Tolkien and Howard still The Two Towers of fantasy

Tolkien and Howard still The Two Towers of fantasy

jrr_tolkienNot to beat the subject, like Fingon, to death, but neither writer is trod into the mire by a comparison to the other. The shortest distance between these two towers is the straight line they draw and defend against the dulling of our sense of wonder, the deadening of our sense of loss, and the slow death of imagination denied.

–Steve Tompkins, “The Shortest Distance Between Two Towers”

With my first Black Gate post of 2011 I thought I’d kick off the New Year with one of those big, bold, declarative, prediction type posts. So here it is: J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard are firmly ensconced as the two towers of fantasy, and as the years pass they will not only remain such, but perhaps will never be dethroned.

Although they arguably did not blaze the trail, Tolkien and Howard set the standard for two sub-genres of fantasy — high fantasy and swords and sorcery, respectively — and no one has done either better before or since.

Most, but not everyone, place Tolkien at or near the peak of the fantasy mountain. Tolkien developed a language and mythology that spawned the pre-cataclysmic world of Middle-earth (The Silmarillion), then told a story of its saving from destruction courtesy of the small hands of a hobbit (The Lord of the Rings). It’s a world deeper and more resonant than any other in fantasy and readers and critics alike seem to agree. Magazines like Time have selected The Lord of the Rings as one of the top 100 novels ever written, according to Wikipedia it’s one of the top 10 best-selling books of all time with 150 million copies sold, and the movies upon which it’s based won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Tolkien has made it onto several college syllabi and there are academic journals and numerous critical studies devoted to his works, including Tom Shippey’s par excellence works Author of the Century and The Road to Middle-Earth.

robertehowardHoward, with his lone, strong, swashbuckling heroes (Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, etc.) created the offshoot of fantasy now known as swords-and-sorcery. If Tolkien is the undisputed king of fantasy Howard is a rising challenger, whose name has ascended from near obscurity in the 1940s and 50s to the point where he is now regularly cited by many authors as a seminal influence. Del Rey recently printed all of Howard’s original, unaltered prose, a holy grail for long-time Lancer/Ace readers, which mixed edited Howard with pastiche. Penguin, a publisher long known for its preservation of accepted, “literary” authors, has included him in its “Penguin Modern Classics” imprint. Critical works like The Dark Barbarian and The Barbaric Triumph are probably the best in what, like Tolkien, is a large and growing field of literary criticism sprung up around Howard’s works.

coming-of-conan-the-cimmerianTolkien is a household name, and The Lord of the Rings is an instantly recognizable title even by non-fantasy fans. Howard’s original stories suffer in comparison (ask your average Joe to place The Hour of the Dragon, and your likely response will be. .. ‘Bruce Lee movie ?’) — but mention the name Conan and you’ll get heads ‘a nodding. Howard’s characters have been the subject of several (mostly poor) films, including Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja, Kull, Solomon Kane, and the forthcoming remake/re-envisioning of Conan the Barbarian. His creations have been featured in role playing games, computer games, a line of pastiches, television shows, comic books, and more, a trend that shows no sign of slowing down. Can the same be said for Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser? Even Michael Moorcock’s Elric rates a distant second in popularity.

Some may feel that Tolkien and Howard don’t deserve the appellation “two towers” because they weren’t technically first on the scene. For example, some state that Tolkien wrote in an established tradition, citing works like William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End as a novel that established the conceit of a secondary fantastic world. Others make the claim that Howard was not the first swords and sorcery writer, nor the best. Lord Dunsany’s “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” (1908) was the first swords and sorcery tale ever published, some claim, beating Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom” (1929) to the starting line by some two decades.

lotr-50th-anniversaryBut first does not equal greatest (see Lascaux vs. the Cistine Chapel) and most critics worth their salt would agree. In an introduction to The Ballantine Books Fantasy Masterworks edition of The Well at the World’s End (Vol. 2) , editor Lin Carter makes the claim that The Well, though the first true fantasy novel, blazed a trail but was surpassed by the “mightiest masterwork of them all,” The Lord of the Rings. Morris made the huge initial leap of setting his novel entirely in another fantastic realm; Tolkien’s world includes its own mythology and language and multiple Ages of history. There is no comparison. Tolkien’s imitators are legion and, like it or hate it, nothing in fantasy has been the same since the publication of The Lord of the Rings.

