Middle Earth 90210: How Tolkien and Howard’s Successors Blew Their Inheritance

Leo Grin

As this blog’s subtitle implies, I write speculative fiction. So far my works include hard SF, mil-SF, weird fiction, SF/horror, and space opera.

Perhaps you noticed the absence of fantasy from that list. The omission seems even stranger when you consider that I’m an incorrigible Tolkien fan. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and especially The Silmarillion had a strong influence on my formation as a writer. Yet I haven’t published any epic fantasy, nor do I read it anymore, except for revisiting Tolkien.

It’s not for lack of trying. I made good faith attempts at reading many of the more popular epic fantasy series: The Belgariad, The Wheel of Time, The Kingkiller Chronicle, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc. In fact, I’ve almost certainly read more fantasy books than sci-fi books.

Yet the pattern is always the same. A new series is recommended. I dive in with enthusiasm. The story sets its meticulously crafted hook. Enjoyment is had–largely derived from the wonder of exploring a new world that never was. At some point (it could be upon finishing the fifth book, or the third, or the first, or halfway through the first), the spell fades. I put the series aside, and increasingly, the genre as a whole.

Why this strange, almost total dissatisfaction with fantasy? If something’s not working, considering what the thing was designed for can help identify the fault. As John C. Wright has said, fantasy is meant to satisfy–if only partially and temporarily–the intrinsic human thirst for a world that’s simpler and less disordered than ours; a lost golden age or paradise.

Epic fantasy pioneers like J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard understood the purpose of the genre they invented. As Cimmerian blog editor Leo Grin pointed out in a 2011 article that’s only grown more relevant with time, this understanding has largely escaped Tolkien and Howard’s heirs.

The mere trappings of the genre do nothing for me when wedded to the now-ubiquitous interminable soap-opera plots (a conservative friend of mine once accurately derided “fat fantasy” cycles such as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time as “Lord of the Rings 90210″). Nor do they impress me in the least when placed into the hands of writers clearly bored with the classic mythic undertones of the genre, and who try to shake things up with what can best be described as postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage.

Here, Grin crystallizes the source of my displeasure with contemporary epic fantasy–a sentiment I’m far from alone in holding, if the precarious financial standing of those works’ publishers is any indication.

The truth is that little if any real fantasy–heroic tales grounded in myth that feed our longing for ages undreamed of–has been published (or pushed) by the Big Five in quite some time. Instead we’re given aimless soap operas that read like prime time cable scripts with a hollow veneer of fantasy trappings airbrushed onto a core of pure nihilism.

Note that “nihilistic” isn’t synonymous with “dark”. The former describes a particular philosophy underlying a story. The latter is a description of mood. You can have an upbeat yet fundamentally nihilistic story, or a dark and eerie story that’s ultimately grounded in hope. The key is to ask what type of actions bring the characters victory. Do they project their will into a moral vacuum or persevere in virtue despite impossible odds?

Congratulations are due to Leo Grin, both for shedding light on the sad state of contemporary fantasy, and for his well-deserved induction into the Evil Legion of Evil. May he receive what is best in life.

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This entry was posted in culture, philosophy, writing and tagged , , by Brian Niemeier. Bookmark the permalink.

About Brian Niemeier

Brian Niemeier is a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. His second book, Souldancer, won the first ever Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel. He chose to pursue a writing career despite formal training in history and theology. His journey toward publication began at the behest of his long-suffering gaming group, who tactfully pointed out that he seemed to enjoy telling stories more than planning and adjudicating games.
  • ksterlingh

    Hi Brian, this article left me a bit confused. It seems you don’t enjoy many current epic fantasy series, and I’m not going say you are wrong in not liking them. That’s personal taste. But the end of your article suggests these are “pure nihilism” (among other things which I disagree with but will leave alone).

    I can’t speak about the Belgariad, or the full series of Wheel of Time. But the first book of Wheel of Time and everything written in the Kingkiller Chronicle universe is hardly nihilistic. I guess I can see ASOFAI seeming that way, since the world is grim and there are nihilists within it, but there are certainly moral characters to choose from.

    The baffling part is that after criticizing these series you laud Robert E Howard? It may be true that current series do not work as heavily in mythic elements, but uhmmm… Conan is somehow not nihilistic? Compared to WoT or KC? His unapologetic, unrepentant reaving, pirating, thieving, killing, “loving” (ahem), and all around conquering by force of steel and muscle never came off to me as exactly moralistic in tone. One could argue he has Pagan virtues but then all of those you cited have that as well. And Howard’s sharp attacks on civilization while fetishizing the physically gnarled and fierce Picts (across his writing), don’t quite mesh with a heavy moralistic framework.

