Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Little Realization About Tolkien's Mythopoeia

I've had this wonderful book, The Tolkien Reader for years and years. I bought it originally to read the utterly charming story of "Farmer Giles of Ham" and "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil". I never bothered to read "the boring stuff". What a pity!

As it happens I ran into a post the other day mentioning that an essay by Tolkien named "On Fairy Stories" was well worth a read, and when I went to find it on the INtArWeBz for whatever reason I was unable to find a copy of it that wouldn't have cost me two legs and an ear. I despaired of finding it easily or cheaply.  I decided just now to try again and located a free PDF of On Fairy Stories on my first try - I have no idea what happened months ago when I searched for it the first time. Be that as it may, when I first tried to find it several months ago I couldn't find a copy for less than $55 and I had despaired of reading the essay any time in the foreseeable future.

However, a month or so later an unrelated thread mentioned something interesting about Tom Bombadil which brought me back to my copy of "The Tolkien Reader" and as I was browsing through the book I noticed the heading of some of the pages which read "On Fairy Stories".  I never took notice of it before. In this edition "On Fairy Stories" happens to not be listed in the table of contents, and so I completely missed that it is in there at all, and I should probably say that I don't think I would have much cared even if I had noticed it.  When I bought the book originally I was looking for inspiration for Characters, and was entirely focused on Farmer Giles and Tom Bombadil, and not on some stuffy essay, even if it was by Tolkien himself. And yet, to my delight there it is. How lovely! How many years this book sat on my shelf with this fabulous essay in it waiting for me I can not say. Many many.

Of course I started reading it immediately. Now, while the essay itself is fascinating to be sure, I'm really only two pages in at this moment, but the thing that really sent my mind whirling, and the cause of this blog post, was to be found in Tolkien's 'Introductory Notes' of the essay, in which he wrote:

"They ['The Tree and Leaf' and 'On Fairy Stories'] were also written in the same period (1938-39) when 'The Lord of the Rings' was beginning to unroll itself and to unfold prospects of labor and exploration in yet unknown country as daunting to me as to the hobbits. At about that time we had reached Bree, and I had no more notion than they had of what had become of Gandalf or who Strider was; I had begun to despair of surviving to find out."

What is this?! Why, I had always been under the impression that Middle Earth had been completely created in Tolkien's mind in the full glory of the Silmarillion by the time he'd started writing the Lord of the Rings. I imagined that it sprung from his mind like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully grown, clothed and armored! Of course I had no basis for that belief I realize now. I guess it was an assumption based simply on my recollection of the entirety of the story fitting so well together like a hand in a glove. It seemed to me that he must of written it after all of the facts of Arda were well known to him. And yet, here we are in 1938-9 during his first writing of the adventures of Frodo and his friends having just reached Bree, and at this point Tolkien doesn't even know who Strider was or where Gandalf had gone off to! Well, well, well. That's a huge and happy surprise to me.

For those who might like a wee bit of a refresher on the sequence of Frodo's Adventure* thus far it is as follows (just for fun):

4/12: Gandalf arrives at Bag End.
4/13: Frodo learns he has the One Ring and decides to leave the Shire.
9/22: Frodo turns 50.
9/23: Frodo leaves Bag End.
9/24: Frodo is nearly caught twice by one of the Nazgul and meets Gildor in the Woody End.
9/25: Frodo learns of his friends' intention to accompany him.
9/26: Frodo and his companions travel through the Old Forest and come to the House of Tom Bombadil.
9/28: The Hobbits are trapped by a Barrow-wight. Frodo resists putting on the Ring.
9/29: Frodo meets Aragorn in Bree.

None of which is germane to my realization in particular, by the way, so I will veer back to my point before I get lost in the details of Frodo's journey, or worse, the grand sweep of the history of Middle Earth itself.

What I find so interesting, actually, is the realization that while Tolkien was writing, he considered himself to be a fellow traveler within his own world, exploring and discovering it at the same rate and pace as his main characters. Really? Why, that's much the same way I have been discovering and exploring my own World of Elthos all these years! I had no idea! In fact, I thought all along for these many years that I was doing it quite wrong, and that should good old Tolkien find himself gazing over my shoulder from his lofty perch in the heavens, he would have frowned with furrowed eyebrows at my sloppy and faulty method of Mythopoeia (what I commonly refer to as World Weaving).  Instead, I know now that he would have been beaming brightly, as we share a common methodology for World Weaving after all.  I follow along with my players as they explore my world, too, and sometimes we all discover certain things about it at the same moment.  Which of course is quite a bit of the fun of the thing.

On the other hand, I have to say that a lot of Elthos is already structurally there in my notes or in my mind.  But there are vast areas that remain unknown to me, waiting to be explored.  In fact, it was because I was curious about the region north of Glendale, a trickly little place named Hobbington, of which I knew only a scant few facts, that the campaign began back in 2009.  And we've discovered quite a lot about it since then, I can say.  And it's been a great deal of fun.

One of the things that I like about this method of Mythopoeia is that I have often found wonderful bits of what have felt like mystical serendipity while World Weaving along side the players.  It's always rather exciting with "Aha!" and "Oh my goodness, wow!", although I will be the first to admit, it is also rather risky in its own way. There is, after all, the ever-lurking problem of Story-Errors that I may accidentally introduce as I go along.  What if should I forget some important connection that I thought of while driving to shop for dinner three days earlier (yes, that happened while playing my last game session)?  Or perhaps I might inadvertently create a conflicting set of facts at some point without realizing it? This can happen when you approach your world as a living breathing thing that you are co-discovering with your players while you play the game.  Unlike dear Tolkien who could go back and re-write back in what he forgot, we must make due as best we can with the error as it happens. Perhaps the story heads off on an entirely unexpected direction (it often does). Or perhaps we can mend things with a little bit of story-glue to patch over the error (which is what I did that last time).  The risk is that we must edit the thing live during play.  Revisions are difficult and fraught with problems. The greatest of which is that our players might get the idea that we don't really know what's going on - heaven forbid!

Either way, what is so great and grand and lovely about all of this, for me, is that idea that my Mythopoeia is actually quite a bit more like Tolkien's than I ever imagined.  I always had this notion in the back of my mind that the entire world should be fully fleshed out well in advance, with all the histories of the Gods and Races well rehearsed in the GMs mind before the players ever step foot on the World.  Well, I thought, if you want to do it "right", anyway - the way Tolkien did.  How much comfort it gives me to know I was wrong about that!

So for GM's who are embarked on the quest of Mythopoeia I want to let you know that the Grand Master and founder of the art, J.R. Tolkien himself, went about it as an exploration and discovery while following along side his main characters during the course of their adventures. And it turned out gloriously in the end, didn't it? So take heart, and forge ahead! Grand things await if you are patient, not too hard on yourself, and keep your eyes peeled for those wonderful serendipities that come along now and then. Carry on my fellow travelers, carry on!


* - A Timeline of Frodo's Journey
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