Why build a world?

Why do people sit down and draw maps of places that will never exist? Why do they write biographies for people that never lived? You’ll get about as many answers as you’ll ask people, but for me, the answer has to do with that most famous worldbuilder of them all – Tolkien.

Oh god, not Tolkien again. He has defined the worlds of fantasy – or science fiction – for too long already; isn’t it time we finally leave him behind us? Sure. But hear me out for a second.

Tolkien famously said his Lord of the Rings had nothing to do with the events that occurred in the real world as he was writing it. Saruman was not Mussolini, Sauron not Hitler. He even specifically lists reasons for why this couldn’t be; the ring would have been used, Barad-Dûr would have been occupied instead of destroyed, etc.

But the wonderful thing is; what Tolkien thinks he wrote doesn’t matter. He wrote a story about a last alliance between the many countries and races of good, the vanishing of something ancient and powerful, about an incredible evil being overcome. If his readers chose to interpret this as referring to the Second World War, it shows once again that an author does not create his stories; instead, he merely brings the workings of stories he knows into a new order.

That’s all there is to it. Try to come up with a story completely fresh and never told before. You’ll realise that that is simply not possible. Stories always refer to other stories, or we wouldn’t be able to understand them. And in the case of the Lord of the Rings, the stories being built on simply consist of the sometimes most subtle storytelling of them all; narrative.

Posters, broadcasts, pamphlets, song texts, speeches; these are some of the tools used by both sides during World War 2 to tell their story of what was happening. The Allies were fighting against a stupid and hateful genocidal regime. The Germans were fighting for the survival of the Aryan race. This is narrative being created by governments to make sure their citizens understood what they fought for and against.

And Tolkien absorbed this narrative, these stories, and – willingly or unwillingly – reflected on them and presented them in his own light. In his own light and in his own world. Because why are we even discussing these similarities? An alliance fighting against two evil empires, see above for more detail? It’s really pretty obvious this is referring to World War 2, right? Well, if the story had been set in our world, that would have been the case. But it isn’t.

On Earth, there are no orcs, there is no magic, and there is no Mordor. The estrangement effect achieved by setting a story in a world that is very visible not ours makes a lot of things possible. For example, let’s look at one of Tolkien’s reasons for why he wasn’t writing a WW2 analogy; The ring would have been used to destroy Sauron. Or, if we remove the estrangement effect, the nuke would have been used to destroy Hitler.

For Tolkien, the ring is the absolute example of corrupting power, the ultimate tool of evil. In his story, the heroes destroy this tool, even after succumbing to it for a mere second. In the real world, nukes are still around and were planned to be dropped on Germany, had it not capitulated. What Tolkien therefore does here, even if subconsciously, is condemning the Allies for harnessing the power of the atomic bomb.

But he’s also doing something more.

Because – and this is where my line of reasoning becomes really convoluted – the ring still isn’t actually a nuke. It’s the One Ring, the ultimate tool of Sauron for control over the free races of Middle-earth. It’s not a technology created by painstaking research by hundreds of scientists in the New Mexico desert with some Hindu quote often attached to its first test. It has parts of the narrative, but the context is a different one; and this is the power of worldbuilding.

Because by building a world that never existed, we can reflect on narratives that never existed. We can set stories in contexts that are impossible to achieve in stories set in the real world.

That is why to build worlds.