Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Worlds Within Worlds

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So, the last few days I’ve been doing a lot of actual work and not much on the blog, but when I haven’t been working, I’ve been reading.

And in another twelve pages or so, I will have finished the last of the appendices at the end of The Lord of the Rings, which means I’ll be able to say that I’ve actually read the thing.  The whole thing.

All of it.  Not just some of it.

Although, given the nature of the appendices, I can’t say that I actually understood all of it.

I went through the appendix on pronunciation twice, and I still can’t pronounce anything.

At one point, Tolkein explains that “ng” in this case is pronounced as in “sing” and not in “finger,” and I’m still unable to figure out any way in which the “ng” in those two words are different.

Part of me is convinced that there is no such way, and that Tolkein was just yanking everybody’s chain.

That aside, though, I still have a healthy respect for any writer who could name something Mount Doom and still get taken seriously.

For better or worse, it was about what I expected–way too many action sequences for me, and occassionally lapsing into that sort of quasi-“olde” language that makes me a little nuts, but on the whole something I had a good time with.

None of that should come as a surprise, and with any luck there will be the minimum of yelling.

But surprised or otherwise, there’s something in this that has me interested.

So I am going to make a suggestion.

In spite of the almost certain yelling.

What distinquishes these books for me–and what distinquishes the whole of Tolkein’s work taken together for a lot of people–is not any particular detail or details about the events of the novels, but the fact that all of it is part of a single totality.

Tokein created not just the suggestion of a world that is necessary to the successful execution of any novel, but a fictional totality, with its own languages, geography, history, you name it–in far more detail than is necessary to write or understand the books.

This is now a common thing.  My sons, who can get fairly insane on the subject of fantasy, tell me that many fans these days judge a writer by how completely and successfully  he can create such a total world.

What people want is not just stories, good or bad or otherwise, and not just characters that engage them, but complete worlds that can operate independently and that have the kind of texture that real civilizations are supposed to have.

Are supposed to have–but maybe don’t, any longer.

Homer’s world was complete and self referential not because he made it that way, but because it was that way.

The people knew the names of the heroes and the names of the gods, the peculiarities of the land and the stories about them, the names of important battles and the nicknames of important kings–well, because they knew them.

It was in the very air they breathed.  It didn’t need to be explained to anyone but very young children, and very young children learned it the way children now learn to sing the jingles on television commercials.

I am not going to go into a long rant about how debased our modern culture is, although I think it’s pretty debased in some cases (think Dating Naked).

I am going to say that I think it may be one of those “distinctions of being human” things that human beings live mostly in a context of history and legend. 

Societies define who and what they are not by teaching it to children in schools–although they do that, too–but by referencing the important aspects of their identity in literally everything they do.

What’s more, the part of the individual in all this is not passive.  Each person learns the stories because the stories are there to be learned.  Each person applies the stories toh is or her own life. Each person understands himself and the world he lives in through those stories.

What is important is made so by the context into which it can be fitted–or not.

There is an old saying that traditional societies see utopia in the past, and modern ones see it in the future.

It’s not a bad distinction as those things go, but I wonder if the modern version is workable for most people.

Surely we are living now in a world without a shared remembered past.  At least in the West, we inhabit a kind of eternal present.

We don’t know what came before us, but most of us can’t imagine anything much different happening in the future.

We’re just sort of here.

I think the problem is much wider than the usual complaint that we ought to be teaching our children better in school.  Surely we should be teaching them, but if we HAVE to teach them, we’re already in more trouble than we realize.

Even in as late a time as when I went to kindergarten, most kids came to their first day of school already knowing about Noah’s ark and the birth of Jesus, the Pilgrims and the ride of Paul Revere, not because anybody had sat down to teach us,  but because we lived immersed in them.

If our parents didn’t teach them, we saw them on television, or they were in the children’s books that were read to us, or other kids explained to the dumb baby all about Thanksgiving.

If my students are to be believed, all of that is already gone. 

It’s not only the children of immigrants who come to class these days without a common culture.

It’s everybody–and it’s not a case (except, perhaps, with some of the immigrants) that they just come in with DIFFERENT cultures.

My students come in with no reference points at all except the ruthlessly individual.   They don’t see themselves in the context of anything. 

They develop vague ideas about right and wrong, past and future, and especially what is “fair,”  but these things constitute a world of dotted lines that don’t connect to anything.

I keep getting the feeling that people can’t really live this way. 

If their lives have no context, they’ll go looking for some–on ancestry.com, maybe,  or in politics or religion, or–

Or in created worlds, worlds that work as worlds are supposed to work, worlds that make sense because they are whole and not a collection of fragments.

And not just in Tolkein, either.  There are now dozens of successful fantasy and science fiction authors creating whole worlds. 

