BLUF: Every world needs an element of familiarity in order for readers to be able to put themselves in that world. Good characters and neat world ideas aren’t enough. There’s an element of world crafting that can only be revealed through story scenes, an underlying tone that brings readers into the world in a subtle, yet necessary manner.
It’s been said that the problem with Tolkien is that his work is all mythological and heroic, and that the characters and situations are not real enough to relate to. If we’re focusing on a lack of character flaws, romantic strife, or political infighting based upon selfish motives between heroes (Boromir doesn’t count–he was being acted upon by an external corrupting agent), I agree.
The characters in Tolkien aren’t sophisticated protagonists where no one is truly good or evil. His story misses that people are complex, and will act with a blend of selfish and selfless motives, and that sometimes enemies are made simply from pure misunderstanding or differing perspectives. Tolkien’s world is, metaphysically speaking, somewhat Catholic in its portrayal that everyone is basically good (and essentially the same), and that evil is an external agent that acts upon us. Evil is ultimately a thing that extends from an external source, and good characters are those who reject and resist evil. The measure of a character’s goodness is directly related to how successful they are at fighting temptation and corruption. Tolkien doesn’t use the word “sin”, but the concept is there (Tolkien was Catholic after all, and his writing reflects this–especially the Silmarillion, which echoes Biblical mythology, but without the presence or need for a sacrificial savior). In Tolkien’s world, characters which successfully resist evil and stay true will ultimately find themselves in harmony with each other, fighting on the same side, and in generally getting along quite agreeably. This world view leads to somewhat static characters which are all variations of the same heroic ideal. I’ve no problem with this–I love Tolkien’s characters and I love heroic idealism. I only say this to acknowledge there is some fair criticism here, and if a reader is looking for realistic people, Tolkien’s world-view is somewhat simplistic.
However, there’s another side of Tolkien’s craftsmanship that seems to get overlooked in discussions about his work, one that personally connected with me since my first reading of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was in the 5th and 6th grade. It all started with the Boy Scouts of America.
I read them the same year that I joined the Boy Scouts and went on my first camping trip. It seemed that our troop had somehow angered the weather gods. The first time out, it rained so hard and all night that most tents got flooded. Most of us were young and inexperienced in setting up a site to weather the rain. Ironically enough, it was that first camping trip that I had brought my mom’s hardcopy of the Fellowship of the Ring and it was a casualty to a water-soaked backpack.
The second time out, the same thing, although my tent fared better this time. Eventually we had the Klondike Campout, a winter mountain gathering of the regional gathering of Boy Scout troops. It snowed, and stayed well below freezing through the night. My toes were so cold, and wet with sweat from earlier in the afternoon–I’m amazed I didn’t get frostbite that night. Camping got better after that, but that first year in the Boy Scouts it seemed that every outing we were cold and wet, and usually somewhat hungry.
Since then, I’ve joined the military. The Combat Communications training in Korea, where we established and defended a comm site against OPFOR (opposing forces) and outfitted our M16s with blanks and laser-tag style transmitters with our flak vest sporting sensors (MILES gear), while fun at times was also cold and wet. November in Korea is not a pleasant time to be in the elements at night. We had puddles flood some of our defensive fighting positions, and had to dig drainage trenches while under “threat” of the enemy (the instructor cadre). That night it grew cold, and at least our cots kept our sleeping bags up out of the mud. The fuel (jet fuel–yes, gas) heater did not seem to want to stay lit. When it was lit, it made everything near it over-hot, but the edge of the tent was still cold. There was no in between–you were either too hot or too cold. And of course waking up and having to use the latrine induced a cost-benefit analysis how bad did you need to go vs. how bad was the outside chill vs. the warm cocoon you had finally managed to trap in the sleeping bag. Conversely, summer in Qatar is the opposite extreme. I remember a friend of mine telling me she couldn’t wait to get home because she wanted to know what it was like again to poop without sweating. On a similar note, the last night I had in Afghanistan before flying home was an unheated tent in January (the power generators that ran the tent’s heating system kept failing around midnight or so). By 6 in the morning you would wake up deep within the sleeping bag. You would poke your arm out to test the sub-zero air, and then pull it back in and say to yourself, “Nope, nope, nope. Don’t need to go that badly yet.”
So what does this have to do with crafting fantasy worlds?
When you go camping, or deploy to the field, you leave behind the comforts of modern life. Fantasy expeditions, more-so than sci-fi (with their Enterprises, replicators, and whatnot) leaves behind the comforts of modern life, and takes us out there, away from home. The epic quest is all about leaving the grounded center of our lives behind to make a journey. Sure, there will be fantastic moments of heroism, but these are the accent points. The backdrop is the travel, the journey, the discomfort of being out of our element because we’re out with the elements.
The first thing that struck me about Bilbo’s journey was neither the dwarves, trolls, or the storm giants in the mountains. He was wet, cold, and miserable, and the memory of the comforts of his home, with warm biscuits and tea were vivid in his mind. And this is what Tolkien captured, either intentionally or unintentionally: travel and being out in the elements suck. Some people like this sort of thing (thank you special forces), and more power to them. For most of us, however, that’s not the case. I like enjoying the bounty of civilization.
It is important to capture this mundane struggle in an epic quest story. It’s the part of the heroes’ struggle that people can actually related to, and it provides a transitional point of commonality that then lets readers experience the more fantastic with the feelings of reality. There should be a rhythmic punctuation between being “away” in discomfort, accented by the warmth of hospitality. The moments in the rain should be cold and unpleasant. A beautiful night beneath the stars around the campfire should feel restful compared to the day’s journey. Being welcomed in an inn, or by friendly parties should even make more of an impact. The reader rests with the heroes, and these moments of community in the world can also be valuable times for an author to reveal conversations–because it’s safe to converse. These moments can be some of the greatest points of character interaction, development, and revelation about the world. We need those moments of safety and comfort in the story to compare against the moments of being away. This is one of the reasons that two of the chapters in the Fellowship of the Rings were both the chapters with Tom Bombadil (“In the House of Tom Bombadil”) and then later at Rivendell (“Many Meetings” and “The Council of Elrond”). Campfire meals are lesser moments of comfort in between. This rise and fall of comfort and companionship with the miserableness of travel in hostile lands (remember the bugs? Ah yes, the bugs. Remember, Tolkien was in the Army. He fought in WWI). It creates a sort of underlying musical theme and structure to the Epic Quest story.
Then, against that backdrop, the fantastical encounters the heroes experience bring out the heroic, magical significance of the story. Magic and dragons are all very well, but the surrealistic without the realistic backdrop makes for a less-relatable world. And this is why this article is categorized as world crafting. Tolkien may have been idealized in his character portrayal, but his world is certainly not idealized. For all its fantastic elements, it is believable. It is this element that is common in both Tolkien’s work and in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series (they were both military veterans–Jordan was veteran of Vietnam, a recipient of the Purple Heart, and a graduate of the Citadel military academy in South Carolina), and probably no accident that these are my two favorite fantasy series (as an aside, Jordan gets the character depth down more than Tolkien, and so creates a very rich story, getting both “character-character” and “world-character” down). And so, when writing a story and focused on character depths–as modern writers do nowadays, everything is about character–don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. If you want your readers to believe in the world your characters live in, you need to portray some of the mundane, common human experiences of struggle with the environment, even in a story with magic, dragons, and whatever other fantastic surrealism makes your world unique and interesting.