Why ‘Tolkienesque’ is a word.

The rest of the essay is, frankly, crap – China Mieville is one of those writers who only rarely has anything to say that I find particularly interesting, and I suspect that he allows his self-perception as a quite clever fellow to get in the way of the material he produces – but this is a pretty good paragraph.

But Tolkien’s most important contribution by far, and what is at the heart of the real revolution he effected in literature, was his construction of a systematic secondary world. There had been plenty of invented worlds in fantasy before, but they were vague and ad hoc, defined moment to moment by the needs of the story. Tolkien reversed that. He started with the world, plotted it obsessively, delineating its history, geography and mythology before writing the stories. He introduced an extraordinary element of rigour to the genre.

It is instructive to compare the first edition of The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth (which appeared to have been written before The Silmarillion was readily available) with the second; it’s startling to see how much of the cultural and linguistic backstory can be found in Tolkien’s text.  Not quite visible to the casual observer, but embedded in the work and giving it strength.  Which is probably one reason why… no, that’s an unkind thought.

Via Charlie Stross, in the middle of a grumble on Steampunk.  Which I found to be a little odd, because the horror aspects of the genre have been familiar to at least roleplaying gamers since Day One.  It’s part of the genre’s charm, for a given value of ‘charm.’

Moe Lane

PS: I’d also like to note that any discussion of Tolkien’s purpose and goals with LotR that only includes the word ‘linguistic’ as an adjective modifying a sneer is not really an informed discussion.


  • John S says:

    Linguistic acid-dropping, that Lord of the Rings.

    Seriously, though, his perception and solid understanding of his invented world supersedes the powers of perception of many writers whose setting is Earth, e.g., historical novelists who pretend to know their subject material but seem to fall short of vividly understanding/portraying the real and already documented time and place.

  • Rob Crawford says:

    Um, Stross needs to think a little deeper. The original “steampunk” novel was titled “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus”.

    Yeah, sure THEN it was science fiction/horror. But toss in the Victorian setting, the mad scientist angle…

  • wombat-socho says:

    Made the mistake of following the link off Stross’ site to Moorcock’s essay on Starship Troopers. What a pile of [email protected] that was. It makes me think less of Stross, that he approved of what Moorcock was saying. No enemies to the left, though, eh?

  • wombat-socho says:

    More disgruntled grumping here.

  • Skip says:

    Stross is kind of an interesting lefty though. He definitely recognizes and understands the downsides of socialism. He just thinks that unfettered capitalism is worse. I think his parents must have used Thatcher as the monster to be avoided in stories growing up or something.

    I’ve always felt that Stross was one of those who is convinced that things would be so much better if only he was in charge of the five year plans.

  • Ric Locke says:

    No, Stross isn’t an interesting leftoid. His work is or can be quite interesting, but off stage he is an utterly simple character whose primary motive is white-hot envy of the United States, the “fully worked example of the evils of a libertarian minarchist state” he cites as the end-all and be-all of Evil. His perfect society is Britain in the early 1800s, except that it should be staffed by the Right People, i.e., himself and his fellows.

    Buy his books and enjoy them, not least because every such purpose drives another capitalist nail into his palms, but don’t take him in any way seriously outside two hunks of pasteboard.


  • Ric Locke says:

    Arghh. purpose = purchase

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