Most of them don’t go to the kind of trouble Tolkein did to invent entire languages with syllabaries and grammars, but most readers don’t go to the kind of trouble diehard Tokein fans do to try to learn the languages.

Tolkein is, for most of my students, difficult to read. 

When they read fanatasy and science fiction–or, more likely, become entranced with fantasy and science fiction television or movies–they largely choose authors whose names I don’t recognize.

But choosing the author is just the beginning of a complicated process that includes conventions, local fairs, even choosing a name in their newly acquired universe.  The Harry Potter fans sort themselves into houses.

I am not denigrating the activity.  Students who get involved in those kinds or worlds are usually doing better than average on almost every measure. 

It grounds them in a way that most of their fellow students can’t seem to manage. 

But you’ve got to wonder how long we can do this and still stay together as one society.

Written by janeh

August 6th, 2014 at 10:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Worlds Within Worlds'

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  1. To a certain extent, *all* SF is about “world-building” (the term you’re searching for) in one detail or many. Larry Niven is the master of taking one little “what if” and building an entirely different society out of it. What if we could teleport using little booths anywhere on earth instantly? No planes, few cars, people commuting from work in NY to home in Lower East Nowhereistan. Also, a rash of home burglaries before people learned to put their home teleport booth OUTSIDE, and a possibility of an instant riot anywhere an attractive nuisance happened that media reported and people decided to go see *right now*.

    CJ Cherryh does far more complete world-building, with languages (including syllabaries, pronunciation guides, grammar usually picked up from context), cultures and an effort to convey just how it’s possible for two beings who THINK they’re understanding one another do not, in fact, have the same conception of their world.

    Way back in the 70s, I had a friend who was a member of the Dorsai Irregulars. These folk provided security at SF cons, but dressed as and following the conventions of a society created by Robert Aspirin. So it’s not a new thing.

    People who do this, who immerse themselves in non-current or fictional cultures, whether it’s SF or Renaissance Fairs, have something against which to compare our current culture, I think. If you’re aware that feudal lords are a thing, then you can comprehend when a politician or a corporation starts acting like one. If you get that a narrative different from your own governs an alien’s perceptions of the world, then you can start to feel out the edges of your own narrative, which is the only way to self-knowledge.

    Of course many poor world-builders end up just pasting an alien face onto regular people. I think this is why all ancient Romans portrayed in movies speak with a British accent. They don’t seem right if they have Italian (or Latin) accents, do they?

    There. Zero yelling. :)

    As to how long we can stay together as a society? I think that’ll be forever. However, whether we who live now would recognize said society as one is up to our own adaptability and imagination. It’s gonna get different out there in the next 50 years.


    6 Aug 14 at 12:19 pm

  2. Serious reply will come later. There will be no yelling. But Lymaree–the Dorsai Irregulars and ROBERT ASPRIN??!! Try Gordon Dickson.


    6 Aug 14 at 4:39 pm

  3. I haven’t met your students, but I’ve met a LOT of people who spend or have spent serious time in imaginary worlds–Middle Earth, Barsoom, the Hub, the Vorkosiverse–do Conan Doyle’s 1895 or Georgette Heyer’s Regency count? Even some of the “historical” miniatures gamers invent their own (mostly 18th Century) armies, with “imagi-nations” to provide recruits and a causus belli.

    But these are NOT the people who don’t know their own history. In fact, they’re usually much better informed than the average modern American. It’s the people who look at my “Miskatonic University” T-shirt and tell me they’re Hoyas fans themselves who are culturally disconnected.

    Why the cultural disconnection? Not sure. My first thought is a combination of television as babysitter and the cable explosion, aided by a falling-off of church attendance, especially among the poor. Watch enough early TV and you’ll get the sequence of American history–Westerns littered with Civil War vets, Middle-aged WWI vets in WWII series. Pay any attention at all to Sunday School, and you will get Egypt, Persia and Rome in the correct order. But in the world of 100 channels and lax attendance, you can spend the whole day on music videos. Your students may be second generation.

    Generally, though, I’d like to put in a sales pitch for imaginary real estate. I spent a good part of a rough adolescence on Barsoom and Middle Earth, in the Hyborian Kingdoms, and serving with Star Fleet. It was time well spent. If you can just live through those years, you never need to see your classmates or your family again, and you can wipe the dust of school from your sandals. But first you have to get through. Tolkien is often called “escapist” literature by a certain type of critic and English teacher, but as he himself pointed out, there is a difference between the flight of the deserter and the escape of the prisoner–and the people most worried by escape are jailers.


    6 Aug 14 at 6:21 pm

  4. Robert, you are correct, and I cringe before you. How could I forget my friend wildly enthusiastic over actually *meeting* the Gordfather?

    I suspect children & adolescents have been hiding out in written worlds since Oz was discovered. There are worse places to spend one’s formative years…the Detroit suburbs come to mind.


    6 Aug 14 at 7:15 pm

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