Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Green Sun

What makes a fantasy story more or less believable?

Professor Tolkien obviously tried very hard to make his stories believable.  He said that the more believable a story was, the better.

"Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve. . . . Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough..."

What he is saying here, is that you can speak the words "green sun" and people will probably get a rough idea of what you mean.  But of course, you look outside and see indeed that the sun is yellow and the words spoken to you earlier were not real.  Tolkien makes it very clear that good fantasy can go past this--make you believe that a green sun is possible in a place far away.

Take for example a completely fantastical story such as the Wind in the Willows.  You are told that Toad and Rat are speaking to each other, but then you look outside and see that there is, of course, no way that a real toad and rat could speak to each other.  You see that the Wind in the Willows could never realistically happen.  But you still enjoy it because it is an interesting story and has good themes.

I think that Professor Tolkien was aiming higher in his fantasy.  Not only did he want you to enjoy the story, he wanted to make it seem like maybe in some world far, far away it actually could have happened.  Now what makes something so believable that you could tell someone there is a "green sun" and they would believe it?

1. Details
There are so many facts in this world.  No matter how smart you are, there is literally no way that you can know everything there is to know.  Similarly, in Tolkien, there are so many facts that you could never memorize everything.  I am often surprised to think that even Professor Tolkien could remember everything.  I think that it is certainly possible he didn't!  Maybe he worked on the hobbit family trees and set them aside without memorizing them.  It is certainly possible.  There are so many details that there is no way to remember everything which makes it just like the real world.

2. Relatability 
Professor Tolkien was so frustrated with people saying that his books were a metaphor for WWII.  He finally confronted the issue in his forward to The Fellowship.  He says that if WWII and The Lord of the Rings have similarities, it is because they have a common denominator: humanity.  They are similar because they both have the same themes, not because he just copied down the story of WWII and changed the names.  What they share is the themes that have run throughout humanity: the struggle for power, racism, corruption, violence.  By including so many themes that people are familiar with into his work, it seems so much more realistic.  So realistic that people began to think it was actually based on history.

3. Distance
Let's say you do a drawing.  It is an okay drawing.  From far away, a lot of the imperfections are insignificant and they don't detract from the full picture.  But, if you examine that picture under a microscope, you're going to find a lot of flaws--the pencil went out of the lines here, the ink was smudged there.  In order to keep the picture looking relatively flawless, you're going to need to look at it from far away.  Similarly, in Tolkien's books, he often leaves things vague and distant.  Also, if there are inconsistencies in the work we can blame it on the authors.  Not Tolkien, but the authors within the stories: Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, the elves, etc.  I did another post on this which explains how the stories we read were actually written by the characters themselves.  Therefore, one inconsistency does not eliminate the realism of the story but rather accentuates the character of the authors writing it down and retelling it.

4. Change
So many fantasy worlds are static.  Life inside those worlds never changes.  But it is very clear that things in Middle-earth change a lot and change dramatically.  One of the best examples of this is the language.  Tolkien was a philologist and the languages he created were one of the biggest aspects--in his opinion--of his work.  Instead of having "elvish" be the language, he took into account the history of the world.  Quenya was a branch of elvish spoken by all elves until their journey to Valinor.  Then some of them continued speaking it while others adapted their language and it became Sindarin.  This little detail makes it so much more real.  Not only are there different languages for different creatures and races (such as in the real world whales communicate one way and humans another), but there are differences among the creatures (there are many people who speak different languages...they are the same creature, but they use different words).  Another example is the sinking of Beleriand.  The continents of the real world are shifting all the time.  Beleriand is a bit different because it is all sunk in an instant, but it is still a huge change in the history of Middle-earth which parallels the change in the history of the real world, such as when the land split from Pangaea into the continents we know today.

5. Characters
Good characters are probably the most important thing to any story.  And Tolkien is the master of believable characters.  Just think of Eowyn.  The people of the world today can certainly understand her struggle to be taken seriously.  But she is not a saint.  Eowyn--just like any human--has her problems.  She despairs easily and often--all she wants is to die for a lot of The Return of the King.  She doesn't understand for the longest time that death and glory in war is one thing, but there is something noble about healing and nurturing.  Within her character arc she does learn this.  We can relate to some aspect of Eowyn--whether pre-change or post--and that is what makes her so believable.  Even Luthien, who I am guessing was one of Tolkien's favorite elves if not his favorite (he based her after his wife, after all) has her flaws.  She doesn't tell her father Thingol about her relationship with Beren.  She did owe it to her father to care enough about his feelings to tell him.  He may have reacted better to Beren if she had.  No characters are perfect, just like no real people are perfect, which adds realism.

Professor Tolkien was a master of realistic fantasy (and no, that's not an oxymoron).  His work is important to anyone interested in writing fantasy because it shows that just because a story is taking place beneath a "green sun" doesn't mean it can't be believable. 


  1. Fantastic post! I finally got around to the award you gave me! Sorry it took so long. The web address is:

    Thanks again for awarding me! :D

    1. Of course! Going over to read it right now :)