The Bottom of the Iceberg

Mark Lawrence recently wrote a blog post for Bookworm Blues on worldbuilding in fantasy, an aspect of writing fantasy that I think he’s quite good at.  He uses the metaphor of the iceberg to discuss the topic, referring to the wealth of backstory, culture, and history that goes into creating the worlds of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.  Both of these authors are well known for having created reams of information about their respective worlds, most of which never sees the light of day in their actual novels (or doesn’t until, whether due to death or superstardom or both, this content becomes desired and profitable).  But Lawrence takes a step further, asking the question of whether the bottom of the iceberg actually needs to exist, or whether it’s enough that it seems to exist:

But … is the rest of the iceberg there? Does it need to be?

Perhaps GRRM takes 5 years to write his books because for each of them there’s an unseen bulk of background material, floating there in the depths. Maybe one day there will be a ‘Game of Thrones’ Silmarillion. Or perhaps there’s just a scaffold, a skeletal support propping up the edifice, just as when you step behind the stage sets for the TV series there’s a mess of struts, plywood, paint tins, and four Irish workmen sitting down to a pot of tea.

The important question is really – does it matter if the rest of the iceberg’s down there? I would suggest the answer is ‘no’. We want to feel as if it’s there, but if the writer has the skill to give the impression of all that hidden detail … it’s fine with me if it’s not really there.

Mr. Lawrence is particularly adept at this type of world-building: giving the reader the impression of depth and history and backstory, without actually having to start by writing that all down.

It’s all a question of process, really.  Maybe you’re a writer for whom it’s helpful and inspiring to draw up genealogies and write world history, or maybe you’re one who, like Mr. Lawrence, sits down and starts writing.  I fall somewhere in between, myself.  I have copious notes about my worlds, but they’re not terribly organized.  I don’t know the specific backstory of every character I write about, or their family histories or power levels or the origin of every minor artifact.  As Mr. Martin has been quoted as saying, when I need that information, I’ll make it up.

What about you?  What’s your worldbuilding process like?  How much of it do you know beforehand?  Does the bottom of your iceberg exist yet?

Four Mistakes ‘The Lord of the Rings’ Films Made

My obsession with Tolkien’s Legendarium has never needed much encouragement, but Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings understandably stoked the fires.  My sophomore year in college was a relatively lonely time in my life: a lot of my friends had transferred to different schools, I was living with a difficult roommate, and I was feeling the warning rumbles of a quarter-life crisis that would, in many ways, define the next decade of my life.  The opportunity to lose myself in Middle-Earth, especially in such an exciting new way, was a welcome one.  I don’t even remember how many times I saw The Fellowship of the Ring in the theater, but it was often alone, and it was often in the middle of the night.  Which was by choice: going by myself meant I didn’t have to worry about someone else.  I didn’t have to keep up a conversation, wonder whether they were enjoying themselves, or generally interrupt my own rapt ingestion of the film to concern myself with the presence of another human being.

Yeah, I was a pretty self-absorbed guy back then.

I didn’t go in to the movie expecting much.  The Lord of the Rings was, after all, the defining literary experience of my life at that point (and at every point afterward).  Mostly, I was just hoping it wouldn’t completely suck.  I couldn’t stomach the idea that millions of people who hadn’t read the books might be introduced to the story for the first time by way of an adaptation that was insipid, depthless, or just plain bad.  It was too important to me, and I felt like I had been defending its artistic validity for too long to have Hollywood screw it up.

Obviously, I was pleasantly surprised.  Stunned.  Enraptured, even.  It was actually good.  And not only was it good, it felt like Tolkien.  It felt like reading the book.  There are so many things, in Fellowship in particular, that Jackson and company just got right.  I could list half a dozen moments when I found myself thinking: this is exactly as I imagined it.  I won’t, because if you’re reading this I’m sure you had a similar experience.  But the quality was there, and the feeling was there, and I was hooked.

Certainly there were things I missed, portions of the book that I knew, academically, couldn’t be included: the deliciously tense, years-long period between the Long-Expected Party and Frodo’s departure from the Shire; Farmer Maggot; Fatty Bolger and the house on the Brandywine; the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, and the Barrow-wight; Glorfindel and the torturous flight to the Ford.  And that’s just in Book I of Fellowship.  I understood, as any realistic fan and especially any realistic aspiring artist had to understand, that sacrifices must be made for the sake of time, clarity, and pacing.  Realizing that was the beginning of realizing that it was possible to love both the book and the film, that they were each their own animal, and that I didn’t have to choose between them.

