Wed
Aug 7 2013 10:00am

One World to Rule Them All: The Six Pillars of Middle Earth (Part 1 of 2)

Middle Earth J R R Tolkien Lord of the Rings

If you’re just tuning in, this is the second article in the Story Worlds column, which explores storytelling and world-building in movies, TV shows, books, games, and more. The previous article was a general overview about the series, but now we’re ready to dive into some more specific territory.

The story I want to explore today formed in the 1940s, when World War II was tearing our planet apart. For perhaps the first time on such a global scale, humanity was witnessing the effects of unchecked aggression—and faced the possibility that it could lead to the end of civilization. Those who lived through this dark period must have felt they were witnessing... well, the end of an Age.

During this tumultuous period, a Professor of Literature at Oxford University began to write a book. He’d been a soldier in the First World War, and keenly felt the upheaval happening all around him. He knew the excitement of adventure and the dangers of journeying far from home. So he wrote it all down, but as a kind of parable. The Professor’s name was JRR Tolkien, and his “book” would come to be known as The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien was no simple novelist. His story took place in a make-believe world that brought together legends and lore from multiple European mythologies, featuring characters such as elves, dwarves, trolls, wizards, and even something called a hobbit. Tolkien showed incredible attention to detail, developing entire languages alongside his story, and he outlined a backstory so rich that his estate later published several companion works of his fictional history (The Silmarillion) much longer than the (already huge) novel itself.

The Lord of the Rings became the second best-selling novel ever published, behind only Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The book(s) are now the cornerstone of a media empire that includes novels, artwork, merchandising, comics, animation, and two award-winning movie trilogies—making it one of the most critically and commercially successful franchises of all time. The Lord of the Rings also defined a new literary genre, and every work of fantasy released since the mid-1950s has owed Tolkien its existence.

Why did The Lord of the Rings become such a classic? There are many answers to this question, most more sophisticated than anything I’ll be able to conjure up today. So instead of going deep with the book, I’m instead going to use it to lay down some broad fundamentals about what goes into creating a story world, which in turn should give us some talking points for future articles.

So without any further ado, I present Story Worlds 101, also known as:

THE SIX PILLARS OF A STORY WORLD
as found in The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings

A History of Middle Earth
(Pillar #1: It’s All About World-Building)

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” –Bilbo Baggins

There’s a term used in publishing and filmmaking to describe the act of creating a world from scratch: world-building. World-building is the process of constructing, one piece at a time, a fictional realm that is internally consistent. It includes things like drawing a map, working out a social structure, defining inventions and technologies, creating magic systems, and so on. Each genre has its own unique needs when it coms to world-building, but the common theme is making imagined places feel real.

This is an art that Tolkien practically invented—and he excelled at it. He didn’t just name his rivers and forests: he penned a backstory spanning thousands of years of fictional history, so finely detailed that many consider the backstory to be his life’s true work. He also developed entire languages for the races of Middle Earth—fact, he often described the invention of language as the primary inspiration behind the story. In short, Tolkien rendered his Middle Earth in such vivid detail that it remains one of the most detailed story world ever built; even today, scholars study it at the PhD level.

Check out this snippet from the appendix of The Lord of the Rings:

[…]and on the highest hill of the headland above the Haven they had set a great white pillar as a monument. It was crowned with a globe of crystal that took the rays of the Sun and the Moon and shone like a bright star that could be seen in clear weather even on the coasts of Gondor or far out upon the western sea. So it stood, until the second arising of Sauron, when […] the memorial of his humiliation was thrown down.

This passage has little to do with The Lord of the Rings, as the monument Tolkien describes was destroyed centuries before the events of the novel. And yet Tolkien took the time to flesh it out. Now that’s attention to detail.

The Lord of the Rings

Concerning Hobbits
(Pillar #2: Worlds are Defined by Their Inhabitants)

“I wonder if people will ever say, ‘Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring.’ And they’ll say, Yes, that’s one of my favorite stories. Frodo was really courageous, wasn’t he, Dad? Yes, m’boy, the most famousest of hobbits.–Sam

So we know Tolkien built a detailed world, but for all the mountains and marshes and ruins from wars long-past, it’s the characters of Middle Earth that bring it to life.

Characters are paradoxical creatures. On the one hand, they have to be relatable: if we can’t see some aspect of ourselves in them, it’s harder to empathize. On the other hand, they need to feel unique. Great characters across all genres and mediums strike a balance between the familiar and the eye-opening. When well-created, they can carry a whole story; but when generic or difficult to relate to, they can make an entire work dead on arrival.

