Spoiler Notice: Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, and the Philip Marlowe series.
1. The Lord of the Rings
The basic plot of The Lord of the Rings involves a fellowship of people in a medieval Europe-inspired setting. This group is tasked with carrying an evil magical ring on a cross-country quest to save the world from an ancient villainous overlord. The fellowship includes prominent skilled warriors and powerful figures: a wise wizard, an elf prince, a mighty dwarf, and the son of the current steward of Gondor – nearly a prince. Even more legendary than those is Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor, descendant of storied royalty, rightful owner of a legendary sword, subject of a prophecy, master tracker, skilled warrior and horseman, star-crossed true love of a beautiful elf lady, and wearer of an elf jewel. In contrast, the team also includes Frodo, a comparatively humble Halfling from a peaceful verdant shire backwater that few have even heard of. Accompanying Frodo is his gardener, Sam, and two of his Halfling friends.
Aided by Sam, Frodo eventually bears the ring to the fires of Mount Doom, where it can be destroyed. Meanwhile, Aragorn leads an army against the enemy as a diversion to distract focus until the critical moment. After the day is saved and Aragorn is crowned king of Gondor, he bows to Frodo and the other hobbits, acknowledging their courage and heroism.
Modern epic fantasy uses many tropes that can be traced back to or were popularized by Tolkien, including:
- Fantasy species, including elves, goblins, dwarves, orcs, Halflings, and dragons
- Crews of many people with different weapons, skills, abilities, backstories, and important places in society
- A medieval Europe-inspired setting
- Large epic battles
- Hordes of armies made up of “evil” creatures
- A larger-than-life evil lord trying to conquer the world
- Magic and wizards
- Haunted forests
- Long journeys
Lord of the Rings was obviously the inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons, which itself feeds back into inspiring new fantasy stories. Many of these tropes are still enjoyed widely today, even if they are a little overused. But many Lord of the Rings–style works underemphasize some of the most compelling themes of Tolkien’s classic.
Humble and Gentle Heroes
It is appealing to make a prophesied heir like Aragorn the hero of the story or to compose the heroic team entirely of skilled warrior and mage types with no noncombatants (besides maybe healers). But a major point of Lord of the Rings is that the hobbits are the real heroes – and Aragorn himself understands that, as he shows on multiple occasions:
- He never tries to take the burden of carrying the ring from Frodo.
- He deliberately stages an entire battle as a diversion to help Frodo and Sam’s efforts, trusting them to save the day.
- He bows to the hobbits on his coronation day and inspires his subjects to do the same.
Aragorn plays an important role, but the true heroes of Lord of the Rings are ordinary and peaceful underdogs whose strength comes from their compassion, love of life, stalwart friendship, courage, and lack of greed or ambition. Frodo is no prophesied hero with a grand destiny, fighting prowess, powerful magic, or royal heritage. A terrible burden falls to him by chance, he chooses to shoulder it, and he succeeds because of the support of his best friend, who has an even humbler background. The other hobbits do end up fighting in several major battles, but Frodo and Sam are not warriors and never become such. They save the day not through aggression or violence but by quiet perseverance, endurance, loyalty, and by helping each other.
These traits are often undervalued, even considered “feminine” and “not manly,” but they are admirable and essential. Part of their strength lies in seeming unremarkable. Sauron falls because he underestimates the hobbits and focuses on Aragorn as the only credible threat. This dismissal makes him the right villain for a tale that shows the value of ordinary folk. These elements made the original strong, and more stories that draw influence from Lord of the Rings should include them.
A major theme of Lord of the Rings is the power of seemingly ordinary people to save the world not by military strength or destiny, but by choice, hope, and quiet resilience. Currently, grimdark fantasy, with its gritty worlds and nihilistic philosophy, is getting the most attention. Dark fantasy certainly has its place and its audience. However, the philosophy of Tolkien is less grimdark and more hopepunk. The term was coined by Alexandra Rowland, who defines hopepunk as conveying “that kindness and softness doesn’t equal weakness, and that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act.” Sam’s classic speech is the epitome of hopepunk, as are several of Gandalf’s lines.
Lord of the Rings says that hope is not weakness or naivete but actually strength and wisdom. I’m not saying that no modern fantasy books contain those themes, but it would be nice if more Lord of the Rings–style fantasy emulated those elements and emphasized the importance of unexpected and underestimated figures, the strength of gentleness, and the heroism of choice, in addition to including the flashy elements.
