I can’t count the number of times someone has said something to me like, “You’d like Dungeons and Dragons because it has elves like Tolkien,” or, “You’d like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies because they have sword fights like Tolkien.” The list of things I apparently “should” like because they are superficially like The Lord of the Rings is never-ending and ranges from Eragon to A Game of Thrones—but this argument is predicated on the very flawed assumption that what I like about Tolkien’s is work is simply that it is high fantasy, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Of course, I do like stories with magic and action, but The Lord of the Rings is not my favorite book because it has wizards and knights. When people suggest this, assume it as obvious, I die a little inside—and begin to seriously question whether they have any understanding of art at all. What makes a particular book unique and compelling and memorable is not generalities like the type of characters or the setting or the genre bur rather the heart and messages of the story, the things that it’s trying to say. And to assume that someone likes every fantasy story because they particularly like one fantasy story is to fundamentally miss that point.
There are many things I like about The Lord of the Rings, including the language and the sense of history and, yes, the setting and magic. But I reread it again and again because the heart of the story speaks to me: the fight between good and evil, the sense that a higher power is guiding events even when everything is bleak, the message that everyone’s choices matter and can make a difference, the idea that everyone from Boromir to Gollum deserves a chance at redemption. The Lord of the Rings believes in things, presents a certain worldview, and that worldview resonates me. The same cannot be said of every fantasy story.
His Dark Materials, for instance, is a story that believes in the exact opposite, that there is no higher power, that half the things you believe in that give you hope are a lie. I find this depressing and dark, and I don’t much like the book as a result. A Game of Thrones is dark in a different way, filled with backstabbing and killing and sordid acts, and I’m not sure it believes in much as a worldview either. The focus seems to be on the characters and the plot. Both books are interesting enough, but I certainly don’t like them merely because they are fantasy and have some exciting fight scenes. I read them, and I moved on with my life; they do not resonate with me.
I like fantasy generally as a genre, yes, but I also like contemporary novels and mystery novels and historical fiction novels and so much more. What makes a book compelling is not the surface trappings of the genre but what it ultimately says, what it reveals about humanity or our world or other important questions. So, please, stop suggesting I will like books and movies and board games just because they have ogres or elves!
If You Like This: Also read my post on adapting classics.