How J.R.R. Tolkien Has Inspired Me as a Fantasy Writer

May 11, 2024 by S. R. Watts

For many readers like myself, J.R.R. Tolkien is a name that has become synonymous with epic fantasy. He revolutionized the genre with his seminal works, "The Hobbit,” and "The Lord of the Rings" series, which have gone on to become classical works that have inspired generations of fantasy authors, including me. In fact, it’s fair to say that my own path toward becoming a fantasy writer was directly influenced by Tolkien’s work, as well as what I learned about him and the life events that led to the creation of Middle-earth, thus inspiring me to try, as he did, to set a whole new standard for what fantasy could be. 

From philologist to fantasy icon

I was amazed to learn that, before Tolkien reshaped fantasy literature as we know it, he was a scholar of languages and a professor at Oxford University. His deep love and understanding of languages led him to construct several languages of his own, which became the foundation of Middle-earth, the fantasy world he created first for “The Hobbit” and then the iconic “Lord of the Rings” Trilogy. This meticulous attention to linguistic detail was unprecedented in fantasy literature at the time these books were written, adding a layer of depth and realism to Tolkien’s works that were previously unseen in the realm of literature. Knowing this as I began my own writing journey served to inspire me to add as much detail to my world-building as I possibly could, as I wanted my books to have just as much depth as Tolkien’s work did.

The birth of Middle-earth

I was first introduced to Toklien’s Middle-earth when I read “The Hobbit," which was originally published in 1937. It was the book that started as a story Tolkien told to his children, which, when it was finally published, introducing readers to a richly imagined world inhabited by dwarves, elves, and dragons. Yet, as much as I loved “The Hobbit,” it was "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy—published between 1954 and 1955—that ultimately made me fall in love with the world Tolkien had created. These novels expanded on the lore, geography, and history of Middle-earth, offering millions of readers like myself a sprawling epic of good versus evil that was grounded in a setting that was completely fleshed out in ways that had never been done before. It truly was an adventure that only fueled my imagination as a young author who wanted nothing more than to create something that was just as epic.

Innovations in world-building

Tolkien’s world-building was truly revolutionary, not just for the fantasy genre but for many other genres as well. He crafted detailed maps, genealogies, and a complex history that included entire epochs and sagas that predated the main events of his books. This comprehensive approach gave Middle-earth a sense of permanence and believability, allowing readers like myself to immerse themselves completely in the narrative. The appendices at the end of "The Return of the King," in particular, which detail timelines, language guides, and backstories, are a testament to Tolkien's commitment to his world and the legacy he wanted to leave behind. His example is something I have certainly tried to live up to in the years I have labored to craft my own fantasy series, the Divine Saga. Though, I must admit, I would have to work for a few more years to make my fantasy world as all-encompassing as Tolkien’s Middle-earth is, especially if I want to craft my own languages for the races and cultures found in the world I’ve created.

Impact on fantasy literature

While much has been said over the years about Tolkien and his novels, his influence on fantasy literature cannot be overstated. He introduced what many literary scholars would describe as a template for the fantasy epic, which includes a pre-industrial world, a clear conflict between good and evil, and a quest that is central to the narrative. Many contemporary fantasy novels, from George R.R. Martin’s "A Song of Ice and Fire" to Robert Jordan’s "The Wheel of Time," owe a debt to Tolkien’s work, and will likely continue to inspire many more fantasy writers for years to come. Of course, as someone who was inspired by how Tolkien reimagined the genre, I too have taken certain artistic liberties to ensure that my books could make such an impact, which include more intricate story elements and world-building techniques. However, such inspiration would not have been possible if I had not learned that Tolkien was the first to take such risks with his own work, which I hope will reap some great rewards as I follow in his footsteps. 

Legacy and cultural impact

Of Course, Tolkien’s work has had far-reaching impacts beyond the realm of literature. Its influence on popular culture has inspired countless adaptations, including several award-winning films, video games, and graphic novels. Peter Jackson’s work on the 2001-2003 film adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings” Trilogy is particularly noteworthy for the way it brought the story to life, with “The Return of the King” Film having won 11 Oscars back during the 2004 award season. Tolkien’s work has also spurred academic studies and established fantasy as a serious literary genre worthy of study and respect, with several colleges and universities throughout North America and Europe offering classes that focus on the study of Tolkien’s Seminal Novels. Though I didn’t have the opportunity to take such a class back in college, Jackson’s films did have a great impact on me, leading me to imagine how my own fantasy works could one day be adapted for the big screen so they can inspire a whole new generation of fantasy fans.

Conclusion: The enduring power of Tolkien’s vision

Tolkien’s novels did more than introduce me to fantasy creatures such as hobbits and ents; they invited me into a world so thorough and vivid that it felt real, offering me the perfect escape from a life full of challenges that I wasn’t ready to face. Tolkien’s legacy lies not only in the stories he told but in his ability to create a world so detailed and compelling that it has become a touchstone for nearly all fantasy literature that has followed in the years since their publication. For readers and writers like myself, Tolkien’s Middle-earth is a prime example of how far imagination and a deep understanding of human history and culture can take us, serving as the inspiration for us to try our hand at making our own impact on the genre and the literary world at large. And while Tolkien’s work continues to captivate and inspire fantasy readers for generations to come, I can only hope that his example has inspired other fantasy authors as much as he has inspired me. Though, I must admit, he has inspired me in ways that only a true revolutionary of the fantasy genre could, leading me to aspire to one day do the same.