Exploring Middle Earth: Why do we love it so much?

How do you talk about world building and NOT start with Middle Earth?

Well, you might be able to, but I cannot. You all know I love Tolkien. But while I could go on and on and on about characters and plot and various other things, today we are going to focus in specifically on Tolkien’s World Building.

What are some of the things he did?

And, interestingly enough, what are some of the things he didn’t do?

What Tolkien did:

Well, to start with, he created a map of the world. And there are even places on this map that don’t make it into the books (just talking about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, here for the moment). The fact that there are places on the map OUTSIDE of the story gives the world a larger scope.

If we want to look beyond the “storybooks” for a moment, he also created an enormous history for this world and the different races living in it. That history gave him a place to “peek back into” throughout the stories, making The Lord of the Rings, in particular, feel like a realm that has been around for a while, with a real back story that the characters are aware of, much like us in our own world… even if you’re not a history buff, you probably know some historical facts and events that occurred throughout history, some in your own country, and some even in other countries, or events that had a more wide-spread scope. Giving Middle Earth a large and involved history helps the characters come alive.

He created different languages for his races. Of course, he spent a lot of time developing Elvish, but he also created a runic alphabet for the dwarves. (And, technically, he created the languages first and then wrote the world so that he’d have a realistic background for his languages… but I digress). These languages allowed him to name things and places in this world in a consistent manner, so that none of the names jump out at us as “not belonging.”

 

 

Tolkien also invested time and effort into creating different cultures. The culture of the Shire is very different from that of Laketown, which is different again from Lothlorien, Rohan, or Gondor. And yet, all of the cultures fit well within the scope of this world. They don’t feel so different from each other that they belong on completely different planets, or even different continents. They work together and each has things that draw us to them and things that could be improved upon, just like in a real world setting.

He placed different creatures in this world. It has dragons, the fell beasts that the ring wraiths ride, wargs, barrow-wights, and oliphants. In terms of sapient creatures, he inserted goblins, orcs, uruk-hai, and ents alongside men, elves, dwarves, hobbits, and wizards. All of these work together to create an intricate network of interesting characters and their interactions in this world.

What didn’t Tolkien do?

Something that Tolkien didn’t do, is that he did not create a completely new calendar or clock. (Okay, yes, he DID create a Hobbit Calendar, and you can read all about it HERE, but for all intents and purposes… he tells us that Bilbo and Frodo share a birthday and that it falls on September 22nd… and without reading any further than The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, we would be left to surmise that their Sept. 22nd is the same as our Sept. 22nd… and that would be okay). If we look specifically at The Hobbit, we see him talk about “Wednesday” and “autumn” and “winter” and we see the months “May” and “June” mentioned. When Bilbo races out after the dwarves without a pocket handkerchief he tells the dwarves that he didn’t get their note until 10:45. So we see a lot of familiar terms and times throughout the story and this actually helps to ground us in the world and gives us something sturdy and familiar to grasp hold of in this new and wondrous place.

He also didn’t delve too much into how his magic system worked. How Gandalf does the things he does is generally just accepted as “something he can do because: wizard.” Elven “magic” is described to Sam thus: it may seem like magic to Sam and the other hobbits, but to the elves, it really isn’t magic at all. Not much time is spent defining magic. It’s just something that Gandalf can do. We don’t know his limits, we don’t know why he uses his power sometimes and other times he doesn’t, but we generally accept that he knows best, as we only get to see him use that magic in moments when he knows what they are facing is truly beyond the capabilities of his non-wizard companions.

Again, we may not be sure why Galadriel can do this. But we accept that she can. 

And as far as I can remember, I don’t think Tolkien ever mentions currency. There is the dwarves’ treasure, of course, and we know that the mithril shirt is worth a “princely sum” but I don’t remember any kind of actual money ever being mentioned. I could be wrong, we’re re-reading them with the kids and I’ll have to keep an ear out… but if money is mentioned, it’s more in a general, “That’s expensive,” sort of way rather than a, “That’ll run you 12 dollars” sort of way.

So what do we learn from Tolkien when it comes to world building? Well, personally, I learned that it’s okay to focus on just a few things and do them well. I learned that it’s okay not to do some things, and that sometimes having a bit of familiarity built into the world can help a reader truly lose themselves in the story.