As for whether Howard deserves his place as progenitor of swords and sorcery, Leo Grin of The Cimmerian said it best in a February 2007 article on The Cimmerian blog:

And yet despite its formidable presentation of what are now seen as S&S clichés, admiring readers are hard-pressed to say what wouldn’t exist right now had “Sacnoth” never been written. No new genre label was deemed necessary because of “Sacnoth,” no clamor for similar fare was heard, no groundswell of imitation followed its publication.

Grin puts his finger precisely on why “The Shadow Kingdom” deserves to be recognized as the tale that launched S&S, even if it wasn’t “first,” and it’s also why Tolkien should be recognized as the man most responsible for high fantasy. If Dunsany and Morris provided early rumbles, JRRT and REH were the earthquake.

Meanwhile the man who some claim bettered Howard at his own craft, Fritz Leiber, himself acknowledged that he was writing in REHs shadow. Said Leiber: “The best pulp Sword and Sorcery writer was Robert E. Howard.” I’m going with Fritz on this one. (Other critics claim that all swords and sorcery heroes are alike, but I would answer: If that’s the case, why have Conan and Kull endured and Kothar and Amalric fallen by the wayside? The reason is that REH is a much better writer than Gardner Fox or Lin Carter).

The other question is: Can fantasy readers enjoy the works of these two seemingly diametrically opposed towers? By Valka, yes! I certainly do.

At first glance the works of Howard and Tolkien seem very different, and in some profound ways they are. REH’s writings adhered to the tenets of existentialism. Our destiny is what we make of it. The creator (if there is one) gives us strength and a sword and the will to power; what we do with it is our business. Tolkien meanwhile was a devout Catholic. His fervent belief (though he was afflicted with bouts of doubt) was that there is something greater after death. Individual free will and persuasion from larger forces play equal parts in Tolkien’s universe, and in the end the Shadow is only a small and passing thing: there is light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

Tolkien’s works are concerned with the preservation of knowledge and mourn the loss of ancient, beautiful things. The Elves and Númenóreans of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are concerned with keeping great civilizations protected, even in stasis (though Tolkien, who believed that life on earth is the Long Defeat, knew this was impossible). REH meanwhile famously wrote in “Beyond the Black River” that barbarism was the natural state of mankind. The longer cities remain civilized, the more they drift from their strong beginnings carved out by the sword-arm, and the more corrupt they become. Truly ancient cities like Stygia and Zamora are hives of scum and villainy and the gates are best flung wide for the barbarians.

the-children-of-hurinBut Tolkien and Howard are united in greatness and in their influence. Calling Tolkien and Howard the “two towers” of fantasy does not imply that, like Minas Tirith and Barad-dûr, they are poles in opposition (Minas Morgul and Saruman’s Orthanc are a better comparison). Howard’s letters and stories are at times meditative and nostalgic, while Tolkien wasn’t afraid to indulge in occasional blood and thunder, qualities frequently ascribed to the other. The Children of Hurin for instance is positively Howardian in its scenes of carnage and ruin and fall — witness the fate of the elven city of Nargothrond, for example.

Both were students of history and myth and literature, and it is that ability to incorporate what they read and saw into their own writings that elevate their work above that of their peers. Tolkien was likely the greatest philologist and Anglo-Saxon scholar of his day; Howard was an avid reader of history and his love was historic fiction. He wrote in a 1933 letter to H.P. Lovecraft, “There is no literary work, to me, half as zestful as rewriting history in the guise of fiction … a single paragraph may be packed with action and drama enough to fill a whole volume of fiction.”

