I had a colleague come into my office this morning with, as he put it, “a geek question.” Obviously, he’d come to the right place, but I couldn’t actually help. He was looking for a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring, but mine went AWOL years ago. (Note to self: Get new copy of LOTR.)
We got to talking, as colleagues do when deadlines near and we don’t want to deal. He had just finished up The Hobbit and wanted to read the trilogy next, but was bracing himself for it somewhat. You see, J.R.R. Tolkien is absolutely the granddaddy godfather O.G. of epic fantasy writers. There is no doubt. But man, he loved his worldbuilding. A lot.
So much so, he kinda shoved as much of it into his books as possible.
There really is such a thing as worldbuilding overload, and in retrospect, Tolkien was as guilty of it as anyone. Now, his worldbuilding was absolutely brilliant. There’s no doubt of that. There were entire cultures. Languages. Myths. A millennia-spanning history. Cosmology. Middle-Earth is as complete a fantasy world as any ever created. A lot of this was in The Silmarillion, of course, but there was a ton of it in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, too.
My colleague and I both agreed that there were many points in The Hobbit in which we were hoping Tolkien would just get on with it. To the modern 21st century reader, at least, there are a lot of songs and stories and histories and asides that draw the reader out of the action just a little too much. The Lord of the Rings has a fair number of those as well, along with six appendixes to flesh things out even more.
Look, I’m just a guy with a few novels under my belt,and Tolkien is…well, Tolkien. He pretty much invented the modern swords-and-sorcery fantasy genre. Accusing him of worldbuilding overload seems ungrateful and egotistical and, well, I’m sorry. I love Tolkien and Middle-Earth. But I also have $20 that says a modern fantasy editor would take a look at a manuscript like The Lord of the Rings and start cutting in a huge way.
Probably followed by something like: “John, instead of these asides and appendixes here, we gotta get you working on a couple more trilogies. This stuff is gold. Gold, I tell you!”
Anyway, Tolkien could get away with it because it was gold, and he did what he wanted to do. I imagine you or I couldn’t get away with as much. Somewhere on my hard-drive I still have 40,000+ words of worldbuilding from the Known Worlds of the Daedalus trilogy. I have the various cultures of Venus all mapped out, the empire of the Martian warlords from 5,000 years prior, the Xan philosophy and culture, and just which critters are on what planets and moons. I’d need a whole other book to tell it all.
Hmmm. (*makes notes*)
Point is, worldbuilding is super fun and creative, but there’s a lot that ultimately has to land on the cutting room floor. Worldbuilding supports the story, not the other way around. If you’re drifting out of the story on a worldbuilding tangent, then unless your name is J.R.R. Tolkien, you may want to get yourself back on track.