Today, we’re looking at Lord of the Rings, the great-grandparent of modern high fantasy, and specifically the area known as Middle-earth. That means a lot of trees, dwarves, elves, trees, and elves in trees. LotR is widely known for its worldbuilding, both praised for an immersive world and criticized for being more interested in the ents’ backstory than the actual plot. But what can we learn from how the world itself is set up?
LotR’s reputation comes as much from wordcraft as actual worldbuilding. In most books, a forest is just a forest, but under Tolkien’s pen, a forest is a vast stretch of towering pines with roots questing out like splayed limbs. But aside from that, Middle-earth has plenty of building blocks that keep readers coming back for more.
A Sense of History
No world springs forth fully formed from the head of Zeus unless you’re telling a very specific type of story, so it pays to have at least some feeling for what came before. LotR does a great job here, with a history that flows from each page whether you’ve read The Silmarillion or not.
Naturally, the One Ring’s history plays a huge role in the plot. We learn about the last war against Sauron, both from history lessons and from characters who were actually there, which is a benefit of including immortal elves in your setting. This history gives the plot context and paints Frodo’s journey as part of a bigger struggle. It also sets up how much harder things are this time around. In the previous war, the good guys had an army of elves, not so much anymore.
Beyond the immediate history of the Ring, Middle-earth is full of ancient statues, abandoned cities, and great bridges built by peoples long past. Unfortunately, this is also where Tolkien is most likely to go overboard, drowning the reader in line after line about an old fort and who built it. But done correctly, conveying a place’s history makes for a richer, more meaningful reading experience.
Mystery and Wonder
Lord of the Rings’ abundance of history is well known, but there’s another factor that I think is even more critical to the setting’s appeal: Middle-earth is a place where magic lies just around the next bend and anything might happen when you step off the beaten path. The dark holds both glittering treasures and blood-chilling dangers while the ancient places are still alive with wonder.
LotR is a fairly low magic setting when it comes to the characters; even Gandalf doesn’t use overt sorcery very often. Instead, it’s the world itself that seems magical. Sometimes this is quite literal. Dig deep enough down a dwarven mine shaft and you might encounter an immortal beast of darkness and flame that has slumbered since the First Age.
In other cases, the world’s magic is subtler, or even metaphorical. It’s not clear if something about being in Rivendell has a supernatural healing effect or if the characters just feel better there. Likewise, no one can say if Mordor actually makes your physical health worse or if it’s just a really depressing place.
Despite being a world with a lot of history, Middle-earth still feels like a place with plenty left to discover. Even the wisest sages don’t know everything that’s out there, so who knows what the characters might run into? Sometimes this is pure wish fulfillment, as it’s really cool to imagine what we might discover outside the Shire. But it also gives LotR a bit of an edge, since all that unknown also holds the possibility for danger.
Tolkien’s heroes walk a lot. They also ride, sail, and occasionally swim. They travel to numerous locations, which puts a heavy burden on the story to keep them all distinct. Otherwise, it would feel like Frodo was strolling from one generic village to another.
Fortunately, Lord of the Rings is pretty good at this. Rivendell and its flowing, organic architecture is nothing like Rohan, a land of open grasslands and mostly wooden buildings. Similarly, while Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith are both fortresses, they’re easy to tell apart, largely by the state they’re in. Helm’s Deep is ancient and rarely used, whereas Minas Tirith is both a large city and a military installation.
For the most part, Tolkien accomplishes this without resorting to tropes like the Planet of Hats, where each area is defined by one, maybe two traits if it’s lucky. At least, he does this for humans. Rohan and Gondor, while sharing many cultural traits, are clearly distinct groups with a lot going on. By contrast, the Shire seems to be the land of contented eating and not much else.
We don’t see as much about how the elves and dwarves live, but they also seem more than a little samey. This is a common problem when adding nonhuman species to a setting. Humans get to be distinct and varied, but any nonhumans are defined primarily by being nonhuman.
Themes of Power
The One Ring is a major plot device in these books, and its most notable trait is that it is most corrupting on those who seek power. That’s why a hobbit is the best person to carry it, as they have the least ambition to corrupt. While it’s not great to categorize the entire hobbit species as unambitious, it’s still cool that Frodo is the best one to safeguard the Ring’s power because he doesn’t want it.
