Is Tolkien Irrelevant?

I’ve heard from some people that JRR Tolkien was the worst thing to ever happen to fantasy, while others defend him to exhaustion that there would not be a fantasy genre at the successful state it is in now if it wasn’t for him. Whether or not he was a good writer is different than whether or not he was an important writer. We’ve all seen situations where writers rise to fame more due to their ideas rather than their talent. With many, it’s more on luck and timing rather than actual skill. As we’ve discovered recently, if the subject matter involves sadomasochism or sparkling vampires, the success of a novel has nothing to do with the skill of the writer. I could ask ten random customers in a book store if they’ve read something by Harlan Ellison, and most would say no despite Ellison being one of the most talented and acclaimed writers alive today.

So is Tolkien a good writer? Yes, but not in a way most people would understand. Most teachers would instruct you to not follow Tolkien’s narrative techniques, and if you tried, you’d never have your book published. It breaks many rules other writers wouldn’t get away with. The first involves the somewhat sluggish nature of his storytelling. Very little happens and it takes a long time for something to be explained. It’s also not terribly original, with writers like Ursula le Guin, Frank Herbert, and Neil Gaiman creating entirely new fantasy worlds whole cloth with little reference to old mythology. Yes, analyzing Tolkien purely on his skills reveals lapses in logic, plot discrepancies, repetitious and frivolous dialogue, and tangents a mathematician would find irksome. His work is dense almost to a fault, a technique started in The Hobbit, layered thick in The Lord of the Rings, and sandblasted in our faces to such a degree in the Similarion, that I have friends that can’t comprehend it despite being able to decipher Milton. In many ways Tolkien only set about creating a fictional world with a fictional mythology; however, he forgot to write a great story. He even admitted to as much, creating it only to service his own desires. But I actually don’t condemn him for that. A writer should write for his own pleasure and not be forced to bow to fan pressure.

And yet, despite these flaws, I won’t dismiss Tolkien’s contribution. For one, he succeeded in his objective—creating a modern mythology not unlike those fabricated by Greek scholars thousands of years prior. He donated to the common narrative zeitgeist many still drink from today. One could almost say he was a game designer, creating a setting for the rest of us to play in, one we’ve tapped to near exhaustion in the 40 years since The Hobbit’s release. However, some people claim that this has made other writers lazy, simply milking Tolkien’s tit in order to occupy the gaps in their own settings. Other critics believe the meteoric success of the Middle Earth franchise prompted other writers to write similar fiction in order to gain some form of proximity recognition.

What does all this have to do with Hotelling’s Law and the Nash Equilibrium? Glad you asked.

For those unaware, the Nash Equilibrium involves the results of a game between two or more people aware of each other but not privy to their choices in the game. Since decisions affect other players, each player is compelled to select the option with least risk, even if it is not the best outcome. What’s key is that there is no incentive for a player to change from this. This was made famous in the prisoner dilemma, but later found application in economics to explain first mover advantage—the idea that if you have two products, with one superior to another (sells more), the mere threat of one firm making the superior good is enough for the competition to produce the other, given that if both made the same good, both firms would lose money. Following me so far? Later, a gent named Harold Hotelling applied Nash’s theory to the principle of minimum differentiation—that businesses selling the same good/service often locate near each other over the seemingly sensible alternative to spread evenly across a city. This also applies to product differentiation, explaining why so many products are effectively identical. The best example of this can be found in video games. Most first person shooters followed the same formula for years, lots of guns, lots of bullets. Then Halo came out, limiting the number of guns you can carry and adding in regenerative health. Despite some games coming out earlier claiming to have developed the formula first, it was Halo which set the trend. Now, nearly all games run with this formula. But is it Halo’s fault, the fault of the games which followed, or the consumer. Oddly enough, it’s everyone’s fault. Yes, even consumers have to bear some of the blame.

Despite what you might think, most people don’t want huge deviations from their expectations. Once a certain trend is set in stone, their purchasing habits seldom deviate more than a few degrees. Businesses would love to set the market by developing an original product to steal sales form competition, but then they run the risk of it not selling. Human nature follows this. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone attributed Hotelling’s law to more obscure subjects like religion and internet memes.

So with this case, when a book like Twilight comes out, despite all the other completely different paranormal stories available, Twilight clones ended up selling more and this was the result of purchasing habits as much as selection. This can then be applied to JRR Tolkien, defining the fantasy genre for damn near five decades and counting. There was no incentive for fantasy and RPG writers for the following half century to deviate from this trend, less they create something not received favorable by the fans. The fantasy genre was lucky. We could’ve gotten a crummy piece of literature as our baseline. Instead we got The Lord of the Rings. And it was reader habits more than copycat writers which set the market. If no one bought the many Tolkein-esque fantasy works which followed him, the writers would have stopped writing them. It was because these stories persist owes to the desire we have to adhere to these popular trends.

Tolkien is not responsible for the vanilifcation of fantasy following his work, neither is it the fault of the writers which attempted to emulate him. We did that as readers, and the modern writers of today continue the trend.


Chris Dias

Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.