“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
There is no point in an introduction. You know what The Lord of the Rings is.
You might not have directly engaged with Middle-Earth, but it definitely will have skirted the periphery of your mind sometime in your life. Set in motion by the then-standalone whimsical adventure The Hobbit (1937), J.R.R. Tolkien’s 12 year labour-of-love defined fantasy as a genre unto its own, while previously it could mean anything from the Babylonian The Epic of Gilgamesh to works of The Brothers Grimm. What was once a label for a collection of disparate stories from myth and folklore was now imbued with the license of fictitious intentionality. Fantasy stories didn’t have to be set in a time long ago, or a place far away anymore. Fictitious world’s can now be conceived of in their entirety, without any ties to our world and its ecological and geographical traits.
Modern Fantasy owes its existence to Middle-Earth. It set the bar for how large a possibility space a story could play out in. It breathed new life into the age-old duality of inherent Good in the face of adverse Evil. It is a near-ubiquitous behemoth in terms of cultural popularity. So well known, in fact, that it has been imitated and iterated upon ad nauseam. Tolkien’s Fantasy Epic is now token epic fantasy.
But what if it never was? What if all it amounted to was an imaginative backdrop for the fanciful adventure of a Hobbit that loved staying indoors?
Contemporaries in literature
Tolkien belonged to a literary group of resident professors in the University of Oxford, who called themselves The Inklings. His fellow Inklings were like-minded in the pursuit of Mythopoeia, the narrative method which embraces artificial mythology and lore. One particular Inkling, C.S. Lewis, managed to put their collective ideas into publication as The Chronicles of Narnia, another beloved series of fantasy stories.
Of note is the fact that before the Inklings’ inception itself, fantasy literature was beginning to blossom, albeit in the pages of pulp magazines such as Weird Tales. This initial presence in pulp pages would deem fantasy a lower literary form in the eyes of literary critics, much like science-fiction. There were authors realizing early versions of what Tolkien would ultimately establish. Noteworthy include H.P. Lovecraft, with his Cthulhu mythos and existential horror, and Robert E. Howard, with his Conan the Barbarian stories and its own interconnected world of sword and sorcery.
After Narnia, came Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin’s world of islands strewn about uncharted waters. Unlike its predecessors, Earthsea would continue to be written until 2001, meaning its publication cycle from the 1960s would lead to its later books preserving much of the original intent and spirit of Tolkien and Lewis.
The phenomenon of a “series” of fantasy books encompassing one overarching narrative would not have come to be, if not for the insistence of Tolkien’s publisher. Tolkien intended for The Lord of the Rings to be one volume, which the publisher felt was economically crippling and wouldn’t serve readers well.
Now that Tolkien’s particulars have been established, let us remove The Lord of the Rings from existence. Modern fantasy would tend to be a lot less sprawling in terms of narrative length. Having Dwarven warriors, Elvish archers and Orcish brutes act out their various factions and politics must have been a novel premise, not the worn-out norm. Narnia’s setting of an alternate dimension connected to our own does have its own descendants today, but maybe there would’ve been an over-abundance of them. Earthsea’s vibrant mixture of ethnicities and nautical concerns might’ve been the popular alternative to Lewis’ Arthurian setting. It could’ve possibly lead to less racially homogenous casts of characters in stories, which Tolkien didn’t really implement because of his work’s reliance on Nordic folklore and other reasons.
Along with content specifics, there were two other things about The Lord of the Rings that would have a greater impact on mediums beyond literature: its supplementary material, and its format.
Influences in other media
The Silmarillion was published posthumously, edited by Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien, and while it met a critically mixed reception, its importance was readily apparent. The book is a fictitious account of the history of Middle-Earth, its creation, the birth of the races of people and life that populate it, and their interwoven history. Criticism was levied at the fact that the book was not engaging enough as a meticulously crafted narrative following a cast of well-written characters would be. While the nature of the book’s storytelling was a consequence of its intent and ambition, the sheer depth it delves into to ground every element of its world is impressive, if not outright awe-inspiring. The Lord of the Rings itself managed to stuff in snippets of its underlying lore in various degrees, delivering a rich and believable world that felt lived-in. The fact that Tolkien was obsessive enough to invent languages and their corresponding scripts for the world’s various people meant the bar was set extremely high. The Silmarillion was no mere glossary, it was a record of something much larger than its source material.