Tolkien created a huge cast of mesmerizing yet relatable characters. Just look at Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s loyal companion. Sam has traits we all recognize: dedication, bravery, earnestness, sensitivity, caution, defensiveness, and so on. But Sam is also unique: an eavesdropping gardener who loves the Shire and has unbending loyalty to Frodo. You’d never confuse Sam with any other hobbit, and yet he’s a symbol of something universal.

Or take Boromir, the son of Gondor who betrays Frodo in his desperation to possess the One Ring. By all accounts, he is responsible for breaking the Fellowship and nearly costing Frodo his life. But is he a villain? Not really—he’s just weak. He’s trying to do right by his father and his people. He wants to bring glory back to Gondor. He feels jealous of Aragorn, yet in the throes of death he realizes his mistake and professes his profound love and respect for the man. He’s a complex, layered character.

By the way, these characters are also emotional. When Gimli discovers his brethren slain in Moria, you feel his agony. When King Théoden decides to ride to Gondor’s aid, you feel his selfless nobility. When Sam carries Frodo up the mountain… it’s beyond words. Emotion is the key to great characters, and it’s the gateway to great storytelling.

The Lord of the Rings

Journeying to Mordor
(Pillar #3: The Secret of Plot Design)

“One does not simply walk into Mordor. Its black gates are guarded by more than just orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep, and the Great Eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire and ash and dust, the very air you breathe a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this.” –Boromir

Okay: so Tolkien created a fantastic world and filled it with complex characters. But there’s another step to building a story world. Namely, writing the story.

Story (or “plot,” to use the term as it’s usually taught in classrooms) is what actually happens over the course of a tale. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end; they’re based around conflict; they feature twists and reversals; and so on. But what’s interesting about The Lord of the Rings—and, in fact, about many story worlds—is that not only is the story great in its own right, but it’s inseparable from the world in which it occurs.

Let’s look at the story of Frodo and the One Ring. Frodo is a very small piece of Middle Earth: an ordinary hobbit, who lives in the Shire, and has never had an adventure. Yet he ends up bearing an enormous burden that will determine the fate of his entire world and everyone he knows. This story is very powerful, and it works on a few levels.

First, the story itself is great—Small person from remote place makes big journey to big place to destroy small thing for big cause. Even if this took place in modern day New York, it would be a good tale. The stakes are high, the conflict huge, the events plotted to keep things moving. Major twists and reversals keep us on our toes, and the story climaxes in a way that brings everything together. Tolkien was a spectacular storyteller.

More than that, the story fits the character. From a dramatic perspective, Frodo is the perfect ring-bearer. He loves the Shire, knows nothing of Middle Earth, and has no special powers; nothing could be more antithetical to him than journeying to Mordor. The quest therefore challenges him at the deepest levels, as any good story will do to its characters. Because stories and characters are two sides of the same coin.

And taking it a step wider, the story also fits the world. The stakes of Frodo’s quest are huge: Middle Earth itself is dying, and only he can turn the tide. In traveling to Mordor, he not only encounters this idea echoed throughout world; he comes to know firsthand what will be lost if he fails. Tolkien may have first conceived of Middle Earth during the writing of The Hobbit, but The Lord of the Rings is the story that fits it like a glove.

This interdependence of story, character, and world appears in many great works. Whole worlds don’t always hang in the balance, but you’ll often find that a given story could only have happened in this world, at this time, to these specific characters. The result is a sense of totality or completion—as if the world exists so that the story can be told, and when the story ends, the world somehow ends with it.

That’s the end of part one! In part two, we’ll journey to Helm’s Deep and the Grey Harbors as we ask the question: what exactly makes this story about elves and hobbits so profoundly, deeply meaningful? Stay tuned!


Brad Kane is a writer in the entertainment industry, focusing on storytelling in movies, TV, games, and more. If you enjoyed this article, check out his blog or like its page on Facebook. He also has a brand new Twitter account that he is trying to remember to use.

20 comments
Constance Sublette
1. Zorra
Neither "parable" nor allegory applies to LoTR, judging directly from what Tolkien himself wrote distinguishing these from myth, legend, fairy tale, etc.

Though Tolkien's not to held responsible for this, far too many unskilled writers have also confused the journey with story telling. Endlessly moving persons and even multiple wodges of people around the built world does not story-telling make, or characters make either. Nor does world building alone make a story or character. So many writers and readers see these as the same thing. But they're not.

