World Building – Making Tolkien Soup

Elen síla lumenn’ omentielvo!

Today we’re going to take a little detour from our usual discussions of history to take a trip down into the realm of fantasy, specifically Tolkien’s fantasy. Now, at least to me, this isn’t that big of a detour, because 1) Tolkien often drew from history and historical literature to write his works, and 2) I myself am a novelist who does the same thing (I am not comparing myself to Tolkien, it’s just that I also get most of my inspiration from my research). In the future I will be analyzing lesser known works of Tolkien as well as reviewing modern fantasy writers who fall into a particularly  “historically inspired” genre, what I like to call “Historical Fantasy.” But today I will be looking solely at Tolkien’s literary style and his views on “world building” in an effort to ascertain why Tolkien’s works are so well written and so widely accepted. For other fantasy writers out there, I hope this is an informative little essay that perhaps gives you inspiration to write. And for the Tolkien lovers out there, I hope it’s an entertaining study into the mind of Tolkien.

For this particular discussion, I will be drawing from portions of Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” which is a really excellent read. But for starters, I thought I would quote from the opening of his essay:

‘I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash venture. Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. And overbold I  may be accounted, for though I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read, and have at times thought about them, I have not studied them professionally. I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer…’ (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”  in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, 109.)

I love this. For all those out there who have ever felt that they cannot write down the ideas in their head because they are not qualified or they don’t know how, here is Tolkien saying that he feels unqualified to discuss fantasy literature!  So what can we take from this statement, and from the essay as a whole? Well, to use an adage I heard once: some of the best writers are not English majors. Now, I do not mean to rain on the parade of the English studies community. I have quite a number of friends who were and are English majors and are great writers, and I myself toyed with being an English major for a time. And honestly, Tolkien discusses at length in “On Fairy-Stories” about what he has read and what he learned about literature from reading those works. What I am really trying to say here, is that perhaps Tolkien’s genius was not that he was well read on all of the “great” works of literature and literature theory, but that he drew on his extensive knowledge of the things he loved reading (Norse and Anglo-Saxon primarily) to create the fantasy world that HE wanted to write.

Tolkien is an excellent example of an amateur writer who made great fiction in part because he was an expert in another field, namely linguistics. But despite the line I quoted above about not having to be an English major to be able to write fiction, I have to admit that you have to know something about literature in order to write. In order to make a story recognizable and relatable to an audience, there are certain structures and tropes you should follow. (And for those avant garde types out there, how do you break tropes if you don’t know what they are?) However, to a fair extent we are taught our cultures literary tropes in childhood, starting with – you guessed it – fairy tales. Tolkien discusses in some detail what defines the typical fairy tale, or “fairy story” in his usage, and how this genre has come to be geared largely to children. Tolkien argues, however, that children have no specific monopoly on fairy stories, dismissing the argument that they are better able to “believe” fantasy than adults. Rather, Tolkien argues that “believing” a story has as much to do with the skill of the writer as it does with the listener. So, going by that argument, the quality of the world being described in the story has an enormous influence on the reader. The structure of the world has to be believable, i.e. something which makes sense to the mind of the reader, even if there are certain unbelievable premises like magic or imaginary creatures. If the magic fits into a logical framework, then the reader can believe that the world is “real” because it seems close enough to their understanding of reality. What makes the story good, therefore, are the elements placed into the work which makes the world vibrant yet internally consistent.

So, very basically, one of the things you need for a great fantasy story is a well thought out world in which to set it. And to make a good world, according to Tolkien’s style, you need to have inspiration from other literature and a structure to the world which has an internal logic.

Let’s look at these two basic elements of world building each in their turn.

