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View Poll Results: Elven Language Greatest Fantasy Accomplishment Ever?
Yes 7 35.00%
No 10 50.00%
Don't know 3 15.00%
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Old 6th September 2011, 11:34 PM   #1 (permalink)
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The Greatest Fantasy Literary Accomplishment

Hi Folks

I am a huge fan of JRR Tolkien and he was one of several key inspirations for my now avid writing hobby. There are many things I like about his writing and a few things I don't, but that is for another time. Right now I want to ask a simple question about his talents.

Is his creation of the Elven language in his books, pretty much from scratch and the depths of his own mind/knowledge the greatest fantasy related accomplishment of all time?

I personally believe it is and I would love to hear your opinions as to why it is or isn't.

Cheers!
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Old 7th September 2011, 05:45 AM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: The Greatest Fantasy Literary Accomplishment

I'm afraid that, though I am a strong admirer of Tolkien and his work -- and that includes the languages he created -- I voted no. Though this achievement is indeed quite possibly the best such which has ever been done... it has had a very detrimental effect on fantasy in general, in my view, as have several other aspects of Prof. Tolkien's work. This is not, I would say, his fault, but that of his imitators, and of lazy writers who aren't willing to put in the time and effort to do the kind of work he himself did with his creation, or who simply lack the talent or inclination to do so. Some of his imitators have written some very good work, so I am not saying here to be influenced by Tolkien is entirely bad; but (as with so many who have attempted to imitate Lovecraft, Ellison, Dunsany, or Heinlein) there is a fatal attraction for many writers which causes them to subsume their own visions in their admiration for one of their greatest literary mentors.

I also think that, despite the achievement of creating -- and even that term is worthy of debate, as I understand it there are some close affinities between some of his Elvish tongues and Suomi (Finnish) -- the aspect of "world-building" is a tool, not an achievement or accomplishment (in the sense used in the thread's title) in and of itself, save insofar as it shows an ability to craft a rather abstract thing. What makes any such item an artistic achievement in literary terms is how well (or seamlessly, if you prefer) it fits in with not only the overall "plan" of the fantastic world, but the "living" aspects of the characters, adding to their believability and credibility; but that achievement is only valid within that context; taken out of it, it becomes simply an abstract, nonfunctioning bit of trivia without reference to the real world or to deeper human concerns. That Prof. Tolkien managed to breathe the life he did into his languages, and make them notable aspects of that universe he created, is indeed one of the unique aspects of his work; but it is, essentially, trivia; minutiae; not a literary achievement per se. And so, no, I don't think it deserves anything near the title of "Greatest Fantasy Literary Accomplishment"; by its very nature, I don't think it possibly can.
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Old 7th September 2011, 03:06 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Re: The Greatest Fantasy Literary Accomplishment

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I also think that, despite the achievement of creating -- and even that term is worthy of debate, as I understand it there are some close affinities between some of his Elvish tongues and Suomi (Finnish) -- the aspect of "world-building" is a tool, not (...)
Finnish is one of the inspirations behind Quenya, and perhaps it might be a good idea, for the thread in general, to post part of letter 144 here...


Quote:
They are intended (a) to be definitely of a European kind in style and structure (not in detail); and (b) to be specially pleasant. The former is not difficult to achieve; but the latter is more difficult, since individuals' personal predilections, especially in the phonetic structure of languages, varies widely, even when modified by the imposed languages (including their so-called 'native' tongue). I have therefore pleased myself. The archaic language of lore is meant to be a kind of 'Elven-latin', and by transcribing it into a spelling closely resembling that of Latin (except that y is only used as a consonant, as y in E. Yes) the similarity to Latin has been increased ocularly.

Actually it might be said to be composed on a Latin basis with two other (main) ingredients that happen to give me 'phonaesthetic' pleasure: Finnish and Greek. It is however less consonantal than any of the three. This language is High-elven or in its own terms Quenya (Elvish). The living language of the Western Elves (Sindarin or Grey-elven) is the one usually met, especially in names. This derived from an origin common to it and Quenya; but the changes have been deliberately devised to give it a linguistic character very like (though not identical with) British-Welsh: because that character is one that I find, in some linguistic moods, very attractive; and because it seems to fit the rather 'Celtic' type of legends and stories told of its speakers.

JRRT, Letters



The matter of 'creation' can raise a very opinion-laden debate. Tolkien's stories were certainly inspired or influenced by other stories and myths of course, but if some of the ingredients have been used before, in some way, while interesting perhaps (to some), I think the real question concerns the ultimate 'soup' rather than the ingredients.

Arguably the same goes for the languages, though it's perhaps stating the obvious when stated so generally. I don't feel myself qualified to speak about the measure of creativity involved in the art-languages when compared to their arguable Primary World inspirations, but if we look beyond the various tongues themselves (in their varying external conceptions), I would think that the creativity involved in the internal history of these related languages would be enough to wow.

Some forget, or don't know, that Quenya and Sindarin and Telerin (and dialects and so on) are all related and have internal history (briefly referred to in the part of the letter I underlined above). Of course that's not a new idea in itself, as it hails from the observation of Primary World Languages, but still, working out the historic details is something of a creative task in itself, especially within the context of the Sub-created World, since giving meaning to sound is part of the process.

