Okay, that’s a bit harsh. What I really mean is Tolkien‘s elaborately crafted setting didn’t do us any favors but the title was getting wordy. That’s not to say that, like many readers, I don’t love his setting. I do adore it, from its linguistic elements to the ring with its history back into the earlier ages of the world. It’s all great stuff and much of what makes The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) the story it is.
The disservice is that such a setting is not a requisite for a good fantasy book or even a long running series. Especially for those of us who come to writing through refereeing fantasy roleplaying games, it can be a time-consuming pitfall. You see, having enjoyed Tolkien’s appendices, The Silmarillion, and other assorted bits, it is easy to take this level of detail as a requirement for a good fantasy setting, when it isn’t. It worked for Tolkien but let’s not forget he was a philologist and university professor: he created this great world as much as for a hobby as for his novel.
You can tell the setting only matters so much because Tolkien actually put very little of it into LOTR. Certainly some is present, but only enough to serve the story. There’s even less of it in The Hobbit. Granted that was an earlier book but it is interesting how little of his great setting shows up in the Hobbit, yet we still love it.
It is easy to forget that and dive into creating an elaborate setting for your own D&D campaign or novel. If you like creating settings, go to it. I love it myself. The thing is neither your D&D players nor your readers are really going to ever appreciate an intricate setting because it won’t matter much to their enjoyment of the game or book (unless you happen to become the next Tolkien but, while fun to daydream about, that might not be a great goal for allocating your time.) These days, most readers seem extremely reluctant to read even a word of appendix, and who can blame them after so many tedious examples of ones, post-Tolkien?
If you want to be a successful fantasy writer, you certainly do need a good premise. But beyond that, elaborate setting history is dangerous. A the very least, it is a distraction, keeping you from spending your precious time on writing your fiction. More insidiously, if you do create all that wonderful history, you might find it sneaking into your book as unnecessary backstory, sapping the very life from your novel.
So, enjoy Tolkien’s world for the wonder it is but have a care before making one yourself.
One of the pleasures of parenthood is reading to your children. Most children’s books read well out-loud. The Hobbit (a children’s book) is a great read. The Lord of the Rings, despite it’s length does pretty well, too. The early Harry Potter is also nice verbalized but, unfortunately, its suitability falls off near the end of the series. It isn’t that the novels get longer (LOTR isn’t exactly short), it’s that as they progressed, there gets to be too much plot filler (oh look, Ron and Harry are fighting like teenage girls again, we all know how that will end) and reading some of the dialogue with a she/he said plus adverb on every single piece of dialogue gets a little ridiculous (said the blogger, snarkily.) Even so, the Potter series was an enjoyable read through book 4, passable for another book but I gave up mid-way on book 6.
After not quite finishing book 6, it was time to find something new. I loved Dragon Riders of Pern (DRoP) as a teenager and still enjoy it, plus it’s on my kindle already so I decided to try that. Ouch. It takes a novel not very suitable for reading aloud to remind you of what makes a good one. DRoP had setting elements that proved a challenge: try distinguishing N’tol from Nytol when you are actually speaking it. It can be done but it’s a good way to trip you up. Then there are a lot of names with the same starting letter (F’nor and F’lar, neither of which really roll off the tongue.) But I think the real challenge is that the story flits around a lot in the first few chapters, both in scene and POV, making it fairly hard to follow as the listener is nodding off to sleep. I gave up on it as a bed-time read and went back to LOTR. It’s been a few years since I read that to my son and, for better or worse, it’s long enough to be the last thing I’ll read to him (most likely). He’s getting all growed-up.
Having wandered into a tough one and thinking about why it didn’t work as well, it seems it’s a combination of things: distinct and easy to pronounce setting names, places and terms. Clear POV is a huge help, preferably with only a few changes or at least a good while between changes. Same for settings: walking from one place to another is one thing but hopping from city to city, each with a different POV, can make it rather hard, especially when there are several per chapter.
As a writer, I do find reading my own scenes aloud helps both find problems but also produces better prose. Writing a book that is suitable for being read out-loud isn’t an explicit goal but I would be happy if folks found it suitable.
I suspect most YA and younger makes a good read-aloud book. Any thoughts on what makes a good read-aloud, be it a specific book or general observations?
