World-Building: Even the Smallest Detail…

This past weekend, as part of Tolkien Week, the world celebrated Bilbo Baggins’ birthday—September 22—also the birthday of his nephew Frodo. Even the smallest detail can change the course of immersion in a Fantastic world.

A Elbereth Gilthoniel, a poem composed in Sindarin, a language created by Tolkien, and written in Tengwar, a script created by Tolkien as well.

One of the rich aspects of fantasy fiction is the immense world-building behind the imagined cultures. It is well known that J.R.R. Tolkien created multiple languages for Middle-Earth and mythology before he wrote any of the stories. He called this process “sub-creation”, and in being so incredibly thorough, set a strong standard for popular 20th Century fantasy fiction authors to follow.

 J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, admitted that she had loads of backstory that she had for her characters and settings as well as the culture and society of Harry’s world—much of it created in order to be able to write the books, but considerable bits of information simply as part of her own process of closure. She handed over some 18,000 extra words—mostly from unpublished passages and random notes—to the programmers of her world-extending website Pottermore, where fans of Rowling’s magical world can access extensive backstory and feel immersed in the world itself.

While world building inevitably includes careful development of character histories, setting descriptions, and the origins of plot lines, it’s often the myriad smaller details surrounding the culture of the invented races of magical creatures that cumulatively bring the world to life.

In Tolkien’s masterpiece, when the stories start, the hobbits have long since lost the details of their own history, of how they were related to “big people” (humans), or of details of their geneological history. But Tolkien worked it out extensively, sometimes causing anomalies within traditions that the characters wouldn’t have grasped, but the history could illuminate.

For instance, birthdays. For the Hobbits of the Shire, instead of getting presents on your birthday, a hobbit celebrating his or her birthday gives presents away to other hobbits, often re-gifting several times over. These gifts need not be valuable; in fact old and useless objects, or mathom in Tolkien terminology, is a tendency. Avid fans have speculated that hobbits of the shire would have sent birthday cards out, cheerfully (and unpretentiously) saying “Happy Birthday to Me”.

But as an additional layer of this detail of Tolkien’s worldbuilding, this tradition is not race-wide. Tolkien identified three branches of hobbits, the Hobbits of the Shire being descended from Harfoots. But Sméagol and his kinsman Déagol were descended from the Stoors. And when Déagol finds the One Ring on Sméagol’s birthday, Sméagol demands it as a present from Déagol, who is holding it. But Déagol states that he has already given a birthday present, thus the struggle that ensues. Centuries later, in addition to “my precious”, Gollum refers to the One Ring as his “birthday present”. Thus, the river Hobbits clearly follow a different birthday present custom.

Here on FairyRoom, we highlight books and authors every week. Nearly every book as part of our NEW, SOON, & CLASSIC series is part of a magical world created by its author. We toast the meticulous attention to detail these Fantastic authors weave into the cultures and histories of the worlds they create. And inspired, we are starting to collect tidbits like this to highlight at some point. What small details of created magical worlds do you find particularly enchanting?