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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  1. Very interesting! Of course, all writers are a product of their times, including (gasp) Tolkien. He was influenced by what he saw: inspired by some things, turned off by others.

    The quote of distaste for Celtic myth is given here in a little more completeness:

    “Needless to say they {the names in The Silmarillion} are not Celtic! Neither are the tales: I do know Celtic things (many in their original languages Irish and Welsh), and I feel for them a ceratin distaste: largely for their fundamental unreason. They have bright colour, but are like a broken stained glass window reassembled without design. They are in fact ‘mad’ as your reader says – but I don’t believe I am…”

    I found this here:

    which is a very fascinating thread with lots of arguments on both sides regarding the influences on Tolkien, including quite a bit of discussion about Wagner.

    But I must say that even if Tolkien had a distaste for Celtic myth, he:

    (a) was taking other things from the soup-pot that had been influenced by Celtic myth (like the Ents, done up better than MacBeth, but MacBeth got it from the Celtic “Battle of the Trees”, etc.)

    (b) liked the Welsh language (the Celtic language of Wales), and partially based Noldorin and Sindarin (Elvish) upon it. Here is a quote:

    “… changes have been deliberately devised to give [Sindarin] a linguistic character very like (though not identical with) British-Welsh: because that character is one that I find, in some linguistic moods, very attractive; and because it seems to fit the rather ‘Celtic’ type of legends and stories told of its speakers…”

    (More here on the influence of different languages, including the Celtic ones, upon Tolkien’s works: )

    Anyway, Tolkien might have not liked the illogic of many of the Celtic myths, but that doesn’t mean he was entirely un-influenced by them. Lots to think about.


  2. Tolkien says somewhere (Can’t say where because I’ve lost the book! Gah!) that he was in a sense writing a mythology for England. This is perhaps why his works so influenced so much by Anglo-Saxon, Finnish, Norse, and even Celtic works. All these had an impact on English culture. Almost all eight of the things you mention are either culture universals or distinctly English items. All are Western, and all Western culture has had an influence on England.

    Encarta Dictionary: English


    1. Copied from somewhere and not original.
    2. An idea, language, term, or other thing that has developed from something else that is similar to it.
    For class 1, think of books that have clearly borrowed from another book. Eragon (debatable) boast several characters that have been practically ripped from Lord of the Rings and re-named.

    For class 2, think of legend and myth, and their effect on a story. It is rather clear that most of Tolkien’s “derived” items are class 2 items. Ideas that have developed from, but not copied, another idea. Such is the case, for example, of the monsters influenced by Beowulf.

    Authors who wish to have books criticized or obsessed over should write a class 1 story. Authors who simply want to write a story should avoid a class 1 story. Also, class 2 items are often appreciated for having the value of giving us a new perspective on an old thing.



  3. […] is a work considered “derivative”? I’ve asked that question before in a short two-part series of posts, and yet the topic came up again in my article yesterday at Spec Faith. Consequently, as I […]


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