Christopher Tolkien, the son of the writer J.R.R. Tolkien, who guarded his legacy and brought forth monumental posthumous works, like “The Silmarillion,” based on his father’s writings, died on Wednesday in Provence, France. He was 95.
The younger Tolkien became notable in his own right over time. J. R. R. Tolkien died in 1973. Over the last 50 years, it is his son, Christopher, who carried the torch for the vision of the father. Though the older Tolkien would have been notable and known as a minor historical figure without his son’s efforts, I think it is highly likely that he would be a much more marginal figure by now. We would probably remember J. R. R. Tolkien mostly as one of C. S. Lewis’ acquaintances, who also wrote an expansive fantasy series that achieved some success after World War 2.
Without Christopher Tolkien The Silmarillion and the various follow-up works would likely have never been published. Though he did not appreciate the films directed by Peter Jackson in the early 2000s, I think it is highly likely that the viability and interest in the films was a consequence of Christopher Tolkien’s effort in keeping his father’s legacy a living thing for generations which grew up after the 1960s.
So it’s confirmed, the new Amazon Tolkien series will be set during the Second Age. This seems like a fine choice, since some of the characters that we know and “love,” such as Sauron, Galadriel, and Elrond, will be major players, and the framework for the Third Age which is the backdrop that we’re familiar with will be set.
Additionally, as noted in the reactions, the fact that much of the action could take place on Numenor is probably a good thing for character development and dramatic tension. Numenor is the byword for hubris in Tolkien’s legendarium and opens up a path for a more complex and realistic take on character development than may have been possible during the more mythological First Age.
And of course, the series could culminate in a set-piece battle to end all battles.
Even if marginally, A Storm of Swords is the highest rated of George R. R. Martin’s books on Amazon. In the judgment of many people, which includes me, it is the best of his books. It was also the highpoint of interest in the series. For various reasons, it was published several months earlier in the UK than in the USA. So I special ordered the UK edition and received it in June of 2000, about 1.5 years after I began reading the series in the last weekend of January 1999.
Since I began writing this blog, in 2002, I have written now and then about my interest in the series, and frustration and patience with the delay in the books being published. The first three books were published in 1996, 1999, and 2000. The fourth book came out in 2005. The fifth, 2011. We’re now eight years along, and Martin is still working on book six.
For the longest time, I had no interest in watching the television show, since the books were far ahead of them, and I planned on watching the HBO series after George R. R. Martin wrapped up A Song of Ice and Fire. I had long assumed that the penultimate book would be published ~2016 so that the gap between the end of the HBO series and the novels would not too drawn out. Obviously, that did play out.
With the show Game of Thrones to conclude this year, there is a bittersweet aspect to those of us who have been reading the books for nearly a generation. There has been something of a “fork” so that many details of the show now differ from the books, and the HBO series, in fact, outrun Martin’s writing so much last year that much of the storyline was somewhat improvised. But the conclusion is said to be broadly the same between the television series and the book. Which means if and when we read the books we’ll know where it ends.
A reader in the comments pointed me to Vice and Fire (though I’d already seen it on Twitter), a rumination on 20th century and 21st century fantasy literature by Peter Hitchens in First Things. Hitchens is the religious and politically conservative brother of the late Christopher Hitchens.
The piece is curious because it reflects more about Hitchens than the material which he is describing. First, he begins with perplexity that J. R. R. Tolkien’s secondary world seems to lack a moralistic high religion, as we’d understand it. To Hitchens this is confusing in light of the fact that Tolkien was a very religious Roman Catholic in his own life. But it isn’t as if Tolkien scholars haven’t noticed this juxtaposition, or the contrast with C. S. Lewis’s style, who was extremely heavy on Christian allegory.
I think the most plausible explanation is that Tolkien had something of the same issue as L. Sprague de Camp. An aeronautical engineer by training, Isaac Asimov in his autobiography In Memory Yet Green recounts that de Camp made the shift to explicit fantasy away from hard science fiction because his professional background made it difficult for him to engage in the suspension of disbelief necessary to write plausibly about faster-than-light travel and other such things. In fantasy his own background did not get in the way of his creativity.
