If you’ve written any kind of high fantasy, you’ve felt the influence of J. R. R. Tolkien. Either you’ve taken inspiration from his work directly, or you’ve drawn inspiration from almost any high fantasy writing in the past sixty years. Tolkien elevated simple fairy tales to a marathon-length narrative. His tropes and motifs have been imitated over and over. In fact, it’s not just fantasy authors, but writers of every genre have studied the works of Tolkien ad nauseum.
So, why do so many people miss the point?
Why Learn From Tolkien?
I want to make one thing clear: Tolkien is not the final authority of fantasy. He didn’t invent elves or dwarves or orcs. Neither are his interpretations the final word: just look at the radical difference between Legolas the elf and Dobby the elf.
That said, his interpretations set the standard for their modern mythology. If you say “I’m making a fantasy world with orcs and elves and dwarves,” people generally picture them in some kind of Middle Earth style
I write this blog mostly as a response to stories like Bright, the Netflix movie that tried to subvert Tolkien tropes. However, it demonstrated only a surface-level understanding of the mythology, and as a result produced only a surface-level story. Anyone wanting to either use elements of Tolkien’s mythology or subvert his tropes needs to understand how they work.
Even if your desire is to create something else entirely, peeling back the layers of complexity in the history of Middle Earth can offer a wealth of inspiration on their own. By finding the rich subtleties in one of the most influential fantasy stories of all time, we can learn how to weave rich subtleties into our own work.
1. You Don’t Need to Shovel in Your Lore
In this post, I’m going to reference The Silmarillion a lot. The book acts like the Bible of Middle Earth’s mythology. The Lord of the Rings tells the story of the War of the RIng from the perspective of four brave hobbits; The Silmarillion is the history book of the preceding several millennia, in which the marathon-length Lord of the Rings takes up only the last few pages. It contains all the backstory you could ever want about Middle Earth.
The fact that it’s in a separate book is so important.
Stories can struggle at two extremes of lore weaving. On one end, there’s very little given in the narrative. It’s impossible to know or care about what’s going on if you’re constantly directed to look at context elsewhere or, even worse, given nothing at all. On the other end, lore can severely weigh down a plot. Pausing for exposition dumps grinds everything to a halt, and can feel more like a lecture than a story.
It is vital for an author to have the lore compiled for their own sake. By creating that context and sticking to it, consistency becomes easier to weave through the story. Even if the reader never knows about that lore, the author will know and help keep things running. In our example here, you can read The Lord of the Rings and enjoy it without reading The Silmarillion. It’s the plot that makes you interested in the lore then, not the other way around.
2. Creating a Magic System
Tolkien drew his own inspiration from Nordic and Germanic mythology. However, another influence to keep in mind is Catholic theology. Tolkien followed the Catholic tradition devoutly. The effect can be seen most in The Silmarillion, where we see how a magic system can be easily built.
In the first section, Ainulindalë or The Music of the Ainur, we have a quick creation story. First, “there was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar.” Eru Ilúvatar bears many similarities to the Abrahamic Yahweh/God/Allah. All power flows from him, a force called the Imperishable Flame that grants him and him alone the power of creation.
Below him are the Valar, the Powers of the World, who you can think of as the gods of the Roman or Greek pantheons. They have great power to shape the world as they see fit, but have squabbles between themselves and make mistakes. They cannot “create”, only transform what Eru Ilúvatar has created. None are omniscient either; that power is again reserved for Eru Ilúvatar. And again, they are also bound to the world of Middle Earth, unable to transcend beyond its scope like Eru Ilúvatar.
Below the Valar are the Maiar, who you can think of as archangels. They are less able but still powerful. Maiar are the “servants and helpers” of the Valar. Here we can find very recognizable characters: Gandalf, Saruman, Sauron, and the Balrog are all Maiar.
Tolkien’s world uses a soft magic system; there aren’t many “rules” to how magic is used, as compared to a hard magic system. That being said, he still has rules: magic flows from divine power, whether used for good or perverted for evil purposes. In your own writing, even a soft magic system needs rules of some kind to help keep it grounded and accessible.
3. The Nature of Evil
Here’s a problem not only in fantasy but across a lot of fiction: someone writes a Dark Lord. Great. What makes them “the Dark Lord” though? What makes them evil? WHY do they do evil things, and why do we know those things are evil? Often people look at Sauron and think “Well, that guy’s evil because he lives in a volcanic wasteland and looks scary.” However, it’s more layered than that.
Before we talk about Sauron, we need to talk about Melkor, one of the Valar and the most well-gifted among them. While he was the most prized of the bunch, he began to want more. Melkor “began with the desire of Light, but when he could not possess it for himself alone, he descended… into a great burning, down into Darkness.” He wanted something for his own, to create like Eru Ilúvatar could create, and grew resentful when he could not have it, which pushed him towards evil.
In short, he grew too proud.
Melker became known as Morgoth, Dark Enemy of the World. In his lurking, he grew an army of followers from among the Maiar. One of the Maiar, who became his most trusted general, went by the name Mairon. Mairon carried great skill in craftsmanship, and according to Tolkien “loved order and coordination, and disliked all confusion and wasteful friction.” He grew close to Morgoth, awed by the way he could put his will into motion in such efficient ways. Over time, Mairon took on a new name: Sauron.
