The Alexandrian

What artists of today or recent history will one day be considered some of the greatest of all time alongside the likes of Bach, Mozart, Michelangelo, van Gogh, and Shakespeare?

This is a virtually impossible question to answer. If you had asked people in 1630 which Elizabethan playwright was likely to be remembered for all time, the majority would have confidently answered, “Ben Jonson.” In 1900, the majority opinion would have held that the phenomenally popular novels of Marie Corelli would inevitably be joining Jane Austen’s work in the canon of English novels. Do you know who Marie Corelli is? Probably not.

So, with that caveat out of the way, I nominate: J.R.R. Tolkien

The reason for this is not, primarily, the popularity of his novels in the ’60s and ’70s or the popularity of the Jackson movies in the ‘naughties. It is rather that Tolkien’s novels have proven to be a persistent influence on the creation of new fantasy across multiple generations. Whether we’re talking about the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, ‘naughties, or today, new fantasy works are constantly being both created under the influence of Tolkien and interpreted through the lens of Tolkien.

I suspect that this influence will actually increase over time: Beyond The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien left behind a large and rich body of mythic material, much of it half completed or extant in multiple and contradictory forms. When those works fall out of copyright, there’s almost guaranteed to be a Tolkien renaissance as authors delve into that material.

In addition, we’re slowly starting to see a trend of increasing academic study in Tolkien’s work. And that’s an essential element in any artist’s long-term canonization: If they can get entrenched in academia, academia will sustain and constantly rejuvenate their presence in popular culture. It looks like Tolkien might make that hop. (And he’s an excellent candidate for it, given that The Lord of the Rings is a rich and complex text in its own right and the rest of his corpus is enigmatic in precisely the ways that can indefinitely fuel theses.)

J.R.R. Tolkien - History of Middle Earth

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18 Responses to “Thought of the Day – On the Subject of Immortal Fame”

  1. Brooser Bear says:

    This IS a nice set. I have it in my attic. Don’t have the time to read through it, and there is more important stuff to work through. Last I checked, Tolkien has not been considered serious literature by the academics, because his writing does not deal realistically with love and mortality, or sex and death. Furthermore, I doubt that Tolkien’s thinly veiled stereotypes will hold water in places like Asia or Middle East, or places like Italy, Spain, or Greece. It will be ironic, though, if Tolkien’s high fantasy will become a classic, his estate’s marketing efforts notwithstanding, culminating with Peter Jackson’s popular entertainment. You see, pulp fiction in the 1920’s and 1930’s was ghost-written by highly educated, progressive types, who hoped to get the revolutionary ideas out in the guise of the Sci-Fi and other entertainment. Fritz Lieber, the author of Lankhmar and the Grey Mouser, was a typical progressive of his generation of pulp writers. His family was in theater and were pacifists, who came to America to escape the militarism and oppressiveness of the pre-WW I Germany. His contemporary JRR Tolkien was going against the grain. Just as post-WW I Europe was moving to modernism, Tolkien was pining for the idealized old days of the noble and infallible aristocracy, recreated in his writing as Elves. Another point not in Tolkien’s favor is that he used colonial stereotypes in writing, and that makes him unique, because that style of writing has been largely after WW2 and with the end of European colonialism, still surviving in Tolkien’s Writing and in D&D. Up until 1945, Nazis in Germany made their own contributions to culture and science, most of it ideologically twisted and laughable, had it not culminated in genocide and the rest of it. We are talking about Nazi Jurisprudence, Nazi Christian theology, less ominously, there was Nazi Sculpture, Nazi Painting, and less well known, Nazi literature. Not that anybody reads German pulp fiction circa 1937 except a few academics, We know whose books they burned, Freud, Remarque, Beckett, nobody knows what they published to fill the empty book shelves.

    To make the long story short, the Nazi literature relied on the use of race and ethnicity as character. Novels blessed by the Nazis featured the dignity and virtue of the common folk, and relied on recognizable ethnic stereotypes, both positive and negative to carry the story. There would be Jolly Bavarians, Uptight Prussians, Saxons and Westphalians etc etc. We do not define our modern day literary characters as Ohio Wasp, or Texas Cowboy, or California Hippie, because very quickly that type of stereotyping becomes offensive.