Tolkien had many, many skills, which so many of his followers did not have.
JoeNotCharles
2. JoeNotCharles
I would disagree that Tolkien excelled at worldbuilding. He excelled at myth building, but the emphasis he put on his creation is in the wrong place to make Middle-Earth an actual living world. Too much of it is empty, and there is no sense of people going about their daily lives outside the story except in a few places. Who does Bree trade with? Why does the Shire feel so much more modern than the rest of the world? Does anyone live between the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood except for one guy who can turn into a bear?

Tolkien created a rich set of myths and history for his world, but when he sat down to write stories that were told with immediacy there (rather than being presented as recountings of old tales) he had to invent details for things he hadn't planned out because they aren't the type of things that come up in myth, and those details often clashed.
Christopher Turkel
3. Applekey
I don't think Tolkien's characters were well thought beyond the hobbits. His treatment of women was terrible, they were flat and two dimensional in a story that wasn't exactly brimming with deep characters to begin with.

The genius of Holkien is how he made his world really the main character. Middle-earth is the main character in his tales, a well developed character with an amazing backstory. It was unlike anything that came before it. That's why The Lord of the Rings is so awesome.
driceman
4. driceman
Good post! I have to say what I think is so important about Lord of the Rings is that it defined the fantasy genre as a whole that lives on to this day. The concept of having a massive fantasy world is great-and Tolkien's remains one of the best-but having the characters journey through it is greater, because then we get to feel like we're exploring it too. Lord of the Rings executed the concept of a hero's journey just about flawlessly, but the fact that it's on a much larger scale than one character's quest makes it feel much more important that the hero succeeds.

I think Fellowship starts out a bit slow, but otherwise I agree, Lord of the Rings sets the standard for world-building and fantasy in general. There are books that harken back to the series (The Wheel of Time) and books that intentionally don't follow its guidelines (A Song of Ice and Fire), but either way they owe something to Tolkien's work because they're comparing or contrasting themselves to Lord of the Rings.

Interested to see where Story Worlds goes.
driceman
5. JeanTheSquare
@1: Tolkien was very clear that his story was not an allegory, and that is true: the characters and events are not meant to be taken as stand-ins for specific real-world things. Saruman betrays his allies and throws in with the darkness, but that does not make him Joseph Stalin.

However, I would say that "parable" is an applicable description of Lord of the Rings. Jesus' parables didn't represent specific people or events for us to discover once we identify the key, but they do teach lessons, and I think Tolkien was engaged in the same thing. He had some definite ideas about power, what it was for, and what its effects are on the people who wield it, the people who lack it, and the world around them, and that comes across in characters' reactions the the Ring (of Power), what they want to use it for, and what is ultimately done with it.
driceman
6. Colin R
I had a professor in college who made the argument that what Tolkien created in Lord of the Rings wasn't really a novel at all--at least not a novel that was descended from the novels and romances of the 18th and 19th centuries. It's closest relative is Beowulf, not the pulp fantasies that Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Howard, etc. were crafting contemporaneously.

So I think people are right that most of the characters in LOTR are two-dimensional--but that was a choice, not a failing. I don't think Aragorn for example is intended to be a flesh and blood man that the reader can relate to--he is a figure like Achilles or Beowulf, whose motivations and deeds are larger than life. Boromir could have wandered out of a Greek tragedy. The stature of the hobbits meanwhile isn't accidental--they are modern men, walking among giants out of a mythic past that never existed anywhere but the mind.
Brian R
7. Mayhem
@2 Well put. Tolkein excelled at creating backstories for all his little groups, but it was derivation of language and myth that drove him more than the creation of a real tangible world. In Middle Earth, there are large plausibility gaps in terms of movement of people and foodstuffs, the landscapes tend to be wrong geologically and geographically (where the heck does the rain come from to keep a river the size of Anduin flowing so straight, let alone keep the dead marshes wet. Bear in mind Mirkwood and Lorien should technically be in the rain shadow of the Misty Mountains if the water comes from the ocean to the west, so should more realistically be deserts. Yes, yes, seven Wizards Did It.), and the whole world is far too static for the length of history it encompasses, even if the Elves and Dwarves are slow to do anything, let alone the Ents. The race of Men should have outbred them and occupied every bit of space along the way (as an example, Humans entered North America via land bridge in 13,000bc, and had colonised down to Patagonia by 11,000bc, while the main active part of Middle Earth is roughly Europe in size and they had ~7000 years between the First Age and Frodo to do it in) I don't even want to consider the overpopulation Orcs would involve.

