Fantasy, like all life-consuming obsessions (fly fishing, stamp collecting, running for public office) has a language all its own, one that can seem arcane and incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Polder, thinning, underlier, Dark Lord, secondary world, Hidden Monarch, threshold, time abyss, mythago – each of these names a vital fantasy concept or device, and of all such terms, none is more important to the modern genre than worldbuilding.
Worldbuilding is, according to Wikipedia, (the greatest repository of fantasy on the internet) the process of “developing an imaginary setting with coherent qualities such as a history, geography, and ecology,” and it “often involves the creation of maps, a backstory, and people for the world.”
In worldbuilding as in so many other things, it was J.R.R. Tolkien who set the standard for all who followed. His Middle Earth, with its immensely deep and detailed history, cosmogony, and geography, was worldbuilding on an unprecedented scale, even to the creation of complete languages for the various races that inhabit this invented milieu.
Post-Tolkien fantasy is largely the story of the primacy of this kind of worldbuilding, as the maps, glossaries, and genealogies that pad the backs of so many fat paperbacks attest, and almost all epic fantasies published since The Lord of the Rings owe a large debt to Tolkien and his example. But all writers are worldbuilders, Hemingway and Updike as much as Jordan and Martin, and perfect as the Tolkien method is for a particular kind of tale, there are many ways to create a believable world — even a fantasy one.
The kind of construction exemplified in The Lord of the Rings is largely external, which is well suited to Tolkien’s rather formal purposes. There is another kind of worldbuilding, however, one less concerned with royal lines and the names of rivers than with what might be called the mythic geography of ordinary life. A superb example of this kind of work is Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao. Published in 1935, it is one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written; indeed, in some moods I’m inclined to think that it is the greatest of them all.
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