In his must-read essay “The Best Introduction to the Mountains,” Gene Wolfe describes the beginning of his love affair with Tolkien. It includes an episode in which he inscribes a quotation inside the back cover of The Return of the King. The source of the quote (“indeed one of the finest things I have ever read,” gushes Wolfe) is Robert E. Howard. It reads

Into the west, unknown of man,
Ships have sailed since the world began.
Read, if you dare, what Skelos wrote,
With dead hands fumbling his silken coat;
And follow the ships through the wind-blown wrack–
Follow the ships that come not back.

“If you remember the end of this last volume, how Frodo rides to the Grey Havens in the long Firth of Lune and boards the white ship, never to be seen again in Middle-earth, you will understand why I chose that particular quotation and why I treasure it (and the book which holds it) even today,” Wolfe writes.

Wolfe etched his quotation some 50-odd years ago and the Aulë -forged link with which he bound together these two seemingly disparate authors is more prescient by the passing day. Tolkien and Howard are united in the genius of their works and their incredible shadow of influence. Both created great, pre-cataclysmic worlds. Both dreamed and breathed life into memorable characters. Both wrote of the clangor of battle, of great victories won, and of eventual loss and defeat. United in greatness, Tolkien and Howard are, to borrow a quote from H. Rider Haggard, “Unshaken on [their] rocky throne above the bleak fjords,” and likely to remain so.

(Despite my earlier declaration that first does not always equal the best, the first and by far the best treatment I’ve ever seen describing the similarities between Tolkien and Howard remains “The Shortest Distance Between Two Towers,” the inspiration for this post. Steve Tompkins is a largely unrecognized genius; you can read his essay in full here, although I note that this is an early draft, which was cleaned up and improved for its appearance, four years later, in the Vol. 3, No. 3 print edition of The Cimmerian).

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Scott Taylor

I in no way enjoy Rowling on any level that approaches these two outstanding writers, but hands down she destroys the Tower of Howard and in most circles can even be argued to slay Tolkien. What Harry Potter did for Fantasy lit will never be repeated again.

C.S.E. Cooney

I actually enjoy Rowling on several levels, but don’t think Harry Potter could have been built if Rowling had not had Tolkien’s shoulders to stand on. If the gentlemen are the Two Towers of Fantasy, she is maybe the Awesome Rocket Ship of Fantasy (tower-sized and tower-shaped in deference to her predecessors) who went up, up and away in a thunderous blaze of glory.


Scott-worship at the twin towers of Rowling and Meyer if you must, but come on, what has she really done for fantasy lit? I’m not talking sales or getting kids to read-WHAT HAS SHE DONE FOR FANTASY LIT? She has not evoked a new genre. Its not the same thing.

John R. Fultz

I think people often get confused and equate “best selling” or “most popular” with BEST. These two are NOT-NOT-NOT the same. The quality of a piece of art–including a piece of fantasy fiction–simply CANNOT be determined by its popularity, its sales figures, or its number of units shifted. I don’t give a rat’s ass how many copies of HARRY POTTER Rowling has sold, she will never, ever equal the towering status that is J.R.R. Tolkien, or approach the iconic greateness of Robert E. Howard. These were two seminal fantasists who literally invented GENRES and set the tone for GENERATIONS of books to follow–including the books of Rowling herself.

I am sure Rowling herself is fully aware of her place as far subordinate to the greatness of Tolkien (as for Howard, she’s probably aware of him too). When people try to compare Rowling to Tolkien, they are making the same mistake as comparing the latest boy-band sensation with The BEATLES. In effect, there IS NO COMPARISON. Sure, millions of kids may love Harry Potter more than Lord of the Rings, but that’s NOT what determines the worth of these two books. (Unless you are an accountant or a publisher looking at sales figures.)