The films became a new way to enjoy my favorite books.  I lived to watch and rewatch them, often pointing out the allusions to the larger world of Tolkien’s creation or even little inaccuracies when they popped up.  But over all I loved them, and didn’t spend much time focusing on the rare flaws.

But almost fifteen years and innumerable viewings later, I feel like I finally have enough distance to confidently point out a few of the mistakes Jackson made in bringing Tolkien’s magnum opus to life on the screen.

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The Road Goes Ever On


I always think of Tolkien in the fall.  It is a season for adventure, a season with brisk air and beautiful landscapes–perfect walking weather.  The time of year that you venture out with a sweater on and walk for hours through the fields, knowing all the while that the chill of the dew on the grass and the crisp autumn winds will be mitigated by the fire back home and a cup of something warm.  It’s the season when both Bilbo and Frodo set out on their respective adventures, the season when even the homeliest of hobbits feels the gentle heat of longing in their blood.

I most often reread The Lord of the Rings during the fall for this reason.  In that spirit, and in the spirit of romantic adventurers everywhere, one of my favorite of Tolkien’s poems/songs* to whet your appetite for the ever-moving road:

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on,
Under cloud and under star.
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen,
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green,
And trees and hills they long have known.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journey new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Still ’round the corner there may wait
A new road or secret gate;
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.


* This is a synthesis of several different versions and stanzas of the song, which is sung by various characters at various times throughout both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Like the Road itself, the song changes, depending upon who’s doing the singing, and where they are when they’re singing it.  After all, “[i]t’s a dangerous business…going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Why Didn’t the Eagles Take the Ring to Mordor?

lotr eagles memeThere’s been a rather silly meme going around on Facebook over the last few days that purports to offer an explanation (based entirely on the films) for why Gandalf didn’t simply call the Great Eagles in to carry the One Ring all the way from the Shire (or Rivendell) directly to Mount Doom.

There was a solid response on the Lord of the Rings subreddit by user Uluithiad that took the matter point by point.  It’s worth a read in its entirety, but to summarize, the points Uluithiad makes are:

  • Tolkien did not ignore or disregard the Eagles as a method of getting the Ring to Mordor; they were never a consideration for that task.  The books make clear that any open assault or entry into the Black Land would have been fruitless, as Sauron’s military might was too great.
  • Gwaihir (the lord of the Eagles) was already en route to bring news to Gandalf when he found that he needed rescuing on the pinnacle of Orthanc; Gandalf, Radagast, and Gwaihir had designed this plan previously.
  • The idea that the flying Nazgul were at all a consideration at this point in the story is simply wrong: Sauron had not yet revealed them; did not, in fact, until well after the Nine were first defeated at the Ford of Bruinen and the War of the Ring started in earnest.  The protagonists, Gandalf included, had no knowledge of the existence of the Nazgul’s flying mounts.
  • The idea that Saruman somehow caused the storms on Caradhras is an invention of the films; the snows they encounter on the Redhorn Pass are just that: snows.  There is some indication that the mountain itself might have it out for them, but Saruman was neither aware of their route nor responsible for slowing them with weather.
  • “Fly” simply means “flee.”

These are all excellent and accurate points, but I think there’s more to be said.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a man of faith–specifically, he was a Roman Catholic.  The themes and worldbuilding of his work reflect that viewpoint: the world of The Lord of the Rings, also known as Arda, is the creation of one true God known as Eru Illuvatar.  Many lesser powers (essentially, angelic beings) known as the Valar and the Maiar serve the One and act as local (for lack of a better term) “gods,” overseeing the unfolding of God’s Creation.  It was they who sent the Istari (the Wizards) to aid the peoples of Middle-Earth.

It would be a mistake to consider the question of the Eagles’ involvement with the Fellowship’s quest solely within the bounds of the immediate plot; there are higher-order reasons for why things happen in the story as they do.

First and foremost, Uluithiad is right to suggest that even if they were willing to do so, a plan based on the Eagles flying the One Ring into Morder simply wouldn’t have worked.  Sauron would likely have become aware of it almost immediately, and the idea that with all his power, both spiritual and physical, he couldn’t take down a few eagles is a bit silly.

But taking it from an entirely in-world standpoint, the meme-poster appears ignorant of the fact that Gwaihir (the Eagle who saved Gandalf) and his Eagles are servants of Manwe, High King of Arda, highest of the Valar, and lord of the air.  The Eagles are his creatures, essentially, and report to him directly, bringing him news from all parts of the world.

