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To the Professor

What’s special about January 3rd? Well, there may be many things, but in the book world, it’s the birthday of JRR Tolkien. With today marking the 120th anniversary of his birth and the recent release of the first movie trailer for The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey, this seems like a good time to consider the influence of the grandfather of fantasy.

“Every writer of modern fantasy was influenced by Tolkien to some degree. He was the premiere fantasy writer of the last century, and all of us writing today owe him a huge debt.”
~Terry Brooks

Whether you’re a fan of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (LotR) series or not, it’s nearly impossible to deny Tolkien’s impact on the fantasy genre. Though initially published in 1954 and 1955, LotR gained huge popularity when the second edition was published in America in 1965. The doors for the world of high fantasy were flung wide and many stepped through. Among these early fantasy writers were Terry Brooks (The Shannara series), Frank Herbert (Dune), David Eddings (The Belgariad), Stephen R. Donaldson (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant), Dennis McKiernan (The Iron Tower Trilogy), Anne McCaffrey (Dragonriders of Pern), and even George Lucas (Star Wars). This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I’m sorry if I left out your favorite author!

With LotR serving as a sort of template for these early fantasy works, they held many common themes and plot elements: the quasi-medieval world populated by dwarves, elves, and trolls; the small, meek, overlooked hero on an epic quest; the powerful villain who is set on world domination; the strange, magical artifact that can save everyone. Publishers like Tor and Del Rey established themselves in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s with these types of pieces and are still strong today. This idea of a genre trope reminds me of the current trend in YA–and Joel Brun’s “DIY YA.”

Though certainly the most widely affected, books were not the only area influenced by Tolkien. A young Gary Gygax was inspired to participate in a world like Middle Earth so he created the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game. Know any fans of online role-playing, World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy? They all owe their beginnings to Gygax. Rock music (songs by Led Zeppelin and Rush), folk music (titles by Enya), film (Dragonheart, Willow, Legend , even a Veggie Tales parody titled Lord of the Beans) and video games (The Legend of Zelda, Might and Magic, and Fire Emblem) have all been swayed by the works of Tolkien.

Fortunately for us, Tolkien’s influence didn’t stop with those early works. Though there may be a shift from the direct imitation of LotR to simply sticking to similar themes or setting, the fantasy genre still flourishes. This newer breed of writers includes: Christopher Paolini (The Inheritance Cycle), J.K. Rowling (The Harry Potter series), Branson Sanderson (Mistborn; he is also finishing the late Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series), Cinda Chima Williams (The Heir Chronicles and The Seven Realms), Kristin Cashore (Graceling), Ellen Jensen Abbott (Watersmeet and The Centaur’s Daughter), Jill Williamson (Blood of Kings), Clare Dunkel (Hollow Hills), Chris Evans (The Iron Elves), and the list goes on and on and on. I know I didn’t include Jane Yolen, Patricia Wrede, Peter S. Beagle, R.A. Salvatore, Raymond Feist, George R.R. Martin, Ursula Le Guin, and many, many others.

So on the 3rd of January, in accord with the traditions of the Tolkien Society, “gather your friends, in Tolkien and without, and lift a toast ‘To the Professor’.” Meanwhile, I’ll be doing the same and contemplating my favorite Tolkien enigma: Tom Bombadil. But that’s a different post.

— Michelle Blank, currently reading Swim the Fly by Don Calame

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