Why Fantasy Writers Should Embrace Their Heritage

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.

And now, if you excuse me, I must saddle my taltos steed* and fight a rogue band of garaboncias.*

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  1. Anonymous

    FYI Finland isn’t a Germanic country.

  2. "That Guy"

    I hate to be “that guy” but you guys don’t seem to have any idea how hard it is to sell a story that isn’t featuring European mythology. I say this as someone who has tried to do it.
    Egyptian Mythology, sure, but anything outside of European mythology is very difficult because there is a lot of views that the “mainstream” audience won’t buy into it. This is a day and age where people are still getting their under garments in a twist when they see an interracial relationship on screen. I think it is important to try to uphold your heritage and culture and bring more diversity but if only the industry were more like that.
    I am speaking more in terms of film and tv, which I write for mainly, and I can tell you it isn’t easy. Hollywood would rather pay money out the thorax to see another ancient greek mythology story, but give em one based on the Yoruba mythology and suddenly its like you asked for the souls of their first borns.

    • Cay Reet

      However, if nobody starts, it won’t happen. Yes, The Witcher is also based on a European mythology, albeit one used more rarely, but it’s a step in a good direction. Especially Fantasy is horribly limited with all those noble Elves and cave-digging Dwarves and so on.

      I can see why Hollywood is weary about other mythologies, but at least as a writer of novels, you can take this step – by self-publishing, if nobody wants to publish your novel.

      Personally, I don’t know much about Yoruba mythology, but I know I’d love to see movies which show me something new, not just Greek and Egyptian and Norse stuff. That’s why I enjoy the occasional Asian horror movie – completely different monsters and usually quite scary.

    • Jumai Y

      Hey That Guy, I’m so glad you brought up Yoruba mythology! I just made a short film called Pearl Rain inspired the Orishas and I would love for more works based off the Orishas to be made. Beyoncé’s Lemonade is certainly helping to bring this to the mainstream. I’d actually love to connect with you, and find out your experience with pitching Yoruba-based stories to Hollywood..

    • Javi

      And not just “European” mythology but “Germanic” mythology. Try to write a story based on Spanish mythology…

  3. Passerby

    A very good article! I think that part of the issue is that there’s very few translations from foreign languages to English in comparison to how popular it is the other way round. The Witcher, for instance, is written by a Pole, living in Poland, and it was first published in the 80., so still under the communism and behind the curtain. The game is similarily made by a Polish company, and if not for it, the books would never get translated. The fact that it broke into USA market makes it an exception, though – I believe that there are many unique stories based on various mythologies, just that they are written in their native language and country, and nevrr searched for by USA publishing industry

  4. That Other Guy

    “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.”

    But does he, really?

    I hate to be “that guy” (I guess “That Guy” has already been “that guy”), but as someone from Poland, I’m just not seeing it.

    The political side of his setting does heavily showcase some perspectives from Polish history around WWII (if you pardon jarring anachronisms) and the portrayal of inter-racial relations can be very interesting and nuanced – and that’s really the meat of the books. There, they shine.

    But the “Slavic folklore” stuff just feels completely extraneous; the world feels like a D&D setting with “Slavic Monster Manual” expansion handbook slapped on.

    Now, I haven’t yet read all of his books, but in his original short stories collection (which many fans hold as the paragon of what Witcher is), Sapkowski seems more interested in spoofing some classic and decidedly non-Slavic fairy tales, like Beauty and the Beast.

    I’m not saying the Witcher series is bad. But I think that in the context of this article – embracing non-mainstream heritage – it’s a step in the very *wrong* direction. It just can’t hold up to how key Nordic mythology elements were to Tolkien’s work and how they were incorporated in his rich worldbuilding.

  5. Sanjiv

    One interesting example of incorporating non-western-european fantasy literature is in Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books. I know that is not quite the same as a Tolkien -style development of a whole fantasy ‘world’, but it does give us an opportunity to get all kinds of folk and fairy tales from many different cultures.

  6. Jeff


    I just keep guessing at “What is my heritage ?”. I am a thirty something French man, from some Spanish descent, though my father born in Algeria. My mother is from Normandy, with some Britany elements… I am more fluent in English, than Spanish, so my culture is heavily influenced by Anglo-Saxon elements too.

