Among the 5 Reasons Tolkien Is My Co-Pilot, the first is that Tolkien created his own world. The way he seems to create an entirely new reality through his Middle-earth works is engrossing from a reader’s perspective and staggering from a fellow artist’s perspective. This verisimilitude – the artistic approximation of reality itself – was, for Tolkien, a primary quality of good storytelling.
The idea of creating a new universe for a story is one that has really caught on since Tolkien’s time, in large part due to his influence on the post-LOTR generation of storytellers (and filmmakers!). Examples of universe-creating stories include Star Wars, Star Trek and Harry Potter, just to name a few. The Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes certainly owe him a debt of gratitude as well.
Still, in my view, Tolkien’s ability is unparalleled. Here are 4 ways Tolkien is able to create a new reality in his storytelling:
Cartography and Chronology
Tolkien’s works rely on 2 internal maps: a geographical map and a chronological map. Everything that takes place in Middle-earth happens in a place and time that shares existence with other things. When Frodo and company are in Bree, we learn later that Gandalf is simultaneously in some other real place. At the same time, there are blurry edges on the maps. These imply dozens, hundreds, even thousands of stories going on all at the same time. Have you ever wondered what it was like in the lands surrounding the Sea of Rhûn? Ever desired more detail on the decline of the kingdom of Arnor? I could list hundreds of questions like these, all stemming from the maps in the back of The Lord of the Rings.
The maps of Middle-earth may give us a high level view of the look and feel of things, but the detailed verbal descriptions give us the impression of real landscapes that the maps can only hint at. Although it can be easy for a writer to “get on with it” by glossing over detailed descriptions of lands, Tolkien isn’t so hasty. His ”verbal visuals” of the Old Forest, the Barrow-Downs, Emyn Muil, Rohan, Fangorn, and other Middle-earth lands can, if we take the time to close our eyes and imagine them, leave us feeling like we’ve actually stepped foot inside them.
As familiar as I am with the story of Beren and Lúthien (ahem), it’s weird to think that once upon a time, all a Tolkien fan could know about that story was the little bit of poetry Aragorn recites in Fellowship of the Ring. That little bit, however, is enough to make us want to know more. And there are dozens of stories of a similar sort when it comes to Middle-earth. Just consider the stories of the Second Age alone! We know a bit about these from various sources, but when it all comes down to it, there are some 20 generations (3000+ years) of Númenor that we have to leave up to the imagination. There is a vastness implied there, a certain historicity. When you add in the stories of the Valar and of Valinor, there is a wonder and a depth that just doesn’t seem to end.
Leaving Well Enough Alone
I’ve seen many stories I otherwise enjoyed flop at the end because they “put a bow on it.” In other words, they try to wrap it up nice and tidy. For as much as Tolkien likes to “dive in” to back stories, he never exhausts the mystery by giving a complete or final word explanation. I was reminded of this when discussing “The White Rider” recently, where Gandalf, in describing his battle with Durin’s Bane, speaks of the places far below the surface of Middle-earth, where “the world is gnawed by nameless things.” Similarly, Tolkien never gives us a full and detailed explanation of Tom Bombadil’s identity, calling him only “Master.” Enigmas and mysteries like this abound in Middle-earth, and Tolkien wisely leaves them as such, knowing that to attempt a full explanation would only rob them of their narrative power.
These are only a few of the ways Tolkien works his literary magic. If you can think of other ways, please post them in the comments below.