World Building with Tolkien

by Jake Reilly

As a writer, I have learned that my favorite thing in fiction is the process of world building. World building is such an awesome concept because it’s essentially limitless! Sometimes, you may build something so big that you don’t even know what kind of story you can tell within it.


But what do you do to build a world? Where do you even begin?


Well, let’s start off with one of high fantasy’s giants: J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien is the one who popularized high fantasy with his creation of Middle Earth, and his exploration of it through The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. His world is as deep as it is wide, so where did he begin?


Tolkien had a passion for language, and one of his favorite pastimes was constructing new languages. The languages that would come to be the core of the “legendarium” , as he referred to it, was called Quenya, the language of the Elves. His personal philosophy behind constructing a language was an interesting one. To him, a language couldn’t be complete without a history of the people who spoke it. Which if you think about it, makes sense.


I am not well versed in the world of anthropology, but from what I have studied at my university, language is something that evolves from the environment of the people who speak it. This language became a foundational piece of his world, leading to the large, high fantasy juggernaut that we all know today. How did he make the languages? Well, Tolkien cared first and foremost about how a language sounded and how it appeared when it was written. It was a project of his since he was a student at King Edward’s School in Birmingham and he worked on it and its history until his death. While that sounds like a tall order, there is one thing that allowed him to develop it for so long: passion.


Now I know a couple of you are probably rolling your eyes when I say that: of course it’s passion. But we can get even more specific. The language of Quenya was a product of his passion for language particularly. The language itself drew from our world, using the phonology of Latin, with elements of languages he liked, such as Finnish, Welsh, and Greek. What you can take away from this way of doing things is to take another passion or love that you have and try to shape it into something that is uniquely your own. What Tolkein did was make the language of a people and then fill out their history. History, by its nature, is full of war, disaster, myth and legend. Myth and legend are especially important in his tales. He is even quoted as saying “Esperanto, [and many others] are dead, far deader than ancient unused languages, because their authors never invented any legends.” So, find what interests you and see where it takes you!

About the Author: My name is Jake Reilly, I’m one of the interns that’s working with Writers Workout for this summer. I’m a game design student at Columbia College Chicago, and I have a minor in creative writing.

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