The danger of writing epic fantasy is that anything you write will be compared with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. So I thought I’d explain how I tackled this in my new fantasy series.
When I began writing the Tale of the Lifesong, the LOTR movies had not yet appeared, and I hadn’t read the book for more than a decade. ‘There and back again’ had become submerged under many great fantasy books by David Eddings, Stephen Donaldson, Robert Jordan and Robin Hobb: new fantasy written in an appealing modern style. The influence of LOTR was far from my mind.
I like the idea of an old world, mapped out on parchment, stuffed with legends; a place one can have an adventure, possibly find treasure and learn magic. I had this idea before I read Tolkien – as a boy I used to collect maps and go on adventures in the mountains. I was seeking a special treasure, looking for a hidden world, or just enjoying the search. It’s because of that idea that I enjoyed Tolkien’s writing. The idea is fantasy: a world that might be there. Reading about it is the adventure.
However, it is impossible to write epic fantasy without acknowledging the presence of Tolkien. If you’re going to write a new fantasy novel that starts with a map, you have two paths: you can choose to be just like Tolkien, or not at all like Tolkien. To write a book that isn’t like something else works against creativity, as new (forming) ideas are constantly compared to the (formed) masterpiece, and by their insubstantiality, seem inferior. You get a poor kind of mirror-image, written in the negative space that surrounds The Lord of the Rings.
If you try to write just like Tolkien, you get cliché after cliché, because his writing was full of them and now defines the things you can’t use (magic ring, dark lord, orphaned hero, stupid orcs, wise elves, dark riders, ancient language, runes, abandoned underground civilisations, dragons…). Write like Tolkien? Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.
This realisation offered me a sense of freedom: the only sensible response to the paradox was to develop ideas I loved and not worry about Tolkien at all. This left me free to explore the world of myths without debilitating copycat-complex. The funny thing is, as a fantasy author, the further you go down the rabbit hole, the more you begin to encounter the archetypes and ideas that drove the great fantasy stories in the first place. Truly unique ideas that have not already been expressed are very hard to find in that mythic plane of consciousness. Myths, being very old, have been told before. Our bones remember a time when there were dragons.
Take the idea of a magical ring, for instance, where all the trouble begins. If you want to contain a magical ability in order to pass it on, you need something you can carry, which could be lost, stolen or coveted. You need a talisman, and none is as simple and elegant as a ring. It is hand-crafted in an almost mystical alchemical process, it is small enough to lose, and the idea of a ring having special power is instantly believable (a wedding ring is more than the metal, there’s the idea that it symbolises some magic, not so?). Magical rings make sense to us, they don’t seem weird.
That’s because the magical ring is not Tolkien’s idea. It goes back beyond the earliest legends. But some critics get as far as the T in Tolkien, and look no further for the source of inspiration, overwhelmed by their amazing powers of deduction. Yes, The Tale of the Lifesong has magic rings, but they are different in important ways.
Tolkien’s ring contained the malice of an evil soul. Tabitha’s ring offers clarity of thought. Tolkien’s ring made the bearer invisible. Tabitha’s ring is only visible to those with talent and has no magical powers beyond being a catalyst. Tolkien’s ring was essentially evil and never changes. Tabitha’s ring is neither good nor evil, it just offers enlightenment. Tolkien’s ring-bearer is on the run to destroy the ring. Tabitha is on the run to understand it. Tolkien’s wizard wore a pointy hat. Tabitha’s wizard has a flat-topped one.
Do you see how futile it is to make comparisons? It’s like Tolkien, but not like Tolkien. One reviewer recently pointed up all the moments when a character in The Riddler’s Gift seemed similar to another in LOTR. Of course they do: at some level all characters share an archetype, so do people, and stories. You can’t write sword and sorcery novels without, um, a sorcerer and ah, a sword-wielder. Another critic complained that Tolkien stalked every page. No doubt he could find echoes of Tolkien in any fantasy. Or, if Tolkienism was absent, decry the paucity of invention by comparison. Cynics try to find faults, and become so absorbed in comparing details they can’t enjoy the mood, atmosphere and world of the story.
Stories should never be read in terms of other stories: they must be read on their own terms. At the heart of what makes a great fantasy novel is a reader who wants to be spellbound. Library Girl Reads recently reviewed the same book and wrote, “Wonderfully crafted”; Mary on Goodreads said, “Full of everything you want in a book. Perfect!” Same story, different readers.
Can you guess who has discovered the secret of reading fantasy? It’s a kind of magic.