The Power of Asking for Help
While many epic fantasy stories focus on making the central hero grow more powerful as an individual, in Lord of the Rings, protagonists learn to overcome threats by receiving and offering help. Nothing important is achieved alone. As Frodo himself says when he recalls his own tale, “Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam.” In turn, the two of them wouldn’t have succeeded without everyone else. That’s why they’re called the “fellowship” of the ring. Again and again, unlikely alliances between conventional and unconventional heroes begin with someone risking everything to give aid to another.
- Merry and Pippin build a friendship with Treebeard and through that draw his attention to his own interest in their cause, and together they bring down Sarumon.
- Antagonist Denethor puts his kingdom at risk when he is too proud to ask for help by lighting the distress beacons, but the heroes do it anyway. Because they do, Theoden overcomes his reluctance to help a neighbor who didn’t help him earlier. As soon as he hears they’ve actually asked for help, he doesn’t hesitate. When “Gondor calls for aid … Rohan will answer.”
- When Faramir’s father is about to unknowingly burn him alive, Pippin realizes Faramir needs help. However, Pippin can’t rescue Faramir alone, so he gets Gandalf to help, too, and together they rescue him.
- Merry needs a horse to get to the battle, and Eowyn recognizes his need and helps him ride with her. When she faces the Witch King, he recognizes her need and stabs the wraith in the leg, and together they defeat him.
- Aragorn recognizes that Sam and Frodo need help to complete their mission in secrecy, so he stages a diversion, allowing them to slip past the enemy’s notice.
- Frodo falters at the final threshold, and Sam helps him get there, speaking the immortal line “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.”
In Lord of the Rings, reliance on others doesn’t diminish success – it ensures success. The framing and events of the story all convey the message that needing help isn’t a weakness, asking for help is a strength, and knowing when to offer help is heroism. This teaches us that it’s all right to need support, that it’s noble to help each other, and that no one should have to face danger on their own. And that is a lesson worth reinforcing, especially in this day and age.
2. Pride and Prejudice
The plot of this classic goes like this: Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy meet at a party, where Darcy is sullen, antisocial, and insulting toward her family in general and her in particular. However, Elizabeth’s older sister and Darcy’s best friend are smitten, so Elizabeth and Darcy are forced to see each other frequently. With a little time, he secretly falls in love with her.
Elizabeth still dislikes Darcy. Making matters worse, a family friend, Wickham, relates how Darcy has wronged him. Then Darcy deliberately breaks up the budding relationship between his friend and Elizabeth’s older sister, increasing her dislike. So when Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, insulting her in the process, she rejects him, calling him out for his rudeness and his cruelty to Wickham and her older sister.
Afterward, Darcy sends a letter explaining his treatment of Wickham and the misunderstanding that compelled him to interfere in her older sister’s happiness and apologizes for his rudeness. Meanwhile, Wickham runs away with Elizabeth’s younger sister, endangering her reputation. Darcy rescues the younger sister from social ruin and helps get his friend and Elizabeth’s older sister back together. Despite his attempts to conceal those reparative actions, Elizabeth finds out, and they reconcile and wed.
Modern romance novels owe much to Pride and Prejudice. Not every book in the genre is the same, of course, but a popular formula closely mirrors elements from Austen’s work:
- The heroine and eventual love interest quickly develop an exaggerated aversion to each other because the eventual love interest acts like a jerk.
- They are nevertheless thrown together by circumstance.
- They have a contentious continuing relationship.
- The eventual love interest commits a mistake that messes up their relationship.
- He has to do something dramatic to apologize and fix his mistake (this step is known as “the grovel”).
- She forgives him and they live Happily Ever After (HEA), or at least Happily for Now (HFN).
These tropes cross subgenres, from historical to contemporary and speculative, too. Speculative fiction romance novels often have an external plot obstacle instead, but they could easily use this form as well. The particularities of Pride and Prejudice make all of these elements effective and compelling, but when new particulars are plugged into the formula, they don’t always work as well as they do in Austen’s classic.
