All writers are magpies; we’re corvids’ children, really – stealing pieces of Shiny! from other worlds, other times, phrases that you hear on the bus, a chance encounter with a friend. One of the worlds that influenced a lot of us fantasy writers was understandably this one: Middle Earth, or Arda, charted and discovered by JRR Tolkien.[*]
Of course, I was drawn into the story of a perilous journey, undaunted friendships, riddling dragons and epic battles. I wrote totally derivative fanfic back in the days before it was called fanfic. I created Numenorean heroes living in out-of-the-way Gondorian places; I wrote side-adventures of wild-man Beren and his faithful hound Huan.
[yeah, I was a total and proud geek. I’m not sorry.]
But as with all amazing fictions, the impact of Middle Earth still resonates and provides a never-ending source of fascination for this writer. It’s not that I haven’t gathered more worlds to add to the imaginarium – places as diverse as Discworld to the Six Duchies, Iain Banks Culture setting, the grim streets of Gotham to Earthsea, or the recently acquired Central Station charted by Lavie Tidhar…
So, what is that magical, ephemeral quality that keeps me coming back to Middle Earth?
[nb. that’s a rhetorical question…]
One of the many things the later writer-Ian remains intrigued by, is the fact that just about everything in Middle Earth has a back story. And I mean eeeeverything. I suppose that is good as well as bad in terms of plot and pacing – it depends what you’re looking for from a novel whether you want to read about the historic battles of some bog that the protagonists are currently sludging through…
But the point remains that in Middle Earth, the Professor has managed to create a setting where almost everything from the horse that a character is riding to a broken sword, or just a clearing in the forest can act like Chekhov’s Gun, for the most part [**].
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
This deep-texture world is obviously great training for writing roleplay games, where you’re trying to entice the player/participant into a vast setting by using [Shiny!] breadcrumbs of what we call flavour text – or story. You don’t have to front-load every bit of available narrative into the game or the text. You don’t need long books of history or annotated timelines, right? Instead, you can leave them like the reassuringly small tips of the fantastical iceberg in your setting. A coat of arms here intimates a deeper past, a legendary war-hero, a tragic defeat, a…
It can be a nudge to the player/reader to explore further, and to see how those seemingly ‘chance’ titbits of flavour text link up to create a deeper narrative, hopefully.
Hence Chekhov’s Gun, kinda. The lesson of Middle Earth is then: That when there is such a fine granularity of texture to the world – whole languages, cultures and histories – then everything can have a purpose in the story as a whole..?
[*] Although probably not my first introduction to secondary-world fantasy. That honor belongs to the greatly underappreciated Lyndon Hardy with his Master of the Five Magics series.
[**] Aragorn’s chance singing of the Lay of Luthien to the Hobbits isn’t just a moment of character bonding and a bit of emotional reveal from Mr Frowny Longshanks, then. It’s letting the reader into the deeper story of Beren and Luthien and the Silmarils – the fight between the ‘good’ and rebel Valar/Maiar for the control of Arda, as well as foreshadowing Aragon and Arwen’s relationship, and that whole ‘Fate of Men’ and ‘Dwindling of the Elves’ thingy.