    Now look at the D&D descriptions of Elves, Dwarves, Half-Elves, then Half-Orcs, Goblinoids, the Drow, which is essentially fantasy race as character. If anybody did a similar kind of a write up about real life ethnic groups, that kind of writing would be considered racist and offensive. For that matter consider Tolkien’s positive stereotypes of Hobbits and the negative stereotypes of Orcs. Both are the two sides of the same coin, borne of colonialism. Innocent as Tolkien’s writing is, he was a product of the British overseas colonial culture in South Africa, and the Nazis were trying to emulate the same for their beloved third reich. Because of all this, I seriously doubt the academic establishment will give JRR Tolkien the same level of consideration that it does to Somerset Maugham, Shakespeare, or HG Wells.

    Speaking of whom, H.G. Wells was a more profound thinker, and by far, a more prolific writer, who wrote beyond the bounds of his personal fantasy world. Still, more irony, is that outside the UK//US, Wells has been more widely read and translated, than Tolkien.

  2. Brotherwilli says:

    I think this is a very interesting question. While all we can do is speculate it’s fun speculation. I would say that the mark of a great artist is that they can convey emotion and character without linking you to their time and society. A Tale of Two Cities is amazing even if you aren’t living in 1850’s Britain. Here are my humble offerings:

    1) William Gibson. Neuromancer is unlike anything that has come before and after, and kicked off the whole cyber-punk genre. It’s a story that conveys so many ideas and concepts in a timeless fashion.

    2) Tom Stoppard. I became a fan when I saw the movie version of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” It was cemented when I saw “Rock ‘n’ Roll” at the Park Square Theater. His plays – while some are rooted in certain times – have a timeless quality to them that I really enjoy.

  3. Auroch says:

    I really doubt Gibson will last. Neuromancer was very good, but it’s already dated, and none of his later works measured up to it. I don’t think people will have much to say about Gibson by the time few people remember what “the color of television, turned to a dead channel” looked like.

    Iain Banks or Vernor Vinge *might*. Both made huge changes to how we depicted the future; not Tolkein-level, probably, but very influential in their genre. Banks also wrote a fair amount of other work I’m not familiar with, for which he’s extremely well-respected in Scotland IIRC. Vinge has written some more timeful SF as well.

  4. Brooser Bear says:

    Gibson was the first “modern” sci-fi author I read. I read Neuromancer after watching “Blade Runner”. It blew me away, just like the movie. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was the first play I read for myself for enjoyment, all the previous ones were Shakespeare’s plays I had to read for class.

    Banks and Vinge I am hearing for the first time, will have to check them out!

  5. Picador says:

    What Brooser Bear said. Tolkien did a lot of interesting world-building stuff with languages and so on, but his racial stereotyping is embarrassing today and will only become more so with time. Writers like Shakespeare are still read today because of the humanistic perspective they brought to the colonialist attitudes of their time: compare The Tempest and its treatment of race and colonialism with The Lord of the Rings, and it’s clear which writer is going to be remembered in another 200 years.

    Also, your comments about Tolkien’s works entering the public domain strikes me as optimistic: assuming current legislative trends hold, no works published after the first Mickey Mouse short film in 1928 will ever enter the public domain in the US.

  6. Neal says:

    For a huge number of widely recognized masterpieces of film, you have Akira Kurosawa. Some of his work is somewhat dated, and overly hyperkinetic by today’s standards, but much of it is based on timeless themes of humanity in any region or era. Francis Ford Coppola, I think, remarked, that most successful directors produce one masterpiece, maybe a few, but Kurosawa produced one after another that will stand the test of time.

    John Ford’s movies, which had a profound influence on Kurosawa, might also have a place as a milestone.

  7. Neal says:

    @ Picador,

    Re: No works published after 1928 will ever enter the public domain in the US.
    I thought that during an author’s life, and for some period after it, for his heirs, was the limit on how long a copyright lasted? Am I missing something with the legislative trends?

    I just looked this up on Nolo:

    “Determining the Length of Copyright Protection
    How long does copyright last? That depends on when the work was created and who created it. Here are some guidelines.