The Jerk Love Interest
Some adaptations misinterpret the appeal of Mr. Darcy as an attractive jerk. In actuality, his appeal lies in:
- The revelation that his rudeness was mainly social awkwardness and he is kind in other areas of his life
- His willingness to listen to the heroine, change his behavior, and do the work to make amends for the harm he caused
Basically, he’s not as much of a jerk as he seemed, and he works to change his behavior. Modern romance stories don’t work as well if the hero is actually just a mean person who never makes any effort to improve.
The Love Interest’s Mistake
Some Pride and Prejudice–style romances use a mistake that is either more minor, in which case it doesn’t justify the heroine’s negative response, or more major, making redemption more difficult. Darcy’s mistake works because:
- He was justified in his treatment of Wickham, once you know the full story.
- He misunderstood Elizabeth’s sister’s intentions. Since she is shy and equally polite to everyone, he thought she had no real feelings for his friend and was just after his wealth and position. He therefore acted out of concern for his friend.
- He’s not entirely wrong about his assessment of Elizabeth’s mother and younger sisters – they do overstep the etiquette of the time by being so publicly loud about their attempts to find advantageous matches. Even Elizabeth is embarrassed by them.
Of his largest mistakes, two turn out to not be as big as they seemed, and the other he acted with misguided good intentions. Derivative plots don’t work as well if the mistake is genuinely selfish or malicious, predictably harmful, or conversely, too mild to have as much dramatic impact. Sometimes the mistake is merely breaking up with the heroine, which is not as complicated or as interesting.
A standard trope in modern romance novels is “the grovel” – the moment after the love interest makes a mistake and must apologize, often through some dramatic gesture. I have yet to see an Austen-inspired romance story with a grovel as good as Darcy’s. He makes a true apology. He values Elizabeth’s opinion, takes her criticisms to heart, and reevaluates himself. Most importantly, he accepts her rejection at face value and does not try to win her back. Then he takes concrete steps to fix the wrong he has caused, reuniting the estranged couple they both care about. He puts aside his grudge with Wickham to protect someone Elizabeth cares about. He starts acting more polite.
Darcy changes his behavior and fixes his mistakes not in an attempt to win Elizabeth but because he believes it’s the right thing to do. He only approaches Elizabeth again when he hears from a third party that her opinion of him has changed for the better, and even then, he gives her the option to “silence him on the subject forever.” Grovels in modern romance novels fail if they:
- Don’t actually fix or address the mistake
- Are worse than the actual mistake, or are a mistake in and of themselves, such as an embarrassing and unwanted public gesture
- Pressure the heroine into a reconciliation after she has already given a firm “no”
Pride and Prejudice inspired a specific structure of romance novel wherein a love interest makes a mistake and has to fix it dramatically. But some adaptations misinterpret the appeal of the Mr. Darcy character as an attractive jerk rather than as someone whose appeal lies in his character development and deliberate efforts to change. They miss that the dramatic fix must fit the mistake to redeem their hero. It would be nice to see more romance books emulate the nuance and thoughtfulness of the original.
3. The Philip Marlowe Series
Philip Marlowe, star of The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and all the books in between, is the quintessential hard-boiled detective. The books are written in first person, and the narrator sometimes seems to be speaking directly to the reader, explaining details of his job. Marlowe is snarky, wisecracking, and irreverent. He talks back to his wealthy clients, to the police, and to criminal bosses. He drinks whiskey and smokes constantly. He lives a loner life out of a cramped office and a small flat.
As a private detective, mysterious clients hire him to find missing items, deal with blackmailers and debt holders, and solve murders. Sinister figures burst through his door with loaded guns. McGuffins turn up in the mail. Clues lead to the seedy underbelly of a city. Casinos, mansions, fine jeweler offices, nightclubs, fronts for criminal enterprises, and the mean city streets are his territory. He gets in fistfights, gunfights, and standoffs. He gets drugged, kidnapped, and locked up by the cops. Both sides are out to get him. No genius puzzle solver or master of deduction, he stumbles along after clues, following convoluted plots to their conclusions.