Like de Camp, Tolkien was gifted with knowing too much. This was a man whose legendarium was an attempt to create for the English people a mythology similar to what the Scandinavians and Irish took for granted. A philologist who was a scholar of Beowulf, Tolkien knew the whole cultural corpus of the ancient pagan Germanic people well. He mined their mythos in constructing the world in which he set his fiction. As such, he was aware of the violent brutality which characterized pre-Christian, and frankly pre-civilized, Northern Europe, and how its folkways were at variance with Christian morality. If Tolkien applied his scholarly skills to creating religions for the Men of the West, it seems unlikely that he would have been comfortable sanitizing what he knew their practices would be. On the other hand, as an invented secondary world of the imagination, it was not plausible that they would be Christian, and in any case, Tolkien was a sincere and devout believer in the Christian religion and may have been uncomfortable mixing his imaginative fictional world with the metaphysical truths he held sacred.
And yet this does not mean that the ethical monotheism which J. R. R. Tolkien personally adhered to did not bleed into his work. In Return of the King, there is a well-noted reference to “heathen kings” and their practice of burning the dead. The Men of the West may not be Christians, but nor were they pagans.
Which brings me to Hitchen’s diatribe against George R. R. Martin’s attitude toward religion. Unlike Tolkien, Martin seems irreligious. Some fantasists, such a Anne McCAffrey and Ursula K. Le Guin, have created worlds where theism is understated or nonexistent (the Kargads in Earthsea do have something that we’d recognize as a religion grounded in gods…but they are the “bad guys”). Not so with Martin. His world exhibits a great deal of religious complexity and verisimilitude.
Perhaps too much verisimilitude for Peter Hitchen’s taste. Let me quote at length a description of the religions as from the piece above:
Some readers of Martin’s stories see a kind of Christianity in the worship of “the Seven.” This is the most official of several religions in Westeros, described in this way: “Worship was a septon [priest] with a censer, the smell of incense, a seven-sided crystal alive with light, voices raised in song.” There are a Father, a Mother, and a Smith. Then there are the Crone, the Maiden, the Warrior, and finally the Stranger, who represents death. Although the Seven faintly echo the Trinity, there seems to be no equivalent of Christ or the Holy Ghost among them, let alone of the One God. This is not Seven in One and One in Seven but Seven in Seven. I would say that the Seven are much more like classical or Nordic pantheons than like the Trinity…The worship of the Seven is exactly what atheists think Christianity is: an outward vesture.
A rival older faith, officially tolerated, survives in silent groves of ancient trees. There is also a rather nasty Drowned God, who seems to encourage piracy among seafarers (which suits them very well), and a highly intolerant Red God with a touch of the Cathars, but which (unlike the others) manifests itself in acts of violent wizardry and second sight. This is the deity that flourishes in the sweltering, cruel east, and no wonder. So we have on the one hand a vague expression of civic virtue, empty of real force and truth, and on the other a manifestation of supernatural might, quite unconnected with goodness and very ready to ally itself with earthly power if it suits them both. This recalls the way in which, in our time, science and power walk hand in hand, often destructively and dangerously.
This is where it strikes me that the author had a hammer, and everything was a nail. There’s some truth to what he’s saying. The religion of The Seven is never outlined in great detail in comparison to other quasi-medieval aspects of Martin’s world. But there is a backstory to this: apparently the religious institutions were subordinated and suppressed to some extent by the previous Targaryen dynasty (who were clearly only nominal converts in any case). The fact is that the Faith of the Seven is monotheistic, where each god is a manifestation of the single ultimate God. And, it is a religion derived ultimately from revelation to the Andals in Essos. This is not a naive and organic tribal paganism.
