Middle Earth was not the first invented world, of course. But in the way the world is envisaged and managed, it represents a revolution. Previously, in works such as Eddison’s, Leiber’s, Ashton Smith’s and many others’, the worlds of magic, vibrant, brilliant, hilarious and much-loved as they may be, were secondary to the plot. This is not a criticism: that’s a perfectly legitimate way to proceed. But the paradigm shift of which there may be other examples, but of which Tolkien was by a vast margin the outstanding herald, represents an extraordinary inversion, which brings its own unique tools and capabilities to narrative. The order is reverse: the world comes first, and then, and only then, things happen–stories occur–within it.
So dominant is this mode now (as millions of women and men draw millions of maps, and write millions of histories, inventing worlds in which, perhaps, eventually, a few will set stories) that it’s difficult to see what a conceptual shift it represented. And it is so mocked and denigrated–often brilliantly, as in the ferocious attack by M. John Harrison, that outstanding anti-fantasist, wherein he describes worldbuilding as the ‘great clomping foot of nerdism’–that it’s hard to insist that it brings aesthetic and epistemological possibilities to the table that may be valuable and impossible any other way.
This is a debate that needs to be had. These are stories contingent to a world the reader inhabits–full of ‘ideal creations’ that the writer has given, in Tolkien’s words, ‘the inner consistency of reality’. Whatever else it is, that is a strange and unique kind of reading. Tolkien not only performs the trick, indeed arguably inaugurates it, but considers and theorises this process that he calls ‘subcreation’, in his extraordinary essay ‘On Fairy Stories’. It is astounding, and testimony to him, that his ruminations on what is probably now the default ‘fantasy’ mode remain not only seminal but lonely. Whether one celebrates or laments the fact, it is an incredibly powerful literary approach, and the lack of systematic, philosophical and critical attention paid not to this or that example but to ‘subcreation’, world-building, overall, as a technique, is amazing. To my knowledge–and I would be grateful for correction–there is not one book-length theoretical critical work, or collection, investigating the fantastic technique of secondary-world-building–subcreation. This is astounding. In Tolkien, fully 70 years ago, by contrast, we have not only the method’s great vanguard, but still one of its most important and pioneering scholars.
(And four other reasons why “Tolkien rocks”.)