The following is an excerpt from:
Legacy, Remaking the Myth". Suite 101.
February 2, 2001. http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/4786/59403.
Ancient lore is another aspect of Tolkien which has found its way into the popular imagination. But in the hands of lesser artists, it has become like a dry and dirty clay. What we have to consider today when we pick up an "epic fantasy novel", is something less brilliantly conceived than whatever Tolkien provided in the way of glimpses into the ancient past of Middle-earth.
For example, David Eddings offers the following prologue to The Malloreon
After the Seven Gods created the world, it is said that they and those races of men they had chosen dwelt together in peace and harmony. But UL, father of the Gods, remained aloof, until Gorim, leader of those who had no God, went up on a high mountain and importuned him mightily. Then the heart of UL melted, and he lifted up Gorim and swore to be his God and God of his people, the Ulgos.
Is there anything like this passage in Tolkien? Yes, there is. Not in theme, but in manner of presentation. But you won't find that passage in a prologue. It's not the author who tells you this brief account as Eddings presumes to do.
'I will tell you the tale of Tinuviel,' said Strider, 'in brief -- for it is a long tale of which the end is not known; and there are none now, except Elrond, that remember it aright as it was told of old. It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.'
….Aside from the fact that this is one of Tolkien's longest passages of exposition, it comes from a character. You can feel Aragorn's passion for the story even though there is much in it which is mysterious to the first-time reader. In fact, it's downright confusing for many first-time readers. But it's entertaining. And it's distracting. The whole mood of the scene is altered by Aragorn's story, and the subsequent encounter with the Nazgul is starkly contrasted with his campfire tale.
The revelation of ancient lore through the lips of a character, rather than the cold summation of an unseen and unnamed narrator, brings the lore to life. And it helps to make the fantasy world more realistic. Tolkien didn't throw away an opportunity to sit everyone down and tell a bunch of stories. The tale of Beren and Luthien really doesn't seem to fit with the adventure of Frodo, although there are connections to the greater story. It is a precursor of Aragorn's own quest for love. It inspires Sam when he and Frodo are in Mordor, and he realizes that they are in a way carrying on the ancient struggle of the Elves against evil.
Eddings' prologue goes on to tell virtually the whole history of the world. Tolkien's history of the world is revealed slowly through numerous stories and books. Tolkien gives the reader enough to understand that something happened in the past which had a profound effect upon the relations of Elves and Men. We are also told that those relations came to an uncertain crux in-between the more ancient events and the current drama. But Tolkien hints that there is more behind each revelation. He carefully selects material from the broader story to color the one he is presently telling.
Tolkien's trickle of information has been transformed into a torrent of infodumps from people wanting to establish for their readers or players that this is a new fantasy world. It's not enough merely to tell a story and drop hints here and there of something more ancient. A few authors, like Mary Gentle, actually preserve something of Tolkien's style. But many just sort of wallow in ancient lore. Ancient lore should be related either for its own sake or to enhance the primary story. Instead, we are being given massive doses of ancient lore to explain everything up front.
Was it necessary for the reader to understand that Aragorn was a descendant of Luthien when Gandalf mentioned him briefly to Frodo in the Shire? Of course not. But if a lesser author had written The Lord of the Rings we would already have been told about Luthien, the War of the Last Alliance, and perhaps even Isildur's untimely end.
The past is a mystery, and should be treated with the respect normally accorded to a mystery. That is, the reader should be given glimpses and clues about the greater picture, but should be brought to the full realization of what happened only near the end of the tale. Or at least near the end of the process which requires the ancient lore to begin with.
Many people seem to have no problem identifying the fact that history is a big part of what makes Tolkien so appealing. It gives his world a depth which is rich and enticing. The readers want to learn more, but they want to learn it after they have read the primary story, not before. Too many authors seem to be trying to capitalize on the desire for history in a formulaic process. History becomes important to a reader only when the characters produced by that history become important. This is probably the chief reason why Tolkien moved so much of his Arwen material to the appendices. She was important to Aragorn, but not yet so to the reader…
… even a badly written book like The Sword of Shannara can become a best-seller because it so closely mimics Tolkien's world without really understanding it. The one flaw you won't find in The Sword of Shannara is that Terry Brooks doesn't presume to improve upon Tolkien. He just retells the story and has a rollicking good time butchering every rule of good story-telling one can imagine.