As for the religion of the Red God, Martin has admitted that its spread to Westeros is modeled explicitly on the spread of Christianity. It is intolerant, but so was the spread of the religion which Peter Hitchens is a personal devotee of. On the Isle of Wight the last pagans were mostly killed by invading Christians due to their reluctance to adopt the new religion. He claims to have read the books, but he gives no indication that the Red God is a favorite of the Brotherhood Without Banners, who fight to defend the common people against the depredations of warring lords. Though the Red Priest Melisandre commits evil, like those Protestants who burned witches in Northern Europe, she believes that any suffering is ultimately to further the good. The brutality of the followers of the Red God is the other face of the fact that they are zealous and on fire for their faith, and believers who have faith that they walk in the path of virtue. The Cathars who Hitchens allude to were persecuted and then slaughtered by the orthodox Christians.
What explains Hitchen’s bile then? I am being pedantic on the points he makes about Tolkien and Martin in part because not all readers of the above essay will have read the source material, and will take his misrepresentation at face value. But it is true George R. R. Martin’s worlds exhibit a high level of brutality and perversion. When I first read Martin’s work I just finished Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, which is a retelling of the Arthurian legend fixedly in post-Roman Dark Age Britain. I decided to email Martin to ask him if he was perhaps influenced by this work, and he did admit that he was a great admirer of the Warlord Chronicles. Martin has said repeatedly that his work attempts to show that just because someone takes a vow of knighthood does not necessarily entail that they are virtuous. As a point of fact many knights in the European Middle Ages were little better than mercenaries and brigands. Codes of conduct and broad ethical frameworks exist in part to tame, constraint, and smooth out the rough edges of military elites who rule by force of arms.
Additionally, like fantasist Robin Hobbs, Martin does not engage in plotting where your precious ones will always come out unscathed. This is a painful feature, not a bug. The idea is to humanize the protagonist, sometimes uncomfortably verging on creating anti-heroes, and to contrast the highs of the payoff with some major lows. The way Martin does this bothers many people, and I think it’s within their rights to be bothered. But for those of us who have read more anodyne and more juvenile fantasy works, encountering Martin’s work was a bracing shock and made us want more precisely because of the rougher texture and sharper edges.
Finally, there is one aspect where George R. R. Martin explicitly attempts to mimic J. R. R. Tolkien, and this is in creating a “low magic” world. More honestly, Martin’s magic is actually magic, rather than a different form of science and engineering. When Martin’s series began to gain prominence, fantasy had fallen into a period where formulaic magical elements resembling Dungeons and Dragons had saturated the genre, to the point where lazier authors often made recourse to magical deus ex machina. If you remember back to Tolkien you observe that there really wasn’t that much magic, and you never saw Gandalf cast spells like a carnival act.
Ultimately George R. R. Martin is attempting to pull off several things at once, and obviously he isn’t always doing it well, nor does he fulfill all the expectations of his readers. The broader framework of the world he is creating does exist in a sort of good vs. evil paradigm with dark magical forces. But Martin enjoys shades of gray, and coming from a background as a Hollywood screenwriter, he worked hard, perhaps too hard, to give his characters moral complexity. They are often both saints and sinners. Finally, though A Song of Ice and Fire is epic high fantasy, he has injected into its veins an element of dark historical fantasy. This does not not always work, and I suspect readers keying in on the high fantasy elements are easily repulsed by the frank brutality and amorality of the historical fantasy. To make an analogy, the flavors clash. Your mileage may vary on whether this is good or bad.
If you’ve read The Silmarillion these novels are not going to be original. Rather, they’re for the Tolkien completists. But though Tolkien was a traditional conservative who did not look kindly upon the forces of the free market, I think the fact that Amazon is going to use his work, his world, as source material means that old stories are going to be recycled. Tolkien’s son, Christopher, who at over 90 years of age is nearing the end of his time guarding his father’s legacy. I wonder if these last novels are parting salvos by him before he loses total control.
