The message is coming through loud and clear, guys:
"Stop copying Tolkien."
Unfortunately, as one might imagine, it's not so simple as that.
If you were to take out the magic, dragons, swords, damsels, goblins, orcs, elves, dwarves, vampires, werewolves, wizards, castles, faeries, weird languages (aka Ye Olde Tongue), farm-boy chosen-ones, pirates with hearts of gold, knights, what exactly are you left with? In short, if you gut what makes fantasy fantasy, then why write fantasy in the first place? If you take out the Dungeons and the Dragons, you're just left with &. Nobody wants that.
Everyone wants something different, but in making it different you run the risk of pulverizing what makes it familiar. You ignore that which makes it classifiable as "fantasy." Sometimes dragons and dwarves is, actually, what we want, and re-reading Lord of the Rings for the hundredth time isn't going to cut it. Oh, but Tolkien has covered all the bases when it comes to elves and orcs. Nothing can be done differently or better, added or subtracted, modified slightly to produce an also-good story?
Perhaps I'm making an extreme point, here. Let's say that instead of gutting dragons, you just change them to something else. Rather than majestic, fire-breathing lizards who fly and are commonly known for hoarding treasure and doling out sage-like advice to the occasional passerby, we envision a race of beasts called solocups who are majestic, fire-breathing lizards etc. While it has the potential to completely revamp popular culture (just think of the connotations of that Toby Keith ditty), all we've really done is used the Find-and-Replace feature in MS Word to change all instance of dragon to solocup.
Fine, you say. Don't make solocups be just dragons-with-a-different-name. Let's make them giant birds... but not call them rocs. Shit. Let's make them giant sea monsters... but not call them krakens. Fuckbeans. Let's make a race of humanoids who... have nothing to do with every other race of humanoids who've been created for Star Trek or some other well-known, many-raced universe.
Sure, I can write a story about a race of reptilian humanoids and call them solocups and say Jimbob is going on an adventure to find his place in the world. But, hey holy shit, it's been done before.
|an Argonian from Skyrim|
Not to criticize Rothfuss (as I really enjoyed The Name of the Wind both times I read it), but just because his story doesn't have elves and dwarves doesn't mean it breaks new ground. Wind is a story [about a story] in which a young boy, the smartest boy around, has his parents murdered by the biggest-baddest-most-villainest-motherfuckers around, then spends time as a beggar but with the help of some well-meaning cardboard characters finds his way to the Arcanum (which is a fancy name for a University of Magic). Wizards aren't wizards, they're Arcanists. Sympathy, a way to manipulate the bonds between natural forces, and the usage of Names are just fancy words to replace "magic." You get the point. Rothfuss himself, like the rest of us, doesn't fall too incredibly far from the tree. Even though he brilliantly wrote a fantastic story, he relies on renaming common concepts to avoid reinventing the wheel.
There's another side of the coin, however, in the Quest for Snowflakes (aka the Search for Uniqueness in a Derivative World, copyright forthcoming). As mentioned above, neologisms abound in fantasy. In this article, really a criticism of the Clarke Award shortlist, Christopher Priest points out that China fucking Mieville should be discounted because of them. According to Priest, "He also uses far too many neologisms or SF nonce-words, which drive home the fact that he is defined and limited by the expectations of a genre audience." (Special thanks to Only the Best SFF for their piece on Priest's article.)
I might be using a Flathead for a Phillips on this, but it sounds a lot to me like Priest expects us to write fantasy without making up our own terminology. He's just one guy, but I'm sure his opinion jives with what keeps more people from reading fantasy at all, e.g. having to learn an entire lexicon to understand who's doing what to whom and why. Your casual reader doesn't want to reference the bestiary to know what a solocup is every time one is mentioned, whereas most people (thanks to Hollywood and various authors) have a pretty firm grasp on what a dragon is.
Now, that's not to say I don't enjoy the occasional dragon-free fantasy, or seek out every farm-boy-turned-hero/chosen-one story I can get my hands on. There's a difference between beating a dead horse and cutting off a nice steak to roast on a spit. If a story full of familiar elements is done well, there's an interesting world full of compelling characters, the plot and conflict aren't copied and pasted straight out of the "here's what to do with fantasy" handbook (which I wish I'd written), and there's some excitement and entertainment to be found there, then it is a good story whether or not it has elves in it.
Maybe, just maybe, when people look for something to criticize, they land on the familiarity of fantasy rather than the quality of the story. Some people scoff at Terry Brooks because "he ripped off Tolkien," but I've never bought into that. Anyone who mentions the words elf, dwarf, or orc while describing them as lithe, gruff/beardy, and ruthless are in a very real sense "ripping off Tolkien." To deviate too far from familiarity runs the risk of the ridiculous, like writing sci-fi where spaceships are made of cheese instead of metal, or fantasy where people ride ligers instead of horses.
I don't mean to slight them, but I think if Rothfuss and others are sick of reading about dragons and dwarves then perhaps they should be a bit more selective in the genre(s) they choose to read. Prophecy, swords and sorcery, the eternal struggle between light and dark/good and evil/balance and chaos, mystical and majestic creatures... these things are at the very heart of fantasy for me, and I want them to stay that way. After all, if we weren't willing to play the game with the same pieces, chess wouldn't have survived as long as it has.
So, rather than trying to write something different, perhaps we should all be focusing on writing something worth reading in the first place. Your thoughts on this are welcome in the comments section below.
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