Friends of mine got to arguing the other day about what the hell happened to fantasy fiction, about how it had all turned into boring multi-volume epics and Tolkien-derived trash. I gave my opinion like so: Yes, a lot of this is due to Tolkien becoming canonized, meaning that people see him as being the model for this sort of thing. But how we got there is a little tricky.
Before J.R.R. Tolkien became canonized, and even to some degree after, the term "fantasy" covered a broad range of writers and styles. Mervyn Peake and C.S. Lewis (and of course Peter S. Beagle) come to mind — the former a drastically underrated writer, the latter probably overrated but at the very least demonstrating a style and POV as distinct from Tolkien's as Tolkien's was from other authors. Tolkien was only one voice among many. And Beagle is about as essential a writer as you get in any realm, but that's another essay. The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland were and still are other examples of where else this sort of thing can go, but they get routinely labeled as children's stories: nice if you're a kid, but not "serious" fantasy (whatever that means).
Then came the fantasy explosion of the Seventies and Eighties. I credit a lot of this not to fantasy writing as such but to the rise of tabletop RPGs — Dungeons and Dragons being the big one, obviously. If you were into RPGs, you were almost certainly into fantasy fiction and vice versa. The two functioned as revolving doors into each other's showrooms.
Then the makers of D&D started publishing fantasy fiction that used the prepackaged settings in the game as backdrops for various adventures. People who cut their teeth on fantasy by playing D&D or by reading the D&D setting novels soon had a working definition of fantasy that was D&D, period. And since the model for a lot of what happened in D&D was the Tolkien Quest, Tolkien and all of his fourth-rate imitators came way into the foreground. Peake and Lewis and Beagle and all the rest faded back quite a lot, and before you knew it along came The Wheel of Time and the rest of that dismal scrapyard of thrice-recycled ideas and settings. The whole idea of what constituted fantasy fiction has become damaged, its scope narrowed and its branches pruned.
I am not arguing that the Tolkien model is bad or that it should be junked. I am simply saying it is only one possibility among many, and that when we ignore the others we make ourselves all the poorer.
I'm reminded of Michael Tolkin (no relation, ha ha) and his spiel about how one of the worst things to happen to filmmaking — Hollywood or otherwise, really — was the introduction of the Syd Field school of template-driven screenwriting. Not only were screenwriters falling all over themselves to master this cookie-cutter three-act / twelve-beat structure, but producers and executives were taking the exact same screenwriting classes so they would know what scripts to look for. The problem I have with distilling storytelling down to a formula or a template is not that I don't believe in the old canard of "all successful stories have something in common"; it's that I don't believe such things can be extruded by the yard and shrinkwrapped to order. When you think in terms of a formula, that's all you end up seeing; when you have Tolkien as your only model, everything looks like the One Ring.
Despite all of this, there have been signs of life outside the usual channels; authors like China Mieville come to mind, and Beagle himself is enjoying a bit of a revival thanks to the brouhaha over The Last Unicorn. But I worry that the damage has been done for keeps.
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