But at the end ... none of that matters ... because what he truly had was a fantastic gift as a tale teller, a true inheritor of the fireside lays of Homer or more relevantly Lönnrot's Kalevala and the poetic Eddas. Stories which inspire people, which evoke vivid imaginings, and which hold the attention as the fire grows low.
driceman
8. Patricia Mathews
And, as an S.M. Stirling character noted, "How did the Rangers make their living? The barman at the Prancing Pony didn't seem to be the sort to let them run a tab, and the Hobbits wouldn't give them pipeweed for free... did they have armorers.. (and the other craftspeople they'd need).. and where did their children and elders live? .... They didn't even tell the settled people how their labors in the winderness made them safe, let alone demand dead-or-alive rewards ."

And also "How did they make that long trek with just one pack pony?"
"They never changed their underwear?"

Good questions all. Alas, The Historian seemed to have very little grasp of logistics at all. Myself, I wondered how Sam hauled the cooking gear on that long trek. I've hefted individual pieces of cast iron myself, and while he's assuredly much stronger than I am, it must have been quite a burden in the field without a chuck wagon or a horse or mule.
driceman
9. Zylaa
A good article, but I also love to nitpick--

Tolkien vehemently denied that his works were any sort of allegory or parallel for WWII (or any war). No doubt the war influenced him, of course, but a pertinent quote:

"One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead."

For anyone interested, I highly recommend Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth. It goes into a lot of detail about his early myth-building. I'm joining the others agreeing with @2 that Tolkien focused on myth-building, not world-building in the sense that we use it today--obviously plenty of lessons to be drawn from it, though.
Alan Brown
10. AlanBrown
@2,7,8: Amen. Tolkein may have excelled with languages, but his economics and logistics were pretty lousy.
The big positive comment I can make about his worldbuilding, is, despite its complexity and detail, he had the good sense not to impose all the prequels and background notes on us during his lifetime. Worldbuilding should be heard in the shape of the story and characters, but should not be seen, at least not obtrusively. Too many authors have killed too many books with too many lumps of exposition.
Shelly wb
11. shellywb
I think his worldbuilding was great. You know why? Because I can imagine it like I'd been there. I can imagine the people and places and words and sounds and smells and happenings and history in such detail that I felt like I'd lived there. That's what building a world is for readers. Not supplying the economic detail of a pitstop on the way to Mordor.

Maybe that's why I hate a lot of modern fantasies, because detail doesn't make it memorable if it's the wrong details.
Daniel Castellanos
12. TheEightChandrian
Agree with @11. Sometimes he infodumped but I love the world. I feel (and I may be totally wrong) that since back in those days fantasy was not what it is today, Tolkien was jeolous of the vision of his world and he wanted to be sure that every reader imagined everything as he did. Maybe he wasn't opened to the "let the readers imagine it." He wanted to be sure we'd see the world the way he did.

Sometimes, only sometimes, stories don't have to be deep, sometimes they just have to be wonderful. He invented the farmboy cliché and stablished a good vs evil mold that wouldn't be broken for decades. And why wouldn't he add it to his stories when he was raised as a catholic? I mean Tokien was practically building the genre (in a modern presentation), he wouldn't write a flawless book, not when there weren't lots of work preceding him (not in the scale after LotR). So that's why post-LotR stories and world-building gained complexity. Authors filled things Tolkien didn't cover.

And oh yeah sure thing, Tolkien claimed LotR was not based in WWII, but if you're living through a war and you're writing a book about war you unconciously write about it. How else can you explain the darker tone difference between LotR and The Hobbit? It's context.

I love to world-build and Tolkien is a master (alright he failed at economy but he is a linguistician) although he did lacked touch with some characters and credibility. I read the books I was a boy though so I didn't care at all of economy and those little details.

Great article! Waiting for part 2.
Birgit
13. birgit
Tolkien may have first conceived of Middle Earth during the writing of The Hobbit, but The Lord of the Rings is the story that fits it like a glove.

He invented Middle Earth in the Silmarillion. The Hobbit at first wasn't set in Middle Earth, only when people demanded a sequel he tried to fit it into his world.

The dwarves in the Hobbit aren't really distinct characters. About most of them we don't know much more than the color of their hood.

