Worldbuilding

Building Middle-Earth: What Tolkien Did Right – and Wrong

Isengard ruined from the ent attack.
Worldbuilding is a critical component of speculative fiction no matter the genre. From constructing entire space empires in military scifi to planning a good masquerade in urban fantasy, every author will need to make choices about what to include in their world and how to do it. Fortunately, we have a long history of famous stories to learn from, both in what they did well and what they did poorly.

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?

The Good

Two giant statues on either side of a river.

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.

Distinct Locations

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.

The Bad

Gollum upset that Sam is going to cook rabbits.

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.

Bigotry

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.

Monarchist Propaganda

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.

Repetitive Terrain

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.

Orcish Agriculture

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.

A map of Mordor

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

A book from the Hobbit films.

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.

Novelty Matters

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.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I know a lot of people will at least think ‘how dare you’ when reading this, but I always found it hard to get into LotR. It was only when I totally skipped that information-dump essay on pipe tobacco (I think), that I got most of the way through the first book. Most way – which is the furthest I ever got.

    Two things about the books really work against me reading them: the information dumps and the constant moving away from the main plot for no apparent reason. When I got to Tom Bombadil, I thought he might be important later, since he’s clearly immensely powerful, but once the Hobbits leave his place, he never comes back again, which makes the whole episode pretty useless when it comes to the main plot (and gives a good reason for why the movies didn’t put him in at all).

    I am aware that most long stories (and LotR is a very, very long story) have a lot of plots and sub-plots weaved in, which is great. For me, though, every plot should have an impact on the story as a whole and the sub-plots from the first book didn’t make any impact for me. I mean, even the lowliest fetch-quest of an RPG gives you something in addition, even if it’s only a piece of armour that might be useful during the next fights.

    On the other hand, I enjoyed myself a lot when reading The Hobbit, so it’s not Tolkien’s writing which turned me off. And, yes, I know that The Hobbit is more of a kid’s or teen’s book than of adult literature. Yet, it was a lot more fun to read for me than LotR, which I have yet to finish (I have seen the movies, but never finished the books). The worldbuilding of The Hobbit is good as well, a very nice world that is easy to imagine (at least for me) and a good plot with sub-plots that really influence the story.

    • SunlessNick

      If memory serves, Tom Bombadil also laughs off the Ring and its temptations, which completely undermines the threat it’s supposed to be posing to everyone who sees it.

      Regarding the sexism, Tolkien himself ended up thinking he’d underwritten his female characters (mainly Arwen).

      • Rosenkavalier

        I always though that served to emphasise that the Ring exploited a desire for worldly power and dominion (which are alien to Bombadil, so it can’t influence him), setting to groundwork to explain why Faramir and Sam (and Shelob) can resist it.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      The funny thing is that by modern high fantasy standards, LotR isn’t even that long. The entire trilogy is only a little longer than A Game of Thrones (the first book) or Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

      But it often feels way longer than it really is because of how slow the wordcraft can be.

    • Asyles

      I’d say the “Tom Bombadil sidequest” was neither uneccessary, nor useless. After all he gave the hobbits the ancient daggers/shortswords, and Merry Brandybuck later used his one to slay the Nazgul King.
      Yes, old Tom Bombadil played no more role in the main events, but this little helped quite a bit Team Good in the long run.

      • Peter Lewerin

        Or, idk, the hobbits could have been given the same daggers by, say, someone with a personal connection back to Arthedain. Strider, maybe. Like in the film.

  2. GeniusLemur

    “Otherwise, it would feel like Frodo was strolling from one generic village to another. ”
    *CoughCough*book one of Wheel of Tedium, I mean Time*CoughCough*

  3. Hmm

    So you have chosen… death. One does not simply criticise Tolkien.

    P.S Great post

  4. Bunny

    I wish Tolkien had applied the same methodology of clear place-naming to his main cast of characters. With regards to character names, on my first watch of the movies (I haven’t read the books, at least not yet) those got pretty confusing. The place names felt natural, but many of the characters’ names were similar enough to be befuddling when spoken aloud. There’s “Boromir” and “Faramir”; “Eowyn” and “Arwen”; “Sauron” and “Sarumon.” Before they get separated in the story, I also found it kind of hard to tell Merry and Pippin apart (which was perhaps intentional?). To be fair, on the page these names might be easier to parse apart, but watching the movies it could be difficult to match the correct names to the correct faces.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I honestly thought that naming the two main villains “Saruman” and “Sauron” was a joke the first time I read about them.

