Getting fantasy out of the Dark Ages

World of Warcraft

It’s no secret to anyone who knows my tastes that I love fantasy. Even my taste in science-fiction serves that point, with “Star Wars” honestly having more in common with fantasy than sci-fi where it matters. And yes, like many others, J.R.R. Tolkien stoked that love at a young age for me with “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” Tolkien is one of my favorite writers and will always be one of them, his command of language alone being enough to hold that place in my heart. 

With all the context out of the way, time to upset some folks with this opinion: Stop asking for all fantasy to be like Tolkien.

When the “World of Warcraft” film came out, aptly named “Warcraft,” I was expecting some harsh criticism, and having watched the movie, I can attest to it being rough in a good number of places. I was shocked and frankly confused when the bulk of the criticism boiled down to, or was sadly word for word, “its nothing like ‘Lord of the Rings.’” Comparing “Warcraft” or even the larger universe that is in “World of Warcraft” to “Lord of the Rings” is absurd on a plethora of fronts, but probably not any of these critics and many who think like them would realize.

I think it’s important to note before listing why such comparisons are wrong is that they are quite damaging to the future of the fantasy genre. Tolkien was a genius, a professor at a world-renowned university, and had the time to build the extremely dense and interesting lore of his fantasy world. Asking any creator or team of creators to match that when they introduce their creation is simply asking them to fail. What people forget is the time it took to build great worlds like in “Lord of the Rings” up, and that Tolkien himself didn’t have it all laid out neatly when he began writing. Using his works as the weight of the scales to assess fantasy is asking for a harmful chilling effect to occur, where creators of all kinds will not want to try their hand at the fantasy genre knowing they’re in for bad reception.

Chilling effect aside, I can’t understate how frankly insane a notion it is to have the “Lord of the Rings” set the bar for all fantasy. One reason is that art, from literature to film, has different goals. “Lord of the Rings” for example oozes Tolkien’s strong Christian faith as well as his grappling with the horrors he faced in WWI. “Warcraft,” the game, was a turn-based strategy game for the computer, meant to test players as fictional generals. 

Immediately, these two things come from not different worlds, but vastly different galaxies than the other. For Tolkien, orcs are always evil. But not for any other reason than because they served a specific thematic purpose: orcs where the representation of men consumed by hate and violence, whose answer to any problem was war and bloodshed. “Warcraft” had orcs that allowed players to grow attached to the faction they were apart of, The Horde, which necessitated them being just as morally diverse and complicated as humans. Some critics of the film “Warcraft” noted this and still complained, not understanding that just because Tolkien used a fantasy element one way doesn’t mean everyone else has to.

Let’s move away from a comparison between “Lord of the Rings” and “Warcraft” and look at another case study: “Warhammer: Age of Sigmar.” Originally known as “Warhammer Fantasy Battles,” this is a miniatures-based strategy game for the table-top. When it was known as “Warhammer Fantasy Battles,” the Tolkien influences were undeniable from the get. In 2015 the game was officially redesigned and re-released as “Warhammer: Age of Sigmar,” a large driving force of replacing the old system was that the company who owned it, “Games Workshop,” needed more freedom to create and protect its properties. 

There was a huge initial backlash to the changes of not just the mechanics of the game, but the new lore as well. Here again, we saw people being upset that a brand new IP didn’t have as dense and expansive lore out of the gate as one that had 30 years like the previous one did. And that creators had the gall to dare rethink traditional fantasy tropes or introduce new creations into their universe. 

Eventually, many came to accept the new game, but recently these ridiculous complaints rose again with the reveal of the new elven faction (called “aelves” for copyright purposes) called “The Lumineth Realm-Lords.” “Games Workshop” teased their reveal and wove into pre and post-release that these were revamped versions of High Elves army from the previous “Warhammer Fantasy Battles.”

 What upset people was that they weren’t exactly the same High Elves we knew before. Do you know how strange a complaint that is? That a new faction meant to be a redesign of an older one, that intends to blend the spirit of the old with new and fresh ideas, is panned by a group of people because they were shocked that it was…well…redesigned. The Lumineth are fantastic, they combine the spirit of what people who enjoy elves like with ideas that are compatible with the new, less Tolkien-esque universe they dwell in. 

The argument is not only strange because it seems to ignore when explicit statements about a redesign are mentioned, but they forget that a company like “Games Workshop” needs to be able to own its intellectual properties not only in a legal field but in a creative one as well. When I look at Lumineth, I know I’m looking at a “Warhammer” property. When you see the old High Elf artwork, beautiful though it may be, I wouldn’t be shocked to hear many unfamiliar with “Warhammer” think they’re looking at “Lord of the Rings” artwork. Simply put, criticizing creators for having identifiable, unique fantasy creations in favor of something more “traditional” is asking them to jeopardize their longevity on multiple fronts.

I could go on and on about this, but at the end of the day, these arguments are sadly ironic. Tolkien himself made his universe so beloved because he took established mythological creatures and races and made them his own. Tolkien saw it was necessary for his vision. If they like Tolkien so much, then they can pay their respects and let other creators follow in his footsteps, making the familiar their own little slice of unique fantasy.

Photo credit: Cubicle 7 Entertainment Games Workshop Limited 2020

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