Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

J.R.R. Tolkien and the why of world-building

with 5 comments

One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps.

—J.R.R. Tolkien, quoted by Humphrey Carpenter

Yesterday, I was at Barnes and Noble in Union Square when, apparently, the earth shook. I didn’t notice it, possibly because I was slightly more preoccupied by another, rather smaller earthquake taking place on this blog. I had been in New York for the past few days, away from my desk, so I wasn’t aware that anything unusual was happening until the comments started flooding my cell phone. I’d like to start, then, by saying what a thrill it was to be featured on Freshly Pressed, and how gratifying it is to see so many new readers and visitors. You never know what to expect when a blog is opened to radically increased traffic, so it’s been heartening to see how universally positive and insightful the comments have been. Thanks so much for coming, and I do hope you stick around!

That said, I suspect that much of the response was due less to the quality of the writing than to the subject of the post itself. The Fellowship of the Ring is, to put it mildly, a movie that unites people. I could feel it last week at Ravinia, and I’ve felt it again over the last twenty-four hours as readers shared their thoughts and memories. We heard from fans who think of movies as The Lord of the Rings and everything else; from viewers for whom the films, and their special features, changed the way they saw filmmaking; and from those whom the trilogy helped through difficult times in their lives. Few other movies can say as much, or inspire such universal good feeling. (I imagine that the response wouldn’t have been quite as positive if I’d posted a rave about, say, Eyes Wide Shut.) And it all comes down to the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson have created a world we want to live in and revisit.

This, it seems to me, is the real point of world-building, which has become such an established convention of fantasy fiction that its original purpose is sometimes forgotten. Invented languages, cultures, and geographies are all very well and good, but they’re a means, not an end. The true goal is to create stories and characters so vivid that we can’t help applying them to our own lives. I’ve certainly felt this myself. Last year, when I was hiking the Lares Valley in Peru, lungs and feet aching, what kept me going—and this is a real nerd confession here—was the thought of Frodo and Samwise trudging through Mordor. Similarly, after seeing Fellowship again last week, I was seized by the urge to write an alternate universe fanfiction epic that would begin with Galadriel taking the ring. Since such a project would probably require 50,000 words and three months of work, it doesn’t seem like a great use of my time. But I’d still like to read it. (Oddly enough, I don’t think such a story exists, although if anybody out there has seen one, please let me know!)

And it’s important to remember that both Tolkien and, to a lesser extent, Jackson and his collaborators were creating worlds out of their own personal compulsions. Tolkien was a linguist and philologist whose work arose from his interest in invented languages; Jackson was a fan of the books who began planning his monumental project long before the current cinematic vogue for epic fantasy. Neither knew if there would be an audience for what he was doing—which was how each of them ended up finding such vast audiences. And at a time when fantasy series sprout appendices, maps, and extra volumes just because Tolkien’s example says they should, and when Hollywood sees fantasy primarily as a lucrative revenue stream, it’s worth recalling that it all began with a solitary professor furnishing a world for his own amusement. And as the past couple of days have made clear, there are still plenty of us who want to follow him there.

Written by nevalalee

August 24, 2011 at 10:22 am

5 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. this post is so close to my heart and speaks to me so personally, I wanna take it off ur blog and keep it with myself.. :) saying “loving your blog” sounds silly.. so lets go with the sillier.. “it resonates deeply with me”. Do people say such things about blogs??


    August 25, 2011 at 5:23 am

  2. I haven’t read this one, but I am told that “Circle of Silver, Chain of Gold” is a fan fiction in which Galadriel sees the future, and decides to take the ring before Frodo arrives in Lothlorien:

    I have also read that it’s one of several dozen completed fanfiction novels with the same theme. I book marked it to read next time I’m on a flight to New Zealand with time to read.

    (By the way, if you do want to read any of the stories or novels on the Lord of the Rings fan fiction site, and find the white type on black background hard to view, there’s an option on the home page to switch the skin to a white background with black type — it’s on the left side, just above the “Help and Guidelines” section.

    Deb McAlister

    August 25, 2011 at 5:24 am

  3. @Deb: Thanks for the tip! I’ll be sure to check it out, as well as some of the “several dozen” others. I had a feeling that this was well-explored territory…

    @Vidhya: Wow—thanks!


    August 25, 2011 at 9:10 am

  4. Excellent point there, about world-building being a means to an end. I love world-building, it’s true, and I think Tolkien did it best. But it has become so du jour, and I have read too many stories and seen too many movies that put more work into the world-building than into the actual story itself. Not every high fantasy novel needs a new language described. Perhaps some do, but not, I think, many, partly because very few of us are qualified or have the passion to do it right, as Tolkien did. But when it’s done very well and with purpose, then it is a fascinating and wonderful thing!


    August 31, 2011 at 10:40 pm

  5. Nicely put! As is often the case when an author creates a whole new genre, Tolkien’s innovations have been so widely copied that it’s easy to forget why they were introduced in the first place.


    September 1, 2011 at 8:20 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: