Every time someone invites me to write a post for their blog, I face an old question: Do I write about J.R.R. Tolkien, or do I write about literally anything else?
I usually write about Tolkien. It’s how I roll.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a creative genius. When he wasn’t giving university lectures and writing groundbreaking literary criticism, he created an entire world with its own languages, geography, genealogies, and thousands of years of history. (By some estimates, Tolkien’s imaginary world is the largest and most complex ever created by a single person in all of human history.) Tolkien wrote many stories out of his private world, the most famous of which are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
How did he do it? How did this man create so much in a single lifetime?
There are many answers to that question, but only one concerns us today: Tolkien knew how to borrow and adapt ideas.
Stealing is wrong. In fact, we writers have a fancy word for stealing: plagiarism. Tolkien didn’t steal. He borrowed, albeit without permission.
JK Riki, who writes this blog when it isn’t invaded by Tolkien-obsessed nerds, wrote a helpful book titled 15 Day Creativity Boot Camp. (If you want to become more creative, and you haven’t read his book, you should.) In his book, JK discusses three kinds of ideas: Original Ideas, Reworked Ideas, and Combination Ideas.
Original Ideas are those rare concepts no one else has created before. Reworked Ideas are revised or improved versions of existing ones, and Combination Ideas combine existing ideas into something new. Tolkien had some brand-new ideas, but—surprise!—most of the concepts in his books were borrowed or adapted from other sources.
Tolkien’s elves and dwarves were adapted from Norse and Germanic mythologies. His Elvish languages borrowed heavily from Finnish. The ancient Anglo-Saxons were the model for the language and culture of Tolkien’s kingdom of Rohan. Other story elements were lifted from Greco-Roman mythology, the Bible, Beowulf, Arthurian legends, and the Atlantis myth. Even Tolkien’s most famous creations, hobbits, were basically caricatures of rural English folk.
Tolkien himself acknowledged the tendency of stories to borrow from older stories. He compared it to making soup from the bones of an ox. What matters isn’t which bones went into the soup, but how the soup tastes. As he wrote in “On Fairy Stories,” an essay on storytelling, “We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled.” He added, “By ‘the soup’ I mean the story as it is served up by its author or teller, and by ‘the bones’ its sources or material.”
The borrowing didn’t end with Tolkien. He shaped the modern fantasy genre. His influence is literally incalculable. (I dare you to visit your nearest bookstore and find a novel from the fantasy section that doesn’t owe something to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.) From Dungeon & Dragons to World of Warcraft, fantasies continue to borrow from Tolkien’s books. His work has become the bones in many pots of soup, so to speak, just as Tolkien’s soup was made from the bones of older stories.
What does this mean for you?
It means you can borrow ideas. You can adapt, reinvent, and reimagine existing concepts.
However, you must not steal, which begs the question: How are stealing and borrowing different? The lines are blurry, but here’s a solid general principle: Borrowing is generalized, but stealing is specific.
Tolkien adapted elves and dwarves from Norse and Germanic mythologies, but used them to tell his own stories. In the same way, Dungeons & Dragons borrowed races from Tolkien’s work, such as elves, dwarves, and even halflings (i.e. hobbits), yet wove them into a new mythology instead of copying Tolkien’s. This is borrowing.
If Dungeons & Dragons had taken more specific elements of Tolkien’s work, such as character names or exact plot twists, this would have been stealing. If Tolkien, in his turn, had merely retold existing stories and claimed they were his, he would have been as much a burglar as Bilbo Baggins. (That was a geek joke. I’m sorry; I can’t help myself.)
There is no exact boundary between borrowing and stealing, so be honest and sensible. If you’re afraid your borrowing has become stealing—stop. When in doubt, leave it out. Be aware of clear legal boundaries such as copyrights and trademarks. Finally, never take credit for someone else’s idea. It’s fine if you improved an existing concept, or combined with with others, but credit the person or people to whom it belongs.
Borrowing ideas is more common that you may realize. In writing this very blog post, I combined elements of Tolkien’s work, tropes from the broader fantasy genre, and concepts from JK Riki’s book. Do you see what I mean?
Stealing is wrong. That’s why creative people borrow!