LORD OF THE RINGS and THE SILMARILLION are iconic monoliths of modern fantasy–the Rosetta Stones of High Fantasy. Every fantasy that has come after (including Potter and all its ilk) are derivatives of these two books. Similarly, every fantasy-adventure or sword-and-sorcery story/novel that has been written since the genre’s invention by Howard has been a derivative of Howard’s work. That’s not to say there haven’t been some utterly brilliant derivatives! Moorcock’s ELRIC, Lee’s FLAT EARTH, Lieber’s FAFHRD AND GRAY MOUSER, these are a few examples of post-Howard masterworks. Likewise, Donaldson’s THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENENT THE UNBELIEVER, Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, Bakker’s PRINCE OF NOTHING (and many, many more) are examples of post-Tolkien masterworks. (And far more writers have stolen from Tolkien than have stolen from Howard, all things considered.)

Comparing Rowling to Tolkien is like comparing Stephen King to Shakespeare. Who is the greater author? The question is as ridiculous as “What is the weight of the sky?” In other words, it’s no comparison at all.

Sales figures do not equal literary greatness. Not even in a commerically driven field like fantasy adventure.

Simply READING Tolkien and Howard will provide evidence of their literary superiority. It shouldn’t even have to be argued. ‘Nuff said.

Scott Taylor

David: I never said I worshipped Rowling, far from it, and if you read my post you’d see that clearly, and yet I find it funny that you would cast aside ‘getting kids to read’ in such a way. In my opinion, there is no greater gift an author can give a tired genre. She may not have evoked a new genre, but she returned it to relevance and you are short sighted if you don’t understand that.

John: Yep, you’re a teacher in California all right. *eye roll* Sales figures indicate readers, readers indicate education in a genre, education in a genre allows young people an entry point to actually READ Tolkien and Howard and find evidence of their literary superiority. For that reason alone she dashes Howard’s ‘Tower’ to bits, or should I say treads the jeweled thrones of Howard under her sandalled feet. ‘Nuff said.

John R. Fultz

Hey, Scott: I think you missed the whole point of my post. First, COMMERICAL SUCCESS IS NOT AN INDICATION OF SUPERIORITY. There was a time when the Pet Rock made someone millions of dollars–still not a better product than a personal computer. Every year tons of bad music makes the top of the charts…doesn’t make ANY of it good music. Just because something SELLS is no indication of inherint greatness–especially when it comes to literature.

Secondly, your example just doesn’t ring true. As a proud teacher, I know a LOT of kids who read and have read the HARRY POTTER books. Those kids are NOT discovering Robert E. Howard–or even Tolkien–from the Potter books. Most of them aren’t reading them because they have a hunger for fantasy (notice I said MOST of them), but because they are POPULAR and ENGAGING to that age level. Harry Potter’s entire story is a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of growing up–they are so successful not because they are fantasy, but because THEY SPEAK TO THE YOUNG ADULT READER. Likewise, they speak to the eternal child inside a lot of adults. But the majority of Potter fans are kids.

If you like Rowling better than Howard, then go and be happy with it. But saying anything along the lines of “Rowling is better than Howard,” is nothing more than a personal opinion. I might call it a “foolish opinion,” but THAT would be MY personal opinion.

In the end, ALL art is a subjective experience. One man’s Harry Potter is another man’s HAMLET. Hell, some people would rather read a cereal box than any book every written. There’s no accounting for taste.

One more thing: Readers don’t need an “entry point” to Howard or Tolkien. They are their OWN entry points.

You may read your Rowling and revel in it; I’ll stick to my Howard, Tolkien, and assorted other faves.

Commerical Success Does Not Equal Artistic Greatness. In fact, it often means the opposite–appealing to the masses usually means reaching the lowest common denominator.

Art = Subjective

Matthew David Surridge

Scott — I’m not sure I grasp your post directly above. In your comment to John, I think I’m losing the thread at “readers indicate education in a genre,” and possibly at “education in a genre allows young people an entry point.” Do you mean that people reading Rowling are therefore educated in the fantasy genre? Or that they’ve been initiated into fantasy? Neither seems necessarily true to me — I’m sure a lot of her readers read Rowling and no further, or no further in fantasy — but I don’t know if I’ve grasped what you’re driving at.