    1. Works published from 1909 through 1921.
    The initial copyrighted term of the work was 28 years from the date of publication. If the copyright was renewed during the 28th year, the copyright was extended for an additional 28-year period.
    2. Works published from 1922 through 1963.
    The initial copyrighted term of the work was 28 years from the date of publication. If the copyright was renewed during the 28th year, the copyright was extended for an additional 67-year period.
    3. Works published from 1964 through 1978.
    The initial copyrighted term of the work was 28 years from the date of publication, with an automatic renewal of an additional 67 years.
    4. Works created on or after January 1, 1978.
    The following rules apply to published and unpublished works:

    For one author, the work is copyright-protected for the life of the author plus 70 years.
    For joint authors, the work is protected for the life of the surviving author plus 70 years.
    For works made for hire, the work is protected for 95 years from the first publication or 120 years from the date of its creation, whichever is less.
    For anonymous and pseudonymous works, the work is protectedfor 95 years from the first publication or 120 years from the date of its creation, whichever is less. (However, if the author’s name is disclosed to the U.S. Copyright Office, the work is protected for the life of the author plus 70 years.)”

  8. Wyvern says:

    “I thought that during an author’s life, and for some period after it, for his heirs, was the limit on how long a copyright lasted? Am I missing something with the legislative trends?”

    I believe the trend he was referring to was the way the “some period after it” has progressively increased. It used to be 50 years, and now it’s 70. That’s at least partly due to the influence of companies like Disney, which make money from the copyrights of long-dead founders.

  9. Opherischt says:

    Ah! I can’t find a copy of Morgoth’s Ring anywhere near where I stay! 😉

    Just finished another full read-through of the Silmarillion, this time integrating in-place the Children of Hurin, The Coming of Tuor to Gondolin and the Fall of Gondolin. Too me the greatness in the Sil at least, is the pitch-perfect feeling of distance in time, the measured use of just the right archaisms of language, the geographical description, and the expression of great deeds and monstrous tragedy in so few words.

    The Fall of Gondolin didn’t quite fit, in tone and tense, but I needed to balance the build-up of The Coming of Tuor.

  10. Neal says:

    @ Wyvern & @ Picador,

    Re: the variation in the time period for heirs progressively increasing. Ah, gotcha!

    So, Disney is behind this (among others)? How much are they paying the lobbyists to push for these legal changes, is this public information?

  11. Alan says:

    @Copyright Term Extension Act(s) discussion

    Disney, 20th Century Fox, and other big content producers each year pay tens of millions of dollars to lobbyists to urge continuation of their corporate rights in archived material. As copyright terms are not a big deal to most legislators, whereas campaign assistance is a big deal, we can reasonably expect that term extension acts will continue to arise whenever a major property is due to fall out of copyright. (e.g. the Star Wars franchise).

  12. jeff says:

    I disagree that Tolkien’s work can’t be considered serious because it doesn’t address death. The entire work of LOTR is in many ways an exploration of mortality. Tom Shippey’s analysis is worth checking out on this topic and he’s far more eloquent about it than I.

  13. Brooser Bear says:

    Speaking personally, fantasy is about magical, unknown, unexplored, mystical, mythical, an edge of the great forest. It is not about a Great War set on the edge of the great forest. It is not about reducing the Mystery of the Universe to a simple creation myth of singing the world into being. To say that the Sky is Blue because God made it so is just as DISENCHANTING as talking about the colloidal mixture of gases in the atmosphere filtering sunlight. That is why Middle Earth is lush with fantasy, but it is not fantastic, merely a twisted mirror reflection of the world that made Tolkien. That is why I don’t think that LOTR will last through Epochs, like Iliad. You got Shippey talking about Tolkien winning popular votes and losing the electoral college. But read Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, the British Agent, see, how written in 1928, you can still follow these stories today, and you can even describe the events with words, that Maugham did not have in his vocabulary, when he wrote those stories! That’s a true classic! And the mortality, which makes some of these stories so terrible, whereas without people dying, Ashenden’s stories would be pathetic and laughable. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is empty and lackluster by comparison. That is why LOTR is destined for oblivion.

  14. Neal says:

    @ Justin & This Blog’s Readers in General,

    Every once in a while I find interesting comments from years or months back by Justin Alexander, on other people’s gaming blogs.

