The history of fantastic literature can be traced back to The Epic of Gilgamesh
(c.1150 B.C.E.), but Fantasy as a popular fiction genre is a product of the twentieth century with its roots firmly in the US and UK. The social and cultural mores of those places and time established the habits of Whiteness which still remain influential. Given that the foundations of the genre were laid in the first half of the twentieth century, it is perhaps not surprising that the authors who were most visibly influential were White men; the patriarchal White hegemony over Western culture at that time was firmly entrenched and relatively unchallenged compared to today. Ken Gelder argues that industry and entertainment are two of the defining features of popular fiction;1
the economic power behind industry production and the consumption of entertainment – via disposable income – was skewed in favour of White men even more than it is today.
The names which are most commonly linked to the foundation of the genre in the early-to-mid twentieth century are those of White men: Robert E. Howard, J. R. R. Tolkien, H. P. Lovecraft, and C. S. Lewis. Authors of colour, however, may equally have been involved, at least in pulp publishing, as Samuel R. Delany argues:
We know of dozens upon dozens upon dozens of early pulp writers only as names. They conducted their careers entirely by mail – in a field and during an era when pen names were the rule rather than the exception … we simply have no way of knowing if one, or three, or seven of them – or even many more – were blacks, Hispanics, women, Native American, Asians or whatever.2
Delany writes particularly of Science Fiction, but the same observations apply to pulp Fantasy. Early audiences evinced unanswered interest in the lives of authors – Weird Tales readers wrote to the magazine requesting that biographies be printed, for example a letter published in the January 1934 volume – but even at the time, editors and audiences alike often knew little of many. The visible authors, whose work is most commonly cited and of whom we know most, are not necessarily representative of the whole.
The structural racisms and sexisms – as well as other social inequalities – which shaped Western society when the foundations of Fantasy were laid
undoubtedly contributed to both the capacity of White men to write and publish, and also to later assumptions that those who were visible were, in fact, broadly representative of writers. Privilege breeds its own success, and whatever the structural inequalities which supported some authors and disadvantaged others – and which still have significant impact today – white men and their writing contributed very significantly to the habits of Fantasy genre-culture. Tolkien’s and Howard’s works, more than any others, shaped High Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery, the two most commercially successful Fantasy sub-genres in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. As Ian Nichols points out, their respective “imagined worlds of Middle-earth and Hyboria have served as the models for countless other fantasies.”3
This chapter argues that race-based ideologies behind the social systems which privileged them as White men very strongly influenced the shape of the worlds they imagined, worlds which were decidedly eurocentric and reproduced White race-thinking that had justified both British imperialism and slavery in the US since at least the eighteenth century.
Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892, and moved to England with his mother and brother after the death of his father in 1896. He was educated at the King Edward’s School, and then Oxford, where he studied Classics and English, before fighting in the trenches on the Western Front during World War One. After the Armistice he worked on the Oxford English Dictionary, then at the University of Leeds, before returning to Oxford as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon in 1925. He took up the Merton Professorship of English Language and Literature in 1959. Howard’s background and life were different. Born in 1906, he moved from small Texas town to small Texas town during his childhood before his family settled in Cross Plains, Texas. In 1924, he went to Howard Payne College in nearby Brownwood to study stenography, but dropped out of the course when Weird Tales
began publishing his stories, moving back to Cross Plains. He committed suicide in June 1936 after being told that his mother – who suffered from tuberculosis – had fallen into a terminal coma. Both Howard and Tolkien, Nichols observes, “lived in societies where they were part of a dominant race, and where racial distinctions were important.”4
Their Whiteness, and the privilege which resulted from it, is an important similarity in their seemingly very different lives.