World Building

World building is arguably one of the hardest things for a beginning writer, at least it was for me. This is especially the case for those writing fantasy, as unlike the Literary Fiction genre, fantasy writers are creating an entirely fabricated world which only has tangential relations to the modern world. We may relate to characters who are cold, hungry, happy, or tired, but most people cannot relate to wearing armor, being in a dark magical forest, or meeting a hippogriff. But we have experienced these worlds through the works of other authors. Tolkien arguably is the father of what we consider modern fantasy genre, or as I like to call it, the “elves, dwarves, swords, and magic” genre. This is important, because I think he has shaped what people feel that fantasy HAS to contain. But honestly there is no one right way to create a world. But looking at how Tolkien created his universe might help decipher what made it work well.

Tolkien describes the creation of a fairy story as making soup, in that later fairy stories printed in childrens’ books were based on older stories which were thrown together into a metaphorical pot and then certain elements were taken back out to suit the particular author’s taste. You can see this with the host of Arthurian stories which have come out in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. We have the medieval narratives of King Arthur, which themselves were basically fantasy stories, and then later works which watered down or tried to update Arthur’s story for different audiences. Will you go the “Mists of Avalon” rout and add in some modern pagan elements with historical research to the original legends, or will you go the “Sword and the Stone” route and do a purely kinds version which takes your most favorite and recognizable story from the vast collection of Arthur legends and waters it down for kids? In each case, there’s the historical meat in the soup, the older legend potatoes, the modern pagan belief carrots, and the children’s ideas of magic and stories celery. The author picks which kind of meat, vegetables, and combination that he or she wants. I’m sorry if this takes away from the idea of originality, but if we keep the cooking metaphor, one chicken soup can be original or unique because of the specific way your mother makes it. Thus, Tolkien took many elements for his work from older Norse and medieval literature, but he wrote it in such a way as to make it fresh and interesting for his audience. And that was Tolkien’s great skill.

For instance, let’s look at the character “Gandalf” from Lord of the Rings. The name Gandalf is actually another name for Odin. As well, Odin is described in the Norse Sagas as wearing a gray cloak and big floppy hat. He comes mysteriously, spouts wisdom, and leaves without explanation. In fact, it seems that the only difference between Odin and Tolkien’s Gandalf is that Odin has one eye!  But is that really the case? Well, perhaps what make Tolkien’s  Gandalf different is his warm heart. Odin in saga literature was not portrayed as a particularly loving or affectionate god, quite the opposite really. He was respected and feared, for his loyalties could shift on a whim. Odin is not necessarily your friend, even if he can be a helpful aid at times.  Gandalf, on the other hand, is a kind and caring soul who looks out for the less fortunate. He has a sense of right and wrong and fights for the side of good. He is honest, if secretive. And above all he’s intensely loyal. He’s the kind of guy I would invite in for tea any time he came to my door. (Or second breakfast, if he came early enough.)

In fact, Tolkien drew, consciously or unconsciously, from his knowledge of Norse and Anglo-Saxon literature to help create the world of Middle Earth (which itself is taken from the Norse term for Earth, “Midgard,” or Middle Yard). He placed dwarves, elves, giants, dragons, and trolls into his stories because he was familiar with them from Norse myth, and clearly liked them as literary devices. And his choices, to some extent, have shaped the genre. But from what I’ve seen of the fantasy literature that has followed Tolkien, there seems to be this idea that authors HAVE to put dwarves, elves, dragons, and such into their world to make it “fantasy.” Really, when you sit back and think about it, why is this so? It is YOUR world, you can make up whatever creature you want to put into the story and still make it fantasy. There is no rule which says you have to put any of the creatures Tolkien did into your story, and I would perhaps advise not to if you don’t know the literary history of these creatures (i.e. how they were used in other stories).

