I was reading some old 'Savage Sword of Conan' last night, and it suddenly struck me what has always seemed strange about Conan as a fantasy character (and Hyboria as a fantasy world, for that matter). Conan was riding in on some adventure or other, getting ready to fight some slithery monster, and I suddenly realized--he has no elven friends. No dwarven friends either, for that matter.
That's not because Conan is racist, or anything. Sexist, yes. Racist, no. (Sexist, oh GOD yes. Robert E. Howard didn't just have issues with women, he had entire climate-controlled vaults filled with complete collections dating back to Gutenberg.) But the point is, he didn't have elven or dwarven companions because these were adaptations of fantasy stories written before Tolkien. It explained for the first time to me why I'd always felt like 'Conan' stories felt a little "empty"; the number of elements I'd actually associated with "fantasy" in my head were surprisingly few.
The implications of that thought were kind of unnerving. I mean, I'd felt for a long time like fantasy authors aped Tolkien a bit too much, but it was only when I realized just how out of place it felt to a reader who'd grown up after 'Lord of the Rings' to see a fantasy novel without elves, dwarves, dragons and long-bearded kindly wizards that I realized just how much of an impact Tolkien had made on the genre. (There were wizards in Conan's universe, of course, but they were almost universally decadent and in league with unholy forces. Magic was something the bad guys used, and Conan defeated them with his strong right arm and his trusty blade. I could write a frigging dissertation on the underlying psychological implications of Howard's work, starting with the anti-intellectual symbolism of magic as a tool of evil and going on from there.)
It's scary, when you think about it. Tolkien's ideas were so powerful that they left a permanent imprint on every single fantasy writer who ever followed him. Those writers, in turn, deepened the imprint--I don't think you'd see nearly as many Tolkien pastiches if 'Dungeons and Dragons"' hadn't given us all a framework of "rules" for the fantasy genre, complete with a list of official Protagonist Races. But still, the sheer memetic power of Tolkien's work has warped the entire mental fabric of the conceptual space we think of as "fantasy". Maybe that's why I've never been as much of a Tolkien fan as most fantasy enthusiasts; I'm a little nervous about something that's taken over that much headspace over such a short period of time.
Or maybe the problem isn't so much that Tolkien conquered all the territory as it is that it was primarily virgin land to begin with. Prior to Tolkien, the only really major "high fantasy" writer in modern literature was the aforementioned Howard, and we still see a lot of his staple ideas to this day as well. (Barbarian heroes, decadent nobles plotting and counter-plotting, degenerate monstrosities from lost races, women treated either like meat or scheming harpies by a sexist and misogynist author...) Perhaps it's not so much that Tolkien has made it impossible to escape the fantasy framework of elves, dwarves and humans going on a magical quest guided by a kindly wizard; maybe it's just that we need the next Tolkien to come along and add something entirely new to the mix. If Tolkien has shown us anything, it's that one book can definitely have that kind of impact.