Thousands of words have been devoted to the influence of the societies and cultures in which the two men lived on their works, by scholars and general audience members alike. The argument that the works of either author reflect the racial mores of their respective historical and cultural moments are almost invariably defensive, made against charges of racism directed at the authors, their works, or both, a point to which I will return later in this chapter. The personal writings of both men have been variously mined for evidence for or against their individual racism on multiple occasions, but such questions are secondary to the evidence of their creative production when it comes to their influence on the formation of the Fantasy genre. The
author’s beliefs and ideologies necessarily shape their works, as do the societies in which they lived, but it is how those attitudes were expressed in the stories they wrote which had the most profound effects on Fantasy throughout its development and into the present. This chapter seeks to reorient the discussion of the racialized worlds of Tolkien and Howard first by demonstrating the significant connections of their work with key aspects of race theory, and then by exploring the responses of twenty-first-century readers to those worlds. It is concerned with neither attacking nor defending the authors personally, but with exploring the ways their writings serve to channel centuries-old constructs into contemporary popular culture.
Tolkien’s first novel, The Hobbit
, appeared in September 1937, with The Lord of the Rings
published in the UK in 1954–1955. It was with the second that his influence solidified, although the process took some time. David G. Hartwell argues that “genrefication of fantasy as it exists today was motivated in earnest by the 1965 mass-market editions of The Lord of the Rings
,” first by Ace Publishing in unlicensed editions, and then by Ballantine under license later in the same year; the Ballantine editions were on bestseller lists for over a decade.5
Following the success of The Lord of the Rings
paperbacks, Ballantine published the “Ballantine Adult Fantasy” series, producing 65 books between 1969 and 1974, 63 of which were reprints of earlier works. The series: “helped to claim serious critical attention for fantasy, and in addition helped create a collective history for the genre,”6
as well as laying the groundwork for its success in the later 1970s. According to Hartwell: “Fantasy … had to be made predictable, had to be able to be sold as a product to achieve large-scale success.”7
Given the popularity of The Lord of the Rings
it is not surprising that this commercially necessary predictability derived from it. Publishers do not have the only influence, but nonetheless are a critical link between authors and audiences in any commercially successful genre, particularly in the decades before digital media made self-published titles widely accessible. Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara
(1977) is widely considered the first Tolkienian imitation.8
It is characterized by Hartwell as “slavish imitation” of Tolkien,9
and by Brian Attebery as “especially blatant in its point-for-point correspondence”;10
but it is in this very derivation that Hartwell locates its success. Audiences, he argues, wanted “not more fantasy
but more Tolkien
The works which were published and became successful in this period confirm the accuracy of Hartwell’s statement. Author Kij Johnson remarks of her experience as a reader in the later 1970s and 1980s:
Tolkien just swept everything away and so all we had was medieval fantasy … Then The Sword of Shannara
came out and the idea of the
medieval fantasy as the default setting kicked in [in the late 1970s and 1980s] … the medieval quest fantasy became the lockstep … No matter how much the women [like Patricia McKillip and Elizabeth Scarbourough] were trying to subvert it, it still had those beats.12
High Fantasy series by authors like Brooks, David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist, and Robert Jordan dominated the Fantasy shelves of bookshops; their continued presence decades later attest to their popularity. Celtic worlds like Katherine Kerr’s Deverry, offered variations to the medievalist theme, but were nonetheless strongly eurocentric. The influence of Tolkien’s writing, particularly The Lord of the Rings
, on Fantasy role-playing games is likewise immense.13
Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s 1974 Dungeons & Dragons
imitated Tolkien’s work so closely that it infringed copyright and elements had to be changed for later editions under threat of legal action.
All of the Conan tales published by Howard during his life appeared in the pulp magazine Weird Tales
between December 1932 and October 1936. Appraisals of his influence are extremely varied, generally along lines of how focused any given history is on Fantasy or fantastic literature. In Attebery’s major The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature
, for example, he is mentioned only once, as an imitator of Edgar Rice Burroughs.14
Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James also link his name with Burroughs’ as a major writer in the pulp magazine era, and acknowledge his influence on later work: “Robert E. Howard’s Conan set the model for a new kind of hero, but also for a new kind of tale, one frequently episodic and set beyond the kind of fey civilization that the late-nineteenth-century British fantasy had constructed.”15
Author David Drake wrote recently that: “Conan created S&S [Sword and Sorcery] as a publishing category as surely as Stephen King created horror.”16
Patrice Louinet comments on the genre more broadly, calling Howard: “a founding father of the Fantasy genre, rivaled only by J. R. R. Tolkie...