Happy 121st Birthday, J.R.R. Tolkien: Star Wars, Harry Potter and More Reasons to Thank The Hobbit Creator

Geeks of all stripes owe more to him than they may think

By Leslie Gornstein Jan 03, 2013 11:02 PMTags
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My wife is telling me that without J.R.R. Tolkien we wouldn't have Star Wars or Warcraft or a dozen other things in pop culture. Is she right or wrong?
—Tara, Connecticut, via Facebook

I am assuming that the late Tolkien's twelvety-first birthday spurred this geektastic conversation. Here's what I can tell you: If you have a level 90 elven mage kicking about in Pandaria, or a Star Wars box set, or even a collection of corsets that you wear only to renaissance faires, you have Tolkien to thank. And I have proof.

How do I know? Because J.R.R. Tolkien scholars say so—folk like Corey Olsen, author of Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. (If you think being a Shakespearean prof is tough, try memorizing The Silmarillion.)

Olsen thinks there are at least five big pop culture phenomena that would not have been the same if the great fantasy author had never been born. For example:

Harry Potter. Unless you chalk up Professor Dumbledore's resemblance to Gandalf as just a coinky-dink. "Like Gandalf, Dumbledore is marked prominently by his humility, and his choice not to use his power for the domination of others," Olsen explains. "Dumbledore's attention to and care for people who are rarely noticed or respected by wizarding society as a whole—house elves, squibs, benevolent werewolves—is also extremely Gandalf-like."

Yep, Star Wars. George Lucas has credited the Lord of the Rings saga as one of his influences. Small nods include place names such as planet Endor, which is an elvish word for Middle-earth. But overall, we're looking at a more subtle relationship between womp rats and goblins: "The influence is more indirect," Olsen posits. "But certainly one could argue that the mythic depiction of the struggle between good and evil that Star Wars showcases has a lot in common with Tolkien."

Game of Thrones. Winter is coming! And it's all thanks to Tolkien! "[GoT creator] George R.R. Martin makes the deliberate choice to make his fantasy world harsher and uglier than Tolkien's world, but Martin is admittedly following in Tolkien's footsteps when it comes to world-building, or to use Tolkien's term, subcreation.' 

"The intricacy with which Martin has realized the world of his stories is the core of their appeal, and that is straight from Tolkien."

Also: Dragons. Tolkien did not invent them, but he did bring them into the popular consciousness.

World of Warcraft. Admit it. You secretly play an elf priestess who looks a leeeeetle like Galadriel, or maybe Arwen. "I would expand that connection, actually, to the entire role-playing concept," Olsen tells me. "Dungeons and Dragons, in the first edition, was openly and unashamedly derivative of Tolkien." Indeed: D&D has treants; Tolkien gave us ents. Tolkien brought us wargs and hobbits, while D&D offers the chance to play a worg or halfling. Or an elf, of course.

"The drive to invent a world and characters to people it and live out a story is another manifestation of that ‘subcreative' impulse that Tolkien both satisfies and inspires," Olsen says.

And did I mention renaissance faires? Let me do so again. "I think that the popularity of medieval stuff in modern culture is mostly due to Tolkien's influence," Olsen says.