Warning, major spoilers for The First Law trilogy and The Lord of the Rings
Since its publication in 1954, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has inspired countless works of fantasy. It has also popularized the usage of tropes such as the young hero, the magical object, and the wise mentor. However, these tropes were not created by Tolkien; the trope of the hero has been around since ancient times, appearing in the journey of the Buddha, the quest for the magical object is reflected in Jason’s journey for the Golden Fleece, and the wise mentor appeared extensively in the Arthurian legends featuring the wizard Merlin. These tropes have been employed throughout literature in so many ways that one wonders: how is a story able to maintain its originality? The answer is simple: it puts a spin on those ideas, presenting them in a different light. A recent example of this within the fantasy genre is The First Law trilogy (2006) by Joe Abercrombie, a grimdark fantasy series following a barbarian, a nobleman, a warrior, and a wizard as they embark on a quest for a magical object to prevent an evil prophet from taking over the world. At first glance, this story sounds incredibly familiar, even derivative of Tolkien’s work. However, by presenting the reader with a dark and cynical take on tropes which traditionally focus on the good in humanity, The First Law is strikingly original.
In his work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell traces the development of the hero archetype through “the hero’s journey,” which can be split into three main stages: departure, initiation, and return. In The Lord of the Rings, this role is played by the brave hobbit, Frodo Baggins, who leaves the Shire and sets out to destroy the One Ring. He returns home scarred beyond healing, and eventually leaves Middle Earth for the Undying Lands. Frodo’s character development, although tragic, is a good example of the hero’s journey. In The First Law, the reader follows the nobleman, Jezal dan Luthar, who sets out on a quest to find the magical Seed and becomes a king upon his return. Despite following the stages of the hero’s journey, Jezal’s character growth is less of a linear progression and more cyclical in nature. In the first book, he starts out as arrogant, selfish, and cowardly. As the journey progresses, Jezal grows into a more decent person, only to revert to some of his former qualities by the end of the trilogy. Thus, Jezal’s quest is different from a typical hero’s journey, as he ends it the same way he began. This is a characteristic feature of the grimdark subgenre: it focuses on the darker aspects of human nature rather than heroism. Very rarely do Abercrombie’s characters make the right choice. Another common feature of the hero trope is their possession of an ancient bloodline. In The Lord of the Rings, the ranger Aragorn is heir to Isildur, the ancient king of Gondor and Arnor. In The First Law, Jezal ascends to kingship believing he is the secret son of the former king, only to discover that he was, in fact, randomly selected from the dregs of poverty for the role of a figurehead. Aside from the difference in lineage however, what makes Jezal stand out from Aragorn is his character. Aragorn is noble and devoted to his people, while Jezal is selfish and cowardly. By having him end up in the same position as Aragorn, Abercrombie calls into question our ideas about a leader, specifically, their supposed heroism and noble qualities.
The trope of the magical item is prevalent in many mythologies and is perhaps one of the most popular in the fantasy genre. In The Lord of the Rings, the Ring is inherently evil, and the protagonists must resist its temptation in order to destroy it. The magical object in The First Law, the Seed, is also evil. However, rather than trying to destroy it, the protagonists use it as a weapon against the villain. While the Seed proves to be highly effective and the antagonist is vanquished, thousands of innocent people are killed, and the capital city is destroyed. By having the protagonists give into the malevolent nature of the magical object, Abercrombie envisions humanity as corrupt, with a tendency to choose evil over good.
Perhaps the greatest example of what differentiates The First Law from previous works of fantasy is its subversion of the wise mentor trope. According to Campbell, the wise mentor is a “protective figure (often a little old crone or old man)” who appears in the departure stage of the hero’s journey, bringing with them supernatural aid. In The Lord of the Rings, this role is embodied by Gandalf, who is a force for good, protecting the protagonists from evil, and resisting the temptation of the Ring. In The First Law, the old magus Bayaz is quite similar, or so it seems. Despite his friendly and charming nature, his initial description, that of an “old, bald butcher in a stained apron…” is important foreshadowing for the end of the series. Abercrombie plays with readers’ expectations of a kind, grumpy, and Gandalf-esque wizard, only to shock them by revealing Bayaz to be a far worse evil than the aforementioned prophet. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, in the world of The First Law, there are no benign magical beings watching over humankind.
Ultimately, The First Law is an exploration of our darkest selves, and while it would not have been written without The Lord of the Rings, it is not an imitation of Tolkien’s work. By subverting tropes we have come to expect in the fantasy genre, The First Law is able to stand out from Tolkien’s shadow, and maintain its originality.
—Michael Bazarov, Fall 2022 Staff
 Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press, 2004. Pg. 29
 Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press, 2004. Pg. 63
Abercrombie, Joe. The Blade Itself. Gollancz, 2006. Pg. 90