This post has been inspired by a series of rants between two YouTube users a few years back. One argued in favour and the other against, that Tolkien is an author of dark fantasy.
I guess it’s one of those things where no definite answer exists, but rather it is up to anyone to interpret it the way they view Tolkien’s works.
Hopefully I’ll try and reason out how I feel about this statement. But first of all … what is Dark Fantasy?
It is difficult to pin-point exactly what the term actually means. Some refer to it as a combination of fantasy and horror (thus combining dark, gloomy and atmospheric elements to the story). Others lean more towards the anti-heroic motives of certain protagonists.
Personally, I don’t feel that Tolkien is a dark fantasy author overall, however, there are a few elements in his stories that might place it on the borders of this sub-genre.
If we were to take the second definition, then if you want a proper dark fantasy read, I strongly suggest you go through George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series, dealing with a whole range of issues: political rivalries, back-stabbings, struggles for power and pretty much everything a human being can think of doing.
Though, admittedly, I’ve only read the first book, it is interesting to see the way in which characters interact with each other and how none of the protagonists are portrayed as wholly good or downright evil, in their quest to gain what they want.
Contrary to this, Tolkien’s world is inhabited by characters with clear values and goals: the good and bad sides are strongly contrasted – with the exception of a few, here and there (namely Gollum).
There’s a very interesting article by Anne Hobson on the question of whether Martin is the new American Tolkien. Being a thoroughly fascinating read, clearly delineating the similarities and the contrasts between the two authors, I’m not so sure that Hobson’s statement on the “American Tolkien” is an accurate one (… but that’s for another post).
Nonetheless, I suggest you give it a look as it is still very insightful:
Back to the issue of dark fantasy, we’ve already argued about the “uncertainness” and not-so-clear motives behind the characters’ actions. With Tolkien, both in ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’, it is clear that this “dark” element is not really present within the stories. However, it all depends on the way you interpret the definition of “dark fantasy”.
Sure, there are some pretty dark moments in both novels, and our characters must make some seriously difficult decisions to get through things, but as already stated, the ingredients that make up a proper “dark fantasy” are few and far between. The only character that really shines out from the rest, as a typical protagonist of this sub-genre, would be Gollum.
The evolution of the Sméagol/Gollum relationship with that of the hobbits is a very interesting one. Here you have this character who shifts between evil intent and benevolence. His split-personality skips between borderline-psychotic and the good-willed spirit of a hobbit he once was.
Although Tolkien occasionally gives us glimpses into this creature’s own thoughts, this is kept to a bare minimum. You never know what is behind all his actions and whether his motives are true or not is put into question.
So, even though ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ may contain a few glimpses of the “dark element” (places such as the Misty Mountains or Mordor itself are stiff with descriptions of horror and the sinister aspect of such locations), it is still doubtful. However, considering the overall tone of both novels, it would not be right, in my opinion, to classify them as being entirely “dark fantasy” – but rather as High Fantasy (a sub-genre relating a story within a fictitious world encompassing epic proportions).
‘The Silmarillion’ however is another story all together ….
**I’ll continue this discussion in another post, but in the meantime, feel free to post your comments here!**
(Copyright to the Tolkien Illustrations shown here belongs to Ted Nasmith)