A map of Middle Earth.
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Mae govannen! On this day, in the year 3019 of the Third Age, the hobbits Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee cast the One Ring, Ash Nazg, into the fires of Orodruin and destroyed it. Thus was ended the reign of Thû, one of the last lieutenants of the dark lord Morgoth Bauglir, and his dreadful ambition to rule all of Middle Earth. The War of the Ring would end 223 days later with the defeat and killing of Sauron in the Battle of Bywater.

Of all the worlds I’d like to escape to (when reality as it is becomes too much or makes for too little), there are three: Middle Earth, Lether and Azeroth. The tales in which they are situated all exhibit an affinity for ecological inclusivity, where human agency is evaluated in its total environment, including the natural elements and forces. The choices also make me realise I have a thing for paganistic fantasy.

(Spoilers? Not really.)

Middle Earth is the cultural third space that inhabits J.R.R. Tolkien’s conception of the World (Arda) as it should be, the continent on which The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are set. Tolkien’s literature, beginning from The Silmarillion and ending with Return of the King, has  journeys and exoduses as prominent features. As the books move through time, so do its peoples move through space. The result is for their evolution to be shaped by as well as mirror the lands they occupy, for geology to be as much a driver of plot as their actions themselves.

Exemplary subplots: the persistence of Rivendell and the events from Frodo’s capture by Faramir to Gollum’s actions in Cirith Ungol.

This connection between living things and the land is also a common feature of Steven Erikson’s epic fantasy series Malazan Book of the Fallen. It is set on multiple fictional continents. One of them is Lether, which was trapped and preserved for thousands of years within a magical cage of ice created by Gothos. And when finally the ice cracked as the world warmed, Lether was recolonised by its native tribes. However, none of them realised that the form of magic that they practised was now considered ancient because the rest of the world had moved on; that while Letherii magic still clung to the oracular mode of Tiles, everyone else used the Deck of Dragons. This discrepancy is a major plot-driver in book #7 of the series, Reaper’s Gale. It serves to exemplify how, when foreigners conquer a native land, they can only hope to replace bodies – and that the land, the culture and the government will simply have new staffers, nothing more.

At the beginning of the book, I remember thinking that Gothos’s enforced stasis of Lether was quite the contrivance, drawn up by Erikson to prevent the repetition of a plot device that runs throughout the series. However, Reaper’s Gale quickly turns out to be one of the best books in the series (of ten) because of the detail that Erikson fills it up with. These aren’t details of irrelevant things but of an allegorical post-colonialism, where the coloniser was simply a great stillness of time.

Exemplary subplot: the battle at Bast Fulmar (The Valley of Drums).

A very good example of a proper contrivance occurs in the World of Warcraft mythos: the event known as the Cataclysm. WoW is set in the fictional realm of Azeroth, comprising Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms separate by the Great Sea. Like in the last two examples, geology plays an important role in the shaping of events. In fact, like in The Silmarillion, there is a great sundering of the world brought about by greed and betrayal. However, there is then a second sundering called the Cataclysm, where the black dragon Neltharion (a.k.a. Deathwing) breaks out of his prison deep within the land of Azeroth to lay waste to the world even as its features are rapidly reshaped by violent seismic forces. What makes this a contrivance is that, following Cataclysm, life goes on as it might’ve without it, except for things just looking different – clearly, it’s creators were simply looking for a change of scenery. Nonetheless, I do like Azeroth for the events that played out until then.

Exemplary subplots: War of the Ancients and the events from the Culling of Stratholme to the discovery of Frostmourne.

Every year on March 25, I’m prompted to look back on why I continue to admire Tolkien’s creations even though I’ve publicly acknowledged that they’re far surpassed by Erikson’s creations. An important reason is primacy: the LotR trilogy made for the first modern great epic fantasy, its guiding light so very bright that even those who came after struggled to match its success. Another reason is that, through the books, Tolkein managed to edify all of epic fantasy by bringing together the perfect minima of characters, devices and plots – and of course language – that could make for a lasting classic.

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