    But stop ! Greek / Roman culture is a core of French culture, not to mention Egyptian / Hebraic ones (for instance, some Egyptian masterworks dwell in France for more than half a century now…). And is it possible to dismiss all Christian elements as they are a cornerstone of French / West European culture, influencing up to… Tolkien himself ?

    And, to topple it all, what about being a XXIst Century geeky man ? I know numerous SF / Fantasy work, from insipid ones (Underworld…) to more shiny (Zelazny’s Amber…). All are a very part of my personal mythology, plus an heavy influence on any mythology I could interact with. It is a part of me too.

    So thanks for the advice of embracing my heritage, but if I truly try to answer this question, I may start writing something in a lifetime or two ! And I guess many people are like me nowadays…

  7. Cay Reet

    If we’re arguing about ‘how people don’t know mythology, because there haven’t been translations,’ then what about middle eastern stuff? “1001 Nights” has been translated into English ages ago and in circulation ever since.

    There’s a wealth of strange beings and interesting stories in there, not to mention is has a great female lead in Sheherazade – a woman who told her husband a very complex story with many layers and stories within stories for three years to overcome a curse which made him execute his wives after the wedding night. This is where the cliffhanger really was invented.

    Why don’t we have more novels with Djinns and Ghuls and other beings like those?

    • SunlessNick

      Or Marjoneh, the heroine of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, who wins out through observation, deduction, strategy, tactical use of kitchenware, and dancing (personally killing 38 out of the 40 thieves).

      • Cay Reet

        Or her. There’s quite some clever women in those stories.

    • Passerby

      If you were addressing my post, then you misunderstood. I wasn’t writing about translating mythology, but about translating contemporary books, fantasy included. That’s the imbalance – you write in English and you likely get translated to 20 or so languages; you write in Italian and likely nobody outside Italy ever hears about your book. You think that there’s no books based on diverse cultures by diverse authors? Nonesens. Go and find books by writers from these cultures rather than sticking to USA market.

      • Cay Reet

        Which is precisely why I, despite being German, write my stories in English. I want as many people as possible to read them and English, as native or other language, is widespread.

  8. Richard

    Try a movie for inspiration:

    Russia: Ruslan and Ludmilla (1972)
    West Africa: Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998)
    India: Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

    And Vodou (NOT to be confused with voodoo!!!) has an incredibly rich tradition, with rites and rituals and spirits a-plenty.

  9. Yora

    I’m from Northern Europe. My heritage is mainstream standard.

    • Cay Reet

      Well, you could still work with specifics from your area. That’s not necessarily already mainstream standard. Every area has its legends in my experience. There’s something special, something which hasn’t been heard a lot before.

      • Yora

        True. “Viking fiction” tends to be very North Sea centric, with the raiding and far away explorations, while I’ve never really seen anything based on the many lands of the Baltic Sea. Not quite as much material for heroic exploits to reimagine as with Norway, Iceland, and the Danelawk, but I feel like the East and the South coasts have barely appeared in anything. When you have Slavic based works, it seems to be mostly focusing on the inland regions.

  10. Sedivak

    I sincerely think that the Witcher book series is the best fantasy ever written. (maybe except the Season of storms which was written much later). However I don’t think it is because it incorporates any new kind of mythology – it is because the mythological aspects are not stereotyped – Elves are not flatly noble, dwarwes are not flatly diggers, sorcerers are not flatly above everybody else and flatly wise or evil. All the characters – and not just the central ones – feel very realistic and alive.

    • Cay Reet

      That itself might have its roots in Slavic mythology, though – most western European myths and fairy tales have a clear good vs. bad attitude, where the princes are always good and the dragons are always bad. Slavic stories have witches or dragons or other traditional ‘baddies’ also helping, if they’re in the mood or approached the right way. A dragon might help you, because it’s in a good mood. Baba Yaga (one of the best witches in any kind of mythology) might lend a hand, if you treat her right and pass her tests, but if you don’t, she’ll eat you (literally, she eats humans for preference). They’re not always evil.

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