Worldbuilding: lessons from Tolkien

One of the tricks to writing a good fantasy novel is having enough normality for people to identify with, yet creating something different enough to spark interest and give the sense of wonder that is so essential to the genre.

It’s a tricky balance, particularly because a lot of what we regard as ‘normal’ is unspoken and unnoticed. Today I’m going to look at how to get that balance between ‘the fields we know’ (as Dunsany put it) and the ones beyond.

There is an unsurpassed master here – Tolkien. The balance between the familiar and the exciting was one of the keys to the success of The Lord of the Rings and his whole Middle Earth genre. So let’s look at how he managed it.

For Tolkien, the familiar was defined by the world of hobbits. The Shire was really England – and not just any England, but the idealised, romanticised, pre-industrial ‘Merrie England’ that gained new nostalgic dimension in the ninetenth and early twentieth centuries. By Tolkien’s time the imagery was further framed with the ‘arts and crafts’ movement, it was pretty clear this was how Tolkien envisaged the place; and both Hobbiton and Bag End were pretty much realised in that style by Peter Jackson’s design team for the Lord of the Rings movies. (Possibly by no coincidence, this was also the interior décor of the Eagle and Child, the local Oxford pub where Tolkien and his friends regularly met.)

The world of his hobbits – The Shire – was very much an idealised early modern England, romanticised and writ small. The imagery keyed into a very deep sentiment in his native Britain. But it also struck chords, partly coincidentally, with the international counter-culture of the 1960s.  They too looked to a nostalgic image of pre-industrial life, part of their wider rejection of mid-twentieth century valies. And that was really why LOTR took off in the way it did during the 1960s – and why the whole ouvre has become so entrenched in culture since. Tolkien basically hit the right imagery at the right time to become iconic – keying into the very need felt by a wide swathe of that rising youth culture.

The Tom Bombadil sequence with its implicit ‘back to mother Earth’ imagery hit particular connections with the aspired ‘hippie’ lifestyle of the 1960s. A point lampooned with razor accuracy in Bored of the Rings. (‘Tim Benzedrine’, ‘Hashberry’) But that too represented the ‘familiar’ in many ways to the counter-culture.

That ‘familiar’ aspect intruded repeatedly through Lord of the Rings as Tolkien took his readers on a journey through his world. Even the wilder and more exotic lands had their mundane side – the long descriptions of Ithilien stand out as one of the better examples, or the woodlands of Lorien.

Tolkien also presented the whole in a deliberately ‘ordinary’ way, stylistically. There is a distinct style change in LOTR between the early ‘mundane’ world of the Shire and the ‘epic’ world of Gondor, Mordor and Sauron’s war in the latter chapters of the book. This not only underscored the transition as events gained pace but also lent power to the creation of the mundane as an anchor point.

The familiarity that Tolkien built through his presentation of the mundane also helped anchor the vast back-story in a sense of reality – just as that back story gave the ‘present’ world of LOTR its power. The two worked together, building off each other.

The whole worked together in many complex ways. He made the fantastic believable – anchoring it in a firm base of the normal. It gave dimension to the fantasy side of Middle Earth, the fantastic and the unbelievable.

Not least the Argonath.  Back in the early 2000s I used to walk between the enormous models used in the movie, which were installed for a while as stair guards in the foyer of New Zealand’s national museum.  They alone were impressive. But the real things were meant to be at least 500 feet high. Does stone have the tensile strength needed to support vertical structures with jutting horizontal elements on that scale? No. Go to Utrecht and visit the Dom to find out. The cathedral was blown down by a storm. Why? Because they’d built over the limit of what stone could handle. It’s also why the pyramids are – well, pyramids, not vertical like the Argonath statues.  And there was plenty else in Middle Earth that fell into the same category – Isengard, elements of Moria, and so on. Tolkien’s skill with ‘suspension of disbelief’ – founded in the familiar – made it all credible.

That familiarity in the early chapters of LOTR also enhanced the dramatic power of the later sequences as events gained pace – there was a huge contrast between that normal, ordinary, familiar world of the Shire and the vast darkness through which the characters had to battle as the quest progressed. Tolkien, in short, displayed an absolute mastery when it came to making  the fantastic real, and he did it by contrasting it with a well-rendered mundane.

This was one of the reasons why LOTR was more than just another fantasy novel – it was great literature.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

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6 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: lessons from Tolkien

    1. Absolutely! It’s true, I think, that for Tolkien the essence was the ‘doing’, not the ‘publishing’. He had to be nudged into finishing anything – but the results were just fantastic, and definitely offer lessons when we try to follow in his footsteps. Thanks for dropping by.

  1. Great post. It really got me thinking about how our own fantasy stories should weave together the ordinary and the extraordinary, the natural and the paranormal. Tolkien’s books really do speak to a longing for a comforting connection with the natural world and a need for adventure. He balances these well.

    1. Hi – thank you! And a good point. It’s something not too many other fantasy authors have managed so well. Robin Hobb (Margaret Ogden) is another, I think. To me, part of Tolkien’s secret was his control of writing style. He deliberately rendered the earlier parts of the book in a quite ‘pedestrian’ style, unadorned, consciously to create that sense of reality. Later – certainly as ‘The Return of the King’ unfolded – he adopted a much more epic tone. Thanks for dropping by.

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