It’s no secret that J. R. R. Tolkien was very familiar with Northern European mythology. After all, he is credited with a seminal lecture on Beowulf and was a professor of middle English literature. Still, it’s quite entertaining to actually peruse the Northern world and its myths. For me, they seem cleaner and more raw than those of the Mediterranean world, part of why they are the underpinning of my Calyx world where my last story took place and where I hope to write more.
Recently I returned to two great sources for this period, The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H. R. Ellis Davidson. The former consists mostly of translations of the available myths- sadly, there seem to have been many that are now lost. The introductory chapter is a great survey of the culture and available sources. The end-notes also add quite a lot (more on that in a bit, but think “dwarf names”). Davidson’s work is more scholarly and a bit more dry but fascinating all the same. She quotes from the myths but focuses more on the culture, gods, and worship, including especially interesting sections on shamans and seers.
The Norse gods, such as they come down to us in the fragments we still have, seem more human to me. You could imagine almost any of the warriors in The 13th Warrior revealing himself as a god in disguise, something it is a little hard, for me at least, to imagine with the Greek or Egyptian or other mythos I’m familiar with. The Norse gods are both more fallible and more friendly– except perhaps for Odin. And their cosmology of multiple planes linked by a world tree seems especially romantic (talk about high fantasy 🙂 ). Even the dichotomy of Aesir and Vanir hints at ancient battles ending in stalemate, a fascinating relic to find in the myths. It’s a great place to look for inspiration when creating a fantasy setting.
If there is interest, I’ll start posting about the Norse myths. For today, however, I’ll just end with dwarvish names as listed in the Creation myth. This myth explains the origin of the current world starting with Ymir, a giant who formed in the rime in Ginnungagap, the space between searing Muspell and frozen Niflheim. It continues through the three worlds and the various races. Among the people of the Norse world were, of course, the dwarves. Not to be confused with the un-magical dwarves of D&D and the like, the Norse dwarves are masters of magic, creators of much of the gods’ special items. They tend to be misshapen, small, dwell-underground, and above all, covetous. Tolkien capture much of this sense in The Hobbit and his other works, although he softened them somewhat because in the myths, they tend to be relentlessly dark. Speaking of dark, there’s reason to be believe dark elves and dwarves are the same beings, at least in the Norse myths, if not in D&D 🙂
In the end notes (p. 183 of the paperback edition) on the creation myth, Crossley-Holland gives the names of the first dwarves. You might recognize a few of them, especially if you allow for alternate spellings:
I used to think the dwarves in The Hobbit had childish names because it was a children’s book but when you remember that these myths were entirely oral traditions until they were transcribed in the Christian era, you can appreciate that many of the name pairs (Dori and Ori, Bifur and Bombor) were meant to aid recollection. I always get a kick out of seeing Gandalf’s name among the dwarves, as well.
There’s a healthy near-future apocalyptic genre but it’s more rare to find this as a fantasy setting. This is unfortunate because a Dark Age scenario has a lot to offer the fantasy worldbuilder: the struggle to preserve the old, or just to survive, small warbands with plenty of scope for heroes, limited world knowledge that means your readers learn about the world as the characters explore it.
The term is out of favor with historians. Before more modern research and archaeology, the post-Roman to early Middle Ages period was very little known, thus the appellation “dark.” It is still a poorly documented era but between more thorough archaeology and review of existing documents, it doesn’t appear quite as unknowable as it used to be. Lesser known (and still much more ‘dark’) are other periods following a collapse of civilization, especially the famous one at the end of the east Mediterranean Bronze Age.
Interestingly, historical Dark Ages give rise to some of the greatest stories of all: in a time of decay and hard-scrabble existence, people seem to need heroes more than ever. Thus, out of the British Dark Ages, we get the Arthurian stories. And from the Bronze Age collapse, we get the Iliad and the Odyssey. Although, it’s rather curious that the Bronze Age heroes are the very pirates who probably played a role in the collapse whereas King Arthur, of course, is cast as a defender against the darkness. Odysseus wasn’t called “sacker of cities” for nothing: the Greek kings were raiders.
There are two sub-genres for a Dark Age setting: the onset and the aftermath. Both offer rich opportunities for writers but let’s treat them separately.