One can even find fairly specific Primary World borrowings -- and some will argue, at least, that they have 'found' a number of specific borrowings -- but, for example of something JRRT himself noted, one can't simply plug in Moria (from Soria Moria castle) if one likes the sound sequence, it has to fit in (invented) meaning and form within the larger picture -- which means historical form too, even if only theoretical.

In any case I digress

Last edited by Elthir; 7th September 2011 at 03:30 PM.
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Old 7th September 2011, 04:40 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Re: The Greatest Fantasy Literary Accomplishment

No disagreement there; the languages work -- far better than any other example of an invented language that I've ever encountered -- and are in themselves beautiful artifacts. (Having heard a recording of Tolkien reading passages in Quenya makes this all the more evident. These languages flow.) My contention is that they don't qualify for the title given them here in this context....
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Old 7th September 2011, 05:52 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Re: The Greatest Fantasy Literary Accomplishment

One could mean various things, of course, by saying the languages work, but the phrase itself brings up another matter that seems to be, in my opinion, misunderstood widely enough on the web -- no help from the films. But I can't say it better than Elvish as She Is Spoke

http://www.elvish.org/articles/EASIS.pdf


Now, one might disagree with Mr Hostetter on certain points, but let's just say that it's not a given that Quenya, or any other of Tolkien's invented languages, works in the sense of being usable like Primary World languages.

No one can become 'fluent' in any of the Elvish languages; even Tolkien could not speak in Quenya, for example. Neo-elvish (described in the link) is all over the web and in the films, as compared to true, Tolkien-invented Elvish; and the distinction is not always noted.


The languages and nomenclature do work very well at lending a realistic dimension to the Secondary World, and they 'work historically' within given conceptions too (if one thinks Tolkien changed his mind a lot with respect to his stories, he also tinkered enough with his own languages, so for instance the imagined history of a Sindarin word or name may differ with the imagined history of the 'same' Gnomish word, despite that Gnomish 'became' Sindarin -- to put it ridiculously simply).


An interesting exchange concerning some Neo-Quenya...

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/elfling-d/message/701



I think Elvish idiom is a large factor that only Tolkien himself can truly consider (outside of trying to imitate attested examples); and in any case, for myself I think of any fan-made compositions as Neo-elvish.

To digress again, I guess! But some (not necessarily anyone here) do seem to think that Tolkien's creation includes some sort of 'finished enough' and 'consistent enough' language that echoes Esperanto, or echoes the completeness of the language (languages?) of the Klingons.
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Old 7th September 2011, 10:09 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Re: The Greatest Fantasy Literary Accomplishment

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...it has had a very detrimental effect on fantasy in general, in my view, as have several other aspects of Prof. Tolkien's work. This is not, I would say, his fault, but that of his imitators, and of lazy writers who aren't willing to put in the time and effort to do the kind of work he himself did with his creation, or who simply lack the talent or inclination to do so. Some of his imitators have written some very good work, so I am not saying here to be influenced by Tolkien is entirely bad; but (as with so many who have attempted to imitate Lovecraft, Ellison, Dunsany, or Heinlein) there is a fatal attraction...
To accuse Tolkien's creation of the Elven language of being detrimental to fantasy literature is, quite frankly, in my opinion of course, a deep insult to the tremendous effort and raw talent it would have taken to create such a linguistic construct. It could easily be argued that an achievement of this profound variety has inspired far more good and great writers than bad ones, unless you have incredibly high standards for what is good and what is bad. I know I was inspired to take up the pen, as it were, although I am not saying I am necessarily good...yet.

Furthermore, you seem to insinuate (I may be wrong) to me that the greatness of the works of people like Lovecraft inspiring people to try and reflect them in their own writings has also be responsible for causing damage to the quality of fantasy literature. That is like accusing Shakespeare of being detrimental to the art of play writing because so many people have been inspired to try and reflect his abilities in their own, something that is, quite frankly, probably not possible. Without Shakespeare we wouldn't likely have some of the other great playwrights we have today because they have, unarguably, been inspired by him. I think the exact same thing could be argued about Tolkien's contributions, or Lovecraft's etc. Without them we might very well not have the works of someone like George RR Martin, a notable fantasy novelist to say the least.

Also, I would like to point out that I don't think anyone ever imitates another writer, they are only inspired by them. To imitate someone would be essentially follow their style, some I believe to be almost as unique as DNA, in much more detail than the overall storyline type, world type etc. No one has yet come close to truly imitating Tolkien, not even the great writers who are compared to him (insultingly so btw). Writers like Tolkien come once a generation, writers close to him come maybe a handful of times a generation.

