Le Guin on Plausibility in Fantasy

Linking to that excellent article by Ursula K. Le Guin on plot reminded me to look through some more stuff on her site. Here is an open letter relevant to worldbuilders, called Plausibility in Fantasy. An excerpt:

For example, Tolkien’s references to places, people, events (often of long ago) that are not part of the immediate story: these give the reader a conviction of the reality of the immediate scene — because it is shown to be part of a much greater landscape, a long history, a whole world of which it is only a glimpse. This is a strong technique for making an imagined world plausible. This is a technique which one can imitate, performing it in one’s own way.

Now, with Tolkien, that history and geography already existed in his writings before The Lord of the Rings. But in my fantasies, I have often mentioned events or places which I didn’t yet know anything about — for example, some of the later exploits of Ged mentioned early in A Wizard of Earthsea. These were, when I wrote them, merely words — “empty” nouns. I knew that if my story took me to them, I would find out who and what they were. And this indeed happened…

"Part of the attraction of the L.R. [The Lord of the Rings] is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed."

— J.R.R. Tolkien

Tags: tolkien quote

Miéville on Tolkien

By Evan Dahm.

I went to a reading and talk with China Miéville today, and I took a bunch of notes that should coagulate into a summary of it soon. But in particular I was interested in an article he mentioned he’d written on Tolkien, who Miéville has criticized at length in the past, to some backlash among our friendly nerd community.

This is that article: There and Back Again: Five Reasons Tolkien Rocks.

Of particular relevance to the topic at hand:

In his abjuring of allegory, Tolkien refuses the notion that a work of fiction is, in some reductive way, primarily, solely, or really ‘about’ something else, narrowly and precisely. That the work of the reader is one of code-breaking, that if we find the right key we can perform a hermeneutic algorithm and ‘solve’ the book. Tolkien knows that that makes for both clumsy fiction and clunky code.

… and the entire rest of the text of 4) is pretty brilliant.

Middle Earth was not the first invented world, of course. But in the way the world is envisaged and managed, it represents a revolution. Previously, in works such as Eddison's, Leiber's, Ashton Smith's and many others', the worlds of magic, vibrant, brilliant, hilarious and much-loved as they may be, were secondary to the plot. This is not a criticism: that's a perfectly legitimate way to proceed. But the paradigm shift of which there may be other examples, but of which Tolkien was by a vast margin the outstanding herald, represents an extraordinary inversion, which brings its own unique tools and capabilities to narrative. The order is reverse: the world comes first, and then, and only then, things happen—stories occur—within it.

There’s also mention of a criticism of worldbuilding by M. John Harrison— the sort of worldbuilding found in Tolkien’s works, and to some extent, I think, in Miéville’s Bas-Lag books: that is, the sort in which the world comes first, and the stories are made inside it.

And it is so mocked and denigrated—often brilliantly, as in the ferocious attack by M. John Harrison, that outstanding anti-fantasist, wherein he describes worldbuilding as the ‘great clomping foot of nerdism’

Interesting!! I want to know more about Harrison’s criticism!

Constructed World Resources 7: J.R.R. Tolkien

By Brian Slattery

Do I even need to explain this one?

  • Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien : A series of illustrations and designs from Tolkien’s own hand. Of particular interest is #48, a beautiful example of the tengwar in pointed style. The creation of maps, text fragments, and artifacts from a world is key, and this guy arguably did it the best of anyone. If you get a prompt to login, it’s tolkien / tolkien.
  • Ardalambion : Start here if you want to know anything (ANYTHING) about Tolkien’s conlangs and their relationship with LOTR and Middle-Earth.
  • Tengwar Calligraphy : Just one section of a fantastic series of pages about Tolkien’s Elvish tongues. This is on calligraphy, and helps show how variations in writing style seem linked inextricably to mood and cultural status.
  • Tengwar Illuminations : Ok, one more from the same site! ;) A series of beautiful illuminated pages by Per Lindberg.

Show and Tell: Lord of the Rings (2)

Above: Tolkien’s illustration of Hobbiton from The Hobbit.