    Here’s one of his from a few months back on the RPGSite. The subject was “How did RuneQuest never overtake D&D?” On page two of that thread, Justin responded to the following comment:
    ” 08-13-2013, 06:13 PM
    Originally Posted by elfandghost

    Yet despite doing well early on (as affirmed by Greg Stafford) RuneQuest isn’t holding a GenCon and never had an 80s cartoon etc. So I ask why not?

    Justin’s Response:

    “Avalon Hill mismanaged the property.

    The decision to emphasize Glorantha was also, IMO, a mistake. Both Traveller and RuneQuest took nosedives in popularity shortly after they shifted to a default setting. That might be coincidental, but I don’t think it is: At a time when D&D was offering multiple official settings and was still primarily focused on supporting homebrews, RuneQuest became the Glorantha Game.

    Quite a few of RuneQuest’s features also made it less accessible for new players: It was never going to overtake D&D because it relied heavily on D&D to be the gateway game that people would pass through to come to RuneQuest.”


    I think elaborating on these ideas would make an excellent series of posts for The Alexandrian. Why didn’t RuneQuest overtake D&D?

    Justin has commented in the past, that Gygax’s writing style is ‘execrable.’ I heartily agree. Gygax needed an editor with a backbone to cut down on the ridiculously contorted purple prose. The man was, frankly, a poseur, compensating from a self-perceived lack of education. Was Gygax’s confusing diction a barrier to entry for new gamers that RuneQuest should have profited more from? Just reading through the AD&D Player’s Handbook, on the section for Monks, there is one sentence that is so confusing, I can count at least 3 possible conflicting meanings for it. This guy did serious damage to the English language and violence to clarity of thought in general. Who let this character write books for the impressionable minds of our vulnerable youths? Editing: Total Fail.

    So, Justin, should RuneQuest have come out with it’s own ‘gateway’ Basic version of RuneQuest?

    Should RuneQuest have done more conventions? Made more modules? Hired better artists? Been more generic in it’s setting, and reduced the number of Duck-like races on the premises? How might things have turned out if RuneQuest’s various actors could have gone back forearmed with present knowledge and a will to correct their mistakes? Should they have come out with multiple default settings, like D&D was doing?

    This would make some very interesting reading, and probably more than just a few postings. Then move onwards to Tunnels & Trolls, Traveller, etc.

  15. Yahzi says:

    I present Jack Vance and his predecessor, James Branch Cabell, as two authors who should be classics but never will be.

    I think Brooser Bear’s take-down of Tolkien was a little harsh, just as I think his faith that future generations won’t respond to racial themes is a little optimistic. Those are themes that, in one guise or another, will stick with us for a while.

    Tolkien wasn’t the first to write fantasy, but he was the first to really make it stick. Still, I can’t see recycling his plots over and over again like we do with Shakespeare.

    Vance, on the other hand, gets recycled all the time in SF&F. I should know. 😀

  16. Brooser Bear says:


    Regarding Tolkien Recycled,

    What about 1 – Sword of Shannara and its sequels by Terry Broooks…

    Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings cartoon, and then the Wizards.

    Magnamund cycle of game books. OK, it is charming and draws from a bunch of other influences as well.

    Tolkien’s high fantasy has overshadowed the sword and sorcery genre, people like Vance and Lieber, to the extent that most genre fantasy today is a shadow of high fantasy, and all of it seem derived from the bucolics of the LOTR or Ivanhoe.

    BTW, Simak did a sword and sorcery-ish retelling of Tolkien themes in his “Where Evil Dwells”. I highly recommend that one.

  17. Yahzi says:

    Sword of Shannara was not a recycling; it was merely filing off the serial numbers. 😀

    You are right that Tolkien’s atmosphere is defining. I concede that defining an entire atmosphere is sufficient for lasting fame. A thousand years from now white wizards, savage orcs, and greedy, singing dwarves will still remind us of Tolkien.

  18. Brooser Bear says:

    I think that there has been progress in fantasy writing, at least in the UK – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, in Russia, you got Lukyanenko, his stuff is amazing, not derivative of the West, and if the translations into English are any good, should hold up here as well. In the world of comparative literature every language is its own lost world. But if ARE going to be delving into the word of Russian literature, start off with Master and Margarita, read the Diana Burgim’s translation, for the humor and satire to hold up.

    LOTR, I think, is largely popular among the D&D payers and war gamers.

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