That theme is common throughout Lord of the Rings. We see other instances of powerful people corrupted by the Ring, of course, but not just there. Gandalf ends up being a better wizard than Saruman specifically because Saruman tried to seize power he wasn’t entitled to. Aragorn doesn’t particularly want to be the king of Gondor, which is part of what makes him suited for the job.*
A lot of this theming comes from the plot, of course, but it’s built into the setting as well. Ambition leading to ruin isn’t just a metaphor in Middle-earth; it’s practically a measurable phenomenon. You can even see something similar in The Hobbit, where Thorin’s obsession with hoarding the Lonely Mountain’s treasure eventually contributes to his downfall.
Manageable Place Names
In any long spec fic series, it’s easy for readers to get overwhelmed with names. Be honest: when the hero starts listing off places they’ve been, how often do you remember what they mean? Making each location distinct is one way to help readers remember, but the names themselves also help.
Lord of the Rings does pretty well in this regard, at least for the important locations. There are a whole bunch of valleys and mountain passes I can’t be bothered to recall, but I can generally keep Bree and Gondor in my head. Tolkien uses a sneaky tactic here, giving some places hard-to-remember, fancy-sounding names, then superseding them with more descriptive terms.
Sauron’s volcano forge has names like Orodruin and Amon Amarth, but we mostly remember it as Mount Doom. Similarly, “Fangorn” sounds like some kind of scary monster, which is why the books almost always use the more descriptive “Treebeard.” Tolkien’s proficiency at language also comes in handy here, as it gives him a wider variety of memorable names to choose from.
For every reader who’s enthralled by Tolkien’s worldbuilding, there’s another who’s completely turned off. Again, some of this is down to wordcraft. Did we really need an aside about what some random fox is up to, Tolkien? Did we?! But there’s also a lot wrong with the way Middle-earth is built, and it’s important to recognize that.
There’s no gentle way to say this: Middle-earth is incredibly racist. First, there’s the racism against actual humans. The nonwhite “Easterlings” are all on Sauron’s side, for some reason. They’re maybe half a step above orcs. They’re even referred to as “Swarthy Men,” in case it wasn’t clear what about them signifies they’re evil. Gross.
Then there are the orcs. I’ve written about this before, so I’ll try to be brief. Tolkien’s orcs are exceptionally hateful, both in how they come across on the page and in how the author intended them. They combine all our worst stereotypes about people of color just so the heroes can have an enemy they can kill with a clean conscience.
A weird wrinkle about Tolkien’s orcs is that unlike a lot of later fantasy stories, LotR spends a fair amount of time developing orcish culture. Unfortunately, this doesn’t improve the situation. If anything, it’s worse because we’re shown exactly how these beings are inherently evil and why it’s okay to slaughter them without remorse.
Tolkien’s world is also pretty sexist, way more so than you’d think from the films. At least in the movies, Eowyn stands up to the patriarchy and forges her own path. In the books, she gives up all that warrior nonsense because she’s finally found a man. Also, Arwen has so few lines that she regularly fails the sexy lamp test. Most other marginalized groups aren’t represented at all.
Fantasy gets a bad rap for idealizing feudalism, a time where hereditary kings ruled because supposedly God said they should. In Tolkien’s case, this criticism is completely merited. It’s not simply that most of Middle-earth is ruled by kings;* it’s the level of emphasis he places on a “true king” and the power of bloodlines.
Aragorn is the obvious example. He’s lived his entire life as a ranger stalking through the woods, but LotR takes it as a given that he’ll be a great leader because of his ancestry. In contrast, the Steward of Gondor is a terrible ruler who will lead to ruin and destruction, despite being the one with actual experience and training. The Steward’s eldest son, Boromir, has similar problems, while his younger son, Faramir, avoids them by bending the knee to Aragorn. It’s worth noting that the Stewards are also effectively kings, but the wrong kind of king because they don’t have that sweet royal blood.
Some of this comes from the story’s plotting, but it’s baked into the setting as well. One of the ways we know Aragorn is the true king is that he has magic healing hands, and Gondor is described like it has some sickness that will be magically cured by some guy with the correct 23andMe results.*
To be clear, a conflict over royal succession isn’t automatically monarchist propaganda. You can even have a firstborn heir as your main character and be fine. The problem with Lord of the Rings is that Aragorn’s status as the “rightful” ruler is all that matters. This isn’t a conflict over family politics or what different rulers want for their country, but rather over Aragorn being denied something he deserves.
A Static World
For all Middle-earth’s rich history and wondrous mystery, it often has trouble feeling like a real place where people live. Most of that comes from how static the setting is. No humans outside of Bree seem to know what hobbits are, even those who likely received a noble’s education. Humans are an incredibly rare sight in the Shire, and the dwarves almost never seem to leave their underground kingdoms.
