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IF I SAID that all ‘modern’ fantasy can be traced to one author and one story, J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord Of The Rings, few would argue. While aficionados and historians can make arguments for the influence of Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell, and others, almost all the well-known fantasy titles of the past four decades can be traced to the tales of the Bilbo and Frodo Baggins and the One Ring.
Of course, defining “modern fantasy” may be a wee bit more slippery than one might assume, and I am not going to attempt to. But a working definition could be all fantasy involving other worlds filled with fairies, elves, dwarves, dragons, etc, written since and influenced by The Lord Of The Rings.
(For more on this topic, refer to the section “Fantasy or heroic fantasy” in Part 4 of this essay.)
According to Merriam-Webster Online, the primary definition of the word fantasy is “the free play of creative imagination.” What concerns us here is a tertiary definition: “imaginative fiction featuring especially strange settings and grotesque characters.”
Published without Tolkien’s authorization in 1965, the Ace paperback series were the first American editions and featured wondrous covers by science fiction artist Jack Gaughan.
Modern fantasy and the gimme
In fantasy, the gimme rule is not so important: if the story takes place in a world where magic exists, that’s the gimme—the magical world. The author may use different types of magic, such as natural, sympathetic, talismanic, etc.
He may jumble different magical beasties: dragons may co-exist with leprechauns who share space with fairies, etc. This could be considered multiple mini-gimmes.
The one BIG no-no in this genre has traditionally been that advanced magic and advanced scientific knowledge and technology CANNOT co-exist in the same world.
That is, a world in which magic exists might see humans develop knives and swords and similar technology, but once humans discover that things can be accomplished with magic, technology would cease to progress.
The well-known adage that “Necessity is the mother of invention” would never need to be invented in a society founded on magic. There would be no need for exploration in science and mechanics if a spell could accomplish the required end.
One ring to rule them all
An extreme example of a magical world is J.R.R. Tolkien’s TheLord Of The Rings, where the gimme is the very existence of the Middle Earth. And I use “extreme” in the sense of literary invention: Professor Tolkien spent years mapping out the geography of his world and it peoples and creatures.
He carefully crafted their histories and their cultures, including written and spoken language and song and poetry. The background detail in the LOTR ranges from fascinating to obsessive and set an unnecessary standard for less dedicated writers to attempt to emulate.
Once you accept the existence of Middle Earth, everything else fits into place with an internal consistency and logic. And technology halted at approximately our world’s Steel Age: steel weapons and tools exist, wagons and wheels have been invented, etc.
But that’s where it ended: no cannon or rifles, no telegraphs or telephones, no automobiles or airplanes, no cell phones (yay!) or video games (yay!), etc.
The unprecedented success of The Lord Of The Rings in the ’60s and early ’70s—due in no small part to the devoted readership of dope-smoking heads and hippies and their fellow travelers—opened the floodgates to a seemingly unending stream of heroic fantasies.
So all-encompassing was Tolkien’s effect on the field that many young authors not only emulated his style and feel, but they wrote them in books of three, as though the word “trilogy” would add some magic of its own to their work.
A less extreme example of world-building but just as enjoyable—and much more adult—is Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, where can be found the intrepid giant Fafhrd and his nimble companion the Gray Mouser.
A mere sketch of a world compared to Middle Earth, Lankhmar nonetheless leaves the reader with a sense of its worldness and that is more than enough to get on with the narrative. (And in Fafhrd and the Mouser’s case, the narrative often meandered around drinking, wenching, thieving, and general carousing.)
Swords and sorcery
There are many other forms of fantasy, the most famous and successful being Robert Howard’s tales of Conan the barbarian. Written for the pulps in the 1930s, these short stories are arguably the foundation for the modern swords and sorcery genre. There is also Jack Vance’s tales of the dying earth and the dragon masters, arguably the most sophisticated of all such fantasy writing.
Gimmes here are usually the setting: Conan lives in a world where swords and spears exist alongside evil wizards and not much else in the realm of the fantastic. Vance’s gimmes are decayed societies far in the future.
But I believe that I have come to some sort of conclusion—at least I have regarding my original impetus for researching and writing this essay—and will end it here with a final note that is peripherally connected with the theme(s) of this essay.
Arguably the most iconic cover art of the ’60s, Lancer’s Conan The Adventurer (also published in 1966) introduced a new generation of readers to the Cimmerian barbarian. Not only did this book establish Conan as the definitive sword & sorcery anti-hero, it made artist Frank Frazetta the most sought-after cover artist in the business.
Cast a deadly spell
For a movie which dispenses altogether with the gimme no-no (and does so with panache), I recommend Cast A Deadly Spell from 1991. Fred Ward (science fiction movie buffs know him from the Tremors series) plays private detective Phillip Lovecraft in a post-WWII Los Angeles. Brought back from the mysterious East by returning GIs, malicious magic mucks up everything except Lovecraft, who refuses to touch the stuff.
The movie is a comedy, if very dry, that pays homage to H.P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos and film noir. It also nods towards contemporary horror craze: zombies are used as cheap labor!
This HBO movie co-stars the ever-excellent David Warner and an almost unknown—and ever yummy—Julianne Moore. Find it, watch it, enjoy it. This is the end of this essay. Or, as someone once famous once said, “That’s all, folks.”
FEATURED IMAGE: In 1966, Ballantine secured the necessary authorization and halted the Ace publication of the Tolkien books and brought out their own trilogy in 1966. The art at the top of this page is the original art by Barbara Remington for the first Ballantine printings of the three books in 1966. These remained in print for years and are the defining images for most Tolkien aficionados over a certain age.