In your comment to Scott … do you think pre-Rowling fantasy was tired? If so, wouldn’t just getting people to read it mean nothing? That is, wouldn’t they just read the genre, see that it’s tired, and move on? The implication would seem to be that Rowling had something else going on in her work. Although, again, I may not grasp here what you mean by “tired.” Tired creatively, or tired in terms of sales, or something else?

For what it’s worth, it seems to me that Brian’s talking about the influence Tolkien and Howard have had on later writers, as well as their own quality as authors; and it also seems to me to be simply too early to judge what kind of influence Rowling’s going to have. Presumably some of her readers will become writers, and perhaps in a couple of generations we’ll be able to look back and see a certain kind of fantasy genre came to full flowering in Rowling’s work and influenced a ton of later authors. Personally, I doubt that’ll happen, but if I’m reading Brian’s post right, that’s what it’d take for her to be considered a tower of equal or greater significance to Tolkien and Howard.

Brian, in terms of your original post, I think I agree with you up to a point. I’m certainly in the pro-Tolkien camp; I think LOTR is one of the greatest books of the 20th century, full stop. Howard I have really come to appreciate in later years as well. I do wonder, though, whether Scott makes a good point about there possibly being other towers.

That is, Tolkien did what he did, and other writers have followed him; Howard did what he did, and had other writers follow his lead as well. Could we say that there’s another figure or figures who did the same? Are Moorcock’s multiversal fantasies enough to establish him as an equally towering figure? Certainly he’s inspired a number of other writers. Is his metatextual, perhaps modernist or postmodernist, approach one that may have had a towering influence? I don’t know; I just want to raise the question.

With respect to the question of who wrote secondary-world fantasies first … well, I had a series of posts here not long ago arguing that Sara Coleridge wrote a secondary-world fantasy decades before William Morris. But I think that to an extent this is reading history backwards. We know what Tolkien and Howard did, so we look for predecessors and influences; it may make more sense to simply say that there were a number of people writing similar fantasies before them or at the same time — Coleridge, Morris, MacDonald, Dunsany, Mirrlees, E.R. Eddison — but that Tolkien and Howard stand out among their peers.

I remember reading a British newspaper article once which observed that Shakespeare and the Beatles both came out of a community of similar artists, a scene of people working in similar forms (Elizabethan plays, 60s pop), but that they both went beyond what anyone else was doing at the time, and made that form something new and stronger, capable of doing more than anyone else had imagined. That certainly seems to describe Tolkien’s achievement, and at least in some ways Howard’s as well. And I guess it brings me back to my question: is there anyone else who could be seen in the same light? Again, I wonder about Moorcock. Maybe Alan Moore, in a different kind of fantasy form?

Scott Taylor

Brian: Agreed, we can’t see the lasting impact of Rowling today, and it very well might not stand the test of time, who can say.

However, I guess what I questioned was you saying Tolkien and Howard were the Two Towers of Fantasy, then just below saying they ‘set the standard for two sub-genres of fantasy’. Well, I’m not sure who wouldn’t agree with that, but does that really make them ‘The Two Towers of Fantasy’, because that statement doesn’t define only two sub-genres, but the whole. In that case wouldn’t Rowling be a Third Tower of Fantasy where YA Fantasy is concerned? Doesn’t she dwarf any other YA fantasy writer, including C.S. Lewis, Llyod Alexander, and countless others? This IS Fantasy right, I mean you seem to say it as a whole before back-tracking.

Seriously, I’m not on a Rowling bandwagon, but I give respect where respect is due and she killed YA Fantasy, period.

Austarnet defines the Top 100 Fantasy books of all time as of Jan 2011 with Tolkien’s LOTR #1, Rowlings HP #2, and Tolkien’s Hobbit #3 and Howard doesn’t even make the list. And it takes into account ALL fantasy, just take a look.

