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Five subtle ways Tolkien inspired my work

The world of my new fantasy novel Seeker of the Lost Song is inspired by pre-colonial Filipino culture, as well as the medieval Swedish rule of Finland. Its sequel is additionally inspired by the later Russian control of Finland. Finnish history is a major inspiration for both novels, even though they’re not historical fantasy.

Lord of the Rings was the first fantasy novel I read, way back at the age of 13. I read the Silmarillion shortly after that, and fell deeply in love with the world, the mythology, and the language. I didn’t intentionally set out to model Seeker and Sequel after Tolkien’s work. I mean, they aren’t epic fantasy novels, and Tolkien’s specific flavour of worldbuilding has been done over and over ad nauseam.

However, there are five subtle ways that Tolkien’s influence has made its way into my work that I can’t deny.

(NB: Spoilers ahead for some of Tolkien’s work – proceed with caution!)

1) Finnish culture and language

I’m half-Finnish, so I felt a substantial swelling of pride when I discovered that Tolkien had been inspired by Finland in a few ways: namely with the language as a main foundation of his Elvish language Quenya, and elements of our national collection of epic poetry, the Kalevala.

However, once I got older I noticed that there didn’t seem to be much other Finnish-influenced work, at least not in English. It struck me as a big missed opportunity. Finnish history and culture is so interesting, and the language is beautiful, rhythmic, and so damn complicated.

For this reason, drawing on Finnish culture and language in Seeker and its sequel felt natural. I actually am Finnish, after all. Why not?

The culture of Seeker is a blended Filipino-Finnish one, where people eat with their hands and perform the mano gesture of respect, but also enjoy a fully-nude sauna and quiet time. Many of the names are inspired by, or are directly, Finnish. The forest plays a major role in the story and world. And underlying all of it is the old Finnish tradition of folk poetry, often performed as a song. This distinction is more overt in the sequel, where a song sung in the right way can literally have magical effects. However, in Seeker of the Lost Song, the urge to tell stories, to connect with a lost past in this way, is fundamental.

2) The “music”

This one is major while also feeling minor. A big idea that resulted in a slight shift to the inevitable. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien tells of the creation of the universe through “the Ainulindalë,” music performed by the main deity and angelic beings called the Ainur. When the most powerful Ainur tries to control the music to his own design, it causes discord.

The magic system of Seeker of the Lost Song is nature-based, and for a while I had been struggling to properly describe it. I’d been writing of it as a sort of stream, but it didn’t quite work. One day my husband was in the other room watching a video about the Ainulindalë, and it clicked. A song! Of course! Not only did it fit neater with the all-encompassing nature of Seeker’s forest magic, but it gave me a built-in way to describe its broken, discordant state.

3) Strider/Aragorn in the Prancing Pony

This one’s less complex. There’s a character introduction scene in Seeker that’s basically Strider/Aragorn watching the hobbits in the Prancing Pony.

Yes, I am just that shameless, and I am proud of it.

4) Annatar

In Tolkien’s world, Sauron was once known as Annatar, the “Lord of Gifts.” He had a “fair form” and went around ostensibly helping people, teaching them about magic and craftsmanship, secretly seeking to sway and corrupt them. After I’d finished Seeker, it struck me how the novel’s oppressive Leitir Empire felt like a whole power structure built by someone like Annatar. The Empire doesn’t rule by force. They oppress through language, through a false image of partnership, through subtle erosion. Perhaps some bit of Annatar’s story sunk in long ago.

5) What if The Powers That Be were all Grima Wormtongue?

This was basically the what-if at the heart of the power structure in Seeker’s sequel. Grima Wormtongue is one of my favourite Tolkien characters (as you can probably tell by how compelling I found Annatar), and his ability to deceive and cause discord with his words was the perfect analog for the form of corrupted language-magic at the heart of my book.

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