Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Role of Place and History in the Creation of the Secondary Reality

            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.


  1. I believe your point about Tolkien’s creation of maps and names prior to developing the history and myth surrounding them is very interesting. As we can tell from the rest of Tolkien's works and as you pointed out, this was the crucial first step in creating this intricate and thoroughly crafted secondary reality of Middle-Earth. However, is this absolutely essential for any writer seeking to create his or her own secondary reality on an equal scale as Tolkien? Or rather is it possible to create a work of similar magnitude by starting with a particular history followed by the development of maps and names? If the order does not matter, is one technique easier than the other? It seems as though Tolkien took the easier and most likely better approach. When considering the relationship between maps and history in our primary world, a more consistent knowledge about history is understood when viewing a map before learning about historical events because it provides people with a visual tool used for context. However, when learning about history without a specific map, it is often harder for people to place certain events and if two people are asked to create a map based on the history, they will most likely contain differences and therefore create inconsistent realities. In the same way, when creating a fantasy such as The Lord of the Rings, it is essential to learn about a physical map first followed by the more abstract creation of history and myth, which was precisely Tolkien’s approach.


  2. While it is clear from our discussions that Tolkien's primary interest is with languages and names, it is indeed interesting to consider the tremendous amount of thought he must have put into his cartography. When viewing the map of Middle-earth overlaid on the map of present day Europe, and seeing both the striking similarities and vast differences, I was reminded of two things. First, Frodo's "Hey Diddle Diddle" song in the Prancing Pony, and second, our discussion of the relation of history and legend.
    Frodo’s song is supposed to represent a more ancient version of our modern, decayed version of the poem, and I believe the same thought must have gone through Tolkien's mind while he was creating the maps of Middle-earth. Our present day world does seem to be a degradation of Middle-earth. Our many rivers, inlets, and seas (such as the English Channel that you mentioned) almost make it look as if the once whole Middle-earth was chopped up by the forces of time, leaving only the rough-edged continent we see today.
    When discussing history and legend in class, we came to learn that the farther one goes back into time, the more the boundary between history and legend becomes blurred. When looking back at ancient maps made before the true shapes of the Americas and Asia were known, we see distorted, fantastical continents that barely resemble the shapes we know today from our satellite imagery. Perhaps it is this distortion that Tolkien had in mind when developing his maps of Middle-earth.

    -Tate Hamilton

  3. MEC,

    Thanks for the really good post which makes some extremely important points. I think you actually undersell the massive importance of the landscape to Tolkien’s sub-creation.

    In addition to the point (which a couple other posters have made as well) that the physical world serves as a sort of common anchor to both Tolkien’s myth and our world’s history, his extreme attention to detail in description and the sheer lavishness of its depiction it underscores its centrality to him.

    When I was reading some of LotR to my kids some time back, I turned to my wife (a much better-travelled Middle-Earther than I) and said, “Good lord, I can’t believe how much of this is topography and weather reports!”

    Bill the Heliotrope

  4. I think that giving a lot of attention to the consistency of a story is very important, and maps are one way to do that. But I have a few scattered points re. how this works (and is allowed to work, if that makes sense?)

    -When you say that "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.", I think that's a good place to stop when you're just trying to deal with the secondary reality and why it feels real to us. A secondary world of any sort shouldn't have to seem real because of its "familiarity" due to place names or a possible location in the factual history of our own world. It should gain its familiarity due to the consistency and depth of its own rules, as well as the sense that there's a lot that we /don't/ see that can be extrapolated from what already exists. This is definitely true for Tolkien, regardless of what he was thinking about when he was trying to identify Middle-Earth with our own history.

    -It's interesting to think about the fact that, typically, maps come after the places and stories, because maps are there to guide us through places and stories. I guess maps impose some kind of internal consistency that can help a world along (or at least show what possible places/what possible stories within/between those places exist).

    Hope this wasn't too incoherent!


  5. I want to start off by saying that I completely agree with everything that you stated in your post. I think geography is extremely important to the development of a story and the world it takes place in. However this leads us to the question, did Tolkien develop his geography well? While I have no specific quibble with the actual geography I do take serious issue with his spacing; Tolkien’s middle earth is simply too small. While the short distances make for a convenient and good journey, it makes far less sense in terms of actual geography and back history. Why is Minis Tirith so close to Mordor? This is what has never made any sense to me. Gondor’s lands are supposedly rather vast and extend far to the west and south, but their most important city is more or less literally at the enemy’s gates. One would have thought that the capital would have been moved long ago to a safer location. Failing that one finds Gondor’s decision to with draw from it occupation of Mordor at the end of the second age highly problematic. Why would they withdraw the occupation, leaving all the defenses intact, and allow the orcs to re-multiple. At the very least there should have been periodic orc cullings (genocidal as that may sound, the polarization between good and evil is so strong in LORT I don’t really have a problem with it). It could be that I’m not familiar enough with the Legendarium to know all the answers to these questions, but to me to it seems like a critical flaw in the geography, and thus history, of Middle Earth.

    -Blake Alex