There was nonetheless something compelling about Brooks' version of the story. Millions of people enjoyed it at the time it came out. Part of the process that he got right, was that he didn't reveal too much too soon. Sometimes he revealed too much too late, but the reader was kept wondering about the past. He used the mystery of the past effectively in his Magic Kingdom for Sale | Sold. Many things are simply not explained, but the hint that they could be explained is ever present.
So many people are fearful of what harm might be done if someone were authorized to write more stories set in Tolkien's Middle-earth. But the harm has already been done in a million tiny, little ways. The bruising of Tolkien's traditions occurs every time someone tries to do it a little better than the master. No doubt someone will come along some century who can indeed do it better than Tolkien. But the masses haven't devoted the time to learning the craft of story-telling in the style Tolkien used, a style which they need to know. You have to do it Tolkien's way first before you can improve upon what he did. Too few people are actually trying to write like Tolkien.
A common complaint among fantasy readers is that there really is nothing like The Lord of the Rings. Sure, a few authors have truly dedicated fan bases. Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series is mentioned a great deal. But Robert Jordan has yet to earn the recognition that Tolkien has. And Robert Jordan hasn't even come close to having the impact on the popular imagination that Tolkien has had…
Maybe some people really feel they can write better than Tolkien, but I don't think so. I just think they believe they can tell stories which are more relevant to today's readership than Tolkien's stories. That is the mistake. There is really no sex in Tolkien (except for all the babies Sam and Rosie have, and Arwen's promise to cleave to Aragorn). There isn't really any profanity. There is a lot of bloodshed but relatively little gore.
Tolkien doesn't try to provoke the reader into disgust or outrage. He just wants to entertain a friendly audience with an exciting tale. He doesn't pull out any gimmicks to spice it up. Today's authors could learn a thing or two from Tolkien. Today's editors could improve the pool of fantasy books by selecting a few good old-fashioned stories that don't try to break new ground. New ground will be broken properly when the authors learn how to get back to basics. C.J. Cherryh can write a story about Elves which is moving and compelling. Not everyone is C.J. Cherryh, though.
And fantasy shouldn't be trying to distance itself from Tolkien. After reading The Lord of the Rings, some people believe Tolkien had a problem with female characters. They don't stop to think that women were extremely important in some of his other works. The best story he ever wrote was the tale of Luthien. What's wrong with that female character? She is strong, intelligent, powerful, motivated, and has weaknesses and conflicts. And she loves.
Tolkien seems to be looked down upon more than admired by the creative community. If his work wasn't good enough for modern audiences, why do people keep buying his books? If his characters were politically incorrect, why do readers keep yearning for more Tolkien-like stories? If he didn't get it right, why was he voted Author of the Century in more than one poll in the last decade of the 20th century?
Modern fantasy came so close to improving upon the foundation Tolkien laid, but it took a step back and abandoned the basics. Tolkien robbed ancient and modern sources blind. One need only look to Homer, the Bible, "Beowulf", "The Kalevala", and the Norse myths to see where he got his inspiration and style. If today's authors and editors need to be formulaic, they should stick with a formula that works across generations and millennia. If they have to break out and be innovative, then it would help if they looked at how Tolkien did it by sticking with the basics, telling a story which makes sense, and not getting caught up in faux controversies.
We can't stop people from continuing to reinvent Middle-earth, but it wouldn't hurt to stop the clock and turn it back. Starting over could bring some new perspectives to modern fantasy, which has gotten a bit too stale for my tastes. Maybe that's just me, but I don't think so.
Michael Martinez is the author of Visualizing Middle-earth, which may be purchased directly from Xlibris Corp. or through any online bookstore. You may also special order it from your local bookstore. The ISBN is 0-7388-3408-4.