Friday, 17 November 2006

Tolkien's curse

It had to happen I suppose, but it occurred sooner than I had expected. An early reader of Dark Foundations came over at church to compliment me on the book and then proceeded to tell me that in one section I had copied from Lord of the Rings. As it is impossible to describe the plot point he was referring to without spoiling a great deal, I will leave readers to guess the particular moment. Suffice it to say that consultation with my domestic editor (my wife) confirmed that there was only the most tenuous linkage with the Professor Tolkien’s epic trilogy.

But I am hardly surprised: writing a large-scale fantasy these days is like living at the foot of Mount Doom itself. Tolkien’s work casts such a wide and sombre shadow that you cannot escape it. So when you write your fantasy epic, stumble upon some attractive plotline and pursue it you almost inevitably find a little engraved stone. ‘J. R. R. Tolkien was here first’. So, the hero has a faithful friend, who sticks fast by him in battles? Be careful: it's Frodo and Sam. You have a disinherited king looking for his throne? Been there, done that and got the banner of the House of Elendil. Flying monsters? The Nazgul. The quest with its companions? The weapon that must be destroyed? Done, all done! And it’s the details too; the deadly stairway, the gleaming city, the broken sword, the treacherous companion. It's all there in Tolkien, and cursed is he who tries to repeat it. It's a pain, trust me, and part of my exasperation at being accused of borrowing is that I spent long, long hours, trying to avoid simply that.

So what's going on here? Ultimately the very strength of the Lord of the Rings is because Tolkien uses so many of the great archetypes of epic fiction. The problem for those who write in his wake, is that if we do go back to these archetypes, we are now accused of plagiarism. He took what was universal and made them his own. In my darker moments, I feel that Tolkien was like a boy who, reaching a banquet before everybody else, helped himself to most of the best things on the table, leaving the rest of us with mere scraps. When I try to approach many of the great fantasy themes with a view to appropriating them, I seem to hear a little voice with an Oxford accent that whispers ‘Thief! We hates you. It’s my precious!’