The Big Sleep and other Philip Marlowe books defined the subgenre of noir mystery, which very often influences modern urban fantasy. Common elements include:
- The basic setup of a solo private eye
- Mysterious and sometimes dubious clients
- Conversational first-person narrator
- Talking back to authority figures
- All of the snark
- A gritty urban city setting
- Underworld criminal locations
- Contention with the police
- Street fighting
- Trench coats and fedoras
- Exciting, convoluted plots with lots of action
- Murder, kidnapping, theft, blackmail, gambling, extortion, poison, bribes, corruption, the usual crimes
- Femmes fatales
While everyone knows the archetype of the back-talking detective who stands up to authority, many people miss the flip side of the originator: Marlowe is not only disrespectful toward authorities but conversely kind and gentle to those with less power.
Punching Up, Never Down
It is true that Marlowe is brash, snarky, and back-talking. However, his disrespect is limited to authority figures, even when it may not be in his own best interests. He talks back to his rich clients, to the police, to big-time criminals, club owners, and murderers. All of this is frequently adapted in new urban hard-boiled detectives.
But many works miss how Marlowe’s behavior changes entirely when he is faced with people who have no power. He is friendly to cab drivers, cashiers, clerks, secretaries. In The High Window, he sits beside a homeless man and speaks to him with respect, recognizing his humanity as no one else has. Cops and criminals overlook these figures, but Marlowe recognizes their importance and value. He gets many of his best clues from these interactions, but he never feels manipulative. This respect for the powerless is simply part of who he is, and in return, people share important information they kept from those who overlooked them.
I’m not saying no modern urban detectives are kind to underdogs, but this trait is not seen as intrinsically part of the hard-boiled archetype, and perhaps it should be. It is just as essential to making Marlowe a compelling character as his rudeness. More stories, urban fantasy and mundane mysteries alike, could emulate that appeal by placing equal emphasis on this gentler trait in their snarky detectives and showing it for the strength it is.
Treatment of Women
Despite the historical time period, Marlowe is generally not sexist or misogynistic in his treatment of women. He’ll disrespect a cruel rich lady the same way he would a cruel rich man. When a femme fatale flirts with him, he’ll flirt back, giving as good as he gets and matching her. When faced with less powerful women – the young, innocent, kind, naive, mistreated, abused – he is gentle, protective, and never ever takes advantage of them. In fact, he goes to great lengths not to, even when they express interest in him. In The Big Sleep, he rescues a drugged teenager from a dubious pornography photo shoot, takes her home safe to her sister, and does his best to protect her reputation. In The High Window, he soothes a panicking and abused secretary who works for his client, gently takes care of her, gives her a safe shelter, and transports her safely to her parents and away from her abuser.
Marlowe doesn’t do these things out of a desire to impress or win them over, nor to seem like a hero. In fact, he often conceals these actions from others. He merely does it because it’s the right thing to do. Again, I am not saying that all modern hard-boiled detectives are sexist, but a positive respect for women is not often included in the archetype, and, again, it should be. Readers who suffer under sexism shouldn’t have to put up with it from protagonists who are supposed to be likable, and everyone could use more examples of positive masculinity.
Violence as a Last Resort
Marlowe will punch or shoot someone if he needs to, but it’s not his first choice. Whenever possible, he tries to diffuse situations. When violence happens, he is often defending himself or someone else. He doesn’t torture or beat up suspects for information. During one scene in The Big Sleep, he ends up collecting the guns from everyone in the room to keep them from shooting each other.
This avoidance of violence is another trait that could be emphasized more. Again, as we saw in Lord of the Rings, and in the words of King Arthur from Camelot, “violence is not strength, and compassion is not weakness.” Also, when we limit violence as a tool, it forces us to come up with more creative ways to address a problem. There’s nothing wrong with a fight when necessary, and books in this genre certainly warrant the excitement. However, new works could make their heroes more heroic by employing more of those nonviolent solutions, or at least attempts at them, with violence as a last resort. The world is a violent place, and fiction can teach us to make it less so.
What do you know – some of these underemphasized tropes overlap. All three of these original works emphasize the importance of kindness, gentleness, and compassion. All of these are stereotypically “weak” and “feminine” traits. Notably, only one of these three books was written by a woman, and most of the characters discussed here are male, yet they don’t reinforce toxic masculinity by buying into the idea that men have to be unfailingly tough with no mitigating “softer” traits. Not only that, but these softer traits are what make them deep, rounded, compelling, and heroic in the first place. We can learn to include and place greater emphasis on these themes, and our stories will be the better for it. And maybe they will teach us to be better, too.
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