J. R. R. Tolkien is unquestionably the most influential figure in high fantasy, and I think it is not unreasonable to say that he and C.S. Lewis were the originators of the subgenre. The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings were both published during the mid-1950s. Earlier in their respective literary careers, Hobbit was published in 1937 and Perelandra in 1938, the former was not yet the fully-developed high fantasy of Lord of the Rings and the latter would be better described as science fiction. Tolkien and Lewis were good friends, of course, and often discussed their writings with each other.
The roots of Tolkien’s works lie primarily in medieval writings, especially Anglo-Saxon poetry and Norse epics like Beowulf and the Volsung Saga. Influences from farther afield, including the Finnish national epic the Kalevala, show up from time to time in his writings as well. Tolkien was, of course, a professor of Anglo-Saxon (and later of English language & literature) at Oxford, and was interested in poetry and languages since at least his late teenage years. In addition to being one of the all-time best selling authors in human history, he was an accomplished linguist, literary critic, and translator. The Book of Jonah in the Jerusalem Bible was translated by Tolkien, he made a complete translation of Beowulf as well as a highly influential lecture on it entitled Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, he did etymologies of Germanic W words for the Oxford English Dictionary, he wrote a vocabulary of Middle English, and he published translations of three Middle English poems: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. One particularly interesting aspect of Tolkien’s writings, from a meta-literary perspective is that they are framed as a collection of writings which he discovered and translated from Elvish (Silmarillion and related works) and the Common Tongue of Middle Earth (the Red Book of Westmarch, written by Bilbo and Frodo– the former of whom translated some Elvish source material for use in the book). Truly an irrepressible enthusiasm for philology. Also, if you read Lord of the Rings out loud to yourself, you will find many examples where Tolkien wrote sentences that pretty much could have been lines of alliterative verse, the style of Old and Middle English that many poems were written in, including Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo.
Tolkien believed the world suffered from disenchantment: that along with the modernization of the Industrial and Victorian eras had come a reduced sense of wonder at the world, and a diminished willingness to believe in the fantastic and the terrible. In his essay, On Fairy-Stories (seriously, read it, it’s great), he explained his views on faery-stories and the importance of fantasy and mythology. He felt that they had been tamed, that the connotation of “fairy” (he often used the spelling “Faery” or “Faerie”–the spelling was important to him, as a discriminating philologist) had become domesticated and defanged, something you would meet in your garden rather than a dark forest, something adorable rather than something which should make you tremble. He felt that such stories described the world on a spiritual plane in a way that mundane stories about the real world could not. (more…)