Richard K. Morgan, thinking of these matters perhaps because of his new fantasy The Steel Remains, recently wrote a short essay for Suvudu called “The Real Fantastic Stuff.” I believe my favorite paragraph is the first. If you find it interesting, the rest will be well worth your while.
I’m not much of a Tolkien fan – not since I was about twelve or fourteen anyway (which, it strikes me, is about the right age to read and enjoy his stuff). But it would be a foolish writer in the fantasy field who failed to acknowledge the man’s overwhelming significance in the canon. And it would be a poor and superficial reader of Tolkien who failed to acknowledge that in amongst all the overwrought prose, the nauseous paeans to class-bound rural England, and the endless bloody elven singing that infests The Lord of the Rings, you can sometimes discern the traces of a bleak underlying human landscape which is completely at odds with the epic fantasy narrative for which the book is better known.
One is tempted to read this as a gentler version of the polemic directed against Tolkien in recent years by writers such as China Mieville. Me, I see and acknowledge all of the flaws people note in Tolkien; but I also think the books are big enough and complicated enough (reading them after grad school is a very different experience if you’ve had coursework in medieval lit) that they’re impossible to boil down into a polemical talking point.