To measure the scope of J.R.R. Tolkien's legacy, consider the breadth of the fantasy genre, which includes novels about anything science can't explain. Then consider how many fantasy novels contain orcs, wizards, elves and their brethren -- the types of creatures made popular by The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Authors such as R.A. Salvatore, whose sword-and-sorcery novels fall within this subset of fantasy, owe much to Tolkien.
"Fantasy readership likes that comfort zone," Salvatore says, adding that as a whole, Tolkien-inspired works make more money than any other type of fantasy novel. It's not surprising that Salvatore fell in love with The Lord of the Rings during his sophomore year of college.
He immediately began writing his own tales, and success followed with The Dark Elf Trilogy, The Icewind Dale Trilogy and his newly released The Thousand Orcs, part of The Hunter's Blade Trilogy (in fantasy writing, novels must always come in threes).
Salvatore doesn't feel confined by the hobbit stranglehold since there are endless paths to explore in any universe, and it's still possible to put his unique stamp on the genre. His own character, the dark elf Drizzt Do Urden, for example, has become popular with readers. "Would you ever run out of stories about the Middle Ages?" he asks.
Salvatore, who says he's most at home "digging in mines," is not looking to stray from the elfin lands that have brought him success. After Homer, he says, there haven't been many new stories anyway. You still have good battling evil and unwitting heroes (i.e., hobbits) setting off on journeys. Tolkien himself, Salvatore points out, drew his vision from folktales like Beowulf.
A story told a thousand times is cliché. Tell it a thousand more times, and it becomes mythology. In this way, sheer repetition confers "archetype" status on characters that weren't original in the first place. Fantasy fans don't mind; that's the way they like it. "I've come up with new monsters," he says. "But they're really orcs with one eye."
And Tolkien, like his fabled ring, really is "the one that binds them all."