Worldbuilding: Tolkien wrote from experience too

Writing from experience is usually the first lesson that writers have hammered at them. Write what you know. It’s certainly the most important part of building a credible world for your story. But what does that really mean? Does it mean that we should write about our own lives? Of course not.

Take J R R Tolkien. I looked last week at how he became iconic. He created the deepest, best developed and most thorough fantasy mythos of the twentieth century. He had everything from languages – several of them – to alphabets, deep history, mythology that echoed – but did not repeat – western-northern mythic stories and symbolisms.

A vast work of a vaulting imagination that set the standards for every fantasy since. Not everybody’s cup of tea, and his work took time to pick up sales momentum. But when it did – wow.

The thing was that Tolkien, too, wrote from his experiences. And the way he did it shows us how great writers use their experiences to fuel, enrich and colour their stories.

He used what he saw around him to add narrative colour. His descriptions of the Shire in particular – and of many of the lands around – echoed what he knew well from his homes in Oxford and, earlier, Birmingham. The Old Forest was Moseley Bog. The mill at Hobbiton was actually a mill in his childhood home village of Sarehole. Old Man Willow was a tree he knew of. Perrott’s Folly apparently inspired some of the towers – Orthanc and Minas Tirith especially.

People made their way into the book too. Treebeard’s hoom-hom voice was parodying the way Tolkien’s friend and fellow Inkling C S Lewis spoke.  A lot of Tolkien’s settings also reflected his First World War experiences, especially his portrayal of the Dead Marshes. That, really, was a description of the Western Front in all its horrible detail. Including the smell. (I discussed this connection in more detail in my book Western Front (Reed, Auckland 2004)).

Tolkien also portrayed the rough-house talk of soldiers, via his orcs – particularly in the sequences where Frodo and Sam were sneaking into Mordor. This was pure British troops-walking-to-battle speak. In a way it was inevitable. Tolkien was in the trenches of the Western Front when he began writing the Silmarillion. The environment framed him in ways he perceived.

The brilliance was the way Tolkien abstracted everything. He took what he knew, filtered it through his fantasy setting – and created a world that embodied the fantastic, yet which also carried a haunting familiarity for readers. It was one of the reasons why The Lord Of The Rings did so well. And that shows us how to write from experience – and still be creative.

Tolkien also used his experiences to create the philosophy of his story, particularly the nature of evil, attitudes to mortality, and the way people confront their fortunes. Is it coincidence that his Numenoreans are obsessed with extending their lives, that Elves are immortal – in a fantasy setting originally framed by the slaughter-house of the Western Front? I think not.

After The Lord of The Rings was published in the mid-1950s, critics suggested his tale was metaphor for the Second World War. It wasn’t. Tolkien always insisted there was no particular meaning. Actually, meanings did intrude – but they were metaphors for the issues of the First World War and pre-1914 England. Most of it came from the fact that Tolkien had infused a lot of what he knew into the book.

Here are a few links to some of the places – and to Hobbiton, which really exists in New Zealand, near Matamata. Peter Jackson had it built in wood, concrete and durable materials:

http://bardscribe.hubpages.com/hub/Interesting-and-Little-Known-Facts-about-JRR-Tolkien
http://www.cromwell-intl.com/travel/uk/oxford-lewis-tolkien/
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/uk/centralengland/739039/Sites-that-shaped-Tolkiens-Lord-of-the-Rings.html
http://www.hobbitontours.com/

As always, Tolkien has shown us how it should be done.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

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3 comments on “Worldbuilding: Tolkien wrote from experience too

  1. Elisa Nuckle says:

    I think it’s great to pull your personal experiences into your writing. There are classic examples (like Tolkien), but in my own series, I use what I’ve seen of the deserts in Arizona and New Mexico (I’ve driven from California to Texas — long drive!) in certain parts of my novel, as well as the coastline, and the rivers in Texas as well as being stuck in a city during hurricane season (or during a hurricane, as was the case once). All of that can be translated to a fantasy setting, and it’s super encouraging to know great people like Tolkien did that, too! I’m a huge fan of The Hobbit and the LotR movies (I confess to not liking the books as much…) so yeah. :D

    • The film was modified – the script-writer, Phillipa Boyens, told me some years ago that they were all ‘fans’, though, so they’d preserved the spirit of what Tolkien had in mind. Personally I was always a shade disappointed that they’d cut the Tom Bombadil sequences. Plot-wise they were perhaps a distraction, but to me they added a good deal to the growth of the hobbits as heroes.

      • Elisa Nuckle says:

        Yeah, Tom Bombadil was pretty awesome. He would’ve been an interesting addition to the movies.

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