Collapse of Civilization
The details of this situation depend on the cause of the collapse. In most fictional cases, it is the clash of civilization and barbarians, although in a fantasy world the latter could be anything from orc hordes to undead to a witch-queen and her evil minions. However, it could also be the result of some sort of environmental or magical catastrophe. In the event of the latter, you lose the opportunity for a stark, sentient foe but depending on the cause of the catastrophe, this might provide a great premise, for instance: what happens when magic is overused? Or, what if the gods disappeared? Or, what if magic ceased to function?
In both cases, you still have characters dealing with their world falling apart: how do they protect their own, how do they even find food, where can they find safety and shelter. This is the story of people who have everything suddenly having to deal with the most basic needs in a world made exceptionally harsh by too many people fighting over the scraps. This basic premise of what happens to the civilized person thrown into the uncivilized world is at the root of many stories from Lord of the Flies to Mad Max but it is not as common in the fantasy world.
In the case of a foe of some sort causing the collapse, now you have the chance to have your protagonist face a horrible, alien foe. There’s a lot of drama potential in the clash of two incompatible forces, wonderful scope for sacrifice and heroes, loss and despair.
While King Arthur is more commonly depicted in modern fiction as occurring in the Dark Ages, rather than at its start, the sources are actually about a warleader (in the earlier records, not even a King) at the collapse of Roman civilization in Britain trying to hold back Saxon invaders.
In the Dark Age
The second type of story occurs after the collapse. The old world is gone, except for ruins and stories of ancient glories. A fraction of the old population remains, barely able to scratch an existence. In the struggle for survival, with the loss of so many books and scholars, knowledge and literacy are either gone or remembered by a very few. Order has broken down and people turn to local strongmen for protection. These strongmen will in time become petty kings but early in the period they are simply men (and possibly women) violent and ruthless enough to hold off other strongmen who would plunder and murder. For this protection, the bulk of the population offers food and services, usually willingly at first but in time, often coerced. Of course, these strongmen cloak themselves in the mantle of old heroes and new gods to give themselves legitimacy.
The advantages for this setting is that populations are low so armies are tiny, probably just warbands. This means your heroes are much more significant: a god-touched warrior at the head of a troop of 80 will have a lot more impact than at the fore of an army of 80,000. There are also lots of these strong men in close proximity: grounds for incessant conflict, such as you find in Beowulf. The characters also know little of their world, which makes it easy for you to explain your world as the characters discover it.
In this setting, you have the option of the other type of Arthurian story: the beacon of hope, honor, civilization arising from a morass of despair. Or you can have the “travel” story: your characters set out into the big, unknown world, discovering all the different ways in a fantasy setting that pockets of people might deal with the collapse of civilization: theocracies and undead kings, elven enclaves, amazon queens, the list is endless because in this setting, you have the equivalent of endless islands with limited contact with each other.
For those of you who don’t like overarching premises, or aren’t comfortable creating a big world, the travel-in-a-dark-age-world setting provides an excellent setting: you need only describe the next bit that the characters visit and when they move on, there’s not much need to worry about what they left behind.
You may recognize this type of story: both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings can be considered travel stories where the characters go from island to island, figuratively. I’m pretty sure when Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, that’s really all he had in mind: you go from the shire pocket to the elven hidden realm, to the goblin mountains, the bear-man’s dwelling, the enchanted forest, the forest elves, the lake people, the dragon mountain. Except for the last few, there really isn’t that much connectedness to it all. These are mostly just independent discoveries until they are tied together in the last battle. (Just last night, I finished reading The Hobbit to my son for the second time 🙂 )
LOTR has a firmer history to it but it also has strong elements of characters traveling in the ruins of a once greater world visiting little pockets of this and that: Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Wights, Rivendell again, Moria, Loth Lorien, Fangorn, Minas Tirith, Rohan, Mordor. These are all places with mostly minimal interaction with their neighbors, let alone a larger world. The story even has a strong element of these neighbors discovering each other: the Ents are essentially forgotten until their attack on Isenguard. So little is known of Loth Lorien that Galadriel is more of a witch-in-the-woods to outsiders. Rohan and Minas Tirith seem to have little to do with each other until one needs the other for help against a greater foe. The Shire is very much a quant English shire plopped down in the middle of a harsh wilderness.
This isn’t a criticism of LOTR, it’s one of the things I and probably many people like: the sense of adventure and discovery as you get to each new place tied together by a world-shattering quest. Just think: you can do the same with your own Dark Age setting, whether or not you end the book (or lucrative multi-volume series!) with a new golden age.