By Evan Dahm. Originally posted on March 14 on evandahm.tumblr.com. The rest of the series is tagged.

How it is conveyed. There are definitely “infodumps” in this book: massive blocks of text exterior to the stuff of the story, establishing background and so on… Some of it is necessary to understand, and some of it is only there for flavor. But they way they’re handled is still pretty elegant: information is told at the right time to give context and advance the story, and it’s told within believable conversations and with solid characterization. I’ll admit the sheer amounts of explanatory text in some parts of the book are a little ridiculous, and not in keeping with the more Show-focused approach that is currently fashionable.

BUT I’d like to focus mostly on one mechanism Tolkien uses to great effect to convey Middle Earth to the reader: that of exhaustively building up hobbits as the primary points of view, before any real introduction is given to the greater scope of the world, or the threat to it. The Lord of the Rings is almost entirely focused on hobbits for the first 2 chapters, and the first several years of the story (a length of time understandably collapsed to feel like a couple of days, I think, in Peter Jackson’s adaptation). Gandalf explains a lot of the foundations of the story here, but much of what goes on is extraneous to the plot, and that is precisely the idea: the hobbits are on the whole unconcerned and uninvolved in the goings-on in greater Middle-Earth, basically until the events of LOTR.

All of these pages of hobbits before the actual story begins serve to show to the reader who these people, who will essentially be the point-of-view for the rest of the book, are. LOTR builds up the hobbit worldview and invites the reader to understand and become invested in it, in these pages and pages of hobbit genealogy, family feuding, poetry, and birthday party planning. And then the worldview is broken as our point-of-view hobbits go off and do things hobbits have never done.

The fact that we see these massive, fantastic events, and this world, through the eyes of its least significant and most out-of-touch people is, to me, the core of what makes this story compelling, and of what makes its world so believable and awe-inspiring. We’re effectively discovering it along with the hobbits.

Show and Tell: Lord of the Rings (1)

Above: A map of Middle-Earth by Christopher Tolkien.

By Evan Dahm. Originally published on March 13 on evandahm.tumblr.com. The rest of the series is tagged.

What it is. I think we’re all pretty familiar with Middle-Earth, right? Even if you’ve only seen the Lord of the Rings movies, the substance of the setting is similar enough in them to the books, I think.

It’s a setting resembling medieval Europe, and with a number of different species and peoples, mostly drawn from various European mythologies and cultures. Elves are beautiful and live forever, and their influence and presence in Middle-Earth is waning throughout the story. Dwarves are aloof and live underground, and have a longstanding animosity towards elves. Men (humans) are mortal, industrious, and growing in importance and number in Middle-Earth. Hobbits are small, cheerful people who eat and drink a lot, are pretty much irrelevant in the scheme of things in Middle Earth, and live in a place based heavily upon rural England. They are (I think??) the only of the central peoples to be wholly Tolkien’s invention.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that this book forms the foundation for the modern fantasy genre… though unfortunately what most writers who came after Tolkien owe to him seem to be details that miss the point: fantasy stories must focus on a Quest with Heroes, must have rigid notions of good and evil, must be set in a world that is a lot like medieval Europe, and must have elves and dwarves. The Lord of the Rings appears clichéd now, because its influence on what came after has been so ubiquitous.

Central to how the setting functions is its inherent sense of morality: there is Evil, and there is a central Evil guy (Sauron) and an Evil place (Mordor). We are pretty clear on the fact that the protagonists are doing something indisputably good. This is often cited as a failure of the book, but it’s never seemed so to me: there is plenty of complexity and intrigue here, but subtle questions of morality are simply not central to it. It’s meant to be a mythic, larger-than-life story, and simplistic notions of good and evil work with that.

There is an enormous amount of material, much of it unfinished, exterior to The Lord of the Rings that explains Middle-Earth at greater length. But I don’t think that stuff (nor the appendices to LOTR) enter into this discussion, as we’re focusing on how the setting is conveyed in this one story, and how it works with the story. It is unnecessary to have any understanding of all that extra stuff when you start reading LOTR; in fact I think it might almost be a detriment.

Putting up the second part tomorrow, focusing on how the setting is conveyed within the book.