His worldbuilding focused on linguistics and myth, not economy. One problem I have with his linguistic worldbuilding is that the language change of the elvish languages seems to ignore the long lives of the elves. If the same elves who left Middle Earth to go to Valinor were still alive when they returned to Middle Earth, why had the languages of the elves who remaind in Middle Earth changed so much that they were different languages and not just dialects?
driceman
14. a1ay
Sometimes, only sometimes, stories don't have to be deep, sometimes they just have to be wonderful. He invented the farmboy cliché and
stablished a good vs evil mold that wouldn't be broken for decades.

The farmboy cliche?
Number of Tolkien characters who are boys: 0.
Number of Tolkien characters who live on farms: 0.

The story I want to explore today formed in the 1940s, when World War II was tearing our planet apart. For perhaps the first time on such a global scale, humanity was witnessing the effects of unchecked
aggression—and faced the possibility that it could lead to the end of
civilization.

Date that Tolkien started to write "The Lord of the Rings": 1937.
Date on which World War II started: 1939.
Date on which the 1940s started: 1940.

Number of World War which inspired the first stories of Middle Earth: I.
driceman
15. Yenvious
Two things I thought were unique and interesting about the world-building of Tolkien (both of which not a lot of authors take the time to do themselves). First is the songs. In my recent re-read I was struck at how many songs there are in the books, often spanning a dozen verses or more. Second is the extreme care he took with the geographical setting, being certain we know what sort of hills they are passing through, and just what lies north, south, east and west.

I've heard that he spent time in the southwest of Ireland and County Kerry (where the Irish mountains and passes are), and both music and landscape are very inspiring when you're in "The Kingdom", as Kerry is called.
driceman
16. Colin R
Tolkien took pains to say that LOTR is not an allegory for World War II, but it seems pretty difficult to claim that he was not at all influenced by the war, or that readers ought not read some parallels into the war. WWII did not spring fully formed out of nowhere in 1939; it had been building up since the end of the Great War. Italy had invaded Ethiopia and Japan had invaded China by 1937. People could see what was coming.

Anyway, I suppose it's true that Tolkien was probably not very interested in the logistics of economics and war. But by the same token there are plenty of writers who seem to have a good grasp of war and logistics but not much interest in human beings--how they speak and how their languages form, how they sing, what plants they know. Those things do not seem less important or valuable than knowledge of the nuts and bolts of medievalish society.
driceman
17. Skulldug
@6 I'm of the same mind. Tokien's writing bears more resemblance in spirit, tone and character to Beowulf and Kalevala than the fiction of his day or since, with good reason. His mind, heart and professional labor were steeped in such fare as in ancient languages. His work in LOTR established a world in which both men and myth coexisted for a transitionary time, at once heroic, tragic and mortal.
Alan Brown
18. AlanBrown
@14, I agree, that whole thing about Tolkein using the farmboy cliche and establishing a good versus evil mold left me scratching my head. After all, the whole dualistic struggle between good and evil thing pretty much goes back to the beginning of recorded history...
driceman
19. Salabra
"This is an art that Tolkien practically invented—and he excelled at it. He didn’t just name his rivers and forests: he penned a backstory spanning thousands of years of fictional history, so finely detailed that many consider the backstory to be his life’s true work. He also developed entire languages for the races of Middle Earth—fact, he often described the invention of language as the primary inspiration behind the story. In short, Tolkien rendered his Middle Earth in such vivid detail that it remains one of the most detailed story world ever built; even today, scholars study it at the PhD level."

I hope, Brad, that you're going to investigate MAR Barker's world of Tekumel - you'll open a few eyes to a creation that's equally as rich, even more exotic ... and arguably older than Tolkien's.
driceman
20. AlanHK
"characters across all genres and mediums..."
Odd that the word "media" is used so frequently now but people forget that it's the plural of "medium".

As for Middle Earth, I read that Tolkien started by inventing the languages. That was his field of study. Then he imagined a history and a world that could have created them, only then finally the characters and their stories. Pretty much the opposite to how most writers work, which is to start with a character and a story and then make a world that makes it possible. TV and movie writers especially will make a complete nonsense world if it gives them the story and hero moments they want. I just sigh when I see fans trying to make sense of the world of Star Trek or Star Wars. No one even tries to make sense of Revolution though.

Hard SF writers often do start with the world and then try to make a story and characters to explore/explain it. It's very hard to do though, thus the whole field is often dismissed as full of cardboard characters and tedious exposition. But some have carried it off. Sturgeon's Law applies, and the 10% that isn't crap makes it worthwhile.

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