As a personal note, my first novel was set in a near-future apocalypse but I have to confess my appetite for such settings has evaporated now that I have children. A real fall of civilization is horrible; the resulting population collapse would be heartbreaking on a truly mind-numbing scale. But a fantasy world is far enough from reality that I don’t mind writing Dark Age settings there.
Ash’s excellent post on good fantasy settings got me thinking about fantasy settings, which made me realize that while I like a well constructed setting, it is not the most important aspect for me. In fact, constructing a detailed setting can be a trap for the fantasy author.
What really works for me is not a setting where every last detail has been considered nor one that takes advantage of the latest theories in history, science, sociology, etc., although, I must confess, that is my own personal tendency. What works for me as a reader is a unique setting with a story that illustrates and inhabits that setting.
I look back on some of the fantasy classics that I love and what stands out for me is a story with a great setting-premise where over the course of the story, the setting comes to life. Here, I would put Dragonriders of Pern, The Amber Chronicles, and The Lord of the Rings. To be honest, these stories vary in quality and include some cringe-worthy moments (yes, even LOTR) but I still come back to them year after year. Why? Because they have a fascinating setting that is well illustrated by the stories.
I read fantasy to experience stories I like to dream about. That’s probably why I don’t care for gritty stories, low-fantasy stories, political intrigue, etc. Actually, I do like that type of story, but not in the fantasy genre. When I read fantasy, I want to experience a place that, sorry GRR Martin, isn’t inspired by sordid Earth history. I want to read about something that is very different from Earth and, then, I want to get to know that special place.
So in Dragonriders of Pern, we have a world of telepathic, bonded dragons. How cool is that? Who wouldn’t want a taste of a world like that? Frankly, the time travel has always rubbed me wrong for the obvious reasons of paradox and the science fiction under-pinnings I don’t find terribly satisfying. I wouldn’t actually characterize it was a well constructed world but the setting is adequate to the story and the stories are wonderful. The stories are all about the dragons and how the bond works. By reading them, we learn about everything that is important about this setting. Of course, the characters are memorable and lovable, too.
In The Amber Chronicles, here is another story where you have a wild premise and a modest amount of detail to that premise, yet it works for me, although not my wife who found it horribly edited 🙂 Again, we have memorable characters whose story explores a fantastic setting. Who wouldn’t want to explore a multiverse of possibilities in the company of the princes of Amber?
Lord of the Rings, is in a bit of a different class. Middle Earth is a very well-defined, intricate world but I think it resonates for me, not just because it is well-defined and has memorable characters but because the LOTR novel explains and resolves that setting. The ring and Sauron go back to the roots of the world. The elves and their role again are very much a part of the history. The story is essentially the climax of the entire history of Middle Earth. I guess as proof, I would offer that I was very disappointed with the recent Hobbit movie. I think it is because while it has all the cool Middle Earth setting and characters, nothing really important happens. It’s just about some fairly foolhardy guys going off on a treasure hunt, which leads me to a rule I have for evaluating fantasy settings:
If the same story could take place in another setting, then it’s not a great fantasy story premise.
The Hobbit, both book and movie, could take place in 90 out of a 100 D&D campaign settings without any major changes to the story. This means, for me, it isn’t in the same class as the other stories mentioned, even though, I would venture that both the writing and the movie making are top-notch. (Before your hackles rise, I do realise it helped set off the genre. It’s on my short-shelf. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it. But it’s good, not great.) )
Maybe this is also why I like faerie tales and Disney stories so much: these stories are all about illustrating a premise with great characters. The fantasy elements aren’t just tacked on almost as an after-thought.
In conclusion, I’d have to say an intricately crafted setting is not the most important aspect for me as a reader.
Before the stones and arrows start flying, I come at this more as a matter of self-realization. You are reading the blog of someone who spends six months defining the setting for D&D campaigns that typically only run only 18-24 months. I love creating detailed, intricate settings. I don’t think it hurts in the least. But I’ve also come to the realization that in books, movies, and fantasy role-playing games, it is not required for an enjoyable experience. And for the budding fantasy writer, I would caution spending too much time on intricate details. I think premise and characters matter far more than knowing where the gods came from or what was happening 3000 years ago. That can be a bit of a trap.
Look at it this way, your premise and characters will be in your agent-pitch or on your cover blurb. Your intricate, detailed setting will not. Start with premise and characters, add a plot that illustrates both, add setting detail only as needed. Add more setting detail as you like, for personal enjoyment, but if you are spending six months on setting, that’s six months you could have spent completing a first draft.
