The Lord of the Rings has a vast world, but an even richer history. This story and the related history are people-driven. The world is subservient to the actions of the beings within that world. What do I mean by this? It’s apparent when we look at Middle-earth itself. The areas of the world take on the characteristics of those dwelling there.
Greenwood the Great became Mirkwood after the Neromancer took up residence. Rivendell is rich, deep, and secure, just like the elves who created it. Lothlorien is golden, dreamlike, and beautiful, as are Galadrial and Celeborn. The Shire is quiet, peaceful, and full of good food, like the Hobbits. Mordor is wretched, ruined, and powerful, because Sauron imparts his will upon the land. The Old Forest is odd, just like its master, Tom Bombadil.
The stories of Middle-earth reflect this as well. Calamities are brought about, most often, by beings. Beings have more a chaotic, unpredictable, awe-inspiring role than does nature. The planet bends to the forces of the characters. This is interesting in that it’s nothing like the world in which we live.
We project the fortitude and resilience of the American people on the Rockie Mountains, but we surely did not make them rise up. Hurricanes, avalanches, and earthquakes happen regardless of the personalities of those living in the area. In fact, for us, the lay of the land can influence the people. Storms cause damage which impacts citizens. Forest fires cause us to evacuate our homes. Mountain ranges feel comforting. Does nature help shape who we are?
Let’s consider another fictional world – that of Dune. It contains humanity and political machinations, but it’s all predicated on a harsh and powerful world. The people bend to the desert; the economy is driven by the spice, “the most important and valuable substance in the universe”. Civilization is built on the back of the ecology of the physical world, and it deals every day with still suits, worms, and sand. This is a reversal of the approach taken in Middle-earth. It models more closely our actual world.
Is it a view from bygone days that all inhabitants of an area are the same? A sort of stereotype of a population. We’re smart, brave, and persistent. We’re American. We conquer the challenges we face. Outsiders are fearful, cowardly, and wrong. They’re foreigners. Their personality brings about the disasters they face. This mindset has no basis in reality. People of all sorts live all over. The brave and the cowardly live side by side in every country.
I can see why stories like those of Tolkien are popular. They give us a taste of what it’d be like to live in a fantastical setting where personality determines nature. It inflates our role in the world, and makes us believe we have more control. We anthropomorphize our surroundings based on our qualities. It’s a change from our everyday experience where we’re subject to the vagaries of Mother Nature.
Are there names for these approaches to portraying and fictionalizing the world? People-as-servant versus World-as-servant?
This idea recently came to me as I thought about potential stories. I’m influenced by things like Pikes Peak, which I lived near for four years. The Waldo Canyon fire also left an impression. The groups I imagine are impacted by the world and that drives action just as much as conflict with other groups. It’s fun to compare my thoughts to approaches other authors have taken, especially those who have created fictional works so popular. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.