      • Bunny

        Before I saw the movies, if someone had told me that those names were a joke, I certainly would’ve believed it!

        • Julia

          A friend of mine first tried reading LotR in elementary school and tossed it aside with disgust because the idiotic main characters couldn’t figure out that Sauron and Saruman were the same guy. (evil, lives in a tower, has orc servants, similar name…come on!)

  5. William Stark

    I’ve been reading articles from this website for almost a year now, and have in general enjoyed them thoroughly— they are on the whole well written, engaging, and informative. However, I’m not sure this post is quite honest with us readers from a philosophical standpoint.
    Specifically, I would contend that the various accusations against Tolkien are based on certain worldview assumptions that not all readers may necessarily share. For example, your argument that it’s wrong for Tolkien to utilize the concept of kingship in his work is clearly a moral argument— yet many readers (myself included) may not share the worldview assumptions that led you to this conclusion. Furthermore, your assumptions about the fundamental total equality of men and women (leading to your point about how Tolkien should have had more women in LOTR) are not ones which everyone shares, especially those such as Christians who see men and women as complementary, yet still distinct and different. Overall, this was a well-written article, but I would appreciate at least a recognition that the worldview assumptions leading to your criticisms of Tolkien are not necessarily universally accepted, and that those criticisms may therefore in fact not be valid in the mind of each and every reader.

    • Bubbles

      The thing is, these worldview assumptions are fairly standard, or at least they should be, because there is a significant amount of evidence to support them. There are many examples in history that show that *just because* someone has royal blood, that doesn’t necessarily make them a good ruler. There are also plenty of women who wanted to take on “masculine” roles and did well in them (and for that matter, plenty of men who wanted to take on “feminine” roles and did well in them). It’s one thing to talk about whether fiction must conform to a set of moral standards, but you appear to believe either that those standards are wrong *in real life* or that there is a significant likelihood of such. I don’t believe that such a viewpoint is really viable at this time, and if you want to continue (and clarify your views if I am misunderstanding something), this can be discussed more deeply.

      • William Stark

        Two points I would make in response to what you said:
        1. My critique was purely philosophical in basis; that is, I did not base my argument on what “is” but what necessarily “ought to be.” Drawing examples from what actually happens in real life has no bearing whatsoever on the abstract structures governing the correctness of those actions. For example, I can go steal something, but stealing is still morally wrong. In any case, my point overall was simply to point out certain possibly unconsidered assumptions in the article and note that for those who do not make those same assumptions, certain if the article’s arguments may be invalid.
        2. Your response also indicates a belief that fictional works should in a sense correspond to reality: that is, you claim that “fiction should do such-and-such because we see the same thing in history.” But is not fiction the exact opposite of this? Fiction, by definition, is a medium in which the author is free to determine whatever aspects they wish about their own “sub-created” world (as Tolkien himself would say). In specific, if you read Tolkien’s own writings about his work, it becomes clear that his primary goal was not to present a completely factually accurate picture of the real world; rather, he was attempting to craft a world that mirrored his own worldview values by being “better” (i.e. more influenced by objective truth) than the real world. With this in mind, any criticism of Tolkien’s world building is more accurately a criticism of his worldview itself, which is an entirely different discussion from the one you bring up.

        • Bubbles

          Thanks for clarifying this. So, again, you have a point that this article includes assumptions that not everyone will agree with. The thing is, there is probably at least one person who will question any set of assumptions, but you need some starting place to make an argument. It should be noted that specifically for this blog, many of the assumptions have been explicitly stated and defended in other articles here (some of which are linked from this article). To make it absolutely clear, that does not necessarily mean they are correct! There are a significant number of things I disagree with or at least strongly question that have been argued for here.

          My point is that writing from a certain worldview is not automatically wrong, and it may not be necessary to repeat the arguments for certain assumptions you support if they have already been made elsewhere. It seems you want them to outright mention this. I’ve actually asked about the seeming presentation of opinions as absolute truth before on this blog, and (IIRC) I’ve been told by another commentator that this is simply a common persuasive writing style, and the assumption is that readers will recognize what is the opinion of the author.

