J. R. R. Tolkien is a name known by practically every reader around the globe. Hailed as the Father of Modern Fantasy (a moniker he most certainly deserves), Tolkien shaped a genre into something that would change the face of fiction literature. Beginning with The Hobbit, which has sold 100 million copies to date, followed by The Lord of the Rings, which has sold an even more staggering 150 million, Tolkien's creation of Middle-Earth - his Legendarium, as he called it - is often considered the most influential fantasy work of all time. Here, we're going to take a look at the development of this rich fictional world, and how it laid the foundations for a genre adored by hundreds of millions today.
It is apparent to anyone familiar with Tolkien's works that Middle-Earth is a near-unrivaled fantasy world in terms of size, lore, and depth. What began with the simple sentence "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" grew over the course of decades into a rich, pre-historic realm which served as the stage for a fictional mythology of our own world. This manner of world-building, which includes creating a detailed history, forming distant myths and legends, constructing believable landscapes shaped by the ages, and developing thousands of years worth of lore and legend can be a life's work - and in Tolkien's case it was. He continued to alter and re-work Middle-Earth long after the publication of his books, and this style of world-building and exploration is now adopted by countless other writers across the genre; in fact, it's arguably the most enjoyable part of it.
Epic is a word often used to describe stories of a grand scale, whether they take place over a long period of time, consist of significantly large events, or invoke wonder for the reader... but rarely have we ever seen a work quite like Tolkien's Legendarium. Due to its vast and intricate history, huge world, and awesome scope, Arda (the world containing Middle-Earth) has gone on to entirely redefine the word "epic" when applied to literary fiction. Even the great tale that is The Lord of the Rings pales in comparison to The Silmarillion and the other histories of Tolkien's fictional mythology. Since then, just about every other highly successful fantasy work has embraced the power of epic storytelling - not only with the enormous worlds but rich history, sprawling plots, and varying characters - including A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time, Malazan Book of the Fallen, and The Witcher... just to name a few.
Strange creatures and inhuman races have long been a part of fantasy and fiction, but never before have we seen multiple races established to quite the same extent as Tolkien's - especially in The Silmarillion and Arda's histories. From the beginning of time and the legends of the gods (the Valar and the Maiar, and the supreme deity Eru Ilúvatar), to the waking of the Elves, the secret creation of the Dwarves deep in the mountains, and the eventual coming of men, Tolkien established fantasy races as so much more than a simple fantastical construct. This level of detail, along with the varying customs and traits of each race (which readers often find they can relate to in one way or another), adds an extra layer of depth to his already vast Legendarium, and - surprise surprise - has gone on to essentially be a must-do for all fantasy writers and world-builders today.
Last, but certainly not least, is the establishing of tropes that are now pillars of the genre. These include the peaceful character in his home environment, the magical guide who comes to see him out of that idyllic existence, the disequilibrium of a great and evil force moving against the light, and the ultimate establishing of a new world order by the end of the story. While these tropes are fairly consistent (at least in the most basic form) in many fictional stories, fantasy employs them perhaps most of all - and for good reason. Tolkien did not hold back with these tropes, and thus created a story that is entirely satisfying, fulfilling, and consistent from start to finish. Now, not only is it common for these tropes to be used and followed in fantasy novels, but also for them to be entirely challenged - with George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire serving as perhaps the strongest and most popular example of that.
Thank you for reading our latest blog! While you're here, don't forget to check out our vast collection of vintage fantasy books and novels - perhaps you'll find your new favourite fictional world to get lost in!
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