Saturday, October 6, 2018

"Colonial America" the way Lord of the Rings is "Medieval England"

Working on a brief description for this setting, a metaphor occured to me:
Signs in the Wilderness is to Colonial America as
Lord of the Rings is to Medieval England.

Like all metaphors, it breaks down if you look too closely, but let's see how far it goes.

Home that never was

Both settings are suffused with nostalgia for the olden days, but a gentler, kinder version that never quite existed.

The Shire is right out of the English countryside, an idyllic pastoral landscape of cups of tea and smoking pipes and horse-carts and a pint with the neighbors down at the village pub.  It's quaint and lovely.  But it's also imaginary, a nicely-chosen slice of Merrie Olde England to hearken back to.  The hobbits aren't serfs toiling for a local lord, no one's starving to death, and folks aren't heading off to the smokestacks of the industrial city looking for work.

In short, it's the kind of England Tolkien would have been most comfortable in.  And that's an excellent thing for a story.  Stories aren't just supposed to be good for the reader, but for the writer as well.  Write what you know is good advice; it's equally important to write what you love.

For me, the Shire doesn't feel like home.  Village lanes and horse-carts are like...lightsabers or rodents of unusual size: familiar, but things out of stories.  The Shire is full of foreign names like Eastfarthing, Bucklebury, and Willowbottom.

I'm from a different country, one with names like Poughquag and Conshohocken, Last Chance and Six Mile Run.  The idyllic past is a log cabin in the rainy woods, canoeing down an icy creek, hiking over red-leafed mountains, and thunderstorms on a muggy afternoon.  That's the world of stories from childhood, the slice of yore that never quite was.

A different age

Middle Earth is based on the high to late Middle Ages...more or less.  It's a time of swords and knights and shining citadels.  Gunpowder is just starting to show up, and it's likely to upset everything (if Saruman gets his way).  If you only get one picture in your head of the local technology level, think medieval.

Then again, the usual idea of medieval doesn't entirely line up with history.  Some parts of Middle Earth are a bit further along.  There's a clock in Bag End that would be at home in the 1800s along with Bilbo's waistcoat and handkerchiefs.

Other regions draw inspiration from an older age.  Rohan, in particular, seems closer to the Saxons and Goths of the Migration era.  The hall of Meduseld could be right out of the pages of Beowulf.

Likewise, I'm grounding Signs in the Wilderness in a particular era, more or less.  The core would be the 1700s, with flintlocks and telescopes, but its inspirations go as far forward as the mid 1800s (looking at steam engines and the Gold Rush) and as far back as the 1500s (with matchlocks, galleons, and so many unknown regions).

Doom and glory

Lord of the Rings is a story about impending danger.  There's a great evil in the world, something old and powerful that wants to blot out everything worth saving.  A slim hope is all that remains to try and thwart the onslaught of doom.  Success isn't really about making the world better, but simply keeping any of it alive.  Even if the heroes are victorious, the world will be scarred and battle-weary, leaving the survivors to rebuild.

It's no surprise that Tolkien would write this way.  As a man who served in the trenches of the Great War, he saw firsthand the devastation that England feared, a devastation that tore through Europe again while he was writing his book.  Lord of the Rings wasn't an allegory for the wars of the twentieth century, but those wars were so present in Tolkien's life that I imagine he could not have written a story entirely without them.

Such stories go back further.  A near-hopeless stand against impending doom — this is the legend of King Arthur, leader of Britain's last stand against the pagan invaders.  (Spoiler alert: the pagans won.)  I'd tell you more about what Arthur is about in British folklore, but Arthurian influence is so strong even to this day that I'm sure you're already familiar with the tale.

Over here in America, we're a different kind of people with a different kind of story.  Our tales are about bold individuals who worked hard to make a name for themselves.  They're about taking the raw world around you and molding it into greatness.  Paul Bunyan plowed the west with his great blue ox while Johnny Appleseed planted trees for food and cider all along the frontier.

But the best example of this peculiarly American mindset might be A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  Written by Mark Twain (whose place in our country's legends is assured), it's a story about an ordinary man who gets thrown back in time to Arthur's Britain.  Once there, he does what any American would: he rolls up his sleeves, dazzles the yokels, and through bravado, hard work, and good old American know-how, he whips that kingdom into shape and makes it an industrial marvel in the Dark Ages.

While Connecticut Yankee is absurdly chauvinistic and over the top, there's a kernel of truth buried in there.  We Americans have long believed that success is achieved through hard work and ingenuity, available to anyone willing to go out and make it happen.  It's the American Dream and it's all through the mentality of our country, for better or worse.

Signs in the Wilderness isn't about impending doom; it's about great opportunities for those willing to take them.  Success means building something better in the world.  Failure means someone else gets to the opportunity first.

Legacy of the past

Middle Earth is a decaying land, littered with ruins of a better age.  Statues of ancient kings stand taller than anything men can build today.  Old technology can do wondrous things that no one now can copy.  Magic and the elves are leaving the world, never to return.

England, like most of Europe, grew up in the shadow of Rome, mourning in the tragedy of its loss.  Medieval Europe saw itself as a world falling away from the wisdom of the elders, a world where classical authors were the unquestionable experts on every subject. 

There's an interesting Wikipedia article on the world record for the tallest building over time.  For nearly four thousand years mankind built nothing taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza.  That's the world of Middle Earth, too, a place where the statues of the Argonath were nearly two thousand years old by the time Frodo glimpsed them, statues that no one could build in those later days.

Skip ahead a bit in that article and you'll see where America grew up, a time when the record kept being broken (usually by Americans).

Both Tolkien's esteemed writing and my own (rather less esteemed) feature an older civilization that's been swept away.  His works conveyed a profound sense of loss and gave a chance to marvel at things long gone.  My hope is to convey a sense of new opportunity in the wake of destruction.

Signs in the Wilderness is a post-apocalyptic world, but its eyes are looking forward, not back.  It's been a generation or two since the Starving Time.  Those who grew up in the new days aren't standing around gawking at the past like their grandparents; they're moving on to build a better future for themselves in the new world.

I'm grateful to be living in such a prosperous age, and thankful that we have access to such great authors as Tolkien.  Hopefully you've read some of his works, firstly because they're excellent, and secondly (though distantly) so that my comparisons in this article might make sense to you.

I also hope this article doesn't come across as too pompous or pretentious.  Tolkien was a college professor who wrote a modern epic; I'm just some uneducated guy with a blog.  If I get even one millionth as many readers, I'll be happy.


  1. This gives me something to ponder for my own setting.

    And no. In this line of creative work, you have to be somewhat pretentious. There are endless numbers of workmanlike fantasy world that are pretty much interchangeable or randomly weird for the sake of it but without any real depths. Truly great fantasy worlds are always the ones with strong artistic visions, and these don't come intuitively but through deliberate concept work. I got this site in a list right next to Goblin Punch, Hill Cantons, Against the Wicked City, and Monsters and Manuals. Pompous artistic visions are the way to go.

  2. Shoutout to the second image, Letchworth State Park (NY), my backyard growing up.

  3. This absolutely makes sense! Like Yora, it's something I'm going to examine as far as Rocosia goes. I thoroughly enjoyed this article, and I don't think it's pretentious at all, as far as writing goes ;)

    1. I'm not familiar with Rocosia, but I'd be glad to hear more about it!