          As for your point that fiction doesn’t need to mirror reality, while that’s also true, you have to consider that fiction ultimately exists in the real world and can potentially have real-life effects. If, as you say, Tolkien’s work is a reflection of what he believed to be true, and if as the article says, the work contains racist and sexist elements, I believe that kind of worldview should be criticized, as it has had real-life negative consequences. Also, while you can technically do just about anything you want in fiction, portraying groups as having characteristics in ways similar to those believed in by real-life bigots does seem likely to cause some degree of real world harm, as it could reinforce their beliefs. At the very least, it is likely to put a significant number of people off to some extent, and for the creator who cares at all about the reactions of a wide audience, that needs to be considered.

          (My point with the historical examples was not to say fiction must exactly conform to real-life history; it was to show that, for instance, it is *possible* women can do great things and royal blood does not automatically make someone a good ruler, so it should be possible to show that in fiction as well. And combined with the points I made above, I believe that it is good in fiction which may touch on such topics to depict things in that way).

          Now, there is a difference between the narrative or author themselves being bigoted and in-universe people, cultures, and so on being bigoted. I think the latter is generally fine, in and of itself, (although it is all too possible to do it incorrectly, which can then go into offensive territory). I will note now that some authors and commentators on this blog will disagree with this position, and I (currently, at least) do not agree with those people. Specifically, there have been various arguments that bigotry should only be depicted in-universe if the story *focuses* around resisting it. I believe that going this far is too limiting, as there are many situations in which bigotry would, unfortunately, be expected, so a story must include it to be consistent, but I don’t think that should determine the focus of the story by itself. Historical fiction is the most obvious, but contrary to certain commentators, I believe that fantasy may not be entirely immune.

          The thing is, you need to think about exactly what the fantasy elements included in a particular setting would change – and what they would not. One example I’ve heard about is that dragons by themselves may not automatically mean women aren’t discriminated against if certain facts about human female biology (specifically the particular ordeals of pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare before modern medicine) are still present in your world. I’m not actually 100% sure about this, but I haven’t found a knock-down counterargument currently either. The only thing is, if actual *proof* can be found that writing about bigotry except in specific situations genuinely causes harm that outweighs any benefits (and which cannot be prevented any other way, such as by content warnings), I would have to agree with the authors and commentators I mentioned, as real life outweighs fiction. I haven’t found strong proof so far, however.

    • LeeEsq

      Yes, the posts on this blog generally assume that certain ideological priors found in a late 20th century and early 21st century liberal thought are correct and generally everything else is incorrect. The posts also tend to assume that these ideological priors are shared by most people that are going to read the blog. For the most part this is true even if the blog authors might overestimate how wildly held in the speculative fiction audience or even the general population or even that some people might not like things in their fiction that they won’t like that much in reality.

    • Cay Reet

      You also make an assumption, though. In Tolkien’s work, the ‘real’ kings are always good kings, even if they were never trained for it. That is not what history teaches us, as it is. Leadership is rarely a skill someone just has. It needs to be learned. Aragorn, for instance, has never led a country before. He’s spent most of his adult life alone as a ranger – in a situation in which he didn’t need any leadership abilities. He should be much less well-suited than a Steward who was brought up to lead the kingdom in the king’s absence and has already done so for a while. He should need guidance to lead, perhaps a council to assist him for all of his reign.

      As far as women go, again history speaks against their ‘complementary’ position (and Tolkien liked history). There are many women who, in lieu of their husbands, have ruled successfully. Have led armies into battle. Have performed ‘masculine’ work with great success. Women aren’t and never have just been there to ‘make’ the next generation. That is a truth as well. Yet the three women LotR gives us are cast aside and reduced to just one thing each – the ‘rebel who gets better’ (book Eowyn), the ‘Hero’s mate’ (Arwen), and ‘the hot. mysterious one’ (Galandriel). Tolkien knew not only history, but also a lot of mythology. Mythology comes with powerful women, especially Germanic or Celtic mythology. He could have done better there.

      • Angelo Pardi

        Aragorn spent a long time serving as advisor of Theoden’s and Denethor’s fathers (and was educated as a future king in Rivendel by one of the most experienced leaders of the world too). Besides, whatever his training, he is a charismatic leader at least as much as Boromir or Faramir.

        By the way Denethor is portrayed as a competent leader if a bit arrogant, both in the book and in the appendix.

        Also we have an image of kingship that is more related to absolute 18th century monarchy than to medieval kings (who had basically no power over anything except their very limited domain). LotR’s Gondor is clearly of the second type, where leadership through interpersonal relations and military prowess (and Aragorn is great at these) are more significant than having a law or economy background !