This feeling extends to politics as well. Other than the evil Easterlings, it’s easy to feel like Gondor and Rohan are the only human countries around, which is bizarre when dealing with an apocalyptic threat like Sauron. It makes the various areas feel like hermetically sealed bubbles rather than parts of the same world.
In a living world, people move around. It’s been a consistent facet of human civilization for as long as there has been human civilization, and fantasy species would probably work the same way. Take the Shire for instance. The hobbits use metal tools like anyone else, but I don’t see any mining operations around. They’d have to trade for that metal, and even if most hobbits choose to stay home, there would always be exceptions.
As a side note, this is a major problem for anyone trying to use Middle-earth for their own purposes. Do you know how well players take it when the GM says no one can play a hobbit or a dwarf because this campaign takes place in Minas Tirith? It’s not pretty.
I’m a big fan of northern European wilderness. Icy fjords, primal evergreen forests, snow-capped mountains – they’re all great. But that seems to be about all Middle-earth has going for it, at least judging from Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom. Sometimes, when there’s evil afoot, we get a spooky forest. Mordor itself seems to be the only variety, with its blasted heaths and scary swamps.
All told, Frodo and Sam cover a distance roughly equal to traveling from Kansas to Florida.* If you made that journey in real life, you’d cross plains, mountains, dense forest, river deltas, and then some not at all evil swamps. The same distance in a different direction could take you through scorching deserts or up to the frozen wilds of Canada.
In Lord of the Rings, it’s mostly forests. Don’t get me wrong, Tolkien is really good at describing forests. But in a travel story, it’s important to have variety, since terrain is what provides a lot of the novelty. Middle-earth would be a lot more interesting if the Fellowship had to navigate something like the Badlands or sail down a coastline once in a while. Even sticking just to forests, there are a lot of options beyond pine and oak. I’d pay good money to watch Aragorn pole a skiff through a mangrove forest.
Here’s a question to tickle your noggins: What do orcs eat? The books are pretty clear that they’ll eat any kind of meat, including captured prisoners, and that they have bread. But where does that meat and bread come from? The orcs can’t possibly capture enough enemies to be a reliable food source, even if they’re constantly at war, which the books say they aren’t.
The obvious answer is agriculture, the same way everyone else grows their food. Orcish agriculture would have to be quite advanced to feed such a large population, and I for one would love to meet an orc farmer. But this scenario has two problems.
First, since orcs are inherently violent and malicious, it seems like they’d have a lot of difficulty with a profession like farming, which requires a great deal of patience. Second, Mordor is clearly no breadbasket. I don’t have soil samples to test, but from the near total absence of plant life, I’m guessing the pH levels aren’t great.
If Tolkien didn’t go into so much depth about evil orc culture, it would be easier to imagine that Sauron feeds them through some kind of sorcery. But once we learn that the orcs have complex inner power struggles, it’s impossible to treat them as evil mannequins that go into hibernation when they aren’t being used.
These Weird Mountains
I’m not much of a cartographer, but I do enjoy looking at fantasy maps. No author should ever depend on them, of course, but they’re a nice extra to help readers get immersed in the world. Middle-earth’s map appears pretty good at first glance, at least to my untrained eye. The coastline looks natural, rivers crisscross the land, and we can see where forests give way to grasslands. Then we get to Mordor’s bizarre mountain borders. Seriously, look at these things.
What is going on here? In the corner of this otherwise excellent map, we have three mountain ranges that just happen to run in nearly straight lines to completely box off Sauron’s domain from the rest of Middle-earth? This area sticks out like the artist worked super hard on most of the map, then did Mordor in the last five minutes before deadline.
Not only does this not look natural, but it’s just ugly. There’s a lot of speculation that these mountains were raised that way on purpose,* but so what? Even if chapter one contained a long explanation about who made these mountains and why, they’d still be ugly. You can technically justify anything by saying “a god/wizard did it,” but that doesn’t make it a good idea, which is why Avatar’s earthbenders don’t go around drawing dicks across their continent.
Of course, we know the real reason for those mountains: to make Frodo’s journey to Mt. Doom harder. But that could have been accomplished without the use of perfectly rectangular mountain ranges. This is one area where Tolkien could have particularly benefited from varying the terrain. If the land north of Mordor was barren, Sahara-like desert, then crossing the western mountains would have been by far the easier path for Frodo and Sam to take.
