J. R. R. Tolkien didn't exactly invent the fantasy genre, but his world was so richly formed, his characters so true to life, and his tales so skillfully woven that his vision of the fantastical came to virtually uncontested dominance at a critical time in the development of fantasy literature.
Since then, everyone who has written fantasy has done so, whether with joy or irritation, in some relationship to Tolkien's work. Some writers very intentionally imitate Tolkien, borrowing his tone, his aesthetic, and even his interpretation of the underlying mythic roots. Others conscientiously avoid him as much as possible, choosing to draw their ideas from the folklore of cultures from other parts of this diverse world in which we live, or to create their own imaginary worlds that conspicuously and emphatically contain nothing resembling an elf or an orc.
I love all of these stories. I love the conversation going on between these authors. But I am also excruciatingly aware of how new I am to that conversation. It's one thing to sit back and enjoy the stories. It's another thing entirely, I am finding, to fling one's own hat into the proverbial ring. For one thing, there is a great deal of craft to learn. For another, there's the problem of selecting a starting point--of choosing one's own position in this larger world of fantasy authorship and trying to carve out a place there.
When I decided to write fantasy, I had to sit myself down and ask myself some hard questions. Why do I want to write fantasy? What do I want to get out of it? What do I want my readers to get out of it? How will my work reflect that of others who have come before me? In what ways do I want my work to be different? And yes, how will I, as an author, navigate in the brilliant light and long shadow cast by J. R. R. Tolkien.
For me, there are no easy answers to these questions, and the fragments of answers that I do have are difficult for me to articulate. It may be that for a while my work will reflect my own explorations into the underlying questions fantasy authors grapple with. I can only hope for patience from my new community as I grope my way into the conversation.
But here's one thing I've discovered about my own motivations: I'm here because this is the sandbox I want to play in. And while Tolkien may have come this way before me and left a well-worn path, his is not the only path I followed on my way in.
I have loved fairy stories for as long as I can remember. My home library includes a book of children's stories published in the year I was born. My mother bequeathed it to me when she was downsizing her own book collection, as it has my name inscribed inside the front cover in wobbly child writing. I remember curling up in my mother's lap in her creaky rocking chair, listening to her read these stories to me.
Tucked into this collection, between excerpts from David Copperfield, Stuart Little, and Heidi, are some of the first fairy tales I remember getting lost in. It was here that I first met the Princess who could feel three peas beneath twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds. It was here that I met Fairyfoot, and the fire princess, and the little snow child who was melted by people who thought they were being kind, but wound up destroying her because they didn't understand her nature. Here lived the selfish giant, and Pinkle, and Prince Zeyn with the King of the Genii.
Something else my mother bequeathed to me is a love of poetry. One poem in particular, James Whitcomb Riley's Little Orphant Annie, holds special memories for me. My mother could recite this one from memory, as could her mother, and her mother before her. I committed it to memory for an elementary school assignment, and even after all these years I still have a fairly solid recollection of the verses--and of the "gobble-uns at gits you ef you don't watch out!"
By the time I reached third grade, where my teacher introduced me to Bilbo Baggins and his friends, the worlds of elves, and dwarves and dragons were old, familiar playgrounds for me. For me, the wonder of Mr. Tolkien's stories was that here was a grown-up who still took fairy tales seriously. He wrote them in long form with big words, and he was taken seriously by other grown-ups. Here was a grown-up who remembered what I knew to be true with all my misunderstood eight year-old heart--sometimes the truths of fairy tales reach deeper than the truths of reality. Fairy tales are not just for children.
One of the reasons I choose to write fantasy is because I want to play in this grown-up fairy tale sandbox with Mr. Tolkien. But I don't want to play in Mr. Tolkien's sandbox, I want a sandbox of my very own. My writing will include elves, and dwarves, and dragons, but they might not act much like Tolkien's elves, and dwarves, and dragons. This is because I am not playing with Mr. Tolkien's toys. I'm just peering at history and myth through a keyhole that looks out on the same sweeping vista he found so inspiring, and which I, too, am enchanted by.
Like Tolkien, I love the fairy stories and folk tales of northern Europe. I am intrigued by the old Germanic and Scandinavian mythology. In particular, my Vanir Dragon series draws heavily on reinterpreted Norse mythology and cosmology. I love that there are so many unknowns, so much room for interpretation. And although I hope readers of my fantasy books will find some familiar enchantment there, I hope they will also be open to viewing the old tropes from my angle, while I play with my own toys in my own little private sandbox.
One final caveat. Although I love the old stories, I feel no obligation to abide by their boundaries. I not only look at them from a different angle than Tolkien, I reinterpret them in ways I find interesting and entertaining, but which are in no way a reflection of scholarly opinion on the subject. For me, this is an entertaining pastime, not an academic pursuit. To those of you who are scholars in these domains, I hope you will forgive both my blatant ignorance and my flagrant disregard of scholarship. For those of you who may adhere to the old pagan ways, please know that I am playing in the realm of folktale and myth, and in no way intend anything I write as a commentary on your own religious belief or practice. I respect your right to worship as you choose, and trust you will extend to me the same respect.
See you around the sandbox!