Friday, April 1, 2011

World Building and Logic

“Fantasy is made out of the Primary World” On Fairy Stories, pg. 78

This is not the first class I’ve taken on Tolkien. At Nerd Camp, some summer during middle school, my class on imaginative literature (which in retrospect seems redundant) tackled The Fellowship of the Rings. I don’t remember all that we discussed, but seeing as we were in middle school that is probably for the best. I do recall becoming introduced to the term “world building” and that at the end of the course, a class survey declared Tolkien to the be the best world builder of the authors we had read, closely flowed by J.K. Rowling. What did we mean by world building, or what was my understanding of the word as I continued to use it, up till now? I’ve been reading fairy stories, and number of non fairy stories, what the books stores call “fantasy” literature, and of course I was aware that the author was creating something, something different, maybe not better, but certainly new. At the time, I imagined world building was just creating a really cool world that I could immerse myself in. I didn’t think about what made some authors better at it than others, just whether or not they could do it well. But with these readings, I started to reconsider what is meant by the term “world building.”

Simply, it is what every author of fiction engages in when they construct a story. They are placing their character in a world, a world with logic and rules of its own, that the characters break at their peril. Sometimes these worlds are nearly identical to ours, other times completely alien. Fantasy, which includes fairy and non-fairy stories according to Tolkien’s definition, makes these rules more fantastical.He writes :

It is at any rate essential to a genuine fairy-story, as distinct from the employment of this form for lesser or debased purposes, that it should be presented as 'true.' ...But since the fairy-story deals with 'marvels,' it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole framework in which they occur is a figment or illusion (42).

What I struggled with was “true.” Tolkien later goes on to talk about truth in relation to whether or not the stories happened in our Primary World. But in terms of world building, I realized I less concerned with the truth as it relates to us, than with the story’s internal logic. Does this story make sense? II do not care if a girl could actually turn into a goose in real life, but can you make me believe that it is possible in the world that has been created? This is what seemed to separate master builders, from authors that were merely good. Tolkien touches on this later when he talks of writing, or not writing, for children:

But [suspension of disbelief] does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed.

That is the sort of truth that Tolkien, and other fantasy authors bring to their works. This is the truth that we understood, even as pre-teens. An internal logic to their worlds, how ever different from our own, that is consistent. By picking up the book with dragons, or hobbits on the cover, we have made a commitment to believe in their world, that dragons and hobbits do exist.It is up to the author to not stretch our belief to the point of incredulity. “It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count.” Authors don’t need to make us believe in dragons, just that the dragons have a logical place in their world. Perhaps because he treats his works as a history, more so than a story, Tolkien’s world is so believable and easy to lose yourself in because it makes sense. Once you have agreed to the terms of his creation, he rewards you not only with a rich adventure tale, but by respecting you, his reader, by not insulting your intelligence or imagination

When we, some “gifted” middle schoolers, decided that Tolkien was the greatest world builder, it was because he created a world, with rules that were so logical, that the world seemed perfectly “real.” This is what good world building is, creating a world with an understandable internal logic. When I say internal logic, perhaps I should be using rational. I’m not talking about science and physics (though that can play a part of it in some stories), I mean that the bits and pieces of the world all make sense and fit together. Worlds aren’t entirely logical, ours certainly is not, but they are consistent. In class we discussed creation, or rather, sub-creation, and why that might be threatening to critics of fantasy in general, and Tolkien in particular. One reason was fear; the fear of man acting God like, creating something as real as life. But something can only be as real as life if it mimics the patterns and rhythms that we have in our own life. “Fantasy is made out of the Primary World.” And the primary world is consistent, logical, and, at times, even magical.

-Alexis Chaney


  1. I think that you have put your finger on a very interesting question, if perhaps unintentionally: yes, we expect the primary world to be consistent and logical, but what about when it isn't? Is this what you mean by magical? Or is there a place in this definition of world-building for what Tolkien (as a Christian) would call "miracle"? As a thought!


