Monday, December 22, 2014

The best of world building: J.R.R. Tolkien

The greatest map in all of fantasy and sci-fi literature. 
I love world building. There's nothing quite like being transported to a convincing alternate reality. There are a few of such sweeping scope and imagination that they've stuck with me for decades. They aren't just convincing. They delight and intrigue and tantalize. In the end, I don't care if they break the cosmological constants so long as they entertain and inspire.

Team Fellowship
To bastardize Homer Simpson, in my house, we don't obey the laws of thermodynamics.

J.R.R. Tolkien, in my books, is the uncontested King of World Building.

He's not the first. Not by a long shot. But Tolkien is unquestionably the most punctiliously thorough. This is a guy who wrote The Silmarillion, which is essentially a thousand page background document for the world of Middle Earth.

It doesn't get more hard core.

Heck, the appendices of Return of the King are almost as long as the book.

Tolkien developed not one, but several imaginary languages and scripts for the peoples of his imaginary world, along with some of the most thrillingly detailed maps. I remember pouring over Tolkien's rendering of Middle Earth when I was a kid for hours on end. Then I'd scribble my own map in pencil crayon, aping Tolkien's style and populating it with dark forests and jagged mountain ranges. Half the boys in my grade six class read The Lord of the Rings around the same time, and we were fascinated by it. Middle Earth was a thrilling, magical place. It was an alternate world, thought out in minute detail. There's a history behind everything, grounding the material and making it all the more believable.

If only real history were so emotionally fulfilling. But then, that's what myth is for: it makes history make sense.

The two big dudes.
There's something obsessive compulsive in Tolkien's work, which neatly fits with the mindset of a young boy. When boys get interested in something (or at least when I did), they learn absolutely everything about it, and Tolkien delivered on that thirst for detail in spades.

My grandfather had a Tolkien calendar, painted by The Hildebrant Brothers, which reproduced Tolkien's map in sumptuous detail, and I spent an inordinate time looking at that as well. After 1977 ended, I kept the calendar for over a decade. There's something incredibly solid about the way the Hildebrants sculpted and defined shapes with paint. The milky white highlights and deep shadows guide the eye with expert precision about the page with the confidence and surety of a master.

Even now I am in awe of not only Tolkien's imagination, but the art it has inspired. His imaginary world is a meme that sits in the heads of millions and millions of people, as real a place to many as ancient Rome or Greece.

Let there be no mistake: the key to the story are the characters, Frodo and Sam and Gandalf and Gollum, and the environments they travel through can only have meaning in relation to them. They resonate against each other. A world without characters is just an empty space. But a well conceived and emotionally resonant one can take the story, and the characters, to the next level.

Quiet beginnings.
Gandalf meets Bilbo.
Tolkien was a product of his age, which straddled the apex The British Empire. He was born under the reign of Queen Victoria in 1892, and if you read his work you can certainly see a fondness for monarchy and traditional order. The third book, after all, is called Return of the King, which is a big hint as to where his sympathies lie. Indeed, he has been taken to task for this traditional bent by Michael Moorcock in his essay, Epic Pooh. But Tolkien's views are not two dimensional; he advocated, for example, for the dismantling of the British Empire.

And while his books idealize rural life, he was no Luddite. He had doubts about how society was changing, which is understandable, especially these days. Ours is an age of unprecedented, accelerated change. Workers have to adapt quickly to keep up. Careers need to be reinvented. Learning and education are lifelong pursuits out of necessity. It's the only way to remain relevant and employable.

It should be remembered that even the Luddites were not acting out of blind, anti-technology zealotry. They were acting out of self-interest, protecting their jobs from being rendered obsolete by mechanical looms. It's futile to stand against the tides of progress, but it is understandable why some choose to do so.

Tolkien learned Latin at a young age, as well as Welsh, and studied Anglo-Saxon. He collaborated with his cousins in creating a language called Nevbosh, and later a language called Naffarin on his own. This interest in language would later find expression in The Lord of the Rings, for which he'd create Quenya, Sindarin, Black Speech, Entish and Valarin.