That’s Sauron’s drive to pursue power, so that he can organize the world he sees it should be: perfectly ordered under his rule. He’s not evil for evil’s sake, he has a real goal in mind — and our fictional villains should do the same.
4. Elves: Not As Perfect As You Think
The popular image of elves depicts them as perfect people: immortal, beautiful, wise, graceful, agile, and strong. To be sure, a lot of these words apply to the elves of Middle Earth. Calling them “perfect” would not be accurate at all though!
In The Silmarillion, elves demonstrate that they just as easily fall into fear, jealousy, and anger. In The Lord of the Rings, they appear graceful and calm because they’ve each had about seven thousand years to practice anger management. They’ve gone through so many terrible things that in a way, they have become desensitized. Back in their day though, they picked wars constantly, and many perished at the hands of their kinsmen.
There’s also an inherent tragedy with the elves. They live forever — and therefore see the world decline from its former newborn glory. In The Lord of the Rings, two of the three Elven rings protect the realms of Caras Galadhon and Rivendell. The rings keep their havens beautiful, in stasis, unchanging. When Sauron’s One Ring gets destroyed though, the Elven rings lose their power. Thus a tragic layer comes over the elves’ desire to help. They aid, despite knowing that they will ultimately destroy their homes.
“Perfect” elves ultimately don’t make for compelling characters. It’s the same thing with any kind of “perfect” protagonist or secondary character. However, by putting on more layers and subtleties, Tolkien-style elves keep themselves from being only smug and pompous and instead a very interesting people.
5. The Race of Men
After talking about elves, it seems only right to talk about humanity. Very often, elves are portrayed as “better humans”, or otherwise superior. I won’t touch on the… disturbing implications of that mindset. Instead I want to focus on how humans are actually portrayed.
One of the greatest differences between men and elves is mortality. Humans die, elves live forever. This traces back to Eru Ilúvatar, who wanted elves to have more bliss on Earth than humans. To humans, though, he gave two great gifts.
First, the very act of death is considered a gift to humans. Elves never die, cannot die — even if slain in battle, “they are gathered… in Valinor, whence they may in time return.” Humans, by contrast, are not bound to the Earth. In time, even the Valar envy humans for their ability to depart from this world to something greater.
Second, and even more important, humans are not bound to the song of creation at the beginning of The Silmarillion. Elves, dwarves, all other races have had their fates dictated since the beginning of time. Humans, on the other hand, have “a virtue to shape their life.” They may not always use it for good, but Eru Ilúvatar, in the end, says everything they do ends up contributing “only to the glory of my work.” It’s a gift of freedom, and while it may bring discord between humans and the other races, it’s also a great threat of Morgoth, who “feared and hated” humans.
Here we can see an intersection of theology and philosophy. Humans are not “the plain/vanilla race.” Tolkien wrote them to have great gifts, and their capacity to choose their own path ends up an important theme in The Lord of the Rings. In fact, The Lord of the Rings proper ultimately tells the tale of humans inheriting the Earth from the elves. It also tells the tale of one race in particular…
6. Hobbits: The Stars of the Show
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Thus Tolkien introduced the world to the quaint Little Folk of the Shire. It amazes me how often people borrow Tolkien-style elves and dwarves and orcs, yet leave the hobbits behind. While the Battle of Helm’s Deep has more show and glamour, and the elves live in grand natural palaces, the hobbits provide something far more important for storytelling.
They provide the heart.
Hobbits “love peace and quiet and good tilled earth.” They enjoy both giving and receiving presents. Tolkien describes them as friendly-looking rather than traditionally beautiful. They delight in food, bright clothes, and pleasantries. However, that “delight” is not just a passive luxury. Hobbits are very hardy, and they enjoy plentiful food and good things precisely because they know they can do without. They are not at all warmongering but can defend themselves if need be.
In the end, we have a simple folk who appreciate and enjoy the good things in life, while also stepping up to do what needs to be done. Hobbits are the everyman. They do not entangle themselves in politics or complex philosophies. As a result, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin’s departure from the Shire to the War of the Ring becomes all the more extraordinary. Their straightforward courage, perseverance, and loyalty galvanize the peoples of Middle Earth into action. And ultimately, it’s the work of hobbits that destroys Sauron for good.
It’s an elegant poetry at play here, and in our own writing we should remember it. Heroes are not always secret royalty or Chosen Ones ordained by a prophecy. Sometimes it’s a simple hobbit, trekking across a continent for the sake of what’s right.
When it comes down to it, I love the mythology of Middle Earth.
It’s a rich story full of fascinating insights into philosophy and theology, a modern day mythos full of adventure and wisdom. I’ll probably write more about it in the future even!
However, I don’t love it for the big action scenes: Smaug burning Laketown, the Siege of Gondor, the confrontation on Weathertop. Don’t get me wrong, they’re incredibly exciting! Yet those scenes are exciting because of the smaller subtleties. Anyone can write “Red army charged into Blue army and won.” When that battle has a strong emotional connection though, when you can feel desperation running high, that’s what makes it powerful.
It’s something I keep in mind for my own writing, and we could all benefit from the same lesson. It’s okay if you can’t fit all the backstory and motivation into the actual text — again, Tolkien didn’t! You should keep it in mind though as you write, and follow the world you establish on paper or in your mind. It’ll make your writing much more rich and nuanced, and keep your readers wanting more.