Praise for the anti-Tolkien

A few years ago, during a drought of decent reading material, I came across a fantasy novel called The Darkness that Comes Before, by R. Scott Bakker. It had all the usual trappings: lots of pages, exotic names with accented vowels, a map or two. I thought it might amuse me for a few hours. It did. And so much more.

If you squint at the map of Bakker’s world (‘Eärwa’, no less), it strongly resembles the one drawn for The Lord of the Rings by the grandaddy himself. That should have been a clue, but I was so disenchanted with the genre in general that I simply chalked it up to the usual wan imitation with which fantasy fiction has staked its claim on yard upon yard of my bookshelves.

The tone of the first few pages was dead on, and the writing unusually polished. I thought: this book is not, perhaps, too pale an imitation after all. This writer has read his Silmarillion, and liked it. So I persisted, which was no hardship. It was not fast-moving, although the prose was – unusually, as I mentioned – fluid. The characters were drawn carefully, attentively, given strong dialogue rather than overstated physical presence or clumsy internal narration. I was enjoying it fully, after a hundred pages or so. It was pleasure to read a well-crafted novel in a genre not much noted for the craftsmanship of its exponents.

The magic system is metaphysically coherent, which is a first-and-only in my entire experience. Which is to say, there is a plausible real-world philosophical grounding to it. Astonishing. Possibly not immediately apparent to all the readership, but enriched and rendered more believable by these deep roots nevertheless. Just for this magic system, so gloriously and obviously not constructed with half-an-eye on how it might work in a game, nor dependent on ineffable supernatural powers, I would praise the book to the skies.

And then there is an entirely believable female protagonist. Thorny ground in this genre: solved here by a fearless willing to let the reader be uncomfortable, as uncomfortable as the character herself. Compassionate, confident and, above all, understated writing such as this I might expect from an unsung maestro like P D James. Not from a debutant novelist, not in this branch of genre fiction.

The politics, surrounding the instigation of a crusade at the behest of a mysterious prophet, are gripping and believably ruthless. The action sequences, which are not numerous in this book of ideas nor needed to add grist to a complex plot, have punch and consequence. All good stuff. Exceptional, even, for a fantasy novel. Much of the seriousness, and I do not make this comparison lightly, of Dune is here. Elements, too, of its concerns: holy war, a gene-messiah, the selfishness of the powerful, the costs of that which others bear, sacrifice, destiny.

Always, too, with an etched-in sense of the genre’s meta-fictional archetypes. Many other writers have regurgitated pastiche or all-too-easy parody of Tolkien; others have sought to differentiate themselves as drastically as possible, whilst others still have embraced the broad conventions laid out by Tolkien and made them their own, this sometimes being a process like a sort of genre-bound anxiety of influence. I think, looking back, that I only began to realise that Bakker was doing something else with Tolkien when I was well into the second book in the series – The Warrior Prophet.

Tolkien. If you think he seems a bit smug here, try reading his letters

As scattered fragments of the world’s history began to coalesce, it became apparent that what had seemed to be a Crusades borrowing (hardly an original idea in fantasy fiction, where medieval history is always up for grabs) was in fact an effort to recreate the conditions of Middle Earth on a godless world. A moral inversion, or implosion, of the cosy superstructure of Tolkienism. An effort to be free, one trope a time. The near-extinct Nonmen are the immortal elves as they would be without a core of mythical goodness, or any hope whatsoever. One protagonist is a sociopathic Aragorn, another (my favourite and I suspect the author’s too) is a Gandalf exhausted by doubt and disappointment, yet another is the all-too-human woman who Arwen should have been. The monsters are foul, unshackled from even the wrong side of a moral compass, and simultaneously more metaphorical and more appalling than Tolkein’s fairy-tale menagerie; they are the creatures of a barely understood arch-antagonist who might already be dead, or might not even exist at all. Much later on, in the second series of books which begins with The Judging Eye, there is a marvellous, simply jaw-dropping, grim and black, reproduction of the Fellowship’s journey through the mines of Moria. There is also a dragon – of sorts. There are no hobbits.

Of particular note, also, are Bakker’s battle scenes. They echo the Silmarillion, that joy and tragedy which JRR leached out of a lifetime of reading Anglo-Saxon and Norse, but have a pace and poetry which surpasses it. I have read a lot of battle accounts: fictional, historical, and those in-between. Please trust me when I say ones in these books are simple awesome.

The clues were there. The quotation (intelligently, for once) of Nietzsche in epigraphs should have given it away, but I was tripped up by my low expectations and it took me a while to grasp the sheer audacity – the affront (the innocence, the arrogance!) – of what Bakker is doing in the entire sequence. It pays tribute to Tolkien, and critiques him, and all who followed him blindly. It is a primer on hundreds of years of our, real world philosophy and also a kind of fictive engine through which that can be retested. A kind of thought experiment, then, but one which is exciting, human, and magical, and bleak. And perhaps, ultimately, optimistic? I don’t know. I don’t know if a Nietzschean trajectory is Bakker’s model or if he going somewhere else. I don’t even know if he knows: I haven’t read the sixth book in the sequence (The Great Ordeal) although it came out in hardback a little while ago, but I can’t imagine the story finishing there without some acrobatics.

So, I give you the philosophical anti-Tolkien. Certainly the most intelligent and challenging extended excursion into fantasy fiction written since the Lord of the Rings. It won’t be to everyone’s taste (what is?): it is dense, and self-conscious, sometimes too self-indulgent, frequently miserable, often brutal, honest, learned in the classical sense rather than simply genre-wise, muscular, exciting, disinclined to patronise or explain, sometimes a bit of a slog, talky, full of ideas, heartbreaking, thought-making, magnificent.

Here’s a list of all the books in R. Scott Bakker’s fantasy series, in order:

  • The Darkness that Comes Before (2003)
  • The Warrior Prophet (2004)
  • The Thousandfold Thought (2006)
  • The Judging Eye (2010)
  • The White-Luck Warrior (2011)
  • The Great Ordeal (2016)


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