Do any of us have a truly original idea when it comes to writing? Does it even matter much if we don’t?
I have been asking myself this question for a while now as I recently started to analyse my literary influences and began to draw parallels with books I have loved. Then last week it hit me like a ten ton truck where my main inspiration had probably come from and I hadn’t even properly realised it.
The truth is I have recently rediscovered the amazing epic The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien. This happened just the other day when my 5-year-old nephew saw the DVDs on my book (and DVD) shelf and asked to watch one. This was simply because he has seen adverts on the TV for Lord Of The Rings Lego. Not because he has read the books! Such is the power of advertising on the young. And so we settled down one Sunday afternoon and watched The Fellowship of the Ring. (Well actually we watched half of it. He is five. His attention span will not stretch yet, if ever, to nearly 3 and a half hours.)
Anyhow, re-watching this epic for the first time in a few years (and afterwards secretly watching the DVD extras!) I suddenly realised what an influence these books and films had on my own book. Not consciously. I am not entirely sure I actually write anything consciously. I certainly do not have ideas whilst actively thinking!
But so many parallels sprang to mind as I sat and watched it, I realised I have a real love of the story and an admiration of an author who so meticulously created a whole world, a whole history and a whole language just from his imagination.
Now by sheer coincidence, I grew up in the same place as Tolkien, (rather than being some long-lost relative of his!) although of course the landscape Tolkien grew up in during the 1890’s would have been very different to the landscape I found myself in during the 1980’s. Tolkien grew up in what was then the village of Sarehole, in Warwickshire, England. At that time Sarehole had not been swallowed up by the sprawl of the expanding suburbs of the city of Birmingham and it is Sarehole which is thought to have been Tolkien’s inspiration for Hobbiton.
My school playing fields were actually directly opposite Sarehole Mill which lies not far from the house where Tolkien lived as a child. Little did I know, as I was taken by bus weekly to the torture chamber, (Physical education – especially in the wet and cold – was never my favourite subject at school) that I was walking, quite literally, in Tolkien’s footsteps. Sarehole, as it was, has now been swallowed up and is part of another busy suburb of Britain’s second city and would be unrecognisable to Tolkien. One unspoiled place though is Moseley Bog. I used to pass by Moseley Bog (thought to be the influence for the old forest on the outskirts of The Shire where the hobbits meet Tom Bombadil in Book 1) frequently, as I lived just down the road from there during my childhood. But it wasn’t until the films came out when I was 26 years old that I was even aware of the fact I lived and grew up in the same places Tolkien had stepped. I certainly had no idea that the area I grew up in had influenced so much of the setting and some of the ideas in one of the greatest fantasy epics ever written.
This is, of course, all completely incidental and coincidental and has nothing to do with how the stories have influenced my writing. But there are many parallels between my work (in progress) and Tolkien’s aside from the genre of fantasy adventure. Parallels which I did not consciously intend when I started writing.
Firstly my story, Prophecy of Innocence, begins at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Trees are being torn up to make way for railways and canals and human progress. As I watched the trees being wrenched out of the ground at Isengard under Saruman’s orders in The Lord of The Rings, I couldn’t help but see the parallel. Tolkien himself is cited as saying the Industrialisation of England was influential to this part of his story. Perhaps growing up in the same place, the heavily industrialised city of Birmingham, albeit one hundred years apart, sowed an inevitable seed there would be a common historical theme.
In my story I have elflings as my main characters. This was not my original intention, but I needed some form of being which had some human characteristics to live beneath the ground but have lifestyles and values in complete contrast to that of the worst part of human beings. I didn’t want elves. Elves have been done. By Tolkien and others. But I preferred them to the idea of fairies (too female gender biased I thought) and dwarves are, in mythological terms and in Tolkien’s world, too materialistic and warrior like. So, as my particular brand of elves are as small as a human thumb, I named them elflings. I suppose a little like a small tree is called a sapling. Nevertheless my elflings are peaceful, serene beings who, like Tolkien’s elves have the power to be immortal, although mine choose not to be.