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I also think that, despite the achievement of creating -- and even that term is worthy of debate, as I understand it there are some close affinities between some of his Elvish tongues and Suomi (Finnish) -- the aspect of "world-building" is a tool, not an achievement or accomplishment (in the sense used in the thread's title) in and of itself, save insofar as it shows an ability to craft a rather abstract thing. What makes any such item an artistic achievement in literary terms is how well (or seamlessly, if you prefer) it fits in with not only the overall "plan" of the fantastic world, but the "living" aspects of the characters, adding to their believability and credibility; but that achievement is only valid within that context; taken out of it, it becomes simply an abstract, nonfunctioning bit of trivia without reference to the real world or to deeper human concerns. That Prof. Tolkien managed to breathe the life he did into his languages, and make them notable aspects of that universe he created, is indeed one of the unique aspects of his work; but it is, essentially, trivia; minutiae; not a literary achievement per se. And so, no, I don't think it deserves anything near the title of "Greatest Fantasy Literary Accomplishment"; by its very nature, I don't think it possibly can.
Many know of the closeness between Elven and the Finnish language that was used to help construct, thanks, in part, to the movies. That does not reduce the achievement of taking all the pieces, of which the Finnish roots are only one, putting it all together and so seamlessly and perfectly fitting into the story as a whole. He did not, by any means, simply copy and paste the Finnish language for his own purposes. To simply understand the syntax, grammar and other parts of a language is a skill not everyone has.

To further take this understanding, fool around with it, and then create something uniquely yours is something few people can do at all, let alone so well. That is probably why he taught at one of the finest schools in the World and acquired such respect just as an academic. That alone makes it an achievement worthy of note not just within the bounds of fantasy writing but also outside of them, not the status of a mere bit of trivia (also an insult). If you can find ANYONE who has done such a thing to such a level in recent history I might be convinced to tone down my reverence for what he did in this regard.
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Old 8th September 2011, 01:17 AM   #7 (permalink)
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Re: The Greatest Fantasy Literary Accomplishment

TBH, I'm not sure about this.

Tolkein created a world and the languages that went with it.

While the sheer scale of his creation beggars belief ( I've actually met people who think this was based on fact ) it's only world-building, as JD said, a tool rather than an end in itself.

There's also the fact that, compared to the stories he set in his world, it's boring.

Creation of languages is an interesting mental exercise, but LOTR, as the final result, has given far more pleasure to far more people than the fantasy equivalent of Klingon ( and Harrison got it right when he suggested that learning Esperanto'd be a far better use of the reader's time).

For those who are interested, it's an interesting diversion, but hardly of world-shattering importance.
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Old 8th September 2011, 03:08 AM   #8 (permalink)
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Re: The Greatest Fantasy Literary Accomplishment

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TBH, I'm not sure about this.

Tolkein created a world and the languages that went with it.

While the sheer scale of his creation beggars belief ( I've actually met people who think this was based on fact ) it's only world-building, as JD said, a tool rather than an end in itself.

There's also the fact that, compared to the stories he set in his world, it's boring.

Creation of languages is an interesting mental exercise, but LOTR, as the final result, has given far more pleasure to far more people than the fantasy equivalent of Klingon ( and Harrison got it right when he suggested that learning Esperanto'd be a far better use of the reader's time).

For those who are interested, it's an interesting diversion, but hardly of world-shattering importance.
Sure its boring on its own because there would be no context and context is everything in literature. However, that is not what I am talking about. Nor am I talking about the pleasure level it provides on it own, which would be zero since without context it would seem like gibberish. Neither of these criteria are good measuring sticks. They might seem to be to a reader but readers alone cannot appreciate the whole process of writing creative literature.

What I am talking about here is the accomplishment of creating one's own language for creative purposes. The sheer combination of natural talent, understanding, simple inclination, effort et al it would take to undertake such a task is enormous and I challenge anyone to come up with something harder in the art of creative writing. Becoming a linguist of JRRTs skill is something few accomplish, to have the mindset to use it as a writing tool to the degree he did is something few, if any, have done before or since.

While creativity doesn't necessarily make a good story I would argue it is the single biggest component of fantasy literature with everything else working to fashion the rawness of pure creativity into something real and complete. That said, there are many measuring sticks you could use to judge one's level of creativity. Ability to construct a interesting plot, the depth of said plot, the depth and places you take the characters, the difference between and uniqueness of the monsters in the story, the names you create, among others. With all that in mind, to come up with the idea to use your own language, contextualize it the way it JRRT did and make it work so seemlessly is the single greatest creative achievement in the history of creative literature, imo. No one has done it before or since to the extent that he managed.
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Old 8th September 2011, 05:46 AM   #9 (permalink)
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Re: The Greatest Fantasy Literary Accomplishment

This has been an ongoing controversy at least since Charles Platt wrote his essay "The Curse of the Hobbit" for Heavy Metal magazine back in the 1970s; and quite possibly (depending on how you read it) since Edmund Wilson wrote his scathing review of Prof. Tolkien's work back in the 50s (if memory serves on the date).

I thought I had made it clear that I do not blame the Professor for the outcome, but I stand by my statement that the impact of this aspect of his work on the fantasy genre has, for the main part, been detrimental. It has taken the focus away from genuine literary concerns and made it instead about the game of world-building and the minutiae of creating maps, histories, languages, etc. None of these are necessarily bad in moderation, but what Tolkien (successfully, in my view) did with these things was to give them a verisimilitude almost unheard of before, and certainly not to the extent (textually speaking) seen in his novel; and what he did successfully has been imitated by enormous numbers of writers in the field since, unsuccessfully. It takes a very special, and very rare, combination of elements to an individual's personality to pull this sort of thing off, but the attraction to so many writers in the field is all but irresistible... and fatal to any genuine literary quality, as well as following their own native bent in their work; it distorts that work, at least to some degree, into an imitation of Tolkien, and that is not a good thing.