Biblo writing the Red Book of Westmarch.
Or There and Back Again. One of them.
Tolkien mixed Nordic mythology together with his own life and inventions seamlessly. The Shire is reminiscent of an idealized English countryside, a pure and placid place upon which Saruman inflicts the blight of modern factories that belch smoke and ruin. The Misty Mountains were inspired by his trips to the Swiss Alps. The bloody, swampy, muddy mess of The Somme inspired The Dead Marshes. The war made quite an impression, upon him, after all: all but one of his close friends was dead by 1918. His wife Edith became inspiration for the main story of the Silmarillion.

The events in his fiction are externalized aspects of his self, of his own life experiences. Like an externalized dream. Dreams recycle and reconfigure our waking life and try and make sense of it. The places in his books are inextricably linked to the characters who pass through them. Good writing is holistic. Locations reflect or externalize internal struggle.

It's about emotional truth.

Mordor at its most evocative.
By the Hildebrant Brothers
Tolkien argued that Beowulf was not about a specific monster, and therefore juvenile, as critics alleged, but about mankind's struggle in general. The monster is an expression of emotional truth. Just because it's cool and evocative doesn't make it illegitimate. Let the fuddy duddy pedants bloviate while we enjoy.

That is how, as an avid youth, I consumed his books.

We emotionally react to Sauron and Smaug and the fear of the Mirkwood dark just as we marvel at the tree forts of the elves and majesty of the Misty Mountains. These are evocative, emotional places, not physical ones. Mirkwood is a state of mind.

The depth of thought that went into these imaginary realms help make the books wonderful reads, or did, back in the days before the internet and truncated attention spans. Few today can read omniscient third person POV anymore, at least not without throwing the book against the wall and running around screaming in outrage. I kid you not. Writing fashions change like everything else.

But I am from an earlier age, the last millennium, like an elf who has outstayed his welcome in Middle Earth and must soon depart for the Grey Havens. I guess it's like Florida.

Mirkwood, Mount Doom, Gondor, Minas Tirith, The Shire, Rivendell. All these places evoke strong memories in me, perhaps even more so having seen the film adaptations by Peter 'Swoop' Jackson.

There's enough detail on this imaginary world to create cool 3D maps showing Middle Earth from orbit. Which is just awesome. Few fantasy worlds inspire faux satellite shots.

Middle Earth from space. That's Mordor in the lower right.
Essays have been written on Tolkien's world building efforts. Tor has a good one (Although they are mistaken that he invented world building. More on that later).

It also should be mentioned that Tolkien's writings are a major point of inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons, which started off the whole craze of role playing, novels, movies, map making and television shows.

Tolkien defined not only the genre, but made maps and world building an inextricable part of it.

Need I say more?

For a recap on the people and creatures of LOTR? See this video:

And for those who've seen and enjoyed the LOTR films, a bit of fun courtesy Honest Trailers:

Top spots on my imaginary Middle Earth travel itinerary:

Who wouldn't want to visit this oasis of peace and tranquility in a world being overrun by slobbering orcs and fire belching balrogs? It's the Switzerland of the fantasy world. Better than a Swedish spa, and infinitely more scenic.

Mines of Moria
I think Moria is probably the most majestic mine ever imagined, with great soaring staircases and gaping chasms that lead down to the centre of the earth. Jackson's film brought them to life and I have to admit his cinematic version rivaled, if not exceeded, my own imagination. But I think I'd go with a tour group, and keep a close eye on the guide. Safety in numbers. It's not a place I'd want to get lost in.

Another dark, foreboding place that leapt to life in my imagination. The tour would be carried out from an armored van equipped with flamethrowers, but I'd still be game.

Minas Tirith
The definitive fantasy city, and the source of inspiration for many others. Seven tiered rings! Gleaming white towers! The White Tree! The nearby Pelennor Fields archeological site, where one of the greatest fantasy battles ever was fought. How could you go wrong? You can always visit the real life inspiration: Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France.

Or just go to New Zealand.

Next time: the original world builder, granddaddy of them all!

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