Books and Code · A Miscellany

What Dragonlance does better than Tolkien


I was a Dragonlance fan as a kid well before I had even heard of Tolkien. While I appreciate Tolkien as an adult, even thinking back today I believe I would’ve still preferred Dragonlance in middle school. It is simply less pretentious. I have started re-reading the Chronicles trilogy (I’m into Dragons of Winter Night at the moment) and am aware how terrible the writing is. However, at the same time I am noticing that sometimes Dragonlance does something better than Tolkien.

The Dragonlance universe is a huge ripoff of Middle-Earth and many of its books are poorly written. Tolkien’s creation is vastly superior in a thousand ways. Let’s just get that out of the way up front. However, there are a handful of cases where Dragonlance outshines the master. Let me discuss a few:

1. The Portrayal of Magic

Tolkien’s magic is ill-defined, unhistorical, and hampered by his somber Christian piety. Dragonlance does it better. Its magic bears some resemblance to what real folk magic was actually like. It is a craft that human (or equivalent) beings practice to assert control over aspects of life they typically cannot control.

2. Paganism

Tolkien does us a disservice by co-opting much of the culture of pre-Christian Northern Europe and whitewashing their paganism. He tries to have his cake and eat it too by largely omitting religion while claiming his work is deeply orthodox Christian. I love the guy, but that is bullshit. Pre-historical England was pagan; Faerie tradition is fundamentally pagan. His monotheistic kludge sucks. Dragonlance does it better. It has a pantheon of gods. Clerics are assisted by them through prayers. The gods contend with each other. The magical system is related to pantheon.

3. More extensible

In A Secret Vice, Tolkien complained that artificial languages can suffer from “too many successive cooks”–a problem that I suspect he would also warn against in regards to large world-building projects. Certainly, Dragonlance has suffered this malady at times. However, Middle-Earth suffers from the opposite fate–no successive cooks. We are stuck retelling the same stories and digging up minutiae in Tolkien’s manuscripts. Lord of the Rings Online offers some hope in this area, but it is still rooted firmly in the existing narratives and is not the same medium. The canon is stagnant. To me, Middle-Earth has little hope of growing beyond what Tolkien gave us. Dragonlance does it better. Because it is not inextricably tied to its creators, it has expanded well beyond the period of the War of the Lance (to both past and future ages). The “open canon” model has its flaws, but navel-gazing pedantry isn’t one of them.