This reminds me of a statement by Ursula Le Guin (iirc) that no one could write like Dunsany, and nearly every writer who had ever read him had tried. Which brings me to the subject of imitation itself. You say "I would like to point out that I don't think anyone ever imitates another writer, they are only inspired by them". I'm afraid there are numerous historical examples which prove this to be a mistaken view: Lovecraft with Dunsany, for instance, or with Poe, where he himself remarked that he "aped the style"; Arthur Machen with Robert Louis Stevenson, whom he imitated so greatly that he felt almost ashamed of some of his early works, such as The Three Impostors, as derivative. (They aren't, entirely; but the imprint of Stevenson does mar them somewhat.) And there are other ways to imitate a writer beyond directly "aping" their style as well, things that go far beyond simply being influenced by another writer... which is something that nearly every writer on the planet has been.

As for Lovecraft, et al., having something of a detrimental effect... at times, they have; or, rather, their work has. Much as I admire Lovecraft, for example, that distinctive style of his is the first thing most writers attempt to emulate, with generally (though not exclusively) disastrous results. Hence Ramsey Campbell, a fine, creative, and powerful writer, lost his own voice for several years in imitation of that "adjectival prose", as it has been called, with the result being such things as one finds in his The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants. It took a violent reaction against Lovecraft and some extremely avant-garde experimentation for Campbell to eventually find his own unique voice; after which he could once again come closer to a balanced view of Lovecraft as influence, and assimilate what he had learned from him and use it in his own manner, creating things which are truly Lovecraftian and Campbellian at the same time. Most writers who have been attracted by Lovecraft have gone through this; some never emerge, while others (Wilum Pugmire, Ramsey Campbell, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Thomas Ligotti, etc.) eventually assimilate the influence while rejecting attempts to imitate the style... but that also means that those early products are, inevitably, going to be less successful artistically than they would have been without such a slavish imitation of Lovecraft's style. And then, of course, there's the perennial pastichist, such as August Derleth....

With Tolkien, it isn't the style -- which is actually rather rich and varied -- but the manner, approach, and above all, the type of sub-creation which is imitated, to a slavish degree. All too often it becomes the point of a writer's work, rather than the foundation, joists, and unseen timbers which support the story proper. This has become so much the case, that it has earned an almost blanket condemnation of modern fantasy from most literary critics and, to some degree, rightfully so. The genre has ghettoized itself by following something which, if allowed to become what the writing is mostly about, is as much of a dead-end as the trends followed by the original Gothic writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It becomes incestuous and self-crippling. And, frankly, that is very much what a huge amount of modern fantasy has become. The genuine literary value has been debased to a children's game of "let's pretend" where worlds are created and then stories written about them, rather than stories are born and worlds naturally emerge from those tales, thus reinforcing each other in a genuinely holistic way.

As I said earlier, it isn't his fault, any more than what happens with so many Lovecraft imitators is HPL's; but it remains a fact that the very originality and uniqueness of these writers' work far too often proves the downfall of their admirers and those who are fired by them; and the number of such imitators is legion; while the number of those who finally pull out of that shadow and begin casting shadows of their own is much, much smaller.

Hence, I stand by my statement that, as excellent an achievement as it is in its own way, it simply cannot be considered "the greatest fantasy literary accomplishment" (even if any one thing could be given such a title, which is doubtful), because it is by its very nature almost anti-literary in its basic premise.

Oh, and on my comment about the languages working: Yes, I meant in the sense of verisimilitude; they "naturally" belong to the worlds in which they are used, and grow out of them philosophically as well as philologically; not that they "work" in the way a genuine language which has evolved over millennia in the "primary" world would do.
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Old 8th September 2011, 06:28 AM   #10 (permalink)
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Re: The Greatest Fantasy Literary Accomplishment

JD,

I appreciate that you are probably an academic or one who has a very deep understanding of literature. I appreciate that. It is a rarity.

You continue to accuse Lovecraft and Tolkien and the like of having a detrimental affect on fantasy literature simply because they were so good at what they did that they set a bar so high that few will ever be able to approach it. Just because that bar is so high and will rarely be reached does not make their contributions detrimental. It could easily be argued that without them fantasy literature would not be where it is today, a dominant part of the global readership.

People imitate them because they want to be like them and there is nothing wrong or detrimental about that. It is not their fault that they are simply not as good. There is shame in trying to imitate them to such a degree that your work lacks its own flavour, but beyond that it is simple inspiration. It is like having a role model or mentor. George RR Martin and Terry Pratchett, may he RIP, are two great writers who have emerged since but neither compare to Tolkien or Lovecraft. They had some of the raw materials of the likes of Tolkien but not all of them. Their writing isn't as good or as original but it is still great and their existence hasn't been "detrimental" to fantasy literature. Again, it is like arguing Shakespeare had a detrimental effect on the writing of plays because he set the bar so high. If you ever argued that you would be laughed out of the room.