The films in the 2000s were pretty good in my opinion, but what Amazon will do is probably going to totally reimagine how Tolkien’s vision is perceived by a new generation. Reading these novels might be a way to reacquaint oneself one last time with what these works of fantasy meant to people and were meant to be.
George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire was striking in the mid-1990s when the first book debuted because it combined the epic aspect which suffused J. R. R. Tolkien’s work with a gritty realism in regards to sex and violence more appropriate for HBO. So it was entirely unsurprising that Martin’s vision has translated reasonably well to HBO.
This wouldn’t work as well with other epic series’ from the era. Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time was certainly epic, but its characters were the sort entirely comprehensible to a twelve-year-old boy.
Now that Amazon has confirmed that the new Tolkien series is going to be based around the early life of Aragorn, some are highlighting what they see as a likely problem with the new series:
While Game of Thrones is often held up as grittier and more cynical than Lord of the Rings – often by people who see the latter as a simplistic, morally two-tone tale of good vs. evil – the biggest difference, when it comes down to it, is the titties (and the characters’ filthy fucking mouths). Lord of the Rings is darker than it’s often given credit for.
There is something about the mood and ambiance of Tolkien’s work which Peter Jackson captured in his first three films. This, despite the fact that the exterior scenes in lush and green New Zealand did not properly reflect the ancient decay of the landscape of the fallen civilization to which Aragorn and his companions were the heirs to.
George R. R. Martin begins A Game of Thrones in a brutal manner. Additionally, the perverted sex is frontloaded. HBO really didn’t have to do much to sensationalize the material that Martin gave them. In fact, I’ve stated many times that some characters, such as Ramsay Bolton, were cleaned up quite a bit for the small screen. Not only is the actor who plays Bolton more handsome than the character described in the book, but he’s less depraved and cruel in comparison to the one Martin sketches out.
But as highlighted in the write-up above, and suggested in my title, I think an epic television show based on the world of Tolkien will stumble in how to depict sex and romantic feelings. A scene where Arwen Evenstar is getting railed by Aragorn from behind would seem a bit out of character. And, the way Tolkien writes about them, I’m pretty sure that his elves did not have anuses, so the real kinky stuff is off the table.
But if the show neglects sex altogether, I suspect many adult watchers will perceive it as a juvenile. In three films it was reasonable that due to time constraints the characters were depicted in a relatively chaste manner. But over five episodic seasons?
Setting aside much which I found disagreeable in the piece, I was intrigued by the references to J. R. R. Tolkien’s work and their relationship to the race-theories prevalent at the time he was constructing his cosmos. It always struck me as rather obvious that Tolkien was a man of his time, and as a conservative British Roman Catholic, he would bring some fashionable Occidental sensibility to his world-building. Tolkien’s life spanned the late period of the British Empire, and his passion and legacy were to create a mythology for the English peoples. It would be reasonable his views on race, ethnicity, and religion would be in keeping within the mainstream for the first half of the 20th century.
If you read The Silmarillion it’s clear that the cosmogony of Middle Earth, Arda more broadly, was monotheistic. Though Tolkien asserted at some point that his work was fundamentally Catholic, that seems too specific (though Eru Ilúvatar does seem particularly Christian as opposed to more generally monotheistic).
It is notable that paganism is not explored in detail in the works, though there are allusions to pagan practice and beliefs. In Fellowship of the Ring Denethor, the crazed Steward of Gondor, declares “No long, slow sleep of death embalmed. We shall burn like the heathen kings of old!” Though Tolkien’s work is not explicitly as allegorical of Christianity as C. S. Lewis’, there was still a Christian sensibility about his universe and the outlooks of his protagonists. The Hobbits were modeled on English gentry and carried themselves with the propriety one expected of doughty burghers.
The pagan beliefs of men not exposed to the civilizing influences of the elves were attributable to worshipping the demonic powers of the dark lord Morgoth and his servant Sauron. This reflects the views of pre-modern Christians, where pagans did not worship fictions, but real demons who presented themselves as false gods.