For the sake of using a bad example to make a point, let’s compare Tolkien to Christopher Paolini, who wrote the Inheritance Cycle (aka Eragon). Now I know this series is a widely acknowledged as being subpar, but I read 1.5 of his books in high school so I can use it as a point of analysis. It was plainly obvious from reading book one and two that he was trying to imitate Tolkien (and others), as he even used the same letter accents in his created language. He has talking dragons, magic wielding beings, and dwarves – all the elements which should mark the work as a fantasy novel. But why did the work fall flat? Well, besides the terrible writing (sorry, I know he was fifteen when he wrote it, but I call it like it is), it lacks originality. Great, your dragon can talk, so do they in Tolkien and many other stories. Great, your dwarves are unfriendly and make jewelry – they do that in every other story.  Now, you may be thinking: that’s just tropes 101. You use typical themes and ideas to help the reader orient himself or herself in the world. What I’m saying is that you can do this without adding to the repeated beatings of the literary dead horse done by many an average writer.

Let’s take the idea of dwarves as an example. Tolkien probably got his idea for the dwarves from Norse Mythology – I mean, the names of most of the dwarves in the Hobbit came directly from dwarven characters in Norse tales. In Norse sagas dwarves play a major role as the makers of magical items. In the case of the Volsunga Saga, the dwarves make a magical ring of great value and an incredibly strong sword, Gram, which Sigurd uses to kill the dragon Fafnir and steal his dwarven gold. Does this sound at all familiar? It got a little muddled in the retelling, but it is clear that one of the items in Tolkien’s soup was the Volsunga Saga. But what makes Tolkien’s world a bit different is that the dwaves cannot change into dragons or otters, other creatures (i.e. elves and orcs) make impressive weapons too, and sometimes the dwarves befriend men and fight in a coalition of magical beings against evil. These things are all unique to Tolkien’s soup, even if the elves and dwarves can be found in other stories. The problem I see with Paolini and other average writers is that they throw the soup together without understanding where the ingredients came from or how to use the ingredients to make a new and interesting stew. Thus, they get a run-of-the-mill chicken soup.

This particular problem, I think, is also what may determine the “believability” of the fictional world. For me at least, if I see too many overused tropes in a story I instantly think, “this author hasn’t thought about what these tropes really mean.” And why does that matter? Well, if your dwarves make all the weapons, then that must affect the larger world and culture. Is the coinage named after famous dwarves? Does the dwarven maker’s mark on a sword denote quality and thereby the status of the wearer? Are weapons really rare and thus do most people fight with sticks instead? Honestly, you can do so much with a simple idea, that just plugging in a common trope really sounds boring now, doesn’t it? That’s not to say that you can’t put a carrot into your chicken soup, I’m just saying that maybe you could mash the carrots, or put in purple carrots, or add a few new spices to your carrots. And making sure that the carrots really marinade in the soup, rather than throwing them in raw, helps make the soup as a whole taste better. So – by following the metaphor that I may have now stretched beyond its usefulness – if you take elements you like from other places and then mix them thoroughly into the world, then these older elements will fit more uniformly into the world. This creates a better overall consistency in the world you’ve created, and therefore it has better “believability.”

Now, to be fair, as an author you can do whatever you please. If you don’t want to read all of the Norse cannon to write like Tolkien, that’s fine. Odds are that even If you read all of Norse literature you would not write like Tolkien – you would write in your own style with perhaps more Norse tropes. What I am saying is that Tolkien wrote the way he did because he was familiar with medieval and Norse literary styles and tropes, and his understanding of the past usage of certain elements allowed him to bend these older ideas into new elements for his fictional world. Perhaps if other modern authors knew where the idea of dwarves being able to make good weapons came from, or where the idea of elves being tall and beautiful came from, then they could mix and match ideas from other stories to make more original ideas of their own. As I learned from a famous trombonist of the LSO who I met once: if you like what someone better than you is doing, steal it. But I’m saying that you should do it in such a way as to make that older idea your own. That’s what makes the story intriguing to an audience.

I already feel after finishing this post that I have so much more to say, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be writing more on this topic in the future. But for now, I’ve met my word limit and probably your attention span. So, farewell for now! Namárië!

-The Valkyrie


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