I’m sure you know how the conversation goes: someone finds out you like to read, and they inevitably ask, “Who’s your favorite author? What’s your favorite book?”
As for me, I don’t hesitate when I say, “J.R.R. Tolkien and all he’s written.” Among them, I can’t even choose a favorite. Right now, I’d say it’s a 25-way tie between his plethora of books based in Middle-Earth.
In part, I think my love for Tolkien’s work is just fanatical—or maybe that I’ve grown to have similar interests in fantasy, mythology, and language as he had. As far as what really draws me to his work, though, I’ve always had trouble answering concretely. But I have encountered a suitable analogy.
I recently visited Mammoth Cave in central Kentucky. It’s ranked as the biggest cave in the world with 400 miles of explored cave. Hence its name, it’s huge and extensive. But what’s more, scientists estimate that there could be as many as 600 more unexplored miles of the cave, meaning as many as 1000 total miles of cave. How does this relate to Tolkien? No, I’m not insinuating we’ll find Sméagol down there. Or Goblins.
Rather, I got the same feeling when I visited that cave as when I first began to explore Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. The cave tour was around three miles, so I explored less than 1% of it, every foot of which was fascinating. I didn’t realize until then that there’s a whole world underground that’s just waiting to be explored.
In the same way, when reading The Fellowship of the Ring in middle school, I followed the hobbits, as they make their journey to Rivendell with Aragorn, pass through the ancient ruins of Arnor, the sister kingdom of Gondor that was destroyed by the Witch King of Angmar lifetimes before our hobbits come on the scene. I realized that Middle-Earth was so much bigger than I realized. The Lord of the Rings is just a little 1% tour of the massive world that is Middle-Earth, and I wanted to explore it all. Well, I still do.
I think it’s something Tookish in me that finds unexplored caves fascinating, while some of you, like Bilbo Baggins, may not be over-keen on adventure—especially involving the dark unknowns. Unless you also have a Tookish side.
The point of my cave analogy is this: Tolkien draws in his readers with his extensive and convincing world. In fantasy and really all genres, this is the effect the author wants to achieve. So how does Tolkien do it?
Unlike most world-building authors, Tolkien began with language. Even since he was a child, it was a hobby of his to create and study languages. When he began creating Middle-Earth lore, he did so because he wanted his fantastical languages to inhabit a people and place. See, Tolkien understood that language is the way we label and describe the material and immaterial world and our relationship to it. It is, therefore, the way we communicate with one another—in terms of the world. But every culture with its own language sees and describes the world differently. Tolkien recognized that fantastical languages, if they were to be complete, must also be combined with a distinct culture and a distinct world for language to serve as a bridge between them. Tolkien developed two dialects of Elvish, a Dwarvish language with a distinct writing system, and an assortment of words of Black Speech, the language of orcs and other servants of evil.
Tolkien paid meticulous attention to the geography of Middle-Earth. In later editions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, he even edited travel times and other details to make sure everything had continuity with each other and the map. A map in a fantasy world, just as in real life, gives us a global perspective of what’s happening spatially in the world. Tolkien gave the other most important measurement—time—equal if not greater attention to. In Appendix B of The Lord of the Rings, he put a timeline of all the important dates that happened in Middle-Earth, and he also edited them as needed.
Family lineage is another aspect of world building that Tolkien paid particular attention to, even if though it often doesn’t have much affect on the story itself. If you look at the genealogies long enough, for instance, you may even notice strange facts, like Aragorn and Arwen being first cousins… many times removed. Arwen is the daughter of Elrond, while Aragorn is the distant but direct descendant of Elros, Elrond’s brother. Almost every person along the way from Elros to Aragorn is accounted for—centuries and centuries of generations.
Although The Lord of the Rings is only a percentage of the world Tolkien created, I think this fact only contributes to its greatness. Because when we read it, it’s a story with a depth of setting comparable to one set in even our own world. One way he does this is hinting at its history by showing us ruins or telling us ancient, half-forgotten stories. He uses them to remind us that there is a much larger world than one story and to orient us within it.
So, are you feeling Tookish? Adventure awaits. And when you go—if you go—on the journey, you can sing these words with Bilbo:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet
And whither then? I cannot say.
And are you not sure where to begin on a journey to explore Middle-Earth? You can use this article as a map: Reading J.R.R. Tolkien beyond ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
Do you have a preference on whether The Lord of the Rings books or movies are better? Or whether one should be experienced before the other? I discuss that here.
Featured Image via Brittanica (Map via Amazon)