Sure, there are lots of idiot writers but you cannot blame Tolkien high standards for their existence and the detriment they have caused to fantasy literature. I would argue that the blame for that should like on the corporate publishers who are looking for what sells and not what is necessarily good. The quality of writing and how many copies it sells are, as you are probably well aware, not one and the same.

As for having the focus turned away from literary concerns and toward world building, maps, histories and whatnot, that is the essence of fantasy writing, it is the very point of it. It is what interests readers. As much as I appreciate your desire to uphold the high literary standards for things such as this, fantasy writers are not writing for academic classes, they are writing for the attention of a much wider worldwide audience. If we all went and focused on upholding such standards we would both fail and become irrelevant because the vast majority of the world as a whole would stop caring. Fantasy writing is not so much about making a stamp on the greater literary world as it is about telling the story in your head and sharing it with who you can for better or for worse. The world is not one of academics it one of people who wish to be entertained.
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Old 8th September 2011, 09:59 PM   #11 (permalink)
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Re: The Greatest Fantasy Literary Accomplishment

First: My apologies for taking the thread so far off-topic (in the direct sense, at least). My intention was simply to place my vote and, as per requested, enter my reasoning for the nature of that vote.

Second: I am not an academic. I do have a passion for literature, and much of my reading extends far beyond the bounds of sff; but I don't scorn the genres themselves, just poor writing and the "fannish" nature of so much of it. I'll try to clarify that as I go along here:

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You continue to accuse Lovecraft and Tolkien and the like of having a detrimental affect on fantasy literature simply because they were so good at what they did that they set a bar so high that few will ever be able to approach it. Just because that bar is so high and will rarely be reached does not make their contributions detrimental. It could easily be argued that without them fantasy literature would not be where it is today, a dominant part of the global readership.
No, I do not accuse them of anything. I tried to make that clear in the above posts, both directly and indirectly, by stating that "they, or rather their works", etc. In other words, the works themselves are fine; they are the direct result of the genuine artistic vision of each of these writers, nor did they particularly wish anyone to follow in their footsteps, so there is no moral censure here whatsoever. Nor is my complaint that "they set the bar so high[...]" because, though in some senses they did, in others there are many who have set that bar far higher: Guy de Maupassant is one example; Robert Aickman is another. I don't think Lovecraft (for one) would argue that point at all; Tolkien might or might not; on that I am uncertain, but that he tended to prefer people creating something of their own rather than following someone else seems strongly indicated by his writings.

On the other hand, the effect of the writings has often been very detrimental. It has often sidetracked the field(s) into what are essentially blind alleys; and narrowed the once incredibly broad range of what fantasy offered to a bottleneck which came close (if it didn't completely succumb) to making the genre self-parodic to anyone who is not a hardened fan. This is never good for any literary movement, and any which has taken this route has ended up becoming defunct, or at least moribund, until it is completely transformed. We have seen this with the Gothics; the classic ghost story; Westerns; the classic mystery and detective tale; romances; travel fiction; and much of what passed for "mainstream" literature over the decades. (Think, for example of the bulk of writing about street gangs from the 1950s and 1960s, some of which was actually very good; or much of the literature of the counter-culture; modernism, etc.) Because both Tolkien and Lovecraft set a tone unlike what had been seen before, and because their voices were so distinctive, dozens (if not hundreds) of writers have picked up on the surface or the tiny mechanisms which were only a part of their writing, and taken these for the whole. The result is a mountain of bilge which simply cannot be taken seriously by someone with any broader literary horizons.

This is not to say that there are not exceptions; thankfully there are, and some damn' fine ones. But the effect on the field has, nonetheless, been detrimental because it has narrowed it (and yes, this is in part the result of that fannish temperament, which isn't really interested in anything new, but simply wants the things they liked before recycled again and again, until they get tired of it... at which time the result is almost inevitably a discarding of all such material, no matter if it be pure pulp or golden in quality... something which we have seen time and again in the sff genre) to the point of stultification.

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People imitate them because they want to be like them and there is nothing wrong or detrimental about that.
During an apprenticeship, no. It is good for a beginning writer to practice doing what they see as effective, and learning from it. It is also much better if their base for such comparisons is broader than simply one writer or a handful of writers. This is bad for even beginners... or perhaps especially for beginners, as they are in the opening stages of learning the craft, and need to learn from all the best, not just a few.

(Incidentally, with no disrespect meant to Shakespeare, I would argue -- as others have before me -- that actually the bar was set much higher by someone like Christopher Marlowe. Shakespeare has earned his reputation more by his appeal to the masses than by actual abstract literary quality per se. There are numerous flaws in his work which it would be simply egregious for any playwright to tolerate in their own work, and were he writing today, these would quite likely cause him to do numerous revisions and excisions before the work would pass muster.)

