Fantasy, Mythology, and the Far-reaching Hand of Tolkien

I’ve been thinking a lot about fantasy worlds lately. This started off when Obsidian’s Project Eternity was announced, kickstarted, and funded within a few days. I thought a bunch about the world they were making. Then I played Dishonored and marvelled at the world built within that game’s margins. It got me thinking about how, for a field that revolves around wholly imagined universes, fantasy games are surprisingly conservative.

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Concept art for Project Eternity

It all comes down to Tolkien.* Or at least a great deal of it does. His Middle Earth mythology has likely had more influence than anything else on 20th and 21st Century fantasy writing, both in and out of videogames. And while this isn’t in itself a bad thing (Tolkien did a lot of things really well, after all), it’s kind of hard to argue that it hasn’t done something to limit the collective imagination of fantasy writers.

Time and time again you see people falling back on the concepts that Tolkien sketched out – Orcs, Elves, Dwarfs, and Trolls, each race filling roughly the same roles that they served in Middle Earth (the noble, haughty Elves, the bearded, subterranean dwarfs, the always chaotic evil Orcs and Trolls and Goblins). Sometimes you’ll see writers doing something to subvert genre expectations (The dwarfs live in trees! The elves are racist freedom fighters!), and often you’ll also see a hell of a lot of the writer’s own ideas come through, but I can think of surprisingly few games that completely throw away the template that Tolkien laid down.

John Howe’s illustration of the dragon Smaug, from The Hobbit

But what’s wrong with that – it’s a perfectly good template, so why not use it? Well, because it fails to capture the reasons why Tolkien’s world is so impressive in the first place. Tolkien didn’t pull Middle Earth purely from his own imagination – he drew upon hundreds of years of culture, especially early Germanic and Anglo Saxon literature and mythology, when crafting his world and populating it with people and stories. That’s one of the main reasons Middle Earth feels so rich. So when a writer draws their inspiration primarily from Tolkien’s writing they’re drawing inspiration from only one source, when what made that source great in the first place was that it drew from so many other things. As a result the worlds they craft rarely match the richness of Middle Earth, and rarely show any kind of understanding of the Germanic and Anglo-Saxon influences that Tolkien drew upon. Rather than imaginative new worlds, they tend to feel like little more than pale imitations of Middle Earth.

When I call for more original invention in fantasy writing I’m not saying ‘make everything up yourself without any outside inspirations’ because that’s simply not, and never has been how imagination works. Just as almost no technological inventions are created in a vacuum, almost no story, whether fantasy or not, is born in a vacuum. Every legend and myth and fantasy story has its influences. So what I’m saying is: ‘Tolkien isn’t enough. Find other things, preferably lots of them, from which to draw inspiration. And then do interesting things with them.’

An illustration of Beowulf battling Grendel

But even when people abandon Tolkien, there’s still a heavy reliance in fantasy writing on Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology. That’s understandable, because of the influence they’ve had on the English speaking world (again, as someone who only speaks English, i’m aware that everything I’m saying here might just not apply to non-English fantasy traditions). And I’d rather have games that draw direct from these sources than from Tolkien’s distillation of them. But while it’s perfectly legitimate to create a fantasy world that’s heavily inspired by Norse mythology, it’s disappointing that so few people are trying something different.

Why are so few people abandoning the ‘Anglo-Saxon as seen by Tolkien’ and the ‘Norse mythology’ approaches and searching further afield? Why can I count the number of games that draw their inspiration from Slavic mythology on one hand? Why nothing revolving around West African creation myths? Why is it always Tolkien, or at best Tolkien’s bibliography? There’s so much fertile ground to explore, but by and large we’re willing to stick to what we know.

There is so much human history and mythology that we haven’t explored in fantasy writing that it’s frankly kind of surprising. But fantasy games continue to dwell endlessly on Tolkien, or at best the same things that directly inspired Tolkien: Dragon Age: Origins, Oblivion, and so on. High Elves, stocky Dwarfs, rolling, pastoral English landscapes, and so on. And while Oblivion builds up its own history, mythology, and metaphysical truths, it’s still set in rolling English hills filled with goblins and elves and enchanted swords. And Skyrim, the follow-up that I hoped would learn the lessons of Oblivion’s failings, clung so close to Norse mythology that it lost even more of the mystery, the unknown, and the downright weird.

A shot from The Edler Scrolls III: Morrowind

And those are my main drive for exploring fantasy worlds: the unknown, the mystery, and the downright weird. That’s something that I think fantasy, alongside science fiction, does better than anything else. My favourite fantasy worlds are the ones that draw their inspiration from further afield. Some of them, like The Elder Scrolls III’s ‘Morrowind’, incorporate elves and dwarves in a fairly Tolkienesque way. Many of them are far from what you’d call ‘weird’. But they all, without exception, gave me that sense of wonder and discovery that most fantasy games never even come close to. And they do this because they largely reject the well trodden path of pure Anglo-Saxon, Tolkienesque mythology and introduce the player to something they’ve never seen before.

Dishonored’s shamanistic, rune-carving whalers being ground underfoot by a ruthlessly industrialising but slowly dying empire. The city of Dunwall – racked by plague, political instability, and a fear of the cosmic horror lurking out in the night. Morrowind’s tent-dwelling nomads, disease-ridden storms, cities carved out of the husks of colossal dead insects. Demon’s Soul’s haunting dead towers and fetid valleys where people dump their stillborn and infant dead. These places weren’t born ex nihilo in the minds of their creators – they incorporated ideas in just the same way that Oblivion and Dragon Age: Origins did, only they did so from previously unvisited places, or in more risky, inventive ways.

Instead of simply relying on the template we’ve used so many times before they created a new one, or else they warped and changed an existing one in radical ways. And so they gave us something special. These places gripped you and showed you a place unlike any other. And to me that’s what’s so wonderful about fantasy writing in all media – it allows you to be a visitor to unknown, impossible worlds. So when we fall back again and again on the same narrow idea of what fantasy is, when writers invent and imagine only within the confines of a universal, well-explored template, we start to lose something of that sense of wonder.

An illustration from Dishonored

* It occurred to me in a conversation with my girlfriend that this is a problem that isn’t really seen in Japanese fantasy games, or at least not to the same extent. Whatever you think of them, it’s hard to argue that they’re limited in the same way as western fantasy games. Perhaps this is because no one person has dominated 20th century fantasy writing in Japan in the same way Tolkien does in English-speaking countries. Perhaps the same is pretty much true for fantasy writing in other, non-English speaking cultures.

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