Anyway, in closing, I read endlessly, but the only authors that sit on my desk EVER are Leiber, Tolkien, and Howard, so I ‘get’ what you’re saying, but logically I can’t agree. Fantasy is far too broad to have only Two Towers for the whole thing, which in turn makes these two authors seem more important than they might otherwise be.

Anyway, I love the article, and anyone who seems to enjoy Tolkien and Howard as much as I do.


when I read about the next tv series about A song of ice and fire I meet thoughts like a saga for many people superior to The lord of the rings by Tolkien, more of a new tower could be George RR Martin than JK Rowling, by the way I don’t see HP as fantasy for me is literature for children with little interest for me

Rowling actually did little for fantasy literature. Somewhere between books 2 and 4 she denied even writing it, and if I’d the time I would search for the quote for you. What she did do was a hell of a lot for reading and for fantasy movies.

I may have only a small sampling from which to draw but I do have in excess of 20 kids/young adults, including extended family and my own daughters, from which I have repeatedly learned JKR contributed to the pursuit of further fantasy reading not a whit. I cannot produce even one reader, young or adult, whose current fantasy readings can be traced back to having read one let alone all seven HPs. Perhaps I can prove the opposite, as I can produce readers, young and old, who were reading fantasy before she came along who yet remain free of HP’s influence, and I can produce readers who gave up on reading her and forged their own fantasy reading trail. I have bewailed this — in my eyes dilemma — numerous times over the last few years vocally and online, essentially to no avail. JKR & HP was a massive yet singular event that probably will not ever be repeated – but a tower of fantasy literature? I greatly disagree.

As for the 2 towers written of here, while respectively towers of high fantasy and S&S and not steampunk or realism or paranormal or urban or a half dozen other subgenres that haven’t existed all that long, JRRT and REH do remain as THE towering fathers of fantasy that, for lack of a better term, is heroic. JKR shatter either one of them? The only standard by which that is passably true is commercially, and she did so most emphatically and most encouragingly of all, during her lifetime.

Outside of money, there is no merit comparing JKR to either author within any fantasy criteria. And without that fantasy criteria, she should no longer be part of this conversation. Citing a “Top Anything” poll based upon a public vote will only garner results most current in everyone’s entertainment memories. It takes until position 7 (David Eddings) before an author not currently absorbing media attention with active or new releases or movies to appear – and any list that includes Christopher Paolini in spitting distance of the Top 10 is immediately farce.

I find much to like in Brian’s article and much to dispute in the comments, but I haven’t any more time. All day long this post and commentary kindled within me, and I went back and forth on adding to it at all. Judged strictly on the merits and contributions of their writings to the broad genre of Fantasy, there are many Towers. That said, ain’t none of them as tall, as formidable, or as stable as those of JRRT and REH.

Matthew David Surridge

Brian, with respect to Moorcock as a tower of fantasy — I wouldn’t necessarily say that it was for the Elric stories, or the Corum stories, or the Hawkmoon stories, but rather for how all those stories were made to fit together with each other and then with the Cronelius books, the Von Bek books, the Blood trilogy, and all Moorcock’s other work (it’s exhausting even to think about). Specifically, I think Moorcock not only tied each to each, but made each comment on each. I think he brought new structural ideas to fantasy.

I suppose what I’m suggesting is that if Tolkien defined epic fantasy, and Howard sword and sorcery, then Moorcock defined modernist fantasy. You could say ‘literary fantasy,’ but that’s a very vexed term; basically, I think if Tolkien wrote the fantasy equivalent of the great traditional 19th-century novel, Moorcock’s written the equivalent of modernist and post-modernist lit.

I think as a writer and editor, his approach has had a massive influence, particularly on British writers — people like Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, and so on. And for that matter I wonder if the tonal difference between D&D and Warhammer (and the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks) isn’t the fact that more of Moorcock’s influence can be seen in the latter, along with Tolkien and Howard … not to say it’s not there in D&D as well, but more strongly in the latter games.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x