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Sure, there are lots of idiot writers but you cannot blame Tolkien high standards for their existence and the detriment they have caused to fantasy literature.
Again, I do not blame Professor Tolkien for this; but it is a fact that this aspect of his writing has had this detrimental effect. It was fine for him to do it, as it was a genuine outgrowth of his own unique personal vision; but the imitations, almost uniformly, are not due to the same cause. The result is an uniformity in much of fantasy which has, as I said before, made it an incestuous and self-repeating medium, whereas one of the keystones of fantasy prior to this effect was its very diversity, from Eddison to Cabell to Voltaire to Howard to Moore to Dunsany to Wilde to Russ to Beaumont to.... And publishers do tend to look for what sells (they are, after all, in the business -- generally speaking -- to make money); but again, this comes down to that insular attitude of so much of sff fandom....

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As for having the focus turned away from literary concerns and toward world building, maps, histories and whatnot, that is the essence of fantasy writing, it is the very point of it.
No, it is not. It has become, for many writers and readers, the point; and this is precisely what I am getting at. This is that game of "let's pretend" I mentioned above, and it has nothing to do with genuine storytelling or writing ability or creativity (in the greater sense) or anything which has to do with any form of literary worth... which is what the title of the thread refers to. It is also the very thing which is guaranteed to be of passing interest and, if allowed to overshadow genuine creativity, to condemn any fictional genre to the dustbin, either permanently or at very least for a long, long time. (Cf. what happened with the Gothics, which are almost the paradigm of this sort of thing. It took nearly a century and a half for that movement to once again become a viable form, and even now it is still struggling. And then there is the "scientific romance"....)

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It is what interests readers. As much as I appreciate your desire to uphold the high literary standards for things such as this, fantasy writers are not writing for academic classes, they are writing for the attention of a much wider worldwide audience. If we all went and focused on upholding such standards we would both fail and become irrelevant because the vast majority of the world as a whole would stop caring. Fantasy writing is not so much about making a stamp on the greater literary world as it is about telling the story in your head and sharing it with who you can for better or for worse. The world is not one of academics it one of people who wish to be entertained.
I think you're rather widely missing my point here. The majority of the reading world still sees fantasy as a childish endeavor precisely because of its emphasis on these things at the expense of genuine literary values. "Genuine literary values" does not equate with "academic values" or dry, uninteresting writing. Far from it. Genuine literary values means that a thing must delve into what it means to be human, to act as a touchstone for genuine human emotions, dreams, drives, hopes, fears, aspirations, wistful longings, flashes of poetic insight, and all the rest which goes to make up literature which tends to last. It has to say -- and not just on the surface or in a didactic fashion, but from its core -- something about how the writer actually views the world, and it must do so in such a way as to connect with at least a reasonable percentage of readers and move them or recall to them moments when they have felt these things or dreamed these dreams, in some form or another.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with "entertainment". Good literature will itself entertain, or it simply isn't good literature; it will not last. But "entertainment" is the least, and the shallowest, and the most fleeting and ephemeral, of things any writer should strive for, if they wish to pursue writing as a career; for what entertains the public of today quickly becomes stale and old-fashioned to that same public tomorrow, or at most the day after that. Hence, to follow a trend such as we have seen in fantasy literature (though that would appear already to be in the first stages of its demise) is self-defeating in the long run; for as the readers either grow bored and look for something new, or become more mature in their tastes and relegate this sort of "play" to the days of their (more or less) youth, then the writer or genre which has painted itself into that corner will sooner or later find itself "not only dated, but carbon-dated", becoming another bit of literary curiosa at best, or a byword for bad writing at worst.

What Tolkien -- or Lovecraft -- did works for them, because in their case it is genuine, and it does go toward expressing their deeper thoughts and concerns about the world and universe around them. When this is not the case -- as it almost invariably is not with this particular set of technical effects -- it is, by definition, imitative and therefore bad art.

And, just in case it might clear up any misconceptions that I am in any way dissing either of these writers, let me give you a list of my four favorite writers; the ones I return to again and again:

H. P. Lovecraft
J. R. R. Tolkien
Michael Moorcock
Harlan Ellison

Not necessarily in that order (though Lovecraft does come first, I find), but these are nonetheless the ones I hold in highest esteem, and whose works I can almost always return to with undiminished pleasure and respect.
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Old 9th September 2011, 02:27 AM   #12 (permalink)
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Re: The Greatest Fantasy Literary Accomplishment

JDW, I think I get what you are saying just fine and find much to agree with. I particularly appreciated your comment to the effect that world-building (the creatures, the maps, the languages, the annals, etc.) is not "the point" of great fantasy. It may be that some readers use fantasy as a device enabling daydreams that go one for days. But there is much more to the best art that that. C. S. Lewis indicates that the real object is a "sheer state of being," in "On Stories" -- an essay that you should read, if you have never encountered it; you will love it.
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Old 9th September 2011, 05:20 AM   #13 (permalink)
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Re: The Greatest Fantasy Literary Accomplishment

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Originally Posted by Extollager View Post
JDW, I think I get what you are saying just fine and find much to agree with. I particularly appreciated your comment to the effect that world-building (the creatures, the maps, the languages, the annals, etc.) is not "the point" of great fantasy. It may be that some readers use fantasy as a device enabling daydreams that go one for days. But there is much more to the best art that that. C. S. Lewis indicates that the real object is a "sheer state of being," in "On Stories" -- an essay that you should read, if you have never encountered it; you will love it.
I have, though it has been many years since I last did. Tolkien addresses much the same point (the purposes of fantasy), too, in his essay "On Fairy-Stories". Lovecraft did so in several essays which it would have been better had some of his imitators read; as I said, there have been those who have become "Lovecraftian" writers who have nonetheless managed to be true to their own vision, thus creating a unique blend which is itself a worthy artistic endeavor; and there are those who have learned from Tolkien and done the same. Unfortunately, the number who have not done so has tended to overwhelm the number which have, so we end up with a lot of (at best) mediocre fantasy. (And yes, I tend to include GRRM in this category, I'm afraid. Not everything he wrote belongs there -- Fevre Dream is, in my view, a classic of the field, for instance -- but most of his work I've seen... has left me less than impressed.)