The racial aspect is more what raises the hackles of the commentator in the piece above, and seems out of place today. Though I was never offended personally, it is impossible to not notice it if you dive deep into Tolkien’s legendarium. The three tribes of the Edain, “elf friends” of the First Age, seem to be modeled on Northern Europeans. The only exception may be the House of Haleth, though I suspect here as he was British Tolkien drew upon the folklore of the dark Welsh. These three Edain peoples were loyal to the elves and turned away from Morgoth and his servant Sauron. In contrast, the hearts of men who were not Edain were weak and susceptible to the allure of the dark lord and his minion.
Two broad classes of these people, the Easterlings, and the men of Harad, seem to represent all of the peoples of Asia, the Near East, and Africa. Described in turns as sallow, swarthy, brown and black, their racial identity is clear. It is not white. It also seems Tolkien’s British background comes to the fore again insofar as from what I can tell the only nation outside of the circle of the West in Middle Earth with an attention to linguistic detail, Khand, seems to be modeled on Northern India.* India, after all, would loom large in the imagination of British people of that period, in myth if not reality.
To term J. R. R. Tolkien a “white supremacist” or promoting an ideology of that sort seems to me in the class of true, but trivial. Almost everyone during the period that Tolkien was a mature man was a white supremacist as we’d understand it (including American presidents such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt). More interesting to me is the idea that Tolkien has cast an aura over high fantasy literature, and straight-jacked it into a Northern framework, which is implicitly or explicitly white supremacist.
It is hard to deny the influence in the general sense. The authors Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss have both talked about the distorting influence of Tolkien and his legendarium on the fantasy genre. The “Tolkien copy-cat” phenomenon to some extent defines high fantasy, or at least it did until the past decade or so when many authors have tried to imitate George R. R. Martin’s style (Terry Brooks’ success was in large part due to his conscious imitation and remixing of Tolkien).
Arguably part of the legacy then is the implicit racial order that is outlined in The Lord of the Rings. But let’s be clear here: the audience for fantasy literature in the United States and England is going to be mostly white, and white people seem to identify with other white people in fiction whether literary or visual. I’m not justifying, as a non-white person who has read fiction and watched film and television where the protagonists were mostly white for most of my life, I can tell you it’s not that hard to identify with a character of a different race. After all, everyone is a human.
But sometimes you want something different. A few years ago I read Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. The author is a moderately prominent political commentator on Twitter, and his views are standard postcolonial Leftist from what I can tell. This is a guy who’s against hegemony. So one of my criticisms of Throne of the Crescent Moon is that it substitutes a Eurocentric white hegemony for a Near Eastern quasi-Islamic hegemony. That is, the world of Throne of the Crescent Moon seems highly derivate of the Abbasid Caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, and reflects the cultural self-confidence of the period for Muslims. It’s certainly not one where oppression is in scarcity.
This isn’t necessarily a bug, but Ahmed basically traded swords for scimitars, and deracinated Christianity for quasi-Islam, and called it good. And perhaps it was good. I didn’t have a problem with it fundamentally. And if your problem with “white supremacy” is the “white” part then that is solved. The only issue though is that there was clearly a supremacy left within the story.
There are other ways to go a different direction from Tolkien. Consider Ricardo Pinto’sThe Chosen, the first of a series. This is actually a very original piece of work in relation to the world-building, without clear analogs to the universe we live in. For lack of a better descriptor, Pinto has created a world of bronze age brutality. But The Chosen also has a strong romantic element, and it is distinctive in that it culminated in a gay relationship. In interviews, Pinto has been explicit that his vision was to create a fantasy which reflected gay themes, and he certainly achieved that.
But going back to the issue I highlighted above, the world of The Chosen is also explicitly racially hierarchical, with the herrenvolk being tall, lean and very pale skinned, and ruling tyrannically and brutally over the dark races. Additionally, there is also an aspect of “mighty whitey” as the series progresses. I wouldn’t reduce Pinto’s novels to this caricature, but there is certainly something in them that Ernst Rohm would find appealing.