    • Jeppsson

      Well, this blog DOES adhere to certain modern, liberal, social-justicy (or whatever you wanna call them) values. Oren, Chris and the others are very open about this; it’s not their ambition to write value-neutral writing advice.
      I really like this blog even though I don’t agree with every single value judgment made, but I agree with their morals by and large. If you don’t, well, maybe this blog isn’t for you.

      When it comes to Tolkien, I’m a big fan! I do think people are unfair to Tolkien as a person, sometimes – like, if we’re talking about him as a person, he shouldn’t just be accused of racism, he should also have plenty of CREDIT for painting colonialism and the driving away of pepoles in order to take their lands as evil and bad. This is actually something he’s very consistent about that in LoTR and Silmarillion.

      However, I didn’t read THIS blog post as being about Tolkien as a person, though. More as advice to aspiring writers (who are implicitly assumed to share these social justicy morals) on what you should and shouldn’t use yourself, from LoTR. That’s a different matter.

      • Jeppsson

        Sorry for some weird typos and jumbled sentences. I wish comments could be edited, but alas.

    • Prince Infidel

      @William Stark: You are correct that the writers have a certain worldview that informs their how they engage with the text. Everyone does. I, for example, believe that history has shown us that monarchies are not only a poor system of government, but an inherently immoral system at that. They are structurally & morally no better than fascist dictatorships. Which most people agree are morally repugnant.

      I also believe that the framework some people use to oppress women through a supposedly Christian worldview, is an inherently immoral system. Both history & our present has shown that those that preach that “men and women as complementary, yet still distinct and different” are thinly disguising their misogyny & desire for patriarchy using religion.

      I feel as though Oren & the other creators on this site have thought quite a bit about their morals as well as what the stories we read teach us. They are actually quite honest & upfront about their opinion that stories that support what they consider to be immoral lessons are bad stories. If you’re being honest with yourself William, you might find you agree with that sentiment even as you disagree with the Mythcreants morally. They are under no obligation to cater to any readers that disagree with their morals, just as you are under no obligation to read articles from any site you disagree with.

      Perhaps you should wonder less why this site isn’t morally neutral in the face of content they feel falls short William, & wonder more about why your own world views put you the company of fascists & misogynists.

      Sincerely,
      Not an actual prince

    • Uly

      There are over a billion Christians in the world. Despite what the fundiegelicals claim, it’s not necessarily to “see men and women as complementary, yet still distinct and different” to be a Christian, and plenty of Christians directly reject that gender essentialist garbage as part of their religious views.

  6. Mutant for Hire

    While I don’t disagree with the contents of this article, I would have preferred the article be structured to explicitly make a distinction between moral issues with Middle Earth (racism, sexism) and the technical flaws of the setting (unrealistic mountains, lack of variance in terrain, etc).

    • Prince Infidel

      For some people, like myself, the technical & moral issues are inseparable. That being said, Oren did separate each issue in the article & the ones that could be considered moral issues are listed together followed by the ones that could be considered technical issues. They are all under the umbrella of “Bad” cause they are all things he feels are wrong with the text.

      I happen to agree with Oren points (in fact I can’t think of the last time I so 100% agreed with every word in an article; I feel like this was pulled from my own brain) so I might be biased here, but I think he structured it quite clearly.

      • Prince Infidel

        P.S. Love your username. Wish I had thought of it.

  7. Indra

    Love this. Can you make this a series? I’d love to see an analysis and critiques of other worlds such as Westeros, Stillness, Narnia, Earthsea, Cosmere, etc.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s the plan! The next one is gonna be about the Temeraire series, which is historical fantasy, and then after that I think I’ll try some scifi before going back to fantasy.

  8. Moi

    “No queens that I know of.” — Galadriel.

    • Cay Reet

      But does she really rule a kingdom?

      For all we know, half of the dwarven rulers could be women – Tolkien doesn’t tell us what female dwarves are like, they could just all go by male pronoun (a bit as with Discworld dwarves) and do the same stuff as their male colleagues.

      • Angelo Pardi

        There are a few ruling queens in the Numenor line (and the rule there was that the eldest child become king whatever is sex).

        Galadriel’s exact role is unclear, mainly because Tolkien developed the character more and more as the year passed. Initially in Tolkien’s mind Celeborn was the king, but by the time he wrote the LotR they were more something like joint rulers. Galadriel is clearly the stronger and wiser of the two though.

