Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Frazio Dalla Casa)


How J.R.R. Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' changed the high fantasy genre

While fantasy as a genre existed way before J.R.R. Tolkien, the now-revered author is rightfully considered the father of the high fantasy genre. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was an English writer, poet and academic whose ingenuity and creative genius changed the course of fantasy literature. Well-known for his novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the author became a legend due to his unimaginable contribution to the particular genre via the vast expanse of his imagination. 

The fundamental difference between high and low fantasy genres lies in the scale of its own epic nature. While low fantasy genres are basically based in the earthly realm and involve the use of fantastical elements like magic and other supernatural forces, high or epic fantasy is a subgenre that is based in a whole other dimension. It is an alternative or secondary world created by the author and usually has a convoluted narrative arc where the protagonist embarks on a heroic quest to save the whole world from subsequent collapse. 

Tolkien based his entire work on the British surroundings around him and derived heavily from the lush pastures, green meadows, beautiful woods, tranquil lakes and more. His works are genre-defining because he derived inspiration from the simple settings to create a whole new world altogether. The Lord of the Rings paved the way for the fantasy genre when Tolkien forayed into the unknown realm, away from the safety nook of the classic European fairytales where the conflicts were simple and easily solvable. His works are in no way childish or childlike, and, instead, he dabbles in serious politics and populates his world with complicated narratives, plot devices and more. His deeply considered narrative incorporates the abject and the grotesque and juxtaposes them against the sheer beauty of the picturesque picture he paints of the world.

Tolkien’s characters are not black or white but can be situated in an area of moral greyness as they try and achieve their purpose in the respective arc narratives. Whether it is Bilbo or Frodo Baggins trying to complete their quests, Tolkien portrays them as flawed characters who, despite their otherworldly characteristics, make them relatable and somewhat human. Even for a character like Gollum, Tolkien introduces the idea of moral degradation; Gollum is plagued by greed yet is the one who helps destroy Sauron’s ring. He redefines and subverts the meaning of heroism and courage while ushering in hope at the most trying times. He cherishes friendships in the form of Sam and Frodo’s companionship, introduces the idea of the return of the wayward son in the form of Aragon, and shows the wizened mentor Gandalf to be all-powerful and loving. 

Tolkien’s attention to detail is commendable. His works are heavily steeped in history, and he manages to influence the greatest tradition of the genre world-building. By creating the Middle Earth and developing subsequent mythologies, languages as well as dabbling in cartography to create realistic maps, Tolkien redefined the fantasy genre by providing a literal escape reality. His ability to create the willing suspension of disbelief is now a ubiquitous theme in works like Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Hunger Games and more. He even invented his own tongues (at least ten, namely Quenya, Telerin, Sindarin, Adûnaic, Westron, Rohirric, Khuzdûl, Entish, Valarin, Black Speech) for the books that contained individual vocabularies unique to the various races, namely elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs, balrogs, tree sprites and more. His reinvention of mythology. 

Tolkien also used the ancient plot device of a quest-like journey and ‘Tolkienized’ it to give a whole new meaning. Quest-like journeys have existed in mythology for the longest time and usually revolve around demons, gods and more. Tolkien used the theme to define Frodo and Bilbo’s adventures as they take up impossible tasks to accomplish their goal in a quest-like pattern. 

Tolkien has had an immense impact on the genre. Fantasy works before him included those like Peter Pan, where a boy with magical powers can fly and helps a girl from our world to escape to Neverland with his band of delinquent toddlers. However, with his works, Tolkien exhaled life into the genre and established various tropes and ideas that have dominated the genre ever since.

Similarly, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the LOTR trilogy (The Fellowship Of The Ring, The Two Towers and The Return Of The King) and The Hobbit changed the course of fantasy films as well. With nearly 560 minutes of immeasurable entertainment and action, the movies are spectacular and do immense justice to Tolkien’s works. Not only did they resuscitate the fantasy films on-screen, but also the format of trilogy filmmaking. With raging special effects and spectacular filmography, it showed Jackson’s unparalleled imagination that was definitely inspired by Tolkien’s momentous vision. The films not only introduced the fallible characters and their diverse storylines but gave an idea of what the Tolkien-verse might look like. Take a bow, Peter Jackson! Not only has his works resulted in some of the most successful film franchises in the fantasy genre, but they also lead to the development of various games, namely Dungeons & Dragons, besides leading a culture-defining revolution. 

The Lord of the Rings is Tolkien’s magnum opus by which he weaves in the elements from various cultures and sources to create a vast epic. His mythologies are fascinating, the languages incredibly mystic, the races have diverse origin stories, and he provides an alternative reality. His books are steeped in songs, poetry, myths and mysteries. The sheer richness and extravaganza of the universe steeped in magic and fantasy is full of complicated choices and morally grey areas. His legacy is rich and unfathomable as his ideas of battling evil speaks to us.