Which is to say, the Eagles are essentially divine messengers.  They’re servants of God (or servants of the servants of God, if you want to get technical).  They don’t often intervene directly because God and the Valar don’t often intervene directly.  Without getting into too much detail (you could, and Tolkien did, write several books on this subject alone), the Valar long ago left Middle-Earth to its own devices.  Sauron’s rise to power was in large part due to the aid and manipulation of Men and Elves, and the Valar figured that since they made their bed they could lie in it.  They didn’t leave them completely in the lurch–hence the wizards (Gandalf himself is, in truth, a Maia, one of the lower choirs of angelic beings)–but essentially, from the point of view of the Undying Lands (where the Valar dwell), Sauron was Middle-Earth’s problem.  Once the Ringbearer had completed his quest, the Eagles assisted Gandalf in saving Frodo and Sam from a fiery death.

This is consistent with the idea of agency, from a religious standpoint: God helps those who help themselves.  Mortal life, from a Christian perspective, is intended to be a learning experience.  Having God essentially do the hard part for you entirely misses the point.

Secondly, from a meta-textual point of view, the meme-poster also fails to recognize the author’s own insight and intentions into the Eagles and their purpose.

Tolkien was well aware that the Eagles were, in effect, a literary device; his collected letters contain references to this fact.  In a letter to Forrest J. Ackerman in June of 1958, in which Tolkien was commenting on a film treatment of The Lord of the Rings, he said:

The Eagles are a dangerous “machine.” I have used them sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility or usefulness.  The alighting of a Great Eagle of the Misty Mountains in the Shire is absurd; it also makes the later capture of G[andalf] by Saruman incredible, and spoils the account of his escape.

Apparently the film treatment, by a man named Morton Grady Zimmerman for an American film company interested in making an animated film of Rings, was not to Tolkien’s liking, for a variety of reasons that he enumerated in this letter.  One of those reasons was Zimmerman’s persistent over-use of the Eagles:

At the bottom of the page, the Eagles are again introduced.  I feel this to be a wholly unacceptable tampering with the tale. [Emphasis in the original.]  “Nine Walkers” and they immediately go up in the air!  The intrusion achieves nothing but incredibility, and the staling of the device of the Eagles when at last they are really needed.

If you read between the lines, it seems likely that the film company (whose treatment Tolkien referred to as treating his work “carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about….”) was asking the same question: why shouldn’t the Eagles take them the whole way, and why not rewrite it so that they do?

As we can see from his comments, Tolkien thought of the Eagles’ involvement in the story as being very limited.  He recognized them as a “machine,” and a “dangerous” one: meaning that he was aware of the potential for just this sort of speculation and had no patience for it.  His comment about an Eagle landing in the Shire indicates his in-world conception of the suggestion: to Tolkien, the idea of an Eagle of the Misty Mountains condescending to land in a place as foreign and simple as the Shire was ridiculous.  It seems that to him, the suggestion that the Eagles should serve as chauffeurs for the Fellowship was similar to suggesting that Gandalf ought to go around the Shire using his innate wizardly powers to light the hobbits’ hearth fires for them.

It’s dangerous, in general, to apply too much modern reasoning to The Lord of the Rings.  Not only is the work itself, in its published form, almost 60 years old, it was also deliberately created it in archaic form.  Tolkien’s stated intention in writing The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings was, in part, to bring an element of mythology to English history that he found lacking.  Growing up reading the Norse Eddas and such, Tolkien was disappointed in the comparative lack of English myth.  As such, he wrote The Lord of the Rings in the style of an epic saga, an ancient song or ballad: neither the pacing, the structure, or much of the story is intended in any way to be “real” or “believable” in the modern sense.  There’s a reason that he didn’t, for instance, intercut the point of view chapters in The Two Towers: because unlike a modern novel, he wasn’t interested in building false suspense in the same way.  He told Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas’ story, then he told Frodo and Sam’s.  It was an accounting, a saga, a quest story, not a thriller.

Tolkien realized that the Eagles were, in effect, deus ex machina–almost literally–and he intended it that way.  Thematically speaking, it would be more correct to characterize the Eagles’ assistance in the beginning of the story as the kind of limited, non-interventionary guidance that the powers of the world were willing to give, and their rescue of Frodo and Sam at the very end as something of a divine reward for their struggle and self-sacrifice.

This is all academic, of course, as the poster clearly hasn’t read the books.  Read the books!

P.S.: All quotations are taken from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, pp. 271-273.  I could spend hours citing each and every one of my other assertions regarding the world and characters of Tolkien’s Legendarium, but I don’t have that kind of time.  It’s all there for the finding if you look.