Whenever I get on the topic of world building, inevitably Tolkien comes up. It makes sense. Middle-earth is not our world (even if he meant it as a mythic precursor to our world); Tolkien wove it from the stuff of mythology and linguistics. And usually, when I’m talking world building, I’m talking world building for a tabletop RPG. Though roleplaying games come in all flavors these days, it used to come in just one: D&D. And if anything ever nestled down against the breast of Tolkien’s material, laid down parasitic roots, and sucked it dry, it was D&D.
What I’m specifically referring to is the prevalence of the “standard fantasy races:” elves, dwarves, orcs, halflings. You get the idea. And you know them. You know them inside and out. Because Tolkien gave them their present form, and D&D beat the daylights out of their corpses. Since then, every major fantasy… thing… has relied on them, from Terry Brooks’ Shannara books to World of Warcraft’s original lineup of playable races (with some additions such as the Tauren)— they draw mainly from the framework left by Tolkien. Largely these “races” (and truly, they are races, because in many game systems and in many stories, they can interbreed) are the go-to toys to fill the sandbox. You expect them: elves are unknowably high culture and at the same time nature oriented, untainted by the sins of base humans; dwarves are solid, traditional, makers of fine things, and their ancestry goes back and back. Through their use, they have become tired hangers on which to place our ideas of the fantastical like an old coat.
At one point, even these visions of elves and dwarves and orcs and halflings were new. But they came from somewhere, they were formed over time, and there was a source for their material. Tolkien’s inspiration for these were born of his study of philology. By his own admission, his love of language was the foundation for all of Middle-Earth (Shippey, 1983: 19). This study of words, tracing their origins and cross-pollinations, their formations over time leads directly to tales— not just histories, but mythologies and hero legends too. Right to the gates of Faerie.
It’s clear that Tolkien bent and shaped and breathed life into elves and dwarves while holding in the other hand the stuff of older sources, fairytales and legends, by his treatment of the topic in his essay, “On Fairy Stories.” In it, he discusses the difficulty in defining these stories, but more importantly, he discusses the act of invention itself. By his own reasoning, he is the inventor here, though he has traced and borrowed and shared in these older ideas of the otherworldly. Even before the close of his essay, he ruminates that consistency in fantasy is difficult to attain, because as one moves further away from the pattern of the world as it is, it becomes harder to strap together imagined worlds.
In other words, one of the things that makes a world compelling is the believability of its inhabitants. Thus, in the context of Middle-Earth, elves and dwarves fit, are carved of the same earth that passes under Frodo’s feet— sprung from older philological sources, their very names and the histories of their languages deeply considered. They belong, are ancient in their invented landscape even in the youth of their publication: Tolkien selected the plural and adjectival forms based on the formation of older English words (elf/elves/elven and dwarf/dwarves/dwarven) even after his publishers attempted to correct him (elfs/elfin, dwarfs/dwarfish) because these forms cemented the idea of the venerability of the creatures they described and their languages (Shippey, 43-44). They are familiar in two senses, the linguistic and the folkloric. That’s why they work.
This is also why when other worlds use these now standard races as plug-in inhabitants, the effect is so often flat. Instead of rooting these fantastical beings into cultures that make internal sense, instead of building these races of the same soil they inhabit, instead of giving them a language, D&D abstracts their tongues (Common, Elven, Dwarven, Gnomish), and gives short generic and somewhat contradictory descriptions of their culture, ready made to fit any world. This is why, at least to me, the elves of Shannara feel uncompelling, and the night elves of Kalimdor, though their architecture is consistent, are as hollow as the mesh and skin combination used to represent them on the screen.
This is the exact reason why I am loathe to scatter the worlds I invent with what amount to the empty exoskeletons of someone else’s research and imaginings. They belong in the worlds built to hold their dreams. That little archipelago? The people-creatures who live there are too big, too full of their own myths and memories to fill the molds of elves and dwarves. Their breaths collectively smell of fish and olives when they speak. All I have of them yet is the breath on which they speak. Over these next weeks, they will take shape as they tell me things, as their mythologies are mined and modified from half-familiar things. But I will not do them the disservice of air-dropping orcs and halflings on them.
Shippey, T. A. The Road to Middle-Earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983