One of the most fascinating descendants, or at least, inspired extension, of The Lord of the Rings, would be a widely tangential medium. Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the tabletop roleplaying game, practically fleshed out its setting, races, and characters in Tolkien-esque fashion. So much so that, a few years after its creation in 1974, the licensed entity was under attack by the Tolkien Estate on charges of plagiarism. A few minor, cosmetic changes were made to the tabletop system, and while its creators, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, initially tried to downplay their influences, it was later writ on record that they both admit that The Lord of the Rings had a ‘strong impact’.
D&D itself would go on to be one of most enduring tabletop universes and systems, and would eventually become the bedrock for computer Role-Playing games (cRPGs). Games like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape Torment and Icewind Dale licensed the D&D ruleset to try and translate the tabletop experience, which is very non-linear, organic and liberating, to electronic form, and without them, modern RPGs would not exist. Other games not directly involved with D&D such as WarCraft, The Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age, also have their fair share of Tolkien fantasy interspersed amongst their own inventions.
One of the biggest factors that helped drive the scale and ambition of Tolkien’s narrative is arguably its fragmented nature. Having certain thematic elements be the core of each volume while they contribute to the collective story helped capture its grandiosity like nothing else. And people seem to have taken note of that.
The opening title card and subsequent text scroll of Star Wars is enough indication that George Lucas had his mind on creating a mythology for his universe. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” is Lucas establishing that what we’re treated to onscreen is but a small portion of what that universe held in store. It’s fair to say that Lucas was inspired by The Lord of the Rings. He understood the appeal of The Silmarillion and was liberal enough to license his work to many other creators, leading to rich supplementary material, the Star Wars expanded universe. This would include many novels, comic books, TV Shows, animated series and video games. (One unique result because of the above is the existence of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, a cRPG set in the expanded Star Wars universe that is built on a video game ruleset inspired by D&D.)
Without The Lord of the Rings, the existence of all of the above is moot.
The elephant in the room. Peter Jackson’s seminal film adaptation of the trilogy, itself a trilogy, is what many argue to be the moment fantasy entered the mainstream. It proved to movie production houses that fantasy had potential to be blockbusters, and a well-planned production schedule could result in minimal losses. Jackson’s main selling point was his assurance to New-Line Cinema that all three movies will be shot in parallel, while their post-production would be staggered to fill in lulls in the release calendar. This approach is highly draining on monetary resources, and if The Fellowship of the Ring hadn’t been the resounding success it was, the following films would’ve been suspended in production limbo.
An earlier animated adaptation, spearheaded by avant-garde animator Ralph Bakshi, was released in 1979 to middling acclaim, but endured as a cult-classic. Jackson has gone on record in the director’s commentary of his trilogy that the animated film was a big influence on his own vision. Bakshi’s movie condenses The Fellowship of the Ring and the first half of The Two Towers into one cohesive movie, albeit with sacrifices. It was successful enough to warrant its own comic book adaptation, a TV special and inspired a BBC radio show.
Jackson’s trilogy, much like its source in literature, went on to become the benchmark for fantasy productions in visual media. It is one of the highest grossing, most critically acclaimed and beloved productions in the world, and its success helped greenlight the Harry Potter adaptations, the Hunger Games trilogy and also the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A lot of the public’s mainstream consciousness was shaped by Jackson’s trilogy, and is the reason why the above franchises were made the way they are. Whatever negative connotation and counter-cultural baggage that fantasy was associated with, was shed.
The current zeitgeist that has taken hold of the average cinemagoer and the production houses that cater to them, of appealing fantastic worlds and larger-than-life characters, wouldn’t be a part of our world if not for Middle-Earth.
The tendrils of Middle-Earth have spread themselves into many other places. The Lord of the Rings was essential inspiration for a myriad of creative endeavours and without it, our world would be a far, far less interesting place to be.