So far in class, one of the overarching threads of discussion has been the relationship between the secondary reality, that of fiction or fantasy, and our own primary reality. Within this, the interpretation on whether these realities are indeed separate, particularly for Tolkien himself, has been the dominant topic. However I personally always found the discussion more interesting when it ventured farther away from what Tolkien himself was thinking about his works to instead the thoughts of his readers and their thoughts on the secondary reality created in Tolkien’s works. In The Road to Middle Earth, Shippey states that maps and names and mythic characters of landscape like Tom Bombadil “ suggest very strongly a world which is more than imagined, whose supernatural qualities are close to entirely natural ones, one which has moreover been ‘worn down’ like ours, by time and by the process of lands and languages and people all growing up together over millennia” (109). In other words it is the familiarity of environment and language with an understood underlying mythology or history that gave Tolkien’s secondary reality a solidity and place within the primary reality. It is, at least in part, these background settings to the characters and story that made the discussion on whether the two realities are indeed separate for both Tolkien and his readers an actual point of discussion.
Any discussion of Middle Earth would be amiss without at least a tepid reference to the world’s geography. The locations, their names, and descriptions are integral to the story. When buying the books the first thing a reader is confronted with upon opening is a map, and during any reading of the story the amount of detail placed in description of place is quite obvious. This makes sense, after all, Tolkien himself stated that “I wisely started with a map and made the story fit,” (Letters, 177). But, it is important to note that not any map would do. It had to be a map whose “qualities are entirely natural ones,” (Shippey, 109) or familiar in the primary reality of the reader. As discussed in Monday’s class, Tolkien purposefully placed Middle Earth to align with Europe. As Tolkien constantly repeats in his discussions of Middle Earth, “The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary,” (Letters, 236). No the map clearly is not a perfect replica, considering the equivalent of the English Channel is non-existent in Middle Earth. But the landscape is familiar in latitude, environment, and character, i.e. architecture, etc. This creates a sense of belonging for the reader, a recognition in what would otherwise be a secondary reality as part of the reader’s own primary reality.
Similarly, the names found in Middle Earth are shaped and integrally tied to the primary reality. Many actually exist or are inspired by locations within our primary reality. What makes them different is that they are names that call back to older times, different pronunciations, or are simply created through the use of Old English roots. As Shippey explains, “They sound funny but they ring true,” (Shippey, 103). The common reader would usually not recognize the names of these already existing locations or recognize the roots that Tolkien used to build the rest. But, because they are built on details of the primary reality, the names of the places in Middle Earth sound and feel as though they are part of the primary reality, and therefor “ring true.”
Just as important in making the secondary reality of Middle Earth at the very least appear as though it could be part of our primary reality is the history of the locations described there within, and Tolkien was very much aware of this in writing his stories. In Lord of the Rings there are multiple forests described, and each is unique from the other. Yes, the description of how the forests look does vary, but the most significant differences lie in the story of the forests themselves. Whether these forests became the homes of ents or elves or Tom Bombadil is what ultimately makes each forest its own. It changed these forests from a titled painting to a place within reality. Tolkien goes so far as to all but describe this process when he has Legolas recite the lament of the stones or when he has the hobbits describe the complete interwoven nature between the elves of Lothlorien and the woods hat surround them. Similarly, this is also directly addressed in Farmer Giles of Ham. Although the story of Farmer Giles is in many ways an extended linguistic joke, it is clearly preoccupied with the concept of stories behind names. Finding reason behind names is the main purpose the translator gives for doing the translation. It is also the main source of creative inspiration for Tolkien.
As I stated before, Tolkien created the physical place of Middle Earth far before he created the stories of Lord of the Rings. Shelley describes Tolkien’s methodology of creation as that, “he got started on relatively laborious ‘invention,’ and found as the story gathered way that the inevitable complications of these brought him ‘inspiration,’” (Shelley, 104). In other words, Tolkien created the map and names and then created the history or myth of the places to explain why these names were given to that particular place. It was this creation of the secondary reality, so tied to our primary reality that created the Lord of the Rings and what made the stories exceptional in their ability to make the secondary reality primary for its readers.