Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Doing Tolkien Wrong

Here’s a re-post of an article by Sarah Monette that you all may find interesting:

…Tolkien is an affliction and a curse to fantasy writers. This is a horribly ungrateful thing to say, when it’s largely thanks to Tolkien that fantasy writers can exist as a sub-species today at all. … The reason for this is that, while Tolkien was a genius and a godsend to readers prepared to love secondary-world fantasy, he is a terrible model for writers. And that for a number of reasons, ranging from, on the macro level, his use of the quest plot to, on the micro level, the nature of his prose style. Imitating Tolkien – in and of itself, not a bad idea – has become mired down in slavish adherence to his product, rather than careful attention to his process.

Now, I don’t think I would go so far as to declare that Tolkien is a curse and an affliction to anybody, but still, this is an arguable position. I mean, it’s quite true that we can’t all be geniuses, or philologists, and that trying to imitate Tolkien too closely is perhaps not the best way to write your own story. But I don’t think it’s quite as true, as Monette asserts, that the quest-plot has been done to death. It is so broad; I’m not sure it’s possible to overdo it. And I say this as a reader who enjoys quiet slice-of-life stories as well as quest stories. And of course it’s quite true that Monette’s THE GOBLIN EMPEROR is not a quest story, and I can see how the feeling that all fantasy novels should involve a central quest might have slowed down her ability to conceptualize that story.

I must add: if THE GOBLIN EMPEROR goes on to inspire new writers to try that kind of story instead then great!

What one word would you choose to describe a story like THE GOBLIN EMPEROR? Not a quest story but a ???? Self-discovery novel? That sounds dreadfully literary and boring. But then, what? Any ideas?

Anyway, the whole post is worth a read if you have a minute.

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7 Comments Doing Tolkien Wrong

  1. Elaine T

    One thing imitators of the quest plot don’t tend to do is copy the goal of the quest: their characters want to attain something/someone. Tolkien was getting rid of something. Much as I usually prefer the Rohan/Gondor sections to the slog to Mordor, the quest of the king for his throne is a supporting effort to the necessary goal of destroying the Ring. In fact I can’t think of any others with that structure. Where the king discovers he can Be a king, as a sideline to what they were after, yes. But not to junk a valuable magical mcguffin. Anyone?

    I also wouldn’t say the quest plot is all that over done, unless you define it rather broadly. (Or maybe I read the wrong things?) Is Riddle-Master a quest plot? Most McKillip? Cherryh’s fantasy? Bujold’s? Neumeier? I suppose Riddle-master might be read as one. I read it as ‘why are they trying to kill me?’

    Ha, I sit corrected I remember another where the goal was to destroy a magical thing, the first of Rohan’s WINTER OF THE WORLD. Our protagonist had made it as apprentice mage-smith. Realizes it’s an awful thing, flees master, finds new one, goes out to destroy his own making, once he tracks it down again.

  2. Craig

    I’d say THE GOBLIN EMPEROR is a Coming of Age story — as classic as a Quest, and maybe as common — though an unusual one, since our protagonist learns to deal with authority dumped on him instead of growing into higher position.

    Elaine, I think Tolkien imitations are likely to have destroying the Dark Lord as the explicit goal of their quest, even if the method is different. But you know, what else are you going to do with a Dark Lord, if you’re unfortunate enough to have one?

  3. Kim Aippersbach

    Everyone just needs to read The Dark Lord of Derkholm to cure them of their pseudo-Tolkien affliction.

    Coming-of-age is probably as common in fantasy as quest (but I might just be saying that because I mostly read YA!). What about Finding a Home/Creating a Home? The Raksura series made me think of that.

    Riddlemaster and Earthsea (the first three) are more like “run away! run away! oh, fine, then, I’ll accept the burden of power.” I guess that’s kind-of Coming-of-Age, too. (Well, and Hero’s Journey, which is sort of a quest but doesn’t always need a MacGuffin, or a Dark Lord, for that matter. Though a good Dark Lord is always a bonus.)

  4. Rachel

    Okay, I’ll grant you The Goblin Emperor as a coming-of-age story, and yes, that is certainly a common type of story. Though fairly often combined with a quest story, I suppose.

    I like the idea of a coming-home type of category because I do think that’s what The Cloud Roads is. Maybe the 4th Sharing Knife novel is also a coming-home story.

    The Dark Lord of Derkholm certainly ought to do a sufficient job of skewering overdone tropes for just about anyone!

  5. Mary

    “Everyone just needs to read The Dark Lord of Derkholm to cure them of their pseudo-Tolkien affliction.”

    Tough Guide I would say. though it does go overboard in places.

  6. Rachel

    Oh, right, I was thinking of the Tough Guide! Although I do enjoy the way DWJ answered the question: What should we do about the Dark Lord? By organizing tours around his defeat.

    Bildungsroman works for me. Except I can never spell it…

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