Less famously, but more explicitly, than Ursula K Le Guin in Tombs of Atuan, Judith Tarr engaged in racial inversion (at least from a white perspective) in her series of Avaryan novels. The protagonists were dark of complexion. The lands of the great enemy were inhabited by a paler people, with genuinely white-skinned people being very exotic creatures on the very margins of the known world. In Tarr’s human geography the cold northern areas are occupied by the darkest skinned peoples, while to the south there were nations whose appearance was of a paler brown. This shakes us from comprehending this universe as similar to ours because this goes against what we see in our world. And like Pinto’s work, there is a strong homoerotic element throughout the whole series, and unabashed depictions of homosexual sex (though the characters are not necessarily gay in this case).
And yet in the overall skeins, the same quasi-medieval superstructure still exists as a distinct scaffold. The author scrambles our expectations and rearranges and reorders the normative frameworks in Tolkien’s high fantasy, but the broad themes of self-discovery of the aristocratic young prince whose inheritance awaits, or the conflicts between empires and civilizations ebbing away through a marital alliance, reemerges from the fog of novel landscapes. After all the modification and inversion we find something distinctly feudal that remains before us.
My point is that the regressive and reactionary nature of high fantasy is literally baked into the nature of the genre. Unlike science fiction fantasy does not explore an unlimited space of the possible. The marginally science fictional aspects of R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series are attenuated, and you have to look closely to see them for what they are. If Bakker’s work had been suffused by spaceships then they’d transform into something different fundamentally, and the possibilities would open up. Science fiction plays with physics, biology, chemistry, as well as anthropology, economics, and history. In contrast, high fantasy as we understand it is delimited by a vision of anthropology, history, and linguistics. As such the canvas of the stories is necessarily narrower. High fantasy is by definition a genre which looks before the industrial revolution, and so takes as a starting point the norms and expectations of agrarian societies.
For the vast majority of human history, our existence has been defined by agrarian societies. I say here history, because the vast majority of our species’ existence is nevertheless pre-agrarian. The mythologies of San Bushmen, Mbuti Pygmies, and Australian Aboriginals, are all very different from the polytheisms of antiquity, with their kings in heaven and conquered gods in trapped in Tartarus. Hunter-gatherer society is and was more egalitarian. There were likely no great autocratic lords, even if there were greatest hunters or the eldest and most powerful wise women.
When it comes to agrarian society complex structure, hierarchy, and attention to lineage and a level of inter-group brutality were typical. These are the nostalgic worlds that high fantasy draws inspiration from, and by their nature, they will be difficult to reflect a liberal and egalitarian ethos in an all-pervasive sense. It is not difficult to identify with a protagonist who is decent and who reflects our sensibilities, but often they are swimming against the cultural tide.
Not to beat a dead horse, but I think the idea of a “minimally counter-intuitive narrative” is useful here. Fantasy is “out of this world,” but it also has to exhibit some verisimilitude. Ricardo Pinto’s The Chosen is a bit atypical because it is not heteronormative in its focal protagonists, but many of the other expectations of high fantasy, the barbaric brutality, and injustice, remain in place. Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series depicted an alternative quasi-Christianity where men and women had greater equality, and in the world as a whole, but aside from that and the fact that the Vikings were a separate species and elves’ existed, the whole series drew very heavily on 10th century Europe. One can modify many of the elements of a world and narrative to make it fantastical, but one also needs to not push it too far.
Imagining ourselves as a viewpoint character living in the past of our secondary world can help us to understand what is, and isn’t, plausible. Dragons? Plausible. Our pre-modern viewpoint character doesn’t think that dragons are impossible creatures. Quasi-human creatures? Again, plausible. Remove all inequality and guarantee affluence? In a Malthusian world, this is simply not conceivable. Abundance existed, but only for elites, or in the afterlife. Mitigation and amelioration of injustice and inequality were plausible, and in many religious-ethical systems preferred and meritorious, but there was no expectation or conception that injustice could be totally eliminated. Matthew 26:11.
