On Tolkien and the Building of Worlds

This is the Tolkien poster I had on my bedroom
wall as a boy.  I can’t recall the artist’s name****.  The
drawing is nice, but the characters are nothing
like I imagined them.  Still, it was before the days of
Alan Lee, and this was the best I could get…

I finished reading The Lord of the Rings to Sam recently.  At eight, he’s probably a little young for it, but I thought he should experience it before over-exposure to similar imagery via other books, movies, Warhammer etc. renders it all a bit meh.  (When I was a lad The Lord of the Rings seemed to be the only book that really delivered dwarfs and orcs and misty mountains; now they’re everywhere.)  In particular, I wanted him to know the books before he saw the movies.

I’ve written elsewhere of some of my doubts about The Lord of the Rings – in particular, its distinct whiff of white supremacy (it’s a far more racist book than, say, King Solomon’s Mines, which I suspect you won’t find in many school libraries these days, and whose plot and  action The Lord of the Rings echoes in several places)*.  But re-reading it I found that a lot of the things I thought were going to annoy me were actually not half as bad as I recalled (the bloomin’ elves, whom I’d remembered as insufferable goody-goodies, actually have an edge of danger and strangeness about them) and that the things I liked about were often even better than I’d thought.

Matthew Bailey, writing on my Facebook page a few weeks back, suggested that The Lord of the Rings might have trouble finding a publisher these days, and I have a nasty feeling that he may be right, because Tolkien clearly had no interest in playing by the rules of adventure or fantasy stories – if, indeed, such rules really existed when he wrote it.  It’s true that the book is very long and has a very peculiar structure; slow to start, often looping back several weeks to pick up on what all the different characters have been doing, and frequently stopping to deliver what I believe sci-fi anoraks call ‘info-dumps’.  The characters are subtle, careful, moving, but to readers raised on the rather crude, touchy-feely stuff that gets praised as good characterisation by modern book-groups and the alumni of ‘Creative Writing’ courses they probably don’t seem like characters at all.  But all these things, I feel, are strengths, not weaknesses: by ignoring so many of the usual techniques of this sort of novel Tolkien gives us the feeling that we are not reading a novel at all; it feels like real history, or at least a genuine myth.

The Lord of the Rings might not be the best fantasy ever written (though I can’t think off-hand of a better one) but I do believe it’s the best fantasy world ever created, which is quite an achievement when you think of the thousands of such worlds which have followed in its wake.  Since I basically build worlds for a living (and I’m starting work on a new one at the moment) I thought it might be useful to consider what it is that separates Prof T’s creation from those of his many imitators.

These aren’t my original copies.
I read those till they fell apart.

The Devil in the Details

One clear reason why Middle Earth still tops the made-up worlds chart is its detail.  Tolkien seems to have an intimate knowledge of every last inch of the landscape; each tree-root and tussock, each twist of every road.  His lengthy descriptions bore some readers, and I confess I skipped a few of them while reading aloud, but for anyone with an attention span longer than Sam’s they are a delight; rich word-pictures of the British landscape filtered through a mind steeped in history and legend.  Like my other favourite childhood author, Rosemary Sutcliff, Tolkien wasn’t a great hill-walker or explorer of wild places – as far as I know some strolls on the Marlborough Downs and an annual trip to Bournemouth were more his cup of tea – but by some alchemy of the imagination he makes you believe that he knows these places.  Who can describe dawn in a forest or the mist lifting off a mountain better?  And he’s forever telling us what his characters can see; what mountains or plains they look out over from this hill or that; where this river comes from; what lands it flows through on its way to the sea.  This is a tale told by a map-maker.

The same obsessive detailing applies to the history of Middle Earth.  The Lord of the Rings isn’t just one adventure with a bit of patched-together backstory slung in to make it work.  It’s part of a whole structure of stories, a vast myth-cycle in which the characters are steeped and which the reader dimly perceives.  We may not be quite sure who Durin, Elendil and the rest of the legendary figures the characters talk and sing of were, but their names, and the scraps of their stories which dot the text, give us the impression of great depths of time and history underlying the events we are reading about.  (Of course, Prof Tolkien had worked out all these older stories in some detail; he never published them, and presumably never thought them worth publishing.  Anybody who has struggled through The Silmarillion or the other volumes that have appeared since his death may well agree.)

The Naming of Names

They don’t make covers like this any more –
thank crikey.