Like in Tolkien’s story, all that comes to pass in Prophecy of Innocence is the result of something happening in the long forgotten mists of time. There is a sense of history in my book as I studied history for my undergraduate degree and it has always been my favourite subject. The past is interesting to me in that it has shaped what is happening now. So it is hardly surprising that this is one of the main themes running through Prophecy of Innocence: that is how actions have far-reaching effects through history. My story is historical and ancient in many ways, just as The Lord of The Rings is. Tolkien based the Rohirrim and the people of Rohan very much on Anglo-Saxon lines. I see my elflings as a race who are very Anglo-Saxon/ medieval or even Celtic in dress and manner although their history goes back further than any of these times. They have an ancient history and folklore despite living in the industrial 18th century. Progress above the ground has not touched them as it has humans.
Of course another main parallel is the fact that my story is essentially a quest story. A quest for the elflings to find the Innocents of which their ancient Prophecy speaks. In my story, the elflings, like the men, hobbits, elves and dwarves in The Lord Of The Rings also have to fight to defend their homeland and they have to go on a journey. As at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, the main group of characters in my book are also forced to split up into different groups and their separate endeavors have to work to a common outcome. The action in my book swaps between different groups of elflings and different places just as it swaps between different groups of characters and settings in The Lord of the Rings.
Another minor parallel is that there is an object at the centre of each story. A ring of power in Tolkien’s case and a casket containing The Prophecy in mine. Both of which are shrouded in ancient legend and mystery.
Finally, now I have begun work on book two, I have already noticed yet another similarity. Again it is completely unintentional, nevertheless comparisons are bound to be made. The second of the books is subtitled Two Tribes. (I could go the whole hog and call it The Two Tribes but that is not right for the book.) The similarity here is not just in its name as the overall plot of Book 2 has far more in common with the Two Towers than its mere title. In The Two Towers we see the huge battle at Helm’s Deep between Saruman’s army and the Peoples of Middle Earth taking place. And so it is with Prophecy of Innocence: Two Tribes. The second book is where everything becomes much darker, much more sinister, than the first and heralds the dawning of a darker era for the elflings, where they have no choice but to fight a war.
So is Prophecy of Innocence a complete rip off of Lord of the Rings? No! Not at all. But inevitably when you write there are influences which subtly find their way into your work without you even realising it. When I read the Harry Potter books I thought J.K Rowling must have been influenced by Tolkien’s stories too. Either that or she simply had the exact same cultural, historical and literacy influences to him
Furthermore, my writing is very different to Tolkien’s in style. I do not spend pages and pages describing settings for a start. Children these days do not have the patience for it! Furthermore, I would not know where to start creating a language from scratch and, unlike Tolkien, I have simply created a sub-world or under-world to our own rather than a completely new world of my own. Perhaps this has more in common with Rowling than Tolkien, who of course I have been influenced by too, but I would say more with the style of my writing than the story itself.
Do any of us who write ever have a truly original idea for stories or do we simply write our own versions of the stories we love? Even Tolkien drew his influences from Anglo-Saxon literature such as that of Beowulf, so perhaps it is a completely natural process to take ideas from those things which have held your attention in the past. After all it gives you the opportunity to immerse yourself totally in something which you love and recreate something in a new form for the next generation. To me, this can be no bad thing. I already know that some of the ideas I have for plots for the final 2 books in my trilogy will naturally draw more parallels, with not only Tolkien’s work, but with others already mentioned in my previous blog post “To Write one must Read?”. There is plenty enough about my story however which is original. I have simply paid homage to some of the elements which have infiltrated my cultural subconscious over the years. As I believe we all do during the creative process.
No one would ever hold up Tolkien’s work as unoriginal. I hope my work never will be either but instead that it will find its own place in literary history.
Thanks for reading.