Additionally, not only does one have to be attuned to pre-modern perspectives on verisimilitude, one needs to recall that a messy and imperfect world is actually fertile ground for narrative tension. One of the problems with Star Trek as envisioned by Gene Roddenberry was that in the liberal utopia of the future all the dramatic tension had to come from external sources.
Which gets us back to the original question: did Tolkien’s world-building virtuosity contingently rig the game for white supremacy in modern high fantasy? I don’t think so. High fantasy seems to draw upon pre-modern mythology. That mythology by its nature is from agrarian societies, which precede the modern world. These societies were hierarchical. This hierarchy is quite offensive fundamentally to modern liberal sensibilities, broadly construed. They are supremacist, albeit along the dimension of class.
In the English speaking world, the audience is mostly white, and the protagonists in fantasy and science fiction also tend to be white. This is not realistic, and it’s not racist per se, but it’s a general trend across our society and not limited to high fantasy (the New York City of Seinfeld and Friends was overwhelmingly white). Combine white protagonists with a hierarchical world…I think it’s hard to avoid being labeled a white supremacist appealing genre in the present year.
The ultimate problem here is that the current postcolonial fixation with white supremacy elides the reality that the problem is not whiteness, but supremacy. The Baltic pagans treated like beasts of burden by their German Christian conquerors were arguably even whiter physiognomically than the German Christian. Still they were treated oppressively, to the point of genocide in the case of the Old Prussians.
Let me end by quoting Agent Smith from the Matrix:
“Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed that we lacked the programming language to describe your “perfect world”. But I believe that, as a species human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. So the perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.”
* If you don’t believe me take a look at the map of Khand, the names of the cities are a melange of Indian and Iranian influences.
A short write-up, Why build new worlds, which surveys the origins and of secondary creations such as Middle Earth.
One aspect of these attempts at world-building is the most detailed ones invariably borrow and reconfigure aspects of our own universe. This is obvious in The Song of Ice and Fire, and explicit in The Lord of the Rings, in which Tolkien was striving to create a mythology for the Anglo-Saxon peoples. Guy Gavriel Kay takes this tendency of drawing from our world to an extreme in works such as Sailing to Sarantium, which has numerous characters who are clearly modeled upon figures from our world’s history. Similarly, Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series is pretty obviously set in 10th century Germany. And she says so in the afterword of the first book if I recall correctly.
But one aspect of this borrowing from our own world is that like Tolkien there is a focus on Northern European source material. Since most of the buying public are probably white for English speaking fantasy that’s a reasonable choice. But sometimes you get an author who mines a whole different part of the world, and the result can be very fascinating. Martha Wells’ Wheels of the Infinite has issues with plotting and character development, but it’s imagining of a fantastical Angkor-like civilization is beautifully rendered.
If there is one area which I thought would be excellent source material for a secondary world, it’s the highlands of Ethiopia. I’d love to read fantasy which draws upon this land’s history, in a part because most people (including me) would not have as clear of a sense of who was based on someone real and the correspondence of events to those in our world’s history.
Seeing as how I have three children, I don’t think I’m admitting my virginity when I admit that I am mildly excited that Brandon Sanderson’s third volume of his ten volume The Way of Kings, Oathbringer, is coming out in the fall.
Sanderson writes at a fast clip and finishes lots of books. Yes, his prose doesn’t stay with you like that of some other fantasists. But after all the years waiting for the next volume of Song of Ice and Fire, there’s something to be said for actually delivering something to the public.
Not that I myself get through many works of fiction per year anymore. I’ve had The Wise Man’s Fear on my Kindle for seven years now. I keep waiting for the final entry so I can just finish the last two in one sitting. And yes, there’s Seveneves. All in good time….