One of the often over-looked items in the world-builders toolkit is the spiritual. Perhaps one of the defining aspects of humanity in all eras is our desire to describe why things are the way they are in the natural world and what is our place in that world. There are certainly books where the role of gods and the like take center stage and others where their presence is felt. For instance, while the Lord of the Rings is not too overtly spiritual (the movies somewhat more so than the book), Gandalf and Sauruman are agents of the divine entities in the world, Galadriel and her fellows are banished from “heaven” for their transgressions and the wood elves are people who long ago turned away from the “light.” This is a world where the gods matter and the actions of the gods shaped the setting for LOTR (and inspire much more of The Silmarillion).
In history, the development of authority figures was rarely separated from the spiritual. In some cultures, the two were tightly combined as in Egypt and the Ancient Near East where the ruler represented divine power on Earth. In others, there might have been separation of a clan leader from a spiritual leader but the two were closely bound and the leader was anointed and empowered by the shaman or equivalent. The druids of the Celts were a priestly caste of such great power the Romans took pains to extinguish them, although they were not rulers themselves. The Celtic caste system has analogues in the Hindu caste system and might hark back to the same roots shared by Indo-European languages. In the Middle ages, the priests anointed kings and there was much disagreement over just how much authority the divine had over the secular. Priest still anoint kings and presidents are sworn in on Bibles. And, of course, the respect and fear of the divine caused humans to put much treasure and labor into support of a priests and temples.
Just as the spiritual world underpinned much of human endeavor, it can have a place in the fantasy world. I came to this realization more through my fantasy role-playing background (D&D). Like many a gamer before me, I started with generic, Medieval-ish settings with a pantheon tacked on top without much thought. In my high school days, it was not unusual for my group to play with many Earth historical pantheons at the same time but I moved away from that as I learned more about the pantheons: these traditions were meant to be an overarching story of the creation of the world and the place of mortals and divine. It got hard to reconcile so many one, true faiths and was easier just to go with a single one. By my post college days, I also had come to realize that pantheons created to explain the world to historical Earthlings, a world with, in the end, very limited (if any) divine, manifest power, were not that suitable for a D&D game where even your 16 year-old cleric adept (level 1) could cure fatal wounds (fatal for other 1st level characters, anyway), banish undead, and perform other very prominent miracles. And while throughout history through the present, people have always believed in divine power, I find it hard to find evidence for something as obvious as an RPG 1st level spell at work. That is, Earth stories were not created to explain magic as powerful and prevalent as that in D&D.
My pantheon creation began simply as a way to have gods more relevant to a game, a reason for them to bestow game-useful powers on the player-characters. Why, for instance, would there be a god of plagues and who would worship such a god? On Earth, such gods were worshiped to appease them. In a D&D world, they were sometimes useful as objects of a sect of villains, something to oppose the players. There is overlap with the Earth view of such a god but in the end, they aren’t really made of the same cloth. Add in non-human races of great power, rationalizations for all the D&D staples such as demons and devils, and it becomes, to me anyway, much easier to start from scratch and construct something that worked for a game of high magical power, a setting that could start with simple first level spells and could work up to world-shattering magic.
Just as important for a game was a setting where the gods were still active and evolving in the setting. In the old earth pantheons, things are in the end pretty static. The myths actually seemed to have evolved over the years (part of the trouble with teasing out the Norse myths is understanding the changes as they evolved in contact with Christianity) but they always to me seemed to be presented to the worshippers as a static explanation: this is how the world was created, these are the stories of the gods in the early days, this is how the world will end, and you live in a time in-between these stories of old and the end-to-come. This is usually not the case in a D&D setting where sometimes the players become demi-gods and often they are actively acting as agents of the gods, furthering their goals and continuing their stories.
Moreover, there was always the question, when transplanting an Earth mythos, of why the gods still weren’t running around on earth, making new myths. Take the Norse mythos where the gods spent a lot of time walking among mortals: in the mythic, nordic world, a chieftain or petty king might very well expect Thor himself to walk into his hall. In a game world, though, which Thor would walk in? The one who in earlier myths still hung out with Loki or the later one who knew Loki to be completely untrustworthy and the harbinger of destruction? Which myths still applied? And how did you as a referee reconcile the myth that attributes the tides to Thor being so lusty a drinker that he could set the oceans in motion when tricked into thinking he drank from a barrel when he actually drank from the sea? For game purposes, clearly that has to be “just a story” but then, which myths are just stories and which myths can be used to establish the gods of the setting?