  2. I think an interesting corollary to the question of how we deal with inconsistency in our world is how we deal with inconsistencies between primary and secondary worlds. There can be completely internally consistent worlds that violate the 'rules' of our primary reality in various ways. Some of these--there are immortal elves, for example--seem to be easier to accept than others--a world in which things fall up, for instance. For instance, it seems that in the most extreme example, there are certain necessary 'logical' truths about our world (such as 'something cannot be both true and false') that have to structure any of the subworlds that we create within our world.

    How do we accept certain things as consistent or inconsistent? Is there something going on that is deeper than just the relative skill of the world builder? It seems that there must be. Certain ways of creating worlds just don't work--there are situations that we cannot accept. What interests me is what makes situations believable on a fundamental level--are there certain things that even a master world builder like Tolkien cannot get us to believe in?


  3. In your second to last paragraph when talking about truth you touch on the subject of belief, how our belief in a story transforms fantasy into its own reality. This raises a question which has pestered me for quite some time, are truth and belief related? Do they even have a passing acquaintance (the kind of relationship consisting of nods whilst passing one another on the quad)? This question inevitably leads into the realm of mythology. I have long been a lover of myths, have read quite a few, and yet defining what they are is a very hard task. However every definition boils down to either stories which people believed in, or stories which have inherent truths (about the world, a culture, humanity, etc.). Tolkien relates fairy-story and myth, and he knew quite a lot about both. Personally I think that the difference between fairy story and myth is one of degree. This isn’t to say that myths are fiction. Quite the contrary it is to give credence to fairy-stories, or any story which creates its own world. I believe that myths are stories we use to shape what Tolkien calls “primary reality,” stories which define people, places, and even natural phenomenon. If fairy-stories are the basis of secondary belief, then maybe myths are what we base our primary belief around.
    -Zev H.

  4. Have you thought of the world building as a by-product of a successful fantasy rather than the chief aim of the author? By Tolkien’s estimation, a full blown alternate history is hardly a perquisite for fantasy literature. In “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien says.,,

    For the moment I will say only this: a “fairy-story” is one which touches on or uses Faerie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic—but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician. There is one proviso: if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself.

    The author must treat the magic of the story seriously rather than as an artifice, so that the reader can readily accept it within the context of the story. One way to do this is to create two languages reasonably developed languages, a backstory covering thousands of years, a creation legend, a pantheon of gods, intertwined family trees for hundreds of individuals, etc. But, presumably a gifted author could craft a convincing fantasy relying on the reader to do much of the work creating the world in which the story takes place. As for seeming “real” or exceptionally logical and consistent, why can’t a successful fantasy be surreal? I couldn’t say what Tolkien would think about it, but Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince comes to mind. Enough of the familiar must be recognizable so that the story is not bizarre unintelligible nonsense, but I don't think the
    aim of fantasy is to mimic real life.

    I think the brilliance of Tolkien’s world building is the sheer size and depth of detail in it. The volume and variety of cohesive fictive evidence lends it a kind of credibility that other fantasy worlds lack. However, the story telling is what makes the world important rather than the other way around. If the story in The Lord of the Rings was poorly done or lacking in some way, why would anyone care about Sindarin? Why would you want to find out more about his world of Middle Earth?

    Ultimately much of it comes down to subjective taste. Some people will read about a giant spider named Shelob and say, “Oh, come on!” and the spell will be broken. However, it is worth noting that much of the really weird stuff like giant spiders, armies of undead, killer forests that can run cross-country, and some guy with an invisible head that flies around on a giant stinky bat-like thing do not appear until much later in the story. Perhaps the intention was not rattle the reader with too much strangeness too soon. That is the art of storytelling.

