It is the most well-known trope in fantasy, so much so that it largely defines the genre. As Joe Abercrombie put it:
Once upon a time there was a magic sword wielded by a hidden boy king against a terrible dark lord. A wizard helped out. The end.
— Joe Abercrombie (@LordGrimdark) March 12, 2015
So, with a plot outline that is basically now a standing joke, why do we still see so many “farmboy fantasies”? Self-published fantasy is replete with them, but they still get through to the major houses as well. Are they truly here to stay, or has their time finally come?
Though it’s obvious to look at the Master here, I would argue that this trope is not directly from Tolkien, per se. Yes, Frodo is the unexpected saviour of the world, an orphan, chosen by the wise and aided by a powerful magical item. However, I would argue that his Hobbits were not coming-of-age adolescents but innocents coming into the world. Not a huge distinction, but a clear one. Also, they don’t end up with either martial or magical powers themselves – they overcome evil because of their inherent decency and perseverance, not by gaining super-powers.
So, if not Tolkien, where does that leave us? In a lot of the Epic Fantasy that came after Tolkein, we do see younger protagonists who struggle with the journey into adulthood just as they journey into the big, bad world. We have Ged in Earthsea, Shea in Shannara, Luke in Star Wars*, Garion in the Belgariad, Pug in Magician and finally Rand in in the uber-epic, Wheel of Time (among many others). The success of these obviously influenced everything around them, but why did they bring this coming-of-age trope into tales traditionally told of grown-up heroes (Hercules, Beowulf, King Arthur, etc)? While Heroic fantasy continued in Howard, Leiber, Moorcock up to Gemmell, what we call Epic Fantasy often starts before the heroes are heroes. While the jump from hobbits to children isn’t a large one, there are probably other forces at work.
For a start, fantasy also has a long tradition of being children’s literature. There is, of course, The Hobbit (no children in it, though), but also books like the Chronicles of Narnia and of Prydain, and the Weirdstone of Brisingamen. These, somewhat distinct from Tolkien’s shadow, have younger characters (though Narnia is more about avoiding adulthood than achieving it!) and hark back to older mythological traditions. There are many other stories drawing on folk traditions, like The Queen of Elfland’s Daughter by Dunsany, which feature a young hero on a quest. And because a lot of these 2nd generation authors are American, there’s a good chance that Mark Twain and Jack London had their influence as well.
Making them explicitly about coming-of-age is perhaps a later concept, coinciding with the growth of the concept of youth culture and the popularity of adolescent-focused stories. For example, the Arthurian legend did not really mention Arthur’s adolescence until TH White’s Sword in the Stone brought that in line with much of later fantasy.
The ultimate successor to these examples is, of course, Harry Potter, but maybe the Epic Fantasists were thinking of books they read as kids when they sat down to write their supposedly more adult tales.
Their inherent appeal
Obviously, farmboy fantasies continue a long and successful tradition, but there is surely more to it than just aping what’s come before. What is it about the format that appeals?
Of course, the age of the readership is key here. A lot of these books are aimed at teenagers (and quite often, boys), so having a protagonist who they can easily identify with is an obvious advantage. (Sometimes these protagonists are even actual children from the Real World pulled through a portal into the fantasy land.) They also contain wise father figures (Gandalf) and aspirational competent adults (Aragorn) to guide the awkward protagonist on his journey. There is often a tentative romance (another thing Tolkien mostly left out) and often a cast of close, contemporary friends who the hero can rely on (because teenage friendships mean a lot, too). But often the hero is left isolated in many ways, forced to make those tough decisions alone, to discover his true self, and ultimately overcome the Big Bad through whatever special talent lay buried within. How could that not appeal?
When this trope is done best, you get Harry Potter – something that appeals to all ages, throws realistic challenges at the hero, and allows them to grow as both a person and a protagonist. At it’s worst, however, you get the dreaded adolescent Gary Stu (less often, Mary Sue). Behold the shy, weak, neglected young boy who is plucked from obscurity and revealed to have powers that can defeat the Biggest of Bads. He picks up a sword and is miraculously badass, he lifts his finger and spells of irresistible power come forth. No need for training or studying, our hero is just born with it. While this may be the ultimate wish-fulfillment for every young nerd, it does not a good story make. Though perhaps one that will still attract readers, a bit like flies on…oh well.
The Present and the Future
So, how much longer can this trope endure? Well, it has survived this long, despite the fact that subversive epics had been written for years before grimdark was even a thing. However, as the fantasy audience expands more and more, it does seem more and more readers are becoming averse to this old trope, or at least growing out of it. Most mainstream writers have been deconstructing the old tropes and giving us more adult stories, without chosen farmboys or even Dark Lords.
As the genre grows up, books that were once the defining examples (Brooks, Eddings) seem like YA (which is sort-of a new thing), and that’s where most of their obvious descendants now reside. Still, this trope seems set to endure, whether in YA, indie or, now-and-then, mainstream Epic Fantasy. I may even co-opt elements of it myself…
*Oh, c’mon, Star Wars is Epic Bloody Fantasy – don’t be fooled by the spaceships.