Sketches Tolkien Used to Build Middle-Earth
October 10, 2015 8:46 AM   Subscribe

"HOW DID J.R.R. Tolkien create The Lord of the Rings? The simple answer is that he wrote it. He sat down in a chair in 1937 and spent more than a dozen years working on what remains a masterwork of fantasy literature and a genius stroke of immersive worldbuilding. The more complicated answer is that in addition to writing the story, he drew it. The many maps and sketches he made while drafting The Lord of the Rings informed his storytelling, allowing him to test narrative ideas and illustrate scenes he needed to capture in words. For Tolkien, the art of writing and the art of drawing were inextricably intertwined."

Some picture descriptions to whet your appetite:

"'Map of Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor': Tolkien used maps such as this one to compute the exact locations of Frodo and Sam as they walked across Emyn Muil and the Dead Marshes and arrived at Mount Doom, so their arrival coincided with the parallel plotlines of other members of the Fellowship."

"'Plan of Shelob’s lair': Dungeons & Dragons players might have been inspired by this map of Shelob the spider's den had they known of this drawing's existence. If only D&D had been invented in 1954, when The Lord of the Rings was published, not 1974."

"'Distances and dates in Mordor': Our quest is how long? In this complicated sketch-map, Tolkien worked out distances between various stops along the quest, such as the fact that it was 20 miles from Osgiliath and the Cross-roads of Minas Morgul, just to the west of Mordor. "

Grab a pint of Barliman's Best and check out some more.
posted by SpacemanStix (15 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
Another way that Tolkien builds such a rich world is by giving names to distant mountains and other far-off places where the characters never actually go. Apparently, when fans asked Tolkien why he didn't write about those places in more detail, he replied that if he did that, he'd need to create more distant mountains for those distant mountains. Those never-visited parts of the world play a large part in making the places in the story feel more real.
posted by oulipian at 9:31 AM on October 10, 2015 [15 favorites]


Huh. So apparently I can be cynical and critical about Tolkein (the racism, the sausage fest, the plodding prose) for ages then something like this comes along and I instantly feel like we just got God's authorised "making of" to Genesis. Weird how finding out more about how it was made up makes it seem even realler! and the detail about him making facsimiles for himself makes me so happy I could drum my heels on the floor and squeal
posted by runincircles at 10:12 AM on October 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


My god. As if he wasn't already the ur-Nerd, he went and created a bunch of AD&D maps for his imaginary world?!
posted by gwint at 10:23 AM on October 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


Please. Tolkien would have only used the boxed set. He had a passion for going back to the earliest texts.
posted by scalefree at 11:27 AM on October 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Dungeons & Dragons players might have been inspired by this map of Shelob the spider's den had they known of this drawing's existence. If only D&D had been invented in 1954, when The Lord of the Rings was published, not 1974.

Of course, because it would make no sense for someone to be inspired by something previously created. That is crazy talk.

I read Wired briefly in the mid-nineties, but I abandoned it because of loopy editorial reasoning trumping rationalism, as well as dismal editing. I am pleased to see that I did not make an error in letting go.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:29 PM on October 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


I agree with the idea that naming things that entirely peripheral to the characters' experiences is a good way to add texture to the imaginary world, but I think that too much mapping and drawing genealogical charts and making languages is a distraction from the business of writing. I usually end up bringing this up in Tolien threads, but Sarah Monette's Doctrine of the Labyrinth series (well, OK, humongous novel chopped into two, then a concluding novel, then a follow-up) does a great job of throwing around names and terms that are fairly inconsequential to the main story but give the characters something to talk about. She also usually refuses to explain -- there are very few "well, as you know, Chet..." moments in her writing. She trusts the reader to build the world out of the partial glimpses she creates and seems quite startled that readers expect her to know the royal line in it's entirety (she has, she reminds us, a life to lead and other work to do). If the doorstopiness of Doctrine turns you off, you can get a taste of it from The Goblin Emperor, which is delightfully concise.

So, while maps and charts and things may help an author create a world, I think they are not necessary and often get in the way (because, really, if more than 10% of that invention gets on the page, you are making a documentary, not a novel).
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:32 PM on October 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


He also channeled it. Tolkien conversed with elven spirits in his spare time.
posted by bukvich at 2:45 PM on October 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't know what to make of that. I really don't. I've been a huge Tolkien fan almost since I can remember but I never heard so much as an inkling of this.
posted by scalefree at 3:33 PM on October 10, 2015


I never heard so much as an inkling of this.

I see what you did there.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:34 PM on October 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


It came to me in a vision.
posted by scalefree at 3:37 PM on October 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


> Another way that Tolkien builds such a rich world is by giving names to distant mountains and other far-off places where the characters never actually go.

DOOM 1 (free version). More than anything doable, shootable, or collectable in the gameplay area what I wanted was to find a way to get out one of one of the moonbase windows and explore the f*cking MOON. Sorry, nope.

> while maps and charts and things may help an author create a world, I think they are not
> necessary and often get in the way

If otoh you are a DM, detailed maps of your dungeon showing levels, traps, monsters, secret passages, spacetime warps and whatever are pretty much indispensible. The best and most detailed (and neatest! neatness counts!) I ever saw were by Celia Friedman, before she went over to the dark side and started writing actual novels.
posted by jfuller at 3:56 PM on October 10, 2015


Semi-related: J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator is a fantastic collection of Tolkien's visual art. Gives some great insight into his vision of Middle-earth, recommended.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:10 PM on October 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


I wonder if the LOTR movie creative team had access to these--or maybe just Alan Lee and whatsisname did? Because the Helm's Deep drawing may as well have been the direct conceptual art for the films.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:19 AM on October 11, 2015


Also, I notice that Hammond and Scull are the authors behind this new The Art of The Lord of the Rings book. They also did The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, which is basically the annotated LOTR, and is also great.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:13 PM on October 11, 2015




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