J.R.R. Tolkien and Fantasy
What is exactly the fantasy genre?
Is J.R.R. Tolkien a fantasy author?
- What is fantasy? How is it different from science fiction?
Fantasy emerged as a literary genre at the end of the 19th century; and the success of The Lord of the Rings has made it very popular, especially since the 1990s. It remains somehow difficult to define, and exists in many varieties: heroic fantasy, high fantasy, dark fantasy… It is however possible to agree on this minimal definition: in it, the supernatural is always present; it is set in an imaginary world or era; the medieval atmosphere (harking back to the origins of the genre) and level of technological advancement it portrays are consistent with the era.
Put in crude terms, you might say a fantasy novel is populated with dragons, not flying saucers, as would be the case with science fiction.
- Does J.R.R. Tolkien's work belong to Fantasy? Did he invent Fantasy?
We don't believe any author should be pigeonholed. The Lord of the Rings, for example, could perfectly well be enjoyed by fans of historical fiction. But if you insisted on categorizing him, you could compare his works to the authors he mentions in his private correspondence (see Letters): William Morris (1834–1896), artist and author, member of the Arts and Craft movement and of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; Lord Dunsany (1878–1957), an Irish author; or E.R. Eddison (1882–1945). (see our Links section.)
Tolkien did leave a deep imprint on fantasy; and since the 1960s, a number of authors have taken their inspiration from him. He did not, however, invent the genre.
- Should Tolkien’s stories be regarded as ‘escapist literature’, since they belong to the fantasy genre?
It would be a mistake to consider fantasy as a facile exercise, ruled by a set of conventions. Tolkien consciously opted for fantasy (in large part) because he wanted the reader to lose his bearings, and consider the world around him in a different way.
His belief, as he explained in his renowned essay On Fairy-Stories, was that we are cut from reality, and that only fantasy—that is to say ‘adult fairy-stories’, like The Lord of the Rings, which create a ‘secondary world’—can help us regain ‘a clear view’ of the real world. Clearly, the purpose is not to escape from reality, but rather the reverse!