    -Jason A Banks

  5. Like a commentator above me, I would also like to focus on your thoughts about belief and what role it plays in good story telling. You mention several times that the best stories are “rational” and “consistent”, and that it is these qualities that allow readers to immerse themselves in an author’s constructed world. And while I agree that these qualities are important components of an immersive story, I wonder about a possible implication of your words: that good authors must convince their readers that their worlds make sense. In my experience with quality tales, I don’t recall thinking that such stories were actually believable or sensible. Indeed, I’m not sure if I would call what goes on while reading a truly immersive story “belief”, at all. When reading a good book, one is not consciously accepting the author’s creation. Like in the primary world, the details of a good book are quite often taken for granted—which is to say, a reader seldom feels the need to question the author’s work. Why? Well, for many, many, reasons—which can all be condensed in the description “good writing”. You were quite right to point out the importance of consistency and a certain measure of rationality in good writing. However, I have read stories that have made no sense at all—at least, not in the beginning—that regardless managed to sweep my emotions into their fictional fray. And I’m sure you will agree that plenty of stories are quite logical and sensible, but somehow lack that magic that Tolkien so masterfully wields in his epic. World-building seems to be done by writing well—so well, that for the reader reasoning comes second to simply partaking.

    -Jessica Adepoju

  6. What fascinates me the most in the creation of a secondary world is that it provides a new lens to look at how people interact. I agree whole heartily that Tolkien’s (or any other good fantasy writer's) intention is not to perpetuate belief in dragons or other fantastical things. I think that fantasy, and the creation of a secondary world, both interact and challenge the internal logic of our own “real” world. What makes Tolkien stand out to me is the thoroughness of this challenge. In his books he questions the effects of mortality, journeys, friendship, war, and science. Because these questions are being asked in a believable world (that is adhering to their own logic, not believable to our own), they mean so much more to us.
    This is why, at least to me, fantasy is such a wonderful genre. In many ways it is just as personal and as poignant as any major piece of realistic literature. The characters become real because we understand their logic. The way it approaches how people think and interact asks the reader to question how they think and interact. The journey of the fellowship means so much to us, not despite the fantasy, but because of it. We not only invest ourselves in the logic of Middle Earth, but invest ourselves in thinking about what that logic means.


  7. I remember reading your post at the beginning of the quarter and made it a point to comment on it before the course ended!
    I really enjoyed your post. I remember that after having read it for the first time I found myself questioning something along the lines of "What is it about Tolkien that absolutely captivates me?". After reading your post for the first time I remember my initial reaction having been along the lines of; "Well.. Yes, Tolkien does draw his world from primary reality... But at the same time, don't all authors?" I confess I still couldn't put a finger on the origin of my fascination for his work.
    It wasn't only until you really delved into his capacity as an author to lend to his story an inner consistency that it really started to hit home with me. I had re-read the Silmarillion over break before coming to school but had read it taking much of this embedded consistency and coherence for granted. I figured these were aspects that any book should have if it is to call itself a comprehensible story.
    However - and here is where I have to thank you for having written this delightful post - having re-read the Silmarillion again throughout the quarter in light of your post I found myself valuing Tolkien even more (and I honestly did not think that was even possible).
    Instead, my thoughts were; "How in earth does Tolkien do it?! There are sooooo many names and lineages and mini-stories embedded within the narrative. How is he able to keep track of all this?! It came to a point where I was colour coding my book only to be able to remember who did what, with whom, at around what time in the story. (As a reader I could barely keep track of all the information myself!)

    So, props for Tolkien on the brilliant work! And props to you for having me see the value in these little details that I would have otherwise not have given the attention they deserve.

    Yes. I have to agree with you; Tolkien is in fact, an awesome world-builder.

    - J.Machado

  8. As logical as world-building is, I can't help but consider where the limits to this internal logic lie. At what point, if it exists, would a fantasy writer go too far? Created worlds can defy physics, they can defy reason (reasonably, of course c:), defy magnificent odds and defy meaninglessness. But I wonder if there are some qualities that cannot be touched, even if they were enveloped in a self-consistent narrative. The only limit that I can think of is language. Created worlds, even the best and most creative ones, must be describable. Their logic must be able to be defined within the system of language that we developed in order to describe our primary reality. Does that leave out entire classes of worlds that have 'internal logic' but that we cannot interpret? This is a disturbing question. Tolkien, of course, created a multitude of languages and stories to give the languages context and meaning. Some passages in the Lord of the Rings were left untranslated (until further pestering on the part of Tolkien's readers, at least)-- can the secondary reality that is created in fantasy worlds be in fact untranslatable? What would that even look like?