I suppose I relate this, in a way, to what I've sometimes seen with RPGs. The concept of such is certainly a worthy one, in my view, and there is much potential for creativity there. But all too often, the players become so involved in the minutiae of the "world" they're creating, that it becomes a plodding, pedantic, thoroughly lifeless affair; it is sometimes a beautifully constructed artifact, but it has no heart. As I tend to say sometimes, it's a beautiful body, but the corpse never gets up off the table. With Tolkien, the world-building grew out of the overall vision he had; it became a part of it because of his peculiar (in the sense of unique to him, not implying a censurable oddity) view of such things as language as, in a way, divine creations; part of the overall plan of a supreme being; part of the music, as it were (referring back to the "Ainulindalė"). This is highly unlikely to be the case with anyone who has been influenced, let alone imitated, his actions in this regard. They are, much more often than not, warping what would be their own natural bent in order to "be" or "be like" their literary hero, and the result of that is almost invariably disastrous, save for those who enjoy such academic games for their own sake. (And there isn't anything wrong with enjoying such games; they can indeed be fun, if you've a penchant for them; but a genuinely creative literary art they ain't... though, as I indicated above, when used properly, they can be one of the tools to realize such an art. It is just that they must never be the point, or they become nothing more than academic games.)
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Old 9th September 2011, 06:42 PM   #14 (permalink)
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Re: The Greatest Fantasy Literary Accomplishment

I feel like an ant scurrying around the toes of giants --- somewhat lost, very uncomfortable, and loaded with questions. But here goes. Can one writer really harm or damage an entire genre of fiction? If writers decide to imitate another's style aren't they the detriment? How can Tolkien be responsible for those who copy him? Should he not have written and published LOTR to quell imitators? Besides, if fantasy is to be harmed, wouldn't it have to be a fixed thing, chiseled in marble so you could see the damage (not fluid where flaws could be whirled away in the nearest eddy)? And by whose authority the final form, the artists who write the stuff or spectators on the outside looking in? I look upon fantasy as a vast ocean where any number of ships can plot their own courses, putting into port just long enough to drop off a manuscript. As long as they don't ram each other where's the harm? LOTR=WMD? Can't see it. Too many fantasists, too many different kinds of fantasy to sustain the sense of loss. But if LOTR was a detriment (and we know why stated in above posts) and actual harm was done, where would fantasy be now if it had never occurred? Can we say fantasy would be better, or envision a better fantasy, had LOTR never been published?

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Old 10th September 2011, 06:35 AM   #15 (permalink)
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Re: The Greatest Fantasy Literary Accomplishment

First, I repeat my apologies to the original poster for taking this so far off-topic. Any further discussion along these lines (following this post) should either be in a separate thread or by PM, so that the thread can (finally) be returned to its intended purpose. (After all, I want to see others vote and discuss their reasons for their votes, too!)

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I feel like an ant scurrying around the toes of giants --- somewhat lost, very uncomfortable, and loaded with questions. But here goes. Can one writer really harm or damage an entire genre of fiction?
Yes, though sometimes it isn't a single writer, but a very small group: Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Gregory Lewis, between them, pretty much defined the nature of the Gothic novel and it quickly became darn near set in stone. It also went from being a promising and vital exploration of certain themes to a dead end within a relatively short period of time thereafter, and remained so for over a century and a half. M. R. James really refined and defined the classic English ghost story so much that it became nearly "accepted wisdom" that this was the way to do it, and anything else was rubbish. It largely killed the ghost story in its traditional form, and it had to be overhauled into various forms before it could once again be taken seriously as a valid genre... and even now his ghost hovers over it to an enormous degree. Other examples can be found, for those interested.

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If writers decide to imitate another's style aren't they the detriment? How can Tolkien be responsible for those who copy him?
Essentially, their tendency to imitate rather than attempt originality is, yes. But... again I do not say Tolkien is responsible for this; I say that his work has had this detrimental effect. I'll try an analogy (I don't know how good it is, but...): Let's say a person isolates and identifies a previously-unknown disease bacillus, one from which we learn enormous amounts about the mechanisms of such pathogens, one which leads to cures for various diseases, and one which expands the realms of medical science in ways that had barely been touched before. But, at the same time, it proves to be a horribly virulent little thing, easily transmitted, and which causes untold damage and loss of life. Is the person who isolated and identified the bacillus morally culpable for his action? I'd say no. But it is a fact that, nonetheless, this thing he has focused attention on has had such tremendously bad effects.