What We Can Learn
So after going through the pros and cons of Tolkien’s worldbuilding, what should our takeaway be? How can we emulate what makes these books so popular without making all of their mistakes as well?
Don’t Justify Racism
I’m hopeful that most people reading this understand why it’s harmful to put in racist portrayals of actual humans in their stories. None of this “everyone who’s not white sides with Sauron” nonsense, thank you very much.
But there’s a subtler lesson we can learn from Lord of the Rings, and that’s not to use the world’s supernatural elements as a justification for racism. Technically speaking, orcs are corrupted elves, and this is often used to excuse their portrayal. LotR isn’t really being racist, the argument goes; it’s just showing how an evil Sauron created evil servants.
The truth is that none of those justifications matter. Even if Tolkien made a big deal about the orcs’ origin, and he doesn’t, it would still just be an excuse to create an enemy that it’s always okay to kill. This strategy doesn’t work in Lord of the Rings, and it won’t work for anyone else.
Take Out Pointless Sexism
Beyond the racism of orcs and the Easterlings, Middle-earth is home to extremely strict gender roles, which isn’t doing the story any favors. It doesn’t make the world feel more realistic, nor does it give us any kind of insight into prejudice faced by women. Instead, all this sexism does is serve as an excuse to keep women out of the story. I’m glad the films changed Eowyn’s story so she actually pushes back against the patriarchy, but even that’s not worth a cast of wall-to-wall dudes.
In any discussion about sexism in stories, someone will always argue that it’s necessary in order to send messages about sexism in real life. While there are stories that pull this off, most authors aren’t actually interested in taking the time to do so. Tolkien certainly wasn’t. There’s no brilliant message to be had from Arwen not joining the Fellowship or from Galadriel being mostly described for how hot she is. It’s just regular sexism.
So unless you’re writing one of those rare stories that actually uses sexism to further the cause of liberation, just leave it out of your worldbuilding. A story where women join the adventure like it’s no big deal will do a lot more to fight sexism than a half-hearted commentary on how women aren’t actually inferior to men.
Despite its problems, Lord of the Rings remains popular today, and one reason why is that the novelty of its worldbuilding is nearly unparalleled. This often gets brushed off as mere spectacle, but exploring strange new worlds is one of the main attractions of reading fantasy in the first place.
Despite familiar elements like swords, horses, and castles, Middle-earth is a land of magic. No one truly knows what will happen when a hobbit sets out on the road to adventure, which is both exciting and terrifying. They might encounter a band of elves singing songs of how the world was made, or they might stumble into the roots of Old Man Willow as he drains power from the land for his own foul purposes.
LotR’s specific flavor of novelty won’t work for every story, of course, not even every fantasy story. Tolkien specially crafted a world where magic was common yet not well understood. If you’re writing a low magic setting, or something like Avatar where magic is fully integrated into human society, that style won’t fit.
But whether you’re writing in Tolkien’s style or not, the lesson is the same: your story will benefit from something that grabs the reader’s attention and makes them say “cool!”
Worlds Should Feel Lived In
A major hurdle for spec fic authors is crafting a world that doesn’t feel like a collection of cobbled-together set pieces. This is compounded by the fact that we often need our settings to do very specific things, and arranging that can often seem contrived.
LotR shows how much a strong grasp of history can flesh out your world. When it’s clear that the peoples and creatures of your setting have traceable roots, readers are less likely to see your hand manipulating things behind the scenes. LotR also shows us how it’s possible to go overboard with history, but the effect is still mostly positive.
Where Tolkien’s books don’t do as well is depicting a world where the people act the way people should. There’s very little travel or trade in Middle-earth, and the various peoples know nothing about each other. They only interact when a wizard rolls into town and takes them on an adventure.
Near the end, LotR even depends on this bizarre isolationism to make the plot work. After destroying the Ring, Frodo and company return to the Shire and find that Sarumon has taken it over. While it’s fun to see how much the hobbits have grown as they do battle with an evil wizard, it also feels a little pointless, since King Aragorn should be able to easily deal with the situation if the hobbits fail. That’s not something you want to emulate.
While it’s by no means required reading,* Lord of the Rings is particularly strong in certain areas. That makes it a valuable learning experience for new authors, so long as they know to avoid the trilogy’s mistakes. That’s especially true for worldbuilding, where LotR has high highs and low lows. Copy the good stuff, and leave the rest behind.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?