How do you know what you’re looking at is of the Fantasy genre? Is there magic of some kind? Yep. Robes and medieval-style garb? Yep. An excess of men with lengthy beards and ladies with long, wispy hair and even longer gowns? Yep. While the genre has certainly splintered as its popularity has grown, the textbook definition of Fantasy is an easy one to map out in our minds. And when laying out a laundry list of characteristics, it’s often easier to just settle on one overarching characteristic: Fantasy looks like something out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s realm.
But why is that? How has one man’s work shaped an entire genre, and one that trades on the ability to create just about anything imaginable? Why is it that our most easily acceptable definition of the Fantasy genre involves English accents and scenes that could be plucked from the Arthurian Legend? As entertaining as it would be, the answer doesn’t come from humanity’s deep desire to find Frodo in every tale or the quest to make medieval garb so ubiquitous it comes back in the form of socially acceptable day wear. Instead, Fantasy’s staid state is kind of Tolkien’s fault.
For those who don’t already worship at the moss-covered altar of Tolkien, he’s widely known as the “Father of Modern Fantasy.” It’s something that Tolkien’s one-time colleague at Oxford, Tom Shippey, confirms. “He created the genre — not quite single-handedly, but very nearly so,” says Shippey in a press release for his book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. “The shelves in modern bookstores would look very different if Tolkien had not written, or if Stanley Unwin had decided not to publish him after all, back in the early 1950s. The eagerness with which he was followed suggests that there was a suppressed desire for the kind of thing he did, but nobody before him quite knew how to do it, or thought it was allowed.”
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