J.R.R. Tolkien was, without question, one of the greatest, most talented and worldbuilders to ever walk the earth. The human race owes him a tremendous debt of gratitude. Not just for his personal works, but for the works of those subsequently inspired by him. Tolkien breathed new life into the genres of myth and fantasy as only he could.
His peers, such as Lewis and the other Inklings, only aspired to accomplish the things he did. His words inspired curious minds to explore new, fantastical worlds full of magic, danger, and mystery. He painted landscapes that were just as breathtakingly beautiful as they were deadly. The only safe place he ever wrote about was the Shire. Coincidentally, that is precisely why so little time is spent there.
The Honorable Professor lived through hell. As a young man, he served in World War One. His clear distaste for all things related to battle makes it obvious he believed in a simpler, more peaceful solution. Politically speaking, one can make the argument that Tolkien was somewhat of an idealistic anarchist. Both in his fiction and his personal letters, he suggested that while he respected the concept of a monarchy, humanity would never truly be free until each man, woman, and child learned to govern themselves, apart from any potentially violent force that would wish to impose social “morality” upon them.
This high opinion of the power of the conscience shines through. At the same time, it is tarnished by his own writing. One needs only look at the rise and fall of Frodo Baggins to see this. Tolkien himself struggled with his utopian ideals. Nonetheless, the theme of autonomy apart from fate stands tall amidst his works. He believed, despite our flaws and failings, we should all be the masters of our own destiny.
J.R.R. Tolkien, possibly above all else, is known for his worldbuilding. He designed an entire universe that felt full and lived in. He fleshed out nearly every detail of the history, and dropped hints to untold tales into even mundane conversations. The man possessed a profound understanding of his creation, more so than potentially any other author, period, full stop.
A large element of his ability to design such a believable world was his skill as a linguist. He knew how languages functioned, how they were formed, and how they changed over time. Tolkien never cloned another existing language. He created his own words, complete with individual tenses, uses, and alterations. The Professor created unique syntax, sentence structure, and grammatical form. He understood his languages more thoroughly than you or I understand our own native tongues.
In these languages, he wrote songs and poems. He wrote lyrical history that told stories and myths in rhyme and rhythm. The Professor built his languages around his world, and he built his cultures around his languages. Given the depth and detail in the construction of Middle-Earth, it is no wonder it remains unfinished.
Everything about the way Tolkien built his world is wonderful. And you should not do any of it in your own writing.
First, what often gets forgotten is there is a lot of exposition, poetry, bunch songs scattered throughout the trilogy. A large portion of the story of the One Ring is told through poems and songs. While that worked back then, it usually doesn’t land today. When Tolkien was writing, he was speaking to a generation that had a closer tie to poetic mythology. He was writing to people who could appreciate it. At the time, it was still a relatively sturdy pillar in the culture in which they lived.
It may not seem like it was all that long ago, but let’s realize good old Johnny was putting pen to paper in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. He retired in 1959. That is the year my father was born. Tolkien’s career was finished before our parents knew how to read. So his audience was that of our grandparents, great grandparents, and in some cases, our great-greats. He was writing to an audience that lived during the turn of and the first half of the 20th century. And while writing to your audience is incredibly important, when you reach the level of fame and longevity that J.R.R. Tolkien did, after a hundred years or so, your work is not quite so timely.
Now, this is not to say that the way Tolkien did things was wrong or imperfect. Rather, it speaks to the fact that, over time, culture, language, and the world in general all change. So for a young author, one who was undoubtedly influenced by Tolkien’s work in one way or another, it is an easy mistake to follow in his footsteps. That is a big no-no. Writing like Tolkien only works if you are writing to Tolkien’s audience. Since time travel has not allowed us to travel back and release our works to those readers, all writers must direct their work towards a present day audience.
Tolkien’s language is rich and noble, but also far removed from current vernacular. The linguistic gymnastics necessary to understand the prose can be tiring. It’s not as daunting as original Beowulf, but it still forces the reader to translate the olde timey language into current speech. To some extent, it is like having to translate from Portuguese to Spanish; they are close, but clearly not the same.
The second and most pressing mistake that writers make in the fantasy genre is trying to invent a language. There is no crime in acknowledging other languages, or using a word or phrase for dramatic effect. It can be useful in filling out your world, or giving some depth/culture/personality to a character. However, attempting to create an entire language or write full conversations or interject this language into the story gets dangerous. Avoid doing this.
When an English-speaking writer starts to lean into an invented language, they run into trouble. Unless they know the ins and outs of speech the way that Tolkien did, that language begins to feel unnatural. It can feel like a coded version of English, with one-to-one comparisons (in which case, just use English). Other times, it will feel made up, which will pull the audience out of the story.
So, what, then, can be done? Clearly, J.R.R. Tolkien was a god among men in the fiction world, not just the fantasy genre. His influence is going to be felt for generations. How do we recognize his hard work, but avoid cloning ourselves after him?
Easy. Forget everything you know about Middle-Earth.
That doesn’t sound easy? Perhaps in theory it does not sound simple, but hang in there with me. We subconsciously think of The Professor as a giant, looming over all our fiction. In reality, the elements of Tolkien’s work that are embedded into modern fantasy have changed drastically from their original forms. We don’t need to draw on him as a direct source. Orcs and goblins have taken on a life of their own, even occasionally showing up in some science fiction writing. Elves have evolved so much that we can draw upon any form of them we wish. Want quiet and dignified? There’s and elf for that. Want evil and dark? There’s an elf for that. Want short and whimsical? There’s an elf for that. We even have elves that make cookies. You can choose your pick of the litter.
These character tropes and archetypes that Tolkien developed are not as set in stone as they may have once been. Storytellers are not tied to Tolkien’s way of writing or worldbuilding. Nor would he want them to be. Remember Tolkien was an anarchist, and would embrace whatever tale you chose, so long as you were in complete control. He would not have wanted any writer to be bound to his personal rules, rubric, or standards.
Ultimately, if you wish to honor J.R.R Tolkien’s memory as a writer, the best thing you can do is forget him almost entirely, and forge your own way. Place no restrictions on your world. Open your mind, and remember only this one thing about the Good Professor:
“It’s a dangerous business, stepping out your door. Step out onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you’ll be swept off to.”
That was not a warning; it was a dare.