    I disagree with Wright’s assessment of what fantasy is “meant” to satisfy. It can of course play the role he describes but it is a genre which can be used for many things. The idea that Howard’s blood-soaked terrains were somehow pointing to a less disordered time, a golden age or paradise, is… questionable? Definitely simpler times, but not the rest. And with regard to mythic elements, if I remember right Howard became tired of the same euro-tropes and was trying to shift into “pioneer”, basically old-west, style motifs.

    And I say this as a person who really likes Howard.

    If your “ages undreamed of” include unapologetic, unrepentant reaving, pirating, thieving, killing, “loving” (ahem), and all around conquering by force of steel and muscle, then nihilism does not seem to be your biggest concern in fantasy fiction.

    “The key is to ask what type of actions bring the characters victory. Do they project their will into a moral vacuum or persevere in virtue despite impossible odds?”

    Isn’t that ASOFAI all over the place? All of the major characters are doing the first part, and a fair yet dwindling number are doing the second as well (which underlines the impossible odds). Unless you mean stainless virtue, in which case I can go back to Howard and ask for examples.

    And finally, you end by congratulating Leo Grin (with a link to a post titled “Leo Grin grins when he slays”) for induction into the Evil Legion of Evil. Yes yes I get it’s all ironic, but that does seem to be sending mixed messages given the rest of the piece. Persevere in virtue?

    Please take this as constructive criticism and not just running your post down. I really did feel confused about the message being delivered.

    • Anthony M

      Hi, I’ll take a shot at some of these, just for kicks.

      I guess I can see ASOFAI seeming that way, since the world is grim and there are nihilists within it, but there are certainly moral characters to choose from.

      Having moral characters – as in, characters that have a code of right and wrong they at least attempt to follow and believe in – doesn’t mean that you’re not nihilistic. It simply means you can write various types of characters. In Martin’s series the bad guys win, and if the bad guys don’t win then the people you thought were the good guys will be just as bad, or nearly.

      The point: Good, bad, what does it matter? It all comes to naught in the end. Just a game of thrones, nothing more.

      The baffling part is that after criticizing these series you laud Robert E Howard? It may be true that current series do not work as heavily in mythic elements, but uhmmm… Conan is somehow not nihilistic? Compared to WoT or KC? His unapologetic, unrepentant reaving, pirating, thieving, killing, “loving” (ahem), and all around conquering by force of steel and muscle never came off to me as exactly moralistic in tone. One could argue he has Pagan virtues but then all of those you cited have that as well. And Howard’s sharp attacks on civilization while fetishizing the physically gnarled and fierce Picts (across his writing), don’t quite mesh with a heavy moralistic framework.

      I can’t speak for the other series, knowing little about them, but you’re confusing “moralistic” with “nihilistic”. While Howard’s hero is flawed, perhaps deeply, he is still the clear good guy, facing clear bad guys. There is no attempt to deconstruct the genre or anything like that (as admitted, because he was one of the creators, but that’s partially the point): Conan is the hero, these are the villains. The world isn’t shit, but is worth fighting for.

      People don’t read Conan because Howard is trying to create a universe where everybody’s motivations can be seen as equally justified or evil, and perhaps everybody is the bad guy. They read Conan because they want to see Conan beat the bad guys.

      Isn’t that ASOFAI all over the place? All of the major characters are doing the first part, and a fair yet dwindling number are doing the second as well (which underlines the impossible odds). Unless you mean stainless virtue, in which case I can go back to Howard and ask for examples.

      The question to ask is “What is the point of ASOIAF? What is Martin’s philosophical worldview, as presented in the books?” If your answer eventually comes to “He doesn’t have any”, there’s your problem. If you believe he thinks goodness actually matters and any more than evil does…well, I don’t agree (with the disclaimer that I’m going from the show).

      And finally, you end by congratulating Leo Grin (with a link to a post titled “Leo Grin grins when he slays”) for induction into the Evil Legion of Evil. Yes yes I get it’s all ironic, but that does seem to be sending mixed messages given the rest of the piece. Persevere in virtue?

      If you know why it’s ironic, what’s confusing you about it?

      If I haven’t responded about a specific book or anything with counterexamples, you can assume I don’t know enough about it.

      For all I know you may be right in the end, but I do think you’re misunderstanding what Brian is trying to say.

