The Too High Bar

The very first story I remember writing was a fantasy. I don’t recall how old I was, although I am fairly sure I was under 10 because I had not yet discovered Dungeons and Dragons, but I do remember writing it in one of those black and white covered composition books. Nor do I recall anything of the story itself, except that it was about a champion on a quest to slay a dragon. Strangely, I do have a very specific memory of writing it, particularly at a moment when I described how the dragon’s eyes “glew” with fierce light and my mother corrected me that it was “glowed.” I recall arguing, as well, holding up “blow” and “blew” as evidence that she was surely wrong. I do not remember whether I changed it. I wish I still had that notebook. I would like to know more about what I wrote, perhaps even uncover what it was inspired by. I imagine that nothing had so great an influence on that story as the Rankin/Bass Hobbit cartoon, which was my first exposure to Tolkien.

 

I love fantasy, especially the “Tolkienesque” kind, with elves and dwarves and heroes and Dark Lords and all the other trappings. I love Tolkien’s work in particular, but to be honest I am not that discerning at times. For example, to my shame The Dragonlance Chronicles and Legends trilogies are as close to my heart as is Lord of the Rings. Not because they rival the good Professor’s work in skill and craft, of course, but because of where they landed in my formative reading experience. In gaming, both table top and electronic, that flavor of fantasy is by far my favorite. All that said, I find that I have a difficult time writing fantasy. As I just began rereading The Lord of the Rings again — the mark of great literature is, I think, that one can revisit it again and again and always find something both meaningful and new in it, because the great works are able to speak to us across the changing landscapes of our lives — I think I finally hit upon why I have such difficulty with writing fantasy:

 

I will never be as good as Tolkien.

 

In particular, I will never be able to craft a world in the way that he did, with its deep history and complex languages. The fact is, I am far more interested in storytelling than world building. The problem is that the definition of fantasy for me, what makes great fantasy so rich and powerful, is a great fantastic world that is complex, cohesive and real feeling. That is what Tolkien created in me with his work, and now when I desire to write a fantasy, to tell stories about champions hunting evil dragons, I cannot help but see how thin and brittle the world in which I place that story is. The bar Tolkien set is too high for me to reach and so I often do not try at all.

 

What I found I prefer, as far as world building is concerned, is to take something familiar, whether it is our own world or the typical medieval fantasy world or any other archetypal setting, and season it with the unfamiliar. When it comes to fantasy, though, this is something that is all too common and I dread the idea of being another terrible Tolkien imitator, making Middle Earth with cat folk, for example. Unfortunately, I believe some stories belong in certain genres and are best told in those genres, which leaves me at a loss sometimes when I have a story to write that is absolutely, unequivocally a fantasy story. A world of knights and ogres and wizards and dragons brings with it a host of implicit qualities that aid the author in communicating with the audience, conveying meaning easily while offering accessible opportunities to subvert assumptions. Every genre is a toolbox with which the writer builds a story with the help of a genre savvy audience. To feel a genre closed off from me, especially one I so love, because of my own inadequacies is, to say the least, unpleasant.

 

This is a limitation I do not feel with other genres. If I have difficulties with any other genre in this way, it would be hard science fiction and that is only because I am not a scientist or even an engineer and therefore do not know a lot of things I should know in order to write such a story. Even so, I do read a lot of science and have access to the Internet, so I have those two tools — knowing which questions to ask and where to go about finding the answers — which usually suffice for any given story I am likely to want to write. There is no equivalent in fantasy, no way to Google up a long and detailed history of a particular region so the singular chapter the protagonists spend in the place is as real and convincing as life outside the reader’s window. Instead, I find myself relying in writing on a skill that has served me well in game-mastering table top role-playing games: treating the world like an old time Hollywood movie set, all veneer and no substance. That works when at a table, helping players navigate a monster riddled maze or dragon-haunted badlands. Players see through that sort of thing and don’t care because they are engaged in the game itself; readers are not so forgiving, I don’t think. Or, at least, I am not, which brings us back around to the problem itself:

 

I will never be as good as Tolkien. The bar is too high.

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