Fantasy Friday – What Constitutes “Derivative”? Part 1


Before I begin, just a reminder: you have until November 30 to vote in the Clive Staples Award – Readers Choice for the best Christian speculative novel published in 2008 by a royalty-paying publisher.

Also, you have until December 2 to vote for the November CSFF Top Tour Blogger. Lots of really, really good posts. I’ll be honest. I still have to vote because I’m having a hard time making up my mind. 😯

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Some while ago, as I prepared a post over at Spec Faith, I stumbled upon something interesting in a Wikipedia article about J.R.R. Tolkien. Some scholars claim this great fantasy writer owed a debt of influence where he claimed none.

Due to the common use of the same textual sources employed by Tolkien and [Richard] Wagner there are a large list of close parallels between The Lord of the Rings and the Der Ring des Nibelungen. Several critics have made the assumption that the novel was directly derived from Richard Wagner’s operas.

Despite the similarities of his work to the Volsunga saga and the Nibelungenlied, which were the basis for Richard Wagner’s opera series, Tolkien dismissed critics’ direct comparisons to Wagner, telling his publisher, ‘Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.’ According to Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, the author held Wagner’s interpretation of the relevant Germanic myths in contempt.

In the contrary sense, some critics hold that Tolkien’s work borrows so liberally from Wagner that Tolkien’s work exists in the shadow of Wagner’s.

J.R.R. Tolkien, derivative? So those critics claimed.

I find that to be thoroughly ironic because the great accusation against writers of high fantasy today is that their work is derivative, a mere shadow of, you guessed it, J.R.R. Tolkien.

While Tolkien denied taking his ideas from Wagner, he did not hesitant to mention others who influenced him such as William Morris, H. Rider Haggard’s novel She, and S. R. Crockett’s historical novel The Black Douglas.

So what’s the difference between derivative work and that which has come under the influence of another?

Whether Tolkien mentioned it or not, his work bears clear markings of Finnish, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse mythology. Some think there’s even a dose of Celtic mythology, though Tolkien claimed a distaste for those works.

But “derived”? Only the similarities to Wagner seem to have stirred this accusation?

Maybe the easiest way to come at this would be to identify what did not illicit the derivative accusation.

1. Including mythical creatures such as elves and dwarfs.

2. A fictive world pitting good versus evil.

3. Similarities between Hobbits and the “table high” characters in Edward Wyke-Smith’s work.

4. Monsters apparently influenced by such works as Beowulf.

5. A paraphrased Anglo-Saxon poem as an illustration of the poetry of one people group in Tolkien’s fantasy world.

6. An adapted Shakespearean scene.

7. Intentional imitation of Morris’s prose, style, and approach.

8. Borrowed setting elements such as Mirkwood and the Dead Marshes.

If none of these earned Tolkien the accusation of derivative, what then, qualifies as such? I have some ideas I’ll share next time, but I’m interested in what you think. Thoughts?

Published in: on November 27, 2009 at 1:45 pm  Comments (3)  
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