Mountain Segue

What about you, dear Reader? Have you read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings? Did you enjoy your time in Middle Earth? Why or why not? What realms most appeal to you?

Make sure to come back tomorrow as we journey over to The Final Empire located on the ruined world of Scadrial. Yep, tomorrow we venture into the world of Mistborn!

~ jenelle

17 Comments

Reynwood

This was actually pretty neat. I haven’t read LOTR in a looong time (unless you want to count the movies) and it is interesting to note the worldbuilding aspects that Tolkien actually left out. I never thought about that before!

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jenelle

Thanks! I had to really think for a while as I was trying to come up with things Tolkien didn’t do. He did so much… and he created so much history and back story and unique races, that the things he did thoroughly sort of overshadow the things he didn’t do at all. Which just goes to show that playing to your strengths is a good idea and that a reader’s imagination is capable of filling in any minor gaps you might leave. :)

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J. L. Mbewe

Great write up! I am intrigued as well to what he left out, especially when he went to such lengths with his other world-building details. It makes me think about how this applies to us. Do readers have issue with it? Or only other writers? Perhaps we worry too much over certain details that don’t pertain to the actual story being told? Perhaps during the time he wrote it, it was acceptable to take things at face value and readers accepted it as is, but now, we’re too critical? Lots to think about here. Thank you for sharing!

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jenelle

I think writers tend to hang out with more critical readers simply because we are often in groups with other writers… and we read things differently than most readers. Imagination fills in so much.

Another great example is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. When I tell people that book is only 37,000 words long, I get absolutely shocked reactions. Everyone who’s read it (even multiple times) is convinced it’s longer than that. When I saw the Walden Media movie version, I was FURIOUS because I was convinced that the White Witch’s hair was supposed to be black, and they had gotten it WRONG….. but then I went back and scoured the books and realized that…. Lewis never once told us what color her hair was. Or even what she looked like, really. But my impression of her was so strong and vivid that I filled in all the details he left out without even realizing it.

I think sometimes we get so caught up in editing and getting advice from other authors and beta readers and editors, that we forget about the “uniquely portable magic” we are creating and the fact that it only works in conjunction with our readers’ imaginations. Any fantasy world we create is going to ultimately have holes in it… no matter how long or hard we attempt to make it “perfect.” (clearly, I’m not advocating for slapping some words on a page and calling it “finished!”) but I do think that sometimes we spend too much time on unimportant details (I know I do, anyway!) and at some point, we have to say “enough is enough!” and write the story. More on that in a much later blog post…….. :)

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Kessie

Now I’m going to wracking my brains for some mention of money in LOTR. I think the last time it’s mentioned is when Frodo thinks that Strider is going to rob him, and he’d only brought a little money with him. I think the rest of the time, we never hear about money because nobody ever buys anything. :-D

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jenelle

I was wracking my brain to think if it was mentioned specifically anywhere, which is why I couldn’t say for certainty (without rereading the entire series in order to write this post… which would have been enjoyable but I didn’t have time for that) heheh But, yeah, the lack of having to buy anything helped with the not needing to create a currency. I mean, I know they stay at the Prancing Pony and they get Bill…. but I can’t remember if they paid any specific sum of money for any of that or if it was just sort of assumed that it happened… :)

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Deborah O'Carroll

I love this post OF COURSE! Very interesting points all-around! Yay for all the Tolkien things! ^_^ Now I’m going crazy about the money thing. XD (And ooh, as someone who hasn’t read Mistborn yet, I’m intrigued about tomorrow’s post…)

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jenelle

Yay! I love Tolkien so much! I’m glad that everyone else is going, “Wait… WUT? No currency?!?” I thought for sure I was making that up, but I couldn’t honestly remember any mention of specific currency so I ran with it. LOL

Ooh, tomorrow should be fun, then! I know not everyone has read all the things, so I’m trying to make sure these posts are informative/helpful even if you haven’t read the books I’m talking about. (Later on this week I talk about one of my FAVORITE realms that I’m pretty sure none of my readers have read… so there’s that LOL but it’s such a unique realm I couldn’t leave it out). I liked the first book of Mistborn, but didn’t care much for the rest of the trilogy. Writing tomorrow’s post was actually EXTREMELY difficult for me, as I don’t really like most of Sanderson’s books that I’ve read…. but I tip my hat to him as the current master of world building and am capable of learning from his ways, even if I don’t love his books. :)

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Christine

I am going to learn so much from these posts. That was FANTASTIC!!!

