The Extraordinary Cases of Histories of Fictional Worlds

Often, when you finish a book, you are left with a sense of satisfaction (if it was a good book that is).The story has closed and it has settled the tension in your heart and answered the questions buzzing about your mind. You know that the characters’ motivations have been resolved, they will be alright, and you know that that particular world will always be there, nestled between two covers, should you need to revisit an old friend. But on the rare occasion a world has become so real that it’s readers become inhabitants, emigrating between reality and fantasy. I have experience this before but only once. It was when I finished reading first The Hobbit and then immediately following, The Lord of the Rings (I think I was 12 or 13). I still remember how turning to the first page of the last chapter I was overcome with a profound sadness, a great chasm was opening up in my chest as I slowly began to realize that this was truly the end, and we had all made it together. That’s not to negatively comment on the length of the book trilogy, but truly it had probably taken me a year to read the whole set. At age 12 I wasn’t so accomplished a reader and I had school and school books and assignments. Yet, each night I would retire to Middle Earth and upon closing The Return of the King I felt like I was closing the door on a good companion forever.

So, I read it again.

Upon finishing it the second time I was left, once again, wanting. That’s when I discovered The Silmarillion. Written by Tolkien and completed by his son, Christopher Tolkien, this companion book tells many of the myths, legends and histories of Middle Earth. It accounts the Elder Days, the First Age (when Morgoth, the first Dark Lord dwelt in Middle Earth) and provides the backgrounds to the many references made to the History of Middle Earth in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Indeed, there is the rub. This book is only readable, and enjoyable for that matter, by those who have read and enjoyed The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It’s like a mythology textbook, a class in ancient Middle Earth History and it’s wonderful and fascinating if you belong to that world.

I’m not talking about worlds like More’s Utopia, Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, Barry’s Neverland or Carroll’s Wonderland which have inspired many (many many!) retellings and reusings over the years – – but rather a focus on one particular world by both the authors and the audiences. Indeed, had the world not fallen in love with LOTR as they did I’m not sure that the compendium books would have ever been published – but we wanted more. This phenomenon seems to have opened the floodgates. Over the past couple of decades these Historical texts about a particular fantasy world have become more common, particularly with the worlds of children’s literature. How curious. Is it because a child really does transport themselves into the magical world of Harry Potter and adventure alongside the protagonists? Fiction is said to inspire empathy in children and perhaps they become so empathetically linked to the characters and the world that they find it difficult to let go – but I also think it has something to do with the suspension of disbelief. A child is full ready and willing to give themselves over to fantasy and not to question it. Children in all sorts of capacities are ready to immerse themselves in fantasy, be they well to do Western children with no other worries but those presented in fiction, or be they children in need, reading a used manuscript and escaping into the mind of a valiant hero.  That’s a rather broad blanket, but I would argue for it’s truth in most cases.

By any means, the results are these curiosities on the bookshelf that can only be called the Histories of Fantasy Worlds. We have the likes of The Tales of Earthsea among many other’s penned by Ursula K. LeGuin about her Earthsea realm. Phillip Pullman’s own alternate universe from His Dark Materials has inspired quite a few non-fiction speculations and explanations, but from himself Lyra’s Oxford, which recounts some of Lyra’s adventures in Oxford and delves into the history of the world, also  Once Upon a Time in the North which focuses on the bears and the witches and their histories – and the much anticipated Book of Dust which will settle some great debates about Dust and delve into the scientific history of Pullman’s world. Last, but certainly not least, are the continuations and offshoots of the Harry Potter universe. Aside from Pottermore, which Janet know much more about than I, and all the extra J.K. penned materials found there are the companion books. The Tales of Beedle the Bard is meant to be a republication of the very book that Dumbledore left to Hermione in his will (and upon which hinges the story of The Deathly Hallows) and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them  which explores and expand on the magical world alongside our own dull muggle one.

The downside here is the insane commercialization which follows these books – a film of Fantastic Beasts which for all intents and purposes reads as a History and Science text and not a fantastic adventure at all is underway, for instance. And I just have to wonder how long it will take Suzanne Collins to come up with a Historical account of Panem and for those movies to begin production.

All cynicism aside, I think that these books are fascinating. Exploring the corners of an author’s mind and universe, and learning are at the core of their existence. Yet, even having read quite a few of the aforementioned volumes myself I still wonder about them. I mean, I quite enjoy the histories and mythologies of our own civilizations as well, but I’m truly living here. I think, perhaps, these authors have truly succeeded in creating what Tolkein called, the secondary world. And what isn’t captivating about imagining that a world so close to our own and full of magic, might truly exist? Well, it certainly does in my own, and in many other’s, imaginations.

  • I love any sort of fantasy world that is deep enough to have its own stand-alone history or metafictional writings, though whether those are worth reading or not may be another story. I do think that the case could be made that the Silmarillion could be read by someone without a background in LOTR, if only because the Silmarillion itself is so far removed from it time and geography-wise (a better argument would be that the Silmarillion could only be read by someone familiar with the Eddas and the Kalevala). One thing that makes it different from the other examples you give is that it was written before the other works, existing in a more or less completed, if unedited, form from which Tolkien could occasionally draw background inspiration when he needed it (like the light of Earendil). Most of the work being done on it both before and after Tolkien’s death was to make the book better fit into the published history of Middle Earth.

    On a side note, I’d highly highly highly recommend reading Lord Dunsany’s earliest works. While a book like the Silmarillion is very high-level mythic and has been compared to the Bible, it still tells a straightforward narrative from beginning to end (more a Saga than a history). Gods of Pegana reads and feels more like a lost holy text of a long gone race of men from “before… Allah was Allah” than just about any other piece of writing I’ve come across. That said, like the Silmarillion, it was written first and subsequent stories drew on it for background, the main difference being it was actually published.

  • Reblogged this on The Anxiety Strikes Back and commented:
    So true. And bears a lot of relevance to my dissertation in some respects.

  • The way you described that feeling of longing when a good book ends is just perfect. Absolutely perfect.

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