The History of Fantasy: Part 1- Why Tolkien Never Created the Fantasy Genre


I’m sure you’ve heard it as often as me. Someone states, “Tolkien invented fantasy” which invariably leads to a good many affirmatives. I know true fantasy authors don’t believe this to be completely true, even though we all acknowledge his influence and the sheer brilliance of a man who not only created an entire world, but an entire language and mythology.

I recently once more read a similar statement on a blog about Tolkien creating fantasy. It inspired me to begin a series about the history and origins of the fantasy genre. Consider this the introduction.

You see, Tolkien was very familiar with a great many myths that exist in today’s world. He was the professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University and at another time Professor of English Language and Literature. He wrote a good deal on the legends and myths that influenced Anglo-Saxon heritage. He was familiar with the Odyssey, Ulysses and Plato’s first ever reference to Atlantis. He was familiar with Celtic mythology, the fae and green men, as well as Arthurian myth and legend. He was familiar too, with Beowulf and Norse legends, with the Jewish goddess Lillith, the Greek and Norse gods and no doubt the Egyptians. He was inspired by MacDonald and friends like C.S.Lewis. You see, all of this can be found in his writing. I’m not saying he copied his ideas, I am saying nanos gigantum humeris insidentes. Or as Isaac Newton put it so well, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Tolkien was great because he recognized the greatness that came before him and he built upon it. His world may exist in and of its self, but only because of previous worlds that existed in and of themselves. There is a structure and an archetype to his characters that existed before The Lord Of The Rings, and still exists after. There is the influence of religion and his own catholicism. There is a reason he chose December 25th as the Fellowship’s beginning as well as March 25th for the date the ring was destroyed.

So at the beginning of this series let me simply say this. It is okay to build upon the worlds and ideas of others. It is my hope that as we uncover ancient and more modern takes on fantasy it will inspire, give credence and give depth to our own. Remember,  “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou

6 thoughts on “The History of Fantasy: Part 1- Why Tolkien Never Created the Fantasy Genre

  1. I think it is probably more appropriate to say Tolkien was the invented of ‘modern fantasy’ as we know it today. You’re right that he drew upon his knowledge of myths, legends and mythologies, and that his studies of these had a big influence on his writings, and as a result are not completely original ideas. But I would certainly say ‘modern fantasy’ we read today are all heavily influenced by Tolkien in one form or another, whether it be elves, dwarves (I believe he ‘invented’ the plural of dwarf to be dwarves, rather than dwarfs?), orcs, cultures etc.

    Although I could be completely wrong, but that’s just what I’ve observed 🙂

    1. I think that’s a fair comment. He did indeed create ‘dwarves’ and it drove him crazy that in America it kept being changed to ‘dwarfs’. 🙂 He took Elves from the fae folk and made them into what they are as well. Having said this, he still built upon those like George MacDonald and had the Inklings such as Lewis to help. So, yes, I’m not taking away from any of his accomplishments, they were and are many and modern fantasy would not be the same without him 🙂

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