Tolkien was, of course, a professor of philology, the study of languages, and this gives him a clear world-building advantage over those of us who aren’t.  One of the reasons I’ve chosen to set my own fantasies on the far-future earth rather than in a wholly invented world is because I don’t like made-up names; they almost always sound fake, and I far prefer to be able to use existing names and words.  George Lucas’s original Star Wars films were another great influence in my childhood years, and I remain fond of them, but listen to the names – Luke Skywalker, Owen and Beru Lars,  Biggs, Tatooine, Tarkin, Han Solo…  There’s nothing wrong with them individually, particularly in the context of a movie, where they whip past almost without you noticing, but collectively they sound like what they are – a collection of found words and nonsense sounds slung together because G Lucas thinks they sound right**.  That’s presumably how most fantasy writers operate (it’s certainly the route I went down with alien names in Larklight) and there’s nothing wrong with it, but Tolkien’s names are in a different class: they spring, like real ones, out of their parent languages; whole languages which he had invented, and whose rules and grammar he understood.

Not only that, there are loads of them; far more names than the story actually requires.  Reading the book aloud really made me notice how many of the characters and places don’t just have one name but  two or three; the Mines of Moria are also called The Dwarrowdelf and Khazad Dum; rivers and mountains have names given to them by men, but also older names in elvish or dwarfish.  And we are for ever being told more names: when Gandalf (AKA Mithrandir) rides with Pippin from Rohan to Minas Tirith at the start of The Return of the King, they see the beacons of Gondor being kindled on the mountain-tops, and Tolkein tells us the name of every mountain: “See, there is the fire on Amon Din, and flame on Eilenach; and there they go speeding west: Nardol, Erelas, Min-Rimmon, Calenhad, and the Halfirien on the borders of Rohan.” There is no need for us to know the names of those peaks; they play no further part in the story; we never hear of most of them again.  But Tolkien knows that’s what they’re called, and he likes the sound they make, and by sharing them with us he fills in a little more background, and makes his made-up world that little bit more real.

And, of course, you don’t have to be a philologist to appreciate Tolkien’s ear for words; those great, sonorous, rolling sentences with their echoes of Tennyson, Beowulf and the King James Bible:  ‘And straightway all the horns in the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains.’ And in the quieter moments, in the Shire, where the language is meeker and less heroic, there is still that pitch-perfect use of place-names; Crickhollow; Micheldelving; Archet; Bywater; names that sound so much more English than anywhere in England that just typing them makes me feel all nostalgic***.

Tol Brandir by the mighty Alan Lee, from his
illustrated edition of The Lord of the Rings

That’s what I brought away from this latest re-reading; an admiration for Tolkien’s love of language.  That’s what makes The Lord of the Rings a great book, and it’s probably what makes Middle Earth a great world too; for in the end it is a world made of words.  If you haven’t yet read The Lord of the Rings you should definitely do so:  if you haven’t read it aloud then I recommend that you get hold of an 8 -12 year old child at once, sit them down, and begin at the beginning.


*King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard is the high-tide mark of the Imperial adventure story.  It tells the story of three white adventurers who set off in search of treasure and a lost African kingdom in the late nineteenth century and end up helping to restore the rightful king of the place.  It reflects all sorts of late Victorian notions about race and empire, many of which are of course distasteful to a modern reader.  On the other hand, it is informed by Haggard’s knowledge of and respect for  Zulu society, and has a black hero (a sort of Zulu Aragorn) who gets to deliver a rather strikingly anti-imperialist speech at the end.  It’s also a rattling good, if extremely bloodthirsty, yarn.  ‘Almost Unbearably Exciting!’ boasts the blurb on the front of the old US paperback edition my dad bought when he was on National Service in Port Said in the ‘fifties, and that gets it about right IMHO.

**It gets worse in the more recent films; Mace Windu, Naboo, General Grievous – the last one presumably chosen, as Mad magazine pointed out, because ‘Hitler von Killington’ didn’t sound quite evil enough.

***I’ve heard some people complain that once the Dark Lord is defeated and the Ring disposed of the story is over, and everything that happens afterwards is an anti-climax.  But they’re idiots.  The Scouring of the Shire is to me the whole point of The Lord of the Rings; it’s Tolkien’s admission that evil isn’t really about Dark Lords and Witch Kings but is something that can thrive wherever ordinary people are greedy or misled.  The skirmish between the hobbits and Sharkey’s men at Bywater is as powerful as any of the huge battles that come earlier in the book, and the closing chapter, with its mood of loss and elegy, its refusal to deliver a conventional happy ending, is magnificent.

****  Strange-but-True Dept: the artist who drew the Tolkien poster turns out to be Jimmy Cauty, who went on to be in the band KLF.  He must have been startlingly young when he did this.  Thanks to everyone who’s been in touch about it.