By Kyle B. Stiff
Did you know that one of the most beloved writers of fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien, was also an avid writer of post-apocalyptic fiction? It sounds unbelievable, and yet it’s so true that any argument against it would have to throw out all reason and common sense to even begin a debate.
Am I totally wrong about this? Tolkien wrote about elves with swords fighting wolves and giant spiders, not about dudes in patched-up clothes syphoning gasoline out of old junk cars. And that’s the difference between fantasy and post-apocalyptic sci-fi… right?
Think about it like this. Don’t most post-apocalyptic stories feature ruined cities filled with mutated scavengers, dwindling food supplies carefully rationed out in a parched wasteland, and misunderstood technology from a bygone era? Well genre enthusiasts, you’re in luck, because that’s what Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is all about. You want ruined cities? Moria! You want mutated scavengers? They’re called orcs, and they’re not above eating man-flesh. Dwindling food supplies and a parched wasteland? Try lembas wrapped in leaves doled out in the land of Mordor. And misunderstood technology from the past abounds in Middle-Earth, where we have the palantirs, which were ancient long-range communication systems, and the rings of power, which were advanced mind-control machines (among other things), and the legendary silmarils, which were so amazing that they defy description.
And if you’re a fan of Fallout, then the hobbits are kind of like sheltered vault dwellers who go into the wasteland (or “the wild” as Tolkien calls it) and learn about the real world so they can bring back knowledge to save their people.
Even if you strip the outer garments, the post-apocalyptic genre is all about how humans could easily destroy themselves and their world because of their pride, their general stupidity, or their unwise use of advanced technologies. We have all of these things in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, where people grapple with the question of whether or not to use the rings or the palantir or the silmarils. Eventually the world is loosely governed by a few elven outposts and wise wizards. People lose faith in humanity until Aragorn, or Strider, the wandering Mad Max of the green wasteland, gets his shit together and proves that humans have the nobility and wisdom required to rule the world without destroying it.
I was struck by the post-apocalyptic feel of Tolkien while reading The Silmarillion. It starts out amazingly slow, with everyone having a good time and making things and eating in super-nice feasts or even just singing and exploring a mostly-empty world. I won’t give away any spoilers, but some bad things happen. One of the most sedate stories ever written becomes and incredible ball-smashing atrocity. Brothers turn against brothers and a few outposts of civilization are cut off from one another by hideous, mutated monstrosities who don’t give a shit about tomorrow. There’s a palpable sense that the world is dying and the gods won’t lift a finger to stop the madness.
So the next time you’re watching The Lord of the Rings or one of the new Hobbit movies, remember that you can’t relax and neatly classify any of that stuff as “fantasy” or even get fancy and call it “high fantasy” or anything like that. Instead, scoot your ass to the edge of your seat, because sometimes the stuff that creates entire genres is itself difficult to classify. Not only is Tolkien the mother of modern fantasy, he was also writing about Hunger Games before there was a Hunger Games!
Not to beat a dead horse, but did you know that mankind’s oldest recorded story, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is also a post-apocalyptic tale? Civilization had just barely gotten off the ground, and somebody decided it was time to make a story about the incredible destruction of civilization itself. They wrote about the deluge before the writers of the Old Testament did!
In fact, I heard a theory not too long ago, and it was that we aren’t looking to the future when we dream about the end of the world. According to this theory, we’re remembering our first trauma, an event that destroyed our world and forced us to live in a nightmare. We rebuilt the world but something in us was crushed by the trial, and we’ve been like walking wounded ever since. Of course, I’m talking about…
The fall of Atlantis!
Hey readers! If you liked this post, you should check out some of my books. I’ve got an epic series called Demonworld, which is equal parts Mad Max and Lord of the Rings (think “science fantasy”), and a much-loved gamebook series called Heavy Metal Thunder which is currently a hyperlinked Kindle book but will be a fancy phone app any day now.