I looooove your point about how he left some things out AND used real world things, like our clocks and calendars. Because, in my mind, Tolkien did e v e r y t h i n g when it comes to world building. His world is so insanely vast and detailed. It’s never occurred to me he actually DID leave some things out, which makes it all the more enjoyable for us. Sometimes authors can go overboard with worldbuilding and I spend the whole story just trying to understand things instead of enjoying the story, you know?

So YES. I LOVED THIS. As long as you focus on a few choice things, it’s totally okay to leave out some things. It’s a simple concept, but one I haven’t thought about as much as I should. THANK YOU, Jenelle! This was fabulous! Can’t wait for the next post! :D

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jenelle

EEEEE! I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Derek’s been helping me a lot with these posts, and as I was going to spend a week focusing on well-ish-known fantasy worlds and what makes them so great, I was floundering a bit going, “Um… so… Middle Earth… and EVERYTHING. Everything is good. But WHY?”

And Derek was the one who said, “Hey, what things did Tolkien NOT do?” And I hadn’t ever really thought about that… except then I remembered someone somewhere in one of my online writer groups saying something about always needing their fantasy books to have a totally fictional made-up calendar, because if the author said the word “Wednesday” it would break the mood for them. About 2 seconds later, someone replied with a quote from Tolkien about Bilbo writing “tea with Gandalf, Wednesday, 11 o’clock” and the original poster went, “Huh…. touche.”

I think it is important to focus on your strengths, to do the things you do well… and then let some things be filled in by the reader’s imagination. There are certain things that your story might not need… and some things it might… and it’s okay not to know up front all the things you’ll need, either… even with all the up-front world building Derek and I do nowadays before I start a project, I almost always have to stop and do some research or figure out a world building point SOMEWHERE in my story because something comes up I didn’t expect!

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Sarah Pennington

Of course we’re starting with the classic! I think you covered it pretty well. (On a side note, at one point I attempted to match up dates in the Hobbit calendar with dates in the real calendar . . . it didn’t go super well, but I tried REALLY hard.)

Also, I feel like money is one of the things that almost NO ONE includes in worldbuilding. Which is weird, given how necessary it is to most people, but I guess that since we tend to write about either royalty or people running around in woods and mountains miles from civilization, it’s often not that important.

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jenelle

Thanks!

I actually wrote myself into a problem with Minstrel’s Call when I needed currency, so I ended up creating one and then going back and editing it into the first book so it didn’t come out of nowhere in the fourth book. Now, I try to at least think about it whenever I’m starting a new story.

I feel like I’ve recently read quite a few fantasy books that had their own unique currency systems, but can I remember which books they were? Nope. :-D

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jenelle

I think there was currency in Sand and Storm/Blood Traitors by Stella Dorthwany that I read recently, but now I’m not sure. I have a feeling this is going to be something I keep a subconscious eye on as I read now…. :)

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beckythemothling

I love Tolkien!

This is a really interesting thing to think about. Books that don’t describe clothing or architecture tend to drive me batty for some reason, unless it’s really easily inferred (if it’s based on a real life culture, for example. Tolkien not describing clothing doesn’t bother me because the world is obviously supposed to be medieval-inspired). But I definitely don’t think an author needs to describe EVERYTHING. Readers will be perfectly fine without knowing everything about how the calendar works.

I do like how Tolkien treats his magic system. I like writing magic systems where it’s not perfectly clear how or why it works, too, but I’m not sure I do it as well as he does. ;-)

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jenelle

I like writing “soft” magic systems the way Tolkien did, as well. Or I tend to make it a genetic trait gifted by the “Creator” of my world. Usually I fall somewhere in between the “because: magic” and “here are the rules of magic” systems. :)

That’s interesting that clothing and architecture are two of your big things as a reader.

I think so much of a solid world can be judged by whether or not the gaps are easily inferred. If the reader can easily manage to fill those gaps in their imagination, then the world building was done well enough that it allowed the reader to step inside the story and look around. Then the difficulty, of course, lies in NOT describing everything so that the book feels dry and boring! (I’ve read one like that, every single thing was described with at least 3 adjectives, and the story and characters got lost behind all the descriptions).

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