        • Cay Reet

          Pretty much all of this is in the additional material, though. In the story as a such, there’s no female ruler except for Galandriel who is only part of a group of rulers and not alone on the throne.

          • Angelo Pardi

            I don’t think we can really discuss this kind of philosophical issues about Tolkien works without taking the additional material into account (at least the appendix that are a part of the Lord of the Ring).

          • Cay Reet

            I think with the movie trilogy out for a long time, we will have to, because many will judge the story not by the books and the appendix, but what they’ve seen on screen – or people who will not read the appendix, because they’re not interested in the notes, only in the story. What you wish to bring to a story, you put in the story – that is what a writer should take away from this article, because this is a site about writing.

            Otherwise, it’s pretty much like J.K. Rowling telling everyone that Dumbledore is gay years after the story was published (and screened).

  9. Jonny Wilson

    In the game Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Nurnen is explained to be Mordor’s breadbasket. I don’t know if they just made that up for the game to explain why such a verdant place can exist in Mordor, but maybe that’s where they’re getting the food. I don’t see why orcs couldn’t just subjugate their underlings into farming in any case.

    • Deana

      Johnny Wilson, The gamemakers didn’t make it up. It is found in the Lost Tales as well.

      As for the claim that Tolkien was racist, it is a bit odd (and ill-researched). The tale is set in an area roughly equivalent to modern Europe. Easterlings are from what would be roughly the Dalmatian coast (Southern Hungary and the Balkans) as Tolkien would have known it and as such as white as the Italianate Gondoreans.In fact, in some of his letters (to Lewis and others), he specifically writes that he is rewriting European history rather than attempting to write about areas outside of Europe, precisely because he is attempting to recapture a sense of values he believes have been lost in European culture.

      • Julia M

        That doesn’t make it not racist.

        First: All the good humans are still white, and all the bad humans are still brown. Orcs speak in a rough and brutish language, and are primitive, which all are stereotypes of people of color. “Fair” means beautiful, and every single lovely person is described as white. What’s in the text is very racist, no matter Tolkien’s intent.

        Second: Tolkien chose every aspect of his world. Middle-Earth is not Europe. He could’ve included black people on the good team, or white people on the bad team. No matter what he was writing about, it was still his choice to include racist sterotypes. The orc potrayal has no excuse. Also, elves and dwarves are not humans. There is no excuse for all of them being white.

        Third: There were black people in medieval Europe, some of whom were full members of society. They even were in art. This article says it all: https://psmag.com/education/yes-there-were-poc-in-medieval-europe. If anything, an all white cast on the good team is ahistorical.

  10. John Able

    My commentary on the Bad:

    1. Bigotry: Eh, true. But Tolkien is no Lovecraft, and from his letters you can see that he struggled with his bigotry.

    As for the inherent evil part, Tolkien absolutely hated that since it goes against his Catholic belief. So he tried to come up with satisfying answer for why Orcs are that way. He never managed to come up with one.

    2. Monarchism: Also true, although Tolkien is a stranger sort of monarchist who once described himself as an anarchist. His idea of kingship is not an absolute one (autocrats are generally shown as villainous in his works), if not exactly a constitutional one either. And Aragorn himself clearly believes that he has to earn his kingship, not just claim it by blood (his ancestor tried that, though his blood tie via marriage with then-royal house of Gondor and through their common ancestor. Gondorians told him no), and while not depicted in the film (which you seem to be using as base), he spent decades (he is 80 in LotR) training up to be a good king, traveling around the Middle Earth (he explicitly mention as having traveled to far east and south, ‘where the stars are strange’) and lending help to the good side (he served Theoden’s father at one time, then led the army of Gondor during Denethor’s father’s reign in raid against the Corsair-Havens of Umbar). Also, movie Denethor is an extreme case of character assassination/defilement. His portrayal is a lot more positive and nuanced in the book.

    3. I admit that the Legendarium can be static.

    4. Terrain can be repetitive, but the Middle Earth is supposed to be our world long ago in the past, and the lands the main cast travel are basically all prehistoric Europe. The book describes changes in scenery within that boundary.

    5. This was addressed in the book, albeit briefly. Mordor gets the food from Sauron’s tributaries in the east and the south, and there are vast slave-run farms on the southern Mordor, around the Sea of Nurnen.

    6. Mountains are weird. I won’t defend it. Although some of those mountains (Misty Mountains, for example) were magically raised.

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