      • ksterlingh

        Hi Anthony, to be fair to me, regarding ASOFAI, I was using the criteria Brian set out in his post and you kind of added some more. Admittedly, I wouldn’t agree even with the criteria you added (and Dave as well). To my eyes I am watching “impossible odds” being made rather explicit (aka painful), which makes those who hang on to the virtues they have still more heroic. Maybe by the very end it will be nihilistic, with no meaning at all, but it is still too early to say. It is going back and forth, and there are still two books left.

        This is the equivalent of cutting out of the original Star Wars series at Empire Strikes Back (I mean look at that title), or part way through Return of the Jedi and saying look at how all the good people have suffered (rather badly) or turned bad. Given GRRM’s other stories, it is hard for me to consider his general vision nihilistic. He seems to be making it clear that playing such games with power, or treating it as such, is not exactly honorable and extremely wasteful. To entertain such ideas or attitudes toward power invites nihilism and destruction. That would be delivering a moral universe.

        Turning from that series, I don’t see this comparison holding at all with Wheel of Time (at least the early part), or Kingkiller Chronicles (which so far is excellent, layered writing which begs the question how it gets compared to soap operas or scripts for cable series).

        Regarding Howard, Solomon Kane might be considered a flawed good guy fighting real bad guys. So might Kull and a couple others. But his picts, his knights errant, and especially Conan are simply heroes of their stories. They might in some cases be fighting some worse characters, but they are almost always fighting for a form of rugged individualism (personal freedom) and not to uphold some good (beyond one’s own will).

        I’m not sure which story you are thinking of (please not the Conan movie, I think I’d cry) but the story where he kills a judge because he doesn’t understand “law”, hijacks a ship, joins a pirate crew that attacks his ship (meaning he goes on to kill and steal from innocent people), while gaining power in that crew (by becoming the paramour of a horrifically bloody pirate captain), until they finally get too greedy and take on something beyond their abilities exhibits exactly what good v evil theme? I mean Howard has a poem to Cimmeria (called Cimmeria) and it is more bleak than Westeros.

        “…How many deaths shall serve to break at last
        This heritage which wraps me in the gray
        Apparel of ghosts? I search my heart and find
        Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.”

        I mean c’mon 🙂

        On my confusion, if one does not want to promote nihilism maybe it’s not the best idea to glamorize it even in irony. And if that is ok, I guess I am missing what Leo Grin was complaining about. The stories he was knocking in the linked article were largely taking ironic turns on fantasy worlds. These seem mixed messages.

  • David Hallquist

    I partly agree. Epic fantasy often fails to compare to the great masters, but this is true of every art form. Few sci-fi writers compare to Clarke, Asamov, Heinlein and Nivin. I expect it was always thus.

    My thoughts on each:
    The Belgariad: Solidly entertaining, is somewhat shallow read. It extols virtue all the way though, but lacks the quality and depth of Tolkein’s works.
    Wheel of Time: I thought the first three were amazing and epic, and not remotely nihilistic. By book five I was wondering if the author knew where he was going as it wandered aimlessly. I did not complete the series.
    Song of Ice and Fire: The first three are amazing. Sadly, it is nihilistic: the cruel defeat of the forces of good and honor are not tragic happenings, but rubbed into our faces repeatedly. Later, it also suffers from aimless plots and the quality of writing deteriorates. I doubt GRRM will finish it; who would want to write something depressing as it has become?

    I agree that too many authors, in a desire to make their fantasy “gritty” or “realistic” instead make it hopeless and nihilistic. Howard managed to write gritty heroic fiction, yet it was neither hopeless nor nihilistic.

    Another issue is I suspect that many authors loose their way. They may not know how it ends, or may loose focus during such a huge series.

    • ksterlingh

      Hi David, I actually dropped out of WoT earlier than you. I thought it was good writing but tried something else before continuing (Kingkiller Chronicles) and never got back to it. If you haven’t tried Rothfuss I would recommend his series. It is slow getting in due to his pacing but worth it (to me anyway), especially as the story becomes more layered.

      I agree that the first three books of ASOFAI are the best in the series so far. The fourth was very hard for me to get through, but I am glad I did and his explanation at the end for why he chose how he broke the ongoing narrative was a relief. I did enjoy the last book, and look forward to the next two, with hope it will work like the cycle within the first three.

      I disagree that it is nihilistic. As I said to Anthony above, it may be painful but for me it is the idea of making impossible odds rather explicit. And there is a sense of realizing that being good may not be enough in itself. Some balance is important. So the unbending heroic types get broken, while the flexible types survive to fight another day. And in some cases those that are weak, make themselves strong in the face of the good being thrown down.

      I am also curious why it is said that the good get crushed when plenty of bad characters have met horrific fates?

      That said, I agree that some fiction has mistaken nihilism, hopelessness, or acedia with being gritty and realistic.