Better, I found, to create my pantheon from the actual narrative of what really happened then layer on top of that whatever stories were necessary. This turns the creation of the gods around from the Earth method of starting with the stories and then explaining what really lay behind them. That exercise, by the way, was exactly what occupied late Ancient world pagans as they recast their gods for a more rationale and Christian world: the late pagans didn’t actually believe that their supreme god Jupiter was a serial philanderer , most of what we take to be classical paganism was treated as simply stories by the 300s CE.
Curiously, though, as my game worlds progressed (I almost always create an entirely new campaign setting with every new campaign every 2-3 years), I came back to historical roots. I’ve always loved the idea of spirits living in a pool of water or a holy grove. I like the creation stories and the conflicts in an active pantheon. I love the idea of gods walking among us like they do in the Norse myths. As an exercise, I’m entranced by thinking through a dynamic, spiritual world where a mortal can become the spirit of a holy grove, where the gods are still trying to shape the course of the world for their purposes, where there is a tension and sensible rationale that prevents the gods from simply descending to the mortal plane and duking it out to the doom of mortals.
The game setting that really cemented this for me was based firmly on the Norse world. I couldn’t really figure out how to create a Yggdrasil that towered through the disks of the world that worked for me but short of that, the world is very Norse with an upper disk for mortals (Midgard) and a lower disk for the underworld. The gods do live above the mortals, albeit on some very high mountains on the main disk. There was an original Titan world-creator whose death shaped the world. The gods themselves became immortal through the Titan’s blood and were not accorded the role of gods until much later when the immortals and mortals had to deal with a threat from the remnant spirit of the Titan. The action of the gods persist into the world to the current day and the destruction of a great world empire is directly a result of some of the gods fearing the growing power of mortals. The campaign began at a time when mortals (i.e. the players) had the chance to recognize the malign role of the gods in world affairs and try to recruit other gods to do something about it.
In this world, as in the Norse, there really is an Odin-type figure (a goddess in this setting) who sets mortals against each other to keep them feuding and weak. There is a Thor-like figure who likes to wander among men for his own pleasures of battle and bed. And there is a Loki-type figure although here he is not the schemer for the sake of discord, he is the being who works behind the scenes and has the potential to recognize that the head of the gods should be thwarted. You have all the elements of the Norse myths (including even a creation of the tides connected to the acts of the gods although not something as goofy as a god trying to drink the seas) but one that is dynamic and ongoing, with scope for the players to affect the world.
This setting also made heavy use of spirits: the divine power of clerics did not come from the gods; it came from cleric’s personal association with a local spirit. They had to placate and befriend a being of a river, spring, ancient ruin, tree grove, or what not. If they wanted healing powers, they had to get the appropriate type of spirit to grant them those powers and remain in that spirit’s good graces. If they wandered hundreds of miles away, they would have to befriend new spirits. There was even a mechanism for a mortal to become a spirit (although the mechanism made it very hard for player characters to do so since they don’t tend to stay put and get attached to one place.)
One of my current projects is set in this world with a story that revolves around the spirits but also includes the gods. If it does okay, the next story will be more focused on the gods. The characters are mortals but the gods and spirits are not distant powers that set events in motion: they are present, they appear, they teach, they have offspring with characters in-story.
My other current project is set in a different world. Here there are ageless beings so powerful and so destructive that a single creator god “put them to sleep” 300 hundred years ago. The story is about a time when the works of these ageless ones are winding down and the mortals need to find and wake them for their own survival. What happens in the story will give birth to gods and order things so that mortals shape the world, not these ageless beings.
Of course, a writer can create wonderful fantasy worlds without such a spiritual or divine underpinning but when you start with the question of the spiritual and build a world from there, you may be surprised at what you bring forth.
How did this world come to be?
What are the sources of divine power?
What regulates the actions of these divine beings?
What happens to the dead?
What do the divine beings want?
How do the desires of the divine affect mortals?
Answer these questions and you may find your plots almost writing themselves.
As you can tell, I do like the Norse setting for gaming and fantasy worlds: it was a world of present, scheming gods, ready violence, small kingdoms (in the early and pre-Viking era): ready-made for heroic fiction.
