Appendix N on the Google Books Ngram Viewer

Thursday , 26, May 2016 18 Comments

Easily the most controversial thing to come out of the Appendix N series was my claim that in the seventies, J. R. R. Tolkien was far from being the kind of influence that we think of him as being today. Sure, he practically defines the genre of fantasy today. But it wasn’t always like that. Thanks to Google Books Ngram Viewer, we can actually see quite a few trends play out over the decades.

  • Lord Dunsany was synonymous with fantasy for the bulk of the twentieth century. Tolkien did not eclipse him until 1970.
  • There was renewed interest in pulp writers like A. Merritt and C. L. Moore that began in the sixties and continued to build right up until about 1977 or so.
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs’s popularity spiked right alongside Tolkien’s and Lovecraft’s– and he’s still bigger than Tolkien without the benefit of a multi-trilogy blockbuster movie franchise!

Here’s one comparing Burroughs to… uh… some authors that get mentioned quite a bit by the book pundit types lately:

And here’s one showing how he stacks up to “The Big Three” among others:

These other charts I’d take with a grain of salt. You can get get different results depending on the settings and whether or not the author uses their initials a certain way or not. But I think Tolkien only recently becoming on par with Dunsany and Burroughs is a fair description of how things were in 1970. All of the classic authors taking a drop in the eighties lines up with many of them going out of print and all of them facing a deluge of competition. If it’s true, however, that Burroughs has risen in popularity alongside Tolkien in the nineties, that would be an interesting result. I would speculate that it is because he is supplying something that has become quite scarce within the wider market, but I would like to see if there were some other data that could confirm that.

18 Comments
  • Alex says:

    If you leave the H.P. out of Lovecraft, his numbers go through the roof.

  • Daniel says:

    Remember also that “Frodo Lives!” appeared in the NY subway wall in the late 1960s as a sign of the counterculture. That means underground and academic, not core and in the popular imagination.

    Another nugget supporting your thesis.

  • Daniel says:

    Oh, and Lovecraft would not register until the 40s, because August Dereleth rescued his legacy from the grave. Also Robert Bloch started coming into his own.

  • Anthony says:

    I think modern fantasy is probably, actually, inspired more by D and D than it is Tolkien.

    I think a lot of people THINK it’s inspired by Tolkien, but what I’ve noticed is that a lot of what people call Tolkien-inspired fantasies take precisely the wrong lessons out of Tolkien and end up writing books that read like a bad D and D game – see “Eragon”. Yes, there are elves and dwarves and dragons and orc-er, “urgals”, but they way everything interacts is haphazard in the manner of a D and D game, not carefully planned in the manner of the Tolkien legendarium.

    I think that because of Peter Jackson people look at all of these creatures in one place and think “Look, Tolkien!” without realizing that just because Tolkien used them doesn’t mean he’s the ONLY one who used them.

    • Alex says:

      This^^^^

      This is why D&D has become painfully self-referential to the point of including its own branded fiction in its recommended reading list. D&D was influenced by pre-D&D fiction, but post-D&D fantasy was influenced by D&D and Shannanana, which in turn influenced D&D, so on and so forth to where both the game and the genre have become web-footed incest babies.

  • Cambias says:

    Anthony’s comment reflects something I noticed myself about the newest Star Wars episode: where the original Star Wars stole (brilliantly) from the whole previous history of cinema, Force Awakens stole exclusively from the original Star Wars.

    D&D needs to be derivative of more than D&D.

  • And Robert E. Howard is slightly bigger than H.P. Lovecraft. Interesting tool.

  • Warren Abox says:

    Alfred, I was just about to run off and check Howard myownself. I wonder if generational demographics plays a role. The cycle of the rise and fall of Howard and Tolkein matches my interest as a child and as an adult passing his beloved media onto his own kids.

    If so, work like Jeffro’s is all the more important. We can’t let the gatekeepers decide which authors our children and grandchildren experience or they’ll never see the rollicking fun and creativity of the old guard.

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