I can see where you’re coming from, but you’re not looking at what fantasy was like before Tolkien, and after Tolkien. You yourself are only looking at superficial elements. It’s like saying Star Wars and Jaws only influenced movies with spaceships and sharks in them respectively.
So there are two level of influence:
- Basic elements of LotR - Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Dragons, The Hero’s Journey, Halflings, Magic Rings, Magic Swords, Forgotten Princes Reclaiming Their Heritage, The Evil Overlord, and so on.
These are what you’re talking about. And you’re totally right to say his influence with these elements is limited, in fantasy writing. In games, it is huge - Warhammer and Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons and thus about 90% of fantasy games and even some sci-fi ones (and not just 40K) are influenced directly by these “Basic elements” of LotR.
But that’s kind of missing the woods for trees.
- The lasting influence of Tolkien was two-fold - world-building and multi-book stories.
If you look at fantasy and SF in general before Tolkien, these really mostly are not there. Multi-book series straight-up don’t exist. Most fantasy writers write stand-alone short stories which are collected together, and which may share a central character, but don’t actually act a continuous story. A few write in longer formats, but at most you’re looking at stand-alone books, which may exist in some sort of chronology, but which are not part of a pre-planned “story arc” or whatever you want to call it. I mean, by 1950 you have the Narnia books, but despite being by a friend of Tolkien, who was influenced by Tolkien, they’re not the same thing as LotR. They’re not planned out beforehand, they don’t really flow from one to another, and importantly - they’re aimed at children, which LotR was not. Even the chronology applied to them was retroactive (and is somewhat confusing).
So that was a huge deal, when you consider that the vast majority of fantasy coming out today is pre-planned trilogies (sometimes duologies, sometimes much longer). And a lot of SF is now too (though still probably a minority). Even if the books can stand alone (which not all can), they’re intended to be part of single story, and usually intended to be read in a specific order.
World-building is the other huge thing. It’s very hard to easily explain this one because it’s such a huge deal and we sort of assume that it is the case now in a way that simple wasn’t true in Tolkien’s day. In Tolkien’s day, and earlier, many/most SF/fantasy writers were kind of making up as they went along - some did come up with a sort of more in-depth setting and backstory to what they were writing, but they were the exceptions, and were not very influential. The earliest example I’m aware of of this is the Bronte siblings stuff, which never got published (or not back then): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gondal_(fictional_country). But what they were doing also had a lot in common with RPGs. So yeah, the Brontes almost invented SF and RPGs. Almost. Importantly - it wasn’t influential and they didn’t really develop it.
There were other writers who did somewhat more in-depth world-building pre-Tolkien, but again, the point is, they weren’t very influential. They didn’t cause other people to do it, and they didn’t cause people to do it in an intense and conscious way.
Whereas Tolkien did. This is the key thing that Tolkien did not just to fantasy but to SF, which was to show people how you could build an entire massive backstory/history to your world/setting, replete with languages, histories, false histories, peoples and creatures moving around it, living, dying, becoming extinct and so on, and plan out this whole thing, and THEN write your books in that setting. It really is true to say this was massively less common, and massively less conscious and goal-oriented before Tolkien.
It totally changes fantasy, and later it changes SF, and SF is a hugely broad thing, containing literally everything involving imagined universes, and it changes not just books, but TV and movies and so. It’s not instant, note. The superficial elements had a lot of influence in the 1960s and 1980s, but it’s really after that you see the more profound influence of the world-building.
Even authors who loathe Tolkien, tend to either engage in this. There are writers who manage to avoid it of course. But the big thing is, the fantasy/SF audience expects it at this point, and likes it. Brandon fucking Sanderson, who we have discussed, loves this shit. He loves in-depth convoluted world-building of a Tolkienian bent. He’s not as good at it as Tolkien, but it’s enough to make his fans obsessed. And talking of multi-volume series, his current big project, the Stormlight Archive (started out okay, had crashed and was rolling downhill whilst on fire by the end of book three), is a planned TEN-BOOK series. Eat that Tolkien, I guess!
So basically if you’re annoyed with trilogies (or worse) and confounded by the huge amounts of world-building and background exposition in fantasy novels, you can blame Tolkien.