I’m personally neither religious nor spiritual, though I do respect other’s decision to be so. But I do find spiritual stories and myths moving. Perhaps that actually frees me to experiment with the spiritual side of things from a story and a roleplaying point of view because I don’t feel beholden to a particular spiritual tradition but do appreciate the power of the divine in mortal affairs.
I don’t think there is a single answer. His main published works go from The Hobbit to The Lord of the Ring (LOTR) to The Silmarillion. That’s a children’s adventure story, a fantasy epic, and a mythopoeic work (and yes, I had to look that up; it didn’t exactly roll off the fingers). They are all fantasy, the first heavily so with a lighter, more whimsical touch on setting, the last in some ways mostly setting. Any of these can serve as the model for a reader as to what is Tolkien.
For me, though, it’s the middle work that defines Tolkien-esque: a mix of characters, plot and, above-all, setting. It’s not setting couched as a story (which The Sillmarillion has always felt like to me) nor is it a fantasy story with some setting sprinkled on it (which is more The Hobbit for me, as well as many fantasy classics over the last 30 years).
LOTR is a setting become story: the plot and characters capture and illustrate the setting, one that is deep and whose “bones” go back to the beginning of the world. But the story also illustrates the setting without being subservient to it. The setting is not lost nor inconsequential but neither does it submerge the story and characters. It is this harmonious blend that strikes me as Tolkien-esque and one that is so hard to find on the shelf (or achieve as a writer).
I’m sure many might find it curious that the length of LOTR nor its many sub-plots and locales are not critical to me in capturing a Tolkien-esque feel. I do like a long, healthy read but perhaps its all those, very, very long epics since the 70s that seem to end up focused more on a franchise and less on good plot and closure that cause me to omit that from my criteria. And again, it’s my just own opinion. There are many ways to view his works.
In Putting the Fantastic into Fantasy, I commented on my desire as a fantasy reader to find strong fantasy elements in the fantasy stories. This, of course, carries over to what I write. So, too, does the desire to have a “big” setting with a long history that matters to the characters and plot but without becoming the end-all of the book. It’s a delicate balance, one that only time will tell if I’ve achieved.
It makes me nervous to share this because I’m sure it seems arrogant but it isn’t arrogance that drives me to post this so much as self-realization. As I read other blogs and authored my own over the last year, I’ve come to wonder, what makes me write? What do I want to contribute? Well, it’s this Tolkien-esque balance as I see it that motivates me. So there it is 🙂
One could argue that fantasy can’t beanachronistic since (most of the time) it is in a world entirely apart from our own but here I use the term to mean more loosely, things that are out-of-place (and not just out of time). In a fantasy story, anachronisms can be quite jarring for the reader. At the least they can distract and break suspension-of-disbelief. At their worst, they can cause someone to stop reading.
The dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over Bywater with a deafening explosion.
This is from a description of firework’s at Bilbo’s birthday party at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings. (If you don’t believe me, it’s page 36 of the 1986 single volume collector’s edition.) I cringe every time I read this but it also reminds me that an author need not be perfect with anachronisms: some level of them will be tolerated by readers.
In fact, some level of anachronism is almost impossible to avoid. As I mentioned recently use of precise units of time and distance can cause issues but so can figures of speech, even certain words. While as a reader I dislike too many anachronisms in a fantasy story and as a writer I try to avoid them, there are many gray areas. Here are a few I’ve come across:
Rank: what to use for military ranks? Captain seems harmless enough having enough connotations beyond precise European military usage and deriving from a term (“head”) that would likely be a parent word in any language. But what about lieutenant? That’s very French with a clear historical origin (meaning essentially sub- or under-holder). It gives me pause yet lieutenant meaning subordinate, not a precise officer rank below captain, is a very useful word. I tend to avoid it as a military rank but still may use it in its more general meaning.
Currency: most authors will not fall into this trap, inventing their own crowns, thrones, stars, one-eyed-love-goddess, etc. And yet, here’s a place where a reference to a silver penny might be a little better than some made-up coin term since those are meaningless to the reader and hard to keep straight. The fact is that most historical coin names were colloquial and colloquialisms take a fair amount of familiarity to feel right to the ear. Sometimes it is better to go with the more generic coin terms (penny, half-penny, etc.,) than force something that might seem stilted onto the reader. Then again, it is a way to “show” the setting. I tend to stick with more generic terms where I can get away with it but when it comes to larger denominations a made-up name sounds better than “gold piece” to my ear so I do name those.
