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.’
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.