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.