak in others? What is his ‘empire’ based on? (As far as I can tell from the book, there are very few civil authorities even in large cities who administratively represent this empire or communicate with its capital.)
9. Why is there a desert in the center of the landmass, a forest in the north, a mountain range in the south? What actually causes deserts to form, for example, in Paolini’s world? (The geography of his imaginary map is a textbook case of the arbitrary scattering of typified geographic features in derivative fantasy works.)

And so on. Note that Tolkien offers answers to every single one of these kinds of questions within the body of his text, and often without a grotesquely obvious “info-dump”, or at least an expository info-dump credibly disguised as lore. When Tolkien runs into problems, they are often problems of a very deep kind that resemble the basic questions we have about our own spiritual and material existence. (Say, for example, the problem of theodicy: it is no easier to explain why Eru, the high god or primary cause of Tolkien’s universe, permits Melkor’s rebellion and evil than it is for a Christian to explain why an omnipotent and loving God permits evil to occur.) Little is arbitrary in Tolkien’s case.

In Paolini’s case (or a host of other creators) much of the substance of his book is entirely arbitrary. That doesn’t make me angry, just sad. He and other young writers have a long career ahead of them and a lot of native tools to work with. Here’s hoping they can spurn their own inheritance and look for other ancestors, or perhaps rechristen themselves entirely.