Place-derived-names: how about port wine? It’s named for Porto, Portugal but it is a fortified red wine that any culture with both red wine and distillation might have. I tend to let this one slide but wouldn’t be surprised if some readers consider it a no-no.
Foreign terms: how about imported words, especially those that are clearly recent since they may retain accent marks. As example, consider façade. That’s a very useful word without a good English analog (as most imported words are: they are imported for the very reason that they fill a gap in the language.) For me, the cedilla is too discordant but fortunately this word works without the accent (facade is perfectly acceptable). No great answer here like but I try to avoid words that are too clearly linked to an Earth culture. Best to keep the reader from thinking about France in the middle of your other-world opus.
Words linked to technology: how about words tied to a particular technology, like derail. Railed mine-carts have been around for a very long time (possibly to Roman times?) but in common usage, I am pretty sure this harkens back to the age of railroads, i.e., the 1800s and therefore someone speaking of a conversation being derailed is using a term that someone in a world without railroads would not use. Still, it’s a nice word so what to do with it? This is an anachronism that would not offend me in a fantasy book but which I do try to avoid on principle, where I catch it. There are a lot of similar terms, purging them all might be quite a feat.
Religious terms: How about Cathedral, nun, priest? This one gets pretty fuzzy. Like pornography, it is easier to recognize and hard to define an anachronistic term. Priest seems quite harmless as there have been priests in all ages. Druids and nuns on the other hand are much more closely tied to specific earth religions and seem over the line. Monk is also a more generic term (so why not nun? It feels less appropriate as this seems less common in other cultures).
Cathedral is definitely out for me. That is a specific structure in Christian religion, specifically, it is the church that houses the cathedras, the bishop’s chair. (And in the true sense of Cathedral it doesn’t have to be a grand, gothic structure. Any church, however small and plain, is a Cathedral if it has a cathedras which illustrates a problem with anachronistic terms: they come with connotations that may vary among readers. Some see Cathedral and imagine Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres, others think “place with bishop’s seat.”) This one is a matter of taste but I’d recommend being sparing of religious terms likely to connote a specific religion. So, as stirring as most Cathedrals are, best not to use that term in a fantasy world not set on Earth of the appriopriate period.
Dialogue tone: here’s one that is another “you’ll know it when you read it.” Does your 17-year-old hero sound like a modern teenager? Some folks may not mind but that is a big anachronism to me. A teenager of this era might be disrespectful to his parents, question authority, have quite evolved views on the role of god(s) but for more of human history (and therefore for most fantasy settings) this would be extremely out-of-place. For starters, the very concept of the teenage years being distinct from adulthood is probably anachronistic in most settings. On Earth it is a very recent concept. For most of our history sometime between 13 and 17 you were pretty much considered an adult and expected to act like one. (As an aside, Barbara Tuchman once observed that the reason medieval knights tended to act so foolishly was that the proportion of them that were younger than 20 was actually quite high: imagine your average high school sophomore leading a charge of a hundred knights.)
Figures of speech: these are mostly best avoided because they are both tied to a specific earth timeframe and are often clichés and yet some of the milder ones can be quite useful in dialogue and creating a whole world of figures of speech for your setting can be quite as discordant as trying to capture a heavy accent in dialogue. “Nuke’em” seems to be clearly a no-no in a fantasy setting but what about “saved by the bell?” Bells might be present in most fantasy settings but using a bell to mark passage of a time? Much less so although still possible- bells striking time have been common since the high middle ages and chimes marking time were present in the Roman Era (Su Song’s water-clock circa 1000 C.E. rang bells and some Ancient Greek ones may also have done so). Even so, while “saved by the bell” may have come about centuries ago, for most people it means “saved by the school bell” and that is quite anachronistic. So best to avoid it. That’s the trouble with a figure of speech: you might be able to construct an argument that it would be appropriate in your world but if it has the potential to jar the reader from your setting, why risk it?
As you can see, Anachronisms can be much more subtle and insidious than a reference to an express train in a fantasy novel. They cannot be entirely eliminated since one reader’s anachronism may not be another’s but it never hurts to keep an eye out for them and look for ways to avoid even a hint of one, where possible.