There is a story, the veracity of which I am unsure, about a group of writers at Oxford University called the “Inklings”, which featured J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis amongst its members. These literary giants would meet to discuss literature, and to read extracts of their current projects to each other. Legend has it that Hugo Dyson, during a reading from Tolkein’s seminal The Lord of the Rings, irrately declared “Oh God, not more f**king elves!”
I have some sympathy with Dyson’s position.
Understand that I am a big fan of The Lord of the Rings (though it is far from a work without flaw), and I started off writing fantasy in my early-to-mid teens. But nowadays, I can hardly stand it, and actively shy away from anything under the label “fantasy”. I know it’s an illogical position, but it is not entirely without reason.
Today, on a writing-themed forum which I frequent, a new writer had started a thread asking for something along the lines of a reference book for fantasy races and religions “widely accepted” by known fantasy authors. I know that new authors are prone to misunderstanding, and Christ knows I probably did when I set out, but as I threw my hands up in despair it occurred to me that this is exactly what turns me off fantasy.
Particularly the case with high fantasy, there seems to me to be a real dearth of originality. The beautiful noble elves, immortal and above worldly troubles. Greedy, bearded dwarfs, who can’t stand elves. Goblins/orcs which are deformed things, really only animals to be slaughtered by the heroes. Elderly, bearded wizards, who play the (grand)fatherly role. And of course, some magical mcguffin which drives the plot along.
Yes, it’s churlish (and misspelt- “excied” should be “excited”, typing on my Kindle can be a pain at times), but Paolini has always exemplified to me what’s wrong with fantasy. His books are manufactured, repackaged tropes. Having inspirations is fine, but when your writing looks like a patchwork of other peoples’ then you have problems. Eragon, his first book, was an unimaginative mix of Anne McCaffrey’s brilliant Dragonriders of Pern books, The Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars.
The excuse always seems to be that he wrote it at 15, but I don’t buy it. For one thing, I was writing at 15, and I was determinedly trying to be original. Yes, what I wrote was almost certainly awful, but it was mine. Paolini cobbled together a novel of rip-offs which was only published because his parents owned a publishing house.
It’s ironic, because there’s so much potential for imaginative originality in fantasy as a genre. But so often it ends up pigeon-holed in ridiculous stereotypes, with orphaned farmboys grinding out the same miserable quests over and over. And there is life in fantasy. The work of Neil Gaiman, for example, is brilliant. Terry Pratchett uses humour to break the relentless grim seriousness of it. And HBO’s recent series Game of Thrones (adapted from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series) was excellent; it’s only concessions were dragons and a little bit of zombie-ness, and the only dwarf in it was beardless and far more interested in whoring than mining.
Lord of the Rings was, as a child, one of my favourite books. It still is. But the endless cavalcade of would be imitators has left me weary and jaded. Aspiring fantasy authors, heed Hugo Dyson’s advice: “Not more f**king elves!”