The Big Picture, Part 2: One Influence to Rule Them All

Foreword:

This post is part of an ongoing series laying out essential elements for understanding both the complex plot of my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, and the byzantine plans of its protagonist, the wizard Damon Roth.

Here are links to earlier posts in this series.

The Tolkien Effect

In my opinion, it is all but impossible to discuss deeply modern epic fantasy literature without touching first upon J.R.R. Tolkien and his masterpiece, The Lord Of The Rings.

Tolkien is the father of modern epic fantasy and his work influences, directly and indirectly, every novel in the genre.  Almost any epic fantasy writer working today has read The Lord Of The Rings multiple times.  Ask them what they think of the work and they will recite a long list of what they admire and dislike about it. 

Then read those writers own works.  You will see what they liked in The Lord Of The Rings reflected in their stories, albeit in a distorted mirror of their own words.  What they disliked they either avoid or change.  Thus each writer’s visceral reaction to this seminal story influences how they write new ones. 

This is not to say that all novels in the epic fantasy genre are just retellings of The Lord Of The Rings, though I do know some people who have made that dubious claim.  Rather, it is more accurate to claim that many writers want to be the next Tolkien; the originator of a genre, movement, or trend.  To do so they, perhaps subconsciously, try to emulate Tolkien and distinguish themselves from him at the same time.

With regards to my own work. Gods Among Men, there is one quality of The Lord Of The Rings that I definitely want to (partially) emulate.  Tolkien made his world feel real, as if the events were taking place long ago in a forgotten age. 

For myself, I want my work to feel like it is taking place in the far distant future, on an earth where Arthur C. Clarke’s adage “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” has finally come true. 

Note that I specify the world, not the characters or the plot or other aspects of a story.  For now I am focusing strictly on the setting in which my tale unfolds.

The Quest for Realism

Tolkien proved it is possible have fantastic, utterly unrealistic worlds that nonetheless have a sense of realism about them.  The devil is in the logic of the world; in the consistency of the world as perceived by the reader, combined with how characters in that world react to what they perceive as fantastic or mundane. 

The way Tolkien addressed these intertwined criteria for a realistic world is by understanding, in great detail, the culture and history of the world and its inhabitants.  He developed an elaborate history containing events that are only hinted at in The Lord of the Rings.  Much of this history is never discussed in the story itself, only in his appendixes or in works finished by others and published after his death, such as The Silmarillion.

Tolkien detailed history answered questions he had about his own work.  The history he created told him how characters would react to events, and what they might know about places and things and people.  It gave him insight into his character’s worldview, which made it possible to write them in a consistent manner.  This in turn created a sense that his fantasy world was real.  He did not need to include the history directly because it indirectly permeates the entire finished story.

For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien has multiple scenes with the hobbits talking about “elven magic”, but the elves are confused by that description.  The elves in his world do not see the items they create as being magical and treat such “magic” items as being quite ordinary.  The hobbits see the same items as remarkable beyond description, and never fully understand how they work. 

Why did the hobbits see elven items as magical and fantastic?  Because of their history and culture.  Hobbits formed agrarian communities and had little contact with those outside their close circle of friends and family.  Their skills and knowledge were those of simple folk, and that shaped how they saw the world.

Why did the elves not see how special the items they created were?  Because of their history and culture.  Elves are immortal, curious, and creative.  They mastered sailing to travel the world and study everything they encountered.  The knowledge they acquired let them make items others found remarkable, but which to them were useful tools that served specific functions. 

To put it into more mundane terms: Imagine someone who grew up isolated from any knowledge of our modern world, then show them a television, or cell phone, or computer.  Assume they are  brilliant in terms of their culture, and learn to operate the devices.  Nonetheless, could they possibly think these items as anything less than magical? 

What Does a History Need to Cover?

I want the world in Gods Among Men to have a sense of realism.  I want the reader to see the magic, and believe there is a technology behind it.  And I want the reader to feel that in some ways they understand the world better than the character’s do.  To do this I must understand its history so that I can paint a consistent picture for the reader. In particular, I must know:

  1. What are the various races.
  2. Where does each race comes from.
  3. What do members of each race know about the other races.
  4. What attitudes might a member of one race have towards a member of another race and why.
  5. How do different societies develop and interact with each other.
  6. How does each society shape the behavior of its individual members.
  7. What are the different societies like at the beginning of Gods Among Men.

As I mentioned earlier, I think of this world as earth at some point in the very far future.  Therefore, our current world is part of the history of my fantasy world.  Any mythology I create must take into account what we know or believe now.

And, most importantly, I must craft a history that when woven into the story as backdrop, the reader believes is in fact a possible future, no matter how impossible it actually is.

I find this to be a daunting challenge.  Perhaps an impossible one, or more accurately perhaps it is a task impossible for me to accomplish.  I feel compelled to try, and so I shall.  Others may be the judge of whether I succeed or fail.