Happy Lord of the Rings Day

War is on all our minds these days. There is a war happening in Ukraine and something barely resembling a war (because it’s a genocide) in Gaza. Governments have been fond of casting our collective responses – such as they are – to climate change, antimicrobial resistance, and water crises as wars. In every nationalist country, and there are more of them every year, the states have claimed they’re at war against “anti-national” forces within and without. War is everywhere. At this time, where does fantasy fiction stand, what can it do?

First, the genre itself is often centred around military action as a means to challenge protagonists and resolve conflicts. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the skirmish on Weathertop showcases Aragorn’s leadership; the Battle of Helm’s Deep is where Théoden truly returns as the king of Rohan; the Battle of the Pelennor Fields is the stage on which Denethor fails, Faramir rises in his stead, Rohan’s crown effectively passes to Éowyn, and Aragorn does something only Gondor’s ruler can; the Battle of the Morannon is a test of every protagonist’s mettle as they distract Sauron and his armies in a doomed stand long enough for Sam, Frodo, and Gollum to destroy the ring; and the Battles of Isengard and Bywater are where the ents and hobbits, respectively, retake their lands from Saruman’s rule, unto the powerful wizard’s political and then mortal demise. Even outside the trilogy, war is never short of a great contest between good and evil.

There have been many flights of fancy that bear little resemblance to JRR Tolkien’s epic and its style, yet it’s just as true that every English attempt at epic fantasy since the trilogy has either basked in its shadow or tried to escape from it. Another way in which Tolkien foreshadowed the genre is in terms of its authors: predominantly cis-male and white. Despite the variety of factors at play that could influence who becomes an author of epic fantasy fiction, this is no coincidence, at least insofar as it determines who becomes a ‘successful’ author – and just as well, it’s not a coincidence that so much of modern fantasy is concerned with similar depictions of war.

Bret Devereaux wrote in his popular blog that Amazon Primevideo’s Rings of Power fell so flat even though it had borrowed heavily as well as branched off from Lord of the Rings because, among other things, it failed to “maintain a believable sense of realism grounded in historical societies and technologies (something the Lord of the Rings, books and films, did very well)”, rendering it “impossible to invest in the stakes and consequences of a world that appears not to obey any perceptible rules”. Yet even with the ‘rules’, Tolkien’s narrative arcs within his books were modeled perceptibly on the Arthurian legends. A similar complaint can be foisted on other (esp. white male) works of epic fantasy fiction, which have been concerned on a metaphysical level at least with recasting the past in a different light, unto different ends.

I admit I haven’t read enough of epic fantasy – all of Tolkien, a smattering of Guy Gavriel Kay (Tigana), Mervyn Peake (Gormenghast), Peter David (Sir Apropos of Nothing), some of M. John Harrison’s short stories, Brandon Sanderson, Marlon James (BLRW), and George R.R. Martin – to be able to write with any kind of authority about the genre, but for this I blame partly myself and the rest Steven Erikson, whose Malazan Book of the Fallen series spoiled me for anything else. My own tendency to read the work of the cis-white men of fantasy is also to blame.

However, Erikson, unlike any of the other writers I’d read until then, both within and beyond the genre, is also a white man yet his Malazan series treats war differently: its tragic toll is always in view thanks to Erikson’s decision to train the narrator’s focus on its smallest players, the soldiers, rather than on its kings and queens. This is how, for its well-earned reputation as a military epic bar none, the series itself recounts a tale of compassion.

And having read and re-read the Malazan series for more than a decade (to the uninitiated: it’s possible to do this without getting bored because of its rich detailing and layered story-telling), war – including ones of annihilation, which can apparently be fought these days without the use of terrible weapons – is if nothing else the ultimate examination of purpose. It is brutal on people, the land, the cultures, and the planet for much longer after it ends, and it magnifies through these effects and the methods by which they are achieved the moral character of those conducting this violence.

Like others I’m sure, I feel completely powerless against and often dispirited by Israel’s genocide against the people of Gaza, Russia’s wanton destruction in Ukraine, and the systemic violence the Indian state continues to inflict on its poorest and most marginalised sections. The best tools of opposition available at my disposal are my words, my ideas, my morality, and, if a situation demands it, some spine – and all four good fantasy fiction can inspire in abundance.

I remember reading a Roger Ebert review of a film sometime back (can’t remember its name now) in which he said good story-telling can inspire us to become our best versions of ourselves, that even should the film flop on other counts, it will have succeeded if it can do this. These words are applied easily to any form and mode of story-telling, including epic fantasy. Lord of the Rings is a tale of good versus evil but it’s also a tale of friendships and their survival through untold hardships, and while some may disagree it was good story-telling. In the end, whether or not it succeeded and also setting aside the moralities of the time in which it was written, it strove to inspire goodness.

The Malazan series strives similarly (present-tense because Erikson is still building out its lore) and, to be fair, does it much better, directing its empathy at almost everyone who appears in the books (excluding – spoiler alert – the truly vile). In our present time of seemingly incessant conflict, it helps me look beyond the propaganda both noisy and subtle at the people who are suffering, and with its stories refill senses constantly on the verge of depletion. If we just let it, fantasy can step up where reality has failed us, alerting us to the infinite possibility of worlds within worlds, new and necessary forms of justice, and of course how and where we can begin to cope together.

A happy Lord of the Rings Day to you. 🙂

Previous editions: 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023.

Note: I chose to ignore sci-fi in this post. I suspect “sci-fi” and “fantasy” are at the end of the day labels invented to make marketing these books easier, but I also stuck to fantasy per se so I could finish writing this post in a finite amount of time.