Hate it or love it, none can doubt the beauty of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. He was one of those minds ahead of his time. He took fantasy “way too seriously,” sometimes overshadowing his “real” work as a philologist. Now, a hundred years after he wrote his first drafts in a World War I barrack, we have a situation on our hands.
Tolkien’s classic fantasy world is awesome! It is so awesome that it got embedded in pop culture and spawned thousands of offspring in the fields of literature, board games, computer games, music, and much more. And that’s where it got troublesome. No matter how much you like a dish, if you have it three times a day, every day for years, at some point you’ll get sick just looking at it.
Hence the amazing work of Tolkien has fallen under the inescapable shadow of cliché. Before I get shot with elven arrows and chopped apart with dwarven axes, I’ll stop whining about how bad it is and start offering solutions. We need new blood. How? Simple: we should stop following the master and start following what the master followed. Carl Sagan says that if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. So if we want to build fantasy anew, we need building blocks.
What Did Tolkien Use?
Tales! Myths! Folklore! Do we need cooler and more refined materials than our cultural heritage? Tolkien did a great job combining mythologies, but his main source of inspiration was his own heritage. He borrowed well-loved tales from Germanic cultures.
- The Nordic Völsunga saga is an epic tale Tolkien translated as a student. It also centers around a powerful ring and a reforged sword. The figure of Gandalf clearly resembles the Norse deity Odin, who also wandered around as an old man with one eye, a long white beard, a wide-brimmed hat, and a staff. Tolkien even referred to Gandalf as an “Odinic wanderer.”
- A Finnish national epic, The Kalevala centers around a magical item of great power, the Sampo. It bestows great fortune on its owner and is fought over by forces both good and evil. The Sampo is destroyed in the end.
- The Old English tale Beowulf was also a big influence on Tolkien, especially for the character Aragorn. It’s a heroic quest full of great deeds.
- Anglo-Saxon culture and folklore was represented in Tolkien’s work as The Rohirrim nation, with Rohirric verses based on Anglo-Saxon poetry.
As we can see, no matter can be created or destroyed, only rearranged and restructured. Take that, originality!
The Man Who Reinvented Middle Earth
A prime example of a writer who used folklore to rock the fantasy world once more is Andrzej Sapkowski with his Witcher series. Now, before you say “But Andrew! The Witcher worlds have elves and dwarves and – ” exactly. I intentionally brought him up because he relies heavily on Tolkien, but he also incorporates something we didn’t see in the mainstream fantasy world up until now: Slavic mythology and folklore. It feels like a cold breeze in the fiery den of the dragon where you ventured with a pack of kitten warriors!
- Sapkowski brings in Slavic monsters galore, including vampires (not sparkly ones) and werewolves (not fluffy ones), plus wraiths, botchlings, and nightmarish riders in the moonlight. He includes leshen, a creature resembling the pagan forest gods of the Slavic region. And let’s not forget the Striga: a child born of incest and buried alongside her mother just to rise seven years later as a beast-witch of great power. She can be turned into a real girl if she’s prevented from entering her coffin before the third shriek of the rooster. Even the vampires and other overused elements have a really nice flavor to them. The witches are based on Baba Yaga, while sorceresses are more western-like. This creates a nice tension between the old and new.
- He incorporates the history of Poland into his magical world. Nilfgard can be compared to WWII Germany, with similar policies regarding territorial expansion and how conquered people are treated: the “normal folk” can live under their enlightened rule while the “magical folk” should be exterminated.
- Instead of using the black-and-white morality of Tolkien, Sapkowski adopts the mentality of Slavic folktales, in which dragons and witches aren’t inherently bad. They might choose to harm heroes, but they might also help.
Slavic folktales are an essential ingredient in Sapkowski’s work, but he also spices up the elves and dwarves he borrows from Tolkien. They are no longer the all-mighty, magical creatures who are at the top of the food chain. Quite the opposite, they are lice infested, drug addicted, and subject to racism.
While there is some pretty dark stuff in the Silmarillion,* The Lord of the Rings is a fairy tale. The good guys fight the bad guys, and – what a surprise – the good guys win. But with Sapkowski you aren’t really sure who the good guy is, and the more you read, the fuzzier it gets. The good guys are doing bad things for all the right reasons, and bad guys are doing bad things for all the wrong ones. This world is rotten, with shady figures, famished folk, and filth running on the street. It doesn’t get more intense than that.
Long Story Short…
I want to encourage you, my fellow writers and fantasy lovers, to embrace your heritage. The world is big and full of wonders. Your protagonist can fight a horde of strigoi,* your bulky tank character can wield a fokos,* and your bard can play a cimbalo* instead of a lute. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what language you speak, or what cultural background you have. We all have something to show that the world has yet to see. Let’s freshen up the fantasy world again, as Tolkien did once. May we all be the explorers he encouraged us to be.
Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.