Why you should read ‘Rings, Swords and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature’ by Michael D. C. Drout

I’ve reviewed quite a number of nonfiction lectures and books on this blog, and I’ve reviewed a good number of fantasy fiction books. I find that there generally isn’t much overlap between readers of those two genres. For this nonfiction lecture series, there is a good deal of overlap and I HIGHLY recommend that if you are fantasy reader to at least check out this lecture.

The lecturer set out to discuss the origins of the modern fantasy genre, where the genre is right now, where the genre is headed, and associated topics. By and large, the lecturer did a good job- with one major caeveat. This was recorded in 2006. This was produced before the final book of the Harry Potter series was published. The lecturer did not discuss the Harry Potter stories, but hung a lantern on that fact by saying that it would not be appropriate to discuss the impact of Harry Potter on the genre until years down the line. Only today, fifteen years later, can we know for certain that Harry Potter had a cataclysmic impact on the fantasy genre.

This lecture series focuses mainly on Tolkien, LeGuin, C. S. Lewis, Donaldson, Terry Brooks, Susan Cooper, and Robert Holdstock, as well as mentioning other authors like Marion Zimmer Bradley, J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman.

The lecturer of this series is very much so a Tolkien scholar and Beowulf scholar, so he focuses a LOT of his time and energy on Tolkien, which I’m fine with. Tolkien is the grandfather of the marketable, popular fantasy genre. However he did not deeply discuss the pre-Tolkien big names as much as he should of- such as Hope Mirlees, Lord Dunsany and the rest. ‘The Well at World’s End,’ ‘Lud-in-the-Mist’ and ‘The King of Elfland’s Daughter’ are seminal works of fantasy fiction, however no one’s going to argue that they’re as influential on the genre as Tolkien or LeGuin are.

Similarly, I liked how the lecturer respectfully brought up the ‘Tolkien clones’ of yesteryear. He focused on ‘The Sword of Shannara,’ explaining how it is very derivative from Tolkien. He then explained how Brooks wrote ‘The Elfstones of Shannara,’ and explained how the author started marching to the tune of his own drum with it and the other sequels. The ‘Tolkien clone’ phenomena was a major thing in fantasy literature for a while, so I’m glad the lecturer discussed the repeating echoes of the Lord of the Rings without treating the actual ‘clones’ with disrespect.

Frankly, I’m astonished how good of a job the lecturer did in predicting the future/bringing up themes which would become important later.

  • Indirectly predicted the rise of Urban Fantasy, by focusing on titles like ‘The Dark is Rising’ and ‘His Dark Materials.’
  • Indirectly predicted the rise of Grimdark Fantasy, by focusing on the ‘Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.’
  • Correctly predicted Ursula K LeGuin would remain a lasting master of the genre, and spent several lectures explaining her development as an author.
  • Realized that Harry Potter was a big deal, even though he didn’t really dive into it.

Viewing this lecture series through the lens of 2021, it gets a lot of things wrong.

  • He didn’t mention ‘The Wheel of Time,’ which in retrospect was a mistake. WoT lead to Sanderson, and Sanderson is not only the most popular Fantasy author of the last decade but also Sanderson is having a massive impact on new authors writing today.
  • The lecturer also didn’t mention ‘A Game of Thrones,’ which came out in 2005… but I’m willing to give Drout the benefit of the doubt on this one given how there’s no way someone way back then could predict GoT’s long-term impact.
  • Didn’t give Pratchett his due.
  • Didn’t predict the impact Octavia E. Butler would have on the fantasy genre- namely in the present wave of ‘decolonialization’ Fantasy we’re dealing with right now being written by authors like N. K. Jemisen.

How many of these ‘wrong’ things were mistakes, or were they just the lecturer being pressed for time and being forced to leave things out? The lecturer didn’t mention a lot of less popular, but nonetheless important authors like Steven Brust, Lois McMaster Bujold and Patricia McKillip. I’m willing to give the lecturer a benefit of the doubt on this one, because this lecture series was already eight hours long and I doubt the company which paid him to make this series was willing to let him talk about literally everything.

Finally, I enjoyed the lecturer’s full-throated defense of the artistic integrity of Fantasy Fiction. He cited the fact that you can discuss themes with Fantasy which you can’t with other genres. For example, in non-genre fiction you can’t explore the fear of death and the hope for a afterlife. Magical thinking is a part of normal human thought; trying to extract the magic from human fiction excludes the full scope of human being from your fiction.

STARS: 4.5 OUT OF 5 STARS (5 Stars=Perfect, 4 Stars=Great, 3 Stars=Good, 2 Stars=Fun but Flawed, 1 Star=Not Recommended)

Good reads

Genres/Tagwords: Fantasy, nonfiction, Lecture, Academic, Literature

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:

  • None

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