I see what Tolkien did in that light, in a sense. As I said, there was nothing wrong with him doing it; it emerged from his personality and his own creative vision, and reflected his fascination with such things and how they interrelate with both the physical and spiritual world. And even doing some variations on such a theme, if done in moderation, would not necessarily be a bad thing. But it hasn't been done that way; it darned near drowned out every other variety of fantasy out there for a goodly period, and brought it to that bottleneck I mentioned. (Yes, there are exceptions, as I said. But the overall face of fantasy became something which followed in Tolkien's footsteps in one way or another, and nearly all others became relegated to the sidelines.) This is never a good thing for any literary genre. It stultifies growth, results in the use of the same tropes ad nauseam, and generally acts very much like a crippling disease within the body of that genre.

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Should he not have written and published LOTR to quell imitators?
I think I answered that above, but just to be clear: No. But it is an unfortunate fact that a single novel, using such academic techniques as a device to adding to the story's verisimilitude, has had such a stultifying effect for several decades, due to such imitation; and it is this imitation, and the fixation such techniques, rather than the genuine core of any artistically successful writing, which has tended to narrow the view of fantasy so much that many who would enjoy a different type of story in the genre find themselves lost amid the plethora of "Tolkien clones", as they've been called, and therefore simply walk away... not to mention the growing impatience of most serious literary readers because of the absorption in such trivial and vapid games as "world-building" has so often become.

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Besides, if fantasy is to be harmed, wouldn't it have to be a fixed thing, chiseled in marble so you could see the damage (not fluid where flaws could be whirled away in the nearest eddy)?
Again, not quite. But if one looks at the history of this sub-genre of the fantastic (which includes, of course, a number of other categories, including ghost stories, science fiction, etc., etc., etc.), one can easily see a narrowing down from a much broader range of types to, essentially, retreads of the same materials over and over again. Think of the number of complaints one sees even here about the same stories retold over and over, the same sorts of characters, the same milieus, the same simplistic ideas, and so forth. It took a good deal more than "the nearest eddy" to "whirl away" that baneful influence... and that "whirling" hasn't actually happened yet to a truly remarkable degree, though we are seeing rebellion against that stultification in favor of a much wider definition of what fantasy can and does entail. But until this sort of fantasy has had a long rest, I fear it (save for a few truly remarkable exceptions) will be a looong time regaining acceptance as a viable form of truly mature (not cynical, as Teresa has noted) storytelling.

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And by whose authority the final form, the artists who write the stuff or spectators on the outside looking in?
I must admit that I don't quite understand this question, which seems to imply there is a final, or even a single, form for fantasy, or at least that this is what I am arguing for. Nothing could be farther from the truth, nor could anything be more deadly to any literary genre. In order to be a viable form, it must be free to grow, to mutate, to change, to crossbreed, to take chances, to challenge the very roots and traditions of the genre from which it comes. Only thus can any form of literature continue to survive and be as resonant with each new generation of readers. Tolkien manages this because he blent his wide experience of life into his writing, in a very fundamental way. But his imitators, by and large, rather missed that substance in favor of the surface. (I can't tell you the number of people I know who, having read LotR time and again, still are unaware of the Christian roots of the thing, and even go so far as to say -- with Lin Carter -- that one of Prof. Tolkien's main faults was in not giving his peoples a religious dimension! Every time I encounter that, I truly feel I've just banged my head against a mountainous piece of stick-stone inability to observe....)

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I look upon fantasy as a vast ocean where any number of ships can plot their own courses, putting into port just long enough to drop off a manuscript. As long as they don't ram each other where's the harm? LOTR=WMD? Can't see it. Too many fantasists, too many different kinds of fantasy to sustain the sense of loss.
Ideally, that is the way it should be; and, as I've said, we are seeing a move in that direction again. But that does not alter the fact that, from at least the 1960s on, the general effect of these aspects of Tolkien's writing were harmful to the genre, for the reasons stated.

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But if LOTR was a detriment (and we know why stated in above posts) and actual harm was done, where would fantasy be now if it had never occurred? Can we say fantasy would be better, or envision a better fantasy, had LOTR never been published?
It might or might not be better; but it certainly would have had more variety for the past 40 or 50 years (especially for the past 30 or so, when it seemed like every other fantasy was cast in a similar mode; even where they rebelled against Tolkien, they quickly formed their own cliches which were little more than mirror-images of that they fought against).

However, this again misses my point: I do not say that LotR itself was a detriment, but that these aspects of it, which are nothing more at base than techniques to aid in the sense of verisimilitude, have been detrimental, because they became, as the opening poster has said, the point of fantasy rather than being kept in their proper sphere of aids to the story and the writer's vision. As I've said several times, used in moderation, there is nothing wrong with them. It is this tendency to obsess about these aspects at the cost of the soul of the work -- the soul of all worthwhile writing, really, which is, as it has been described, "the human heart in conflict with itself" -- which has been the harmful part of Tolkien's legacy. And, as I've said before, these things are academic exercises which can be used to good effect in literature, but are in themselves not literary in nature... hence my negative vote mentioned above.

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