Topic: Which is the best story setting?
In layman’s terms, Middle-earth.
[Middle-earth technically refers just to one half of a continent in which most of Tolkien’s stories take place, but the term for his entire invented world is Arda.]
I am tempted to leave it at that. It’s obvious, sure. It’s unsurprising. But it’s true. By any interpretation I give to the question of which literary setting is the best, the answer for me will always be J.R.R. Tolkien’s Arda. Many books feature great and delightful settings, excellently fitted to their stories and wonderful in their design, but none as resplendent in grandeur, as piercing in emotion, or as deep in all things mortal and immortal as this. Not Narnia and its allegories, not Prydain and its Welsh mythologies, not Mossflower and its animal heroes, not Fantastica and its wish-worlds.
I judge this by the fact that Middle-earth is the one literary world that I never, ever tire of. From The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to The Silmarillion, to Unfinished Tales, to the Books of Lost Tales and the appendices and the atlases and the maps and the scrawled notes and the personal letters describing worldbuilding concepts and the long, tragic lives of elves, men, and angels…I read them with endless fascination, and have since my youth. I don’t see that changing.
Tolkien created a world of grand mythology and heroism with such attention to detail and internal consistency that, for all the elves and goblins and dragons and enchanted weapons and treasures, it feels real. The emotions are real. Continuity binds together the genealogies of families, the rise and fall of kingdoms, the conflicts both local and cosmic. Every story he tells in Middle-earth gains weight and power because of the world that it exists in, because of what came before, and what’s going on simultaneously. Everything has been shaped for a reason. The tale of Beren and Luthien is great on its own, but gains so much more from its connection to the tale of Turin, and the Fall of Doriath, and Gondolin, and…and everything. Tolkien didn’t just write a bunch of neat stories and stitch them together into the same setting. Reading his personal letters and notes, you see how carefully he crafted every element of his mythology so it fits a unified whole.
But it’s more than just that. Other authors have developed sprawlingly detailed, and sometimes reasonably logical, histories for their fantasy and science fiction worlds; some have even poured much effort into invented languages. What sets Tolkien apart, I think, is the terrible beauty of his creations. All his effort seems to have been concentrated on capturing the elements of the real world that he thought most beautiful, and giving them his own expression as a way of praising God.
The Beauties of Creation and Music
Then Ilúvatar [God] said to them [the Ainur, or angels]: ‘Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.’
Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.
~ “Ainulindalë.” The Silmarillion. 3-4.
The Beauties of Light, Water, and Mountain Interplaying
And after a great while, as it seemed to him, when he was weary and yet unwilling to rest in the black tunnel, he saw far before him a light; and hastening on he came to a tall and narrow cleft, and followed the noisy stream between its leaning walls out into a golden evening. For he was come into a deep ravine with tall sheer sides, and it ran straight towards the West; and before him the setting sun, going down through a clear sky, shone into the ravine and kindled its walls with yellow fire, and the waters of the river glittered like gold as they broke and foamed upon many gleaming stones…
…Thus Tuor journeyed slowly for three days, drinking the cold water but desiring no food, though there were many fish that shone as gold and silver, or gleamed with colours like to the rainbows in the spray above. And on the fourth day the channel grew wider, and its walls lower and less sheer; but the river ran deeper and more strongly, for high hills now marched on either side, and fresh waters spilled from them into Cirith Ninniach over shimmering falls. There long while Tuor sat, watching the swirling of the stream and listening to its endless voice, until night came again and stars shone cold and white in the dark lane of sky above him. Then he lifted up his voice, and plucked the strings of his harp, and above the noise of the water the sound of his song and the sweet thrilling of the harp were echoed in the stone and multiplied, and went forth and rang in the night-clad hills, until all the empty land was filled with music beneath the stars. For though he knew it not, Tuor was now come to the Echoing Mountains of Lammoth about the Firth of Drengist. There once long ago Fëanor had landed from the sea, and the voices of his host were swelled to a mighty clamour upon the coasts of the North ere the rising of the Moon.
~ “Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin.” Unfinished Tales. 25-26.
The Terrible Beauties of Tragedy and Catharsis
[N.B. In the first passage, there are two groups being referenced, and both are Eldar, elves in the Western Lands: the Gnomes (later renamed Noldor by Tolkien) led by Fëanor out of Valinor in rebellion, and the Solosimpi, the Shoreland Pipers, who peacefully maintain harbors on the coast of Valinor.]
Behold, the counsel of Fëanor is that by no means can that host hope to win swiftly along the coast save by the aid of ships: ‘and these,’ said he, ‘an the shore-elves will not give them, we must take’. Wherefore going down to the harbour they essayed to go upon those ships that there lay, but the Solosimpi said them nay, yet for the great host of the Gnome-folk they did not as yet resist; but a new wrath awoke there between Eldar and Eldar. So did the Noldoli embark all their womenfolk and children and a great host beside upon those ships, and casting them loose they oared them with a great multitude of oars towards the seas. Then did a great anger blaze in the hearts of the Shoreland Pipers, seeing the theft of those vessels that their cunning and long labours had fashioned, and some there were that the Gods had made of old on Tol Eressëa as has been recounted, wondrous and magic boats, the first that ever were. So sprang up suddenly a voice among them. ‘Never shall these thieves leave the Haven in our ships’, and all those of the Solosimpi that were there ran swiftly atop of the cliff-wall to where the archway was wherethrough that fleet must pass, and standing there they shouted to the Gnomes to return; but these heeded them not and held ever on their course, and the Solosimpi threatened them with rocks and strung their elfin bows.
Seeing this and believing war already to be kindled came now those of the Gnomes who might not fare aboard the ships but whose part it was to march along the shores, and they sped behind the Solosimpi, until coming suddenly upon them nigh the Haven’s gate they slew them bitterly or cast them in the sea; and so first perished the Eldar neath the weapons of their own kin, and that was a deed of horror.
…At length however it is done, and all those ships have passed out to the wide seas, and the Noldoli fared far away, but the little lamps are broken and the Haven is dark and very still, save for the faint sound of tears. Of like kind were all the works of Melko in this world.
~ “The Flight of the Noldoli.” The Book of Lost Tales 1. 183-184.
But Túrin sped far before them, and came to Cabed-en-Aras, and stood still; and he heard the roaring of the water [where his sister had just committed suicide], and saw that all the trees near and far were withered and their sere leaves fell mournfully, as though winter had come in the first days of summer.
‘Cabed-en-Aras, Cabed Naeramath!’ he cried. ‘I will not defile your waters where Níniel was washed. For all my deeds have been ill, and the latest the worst.’
Then he drew forth his sword, and said: ‘Hail Gurthang, iron of death, thou alone now remainest! But what lord or loyalty dost thou know, save the hand that wieldeth thee? From no blood wilt thou shrink! Wilt thou take Túrin Turambar? Wilt thou slay me swiftly?’
And from the blade rang a cold voice in answer: ‘Yea, I will drink thy blood, that I may forget the blood of Beleg my master, and the blood of Brandir slain unjustly. I will slay thee swiftly.’
Then Túrin set the hilts upon the ground, and cast himself upon the point of Gurthang, and the black blade took his life.
~ ‘Narn I Hîn Húrin.” Unfinished Tales. 152.
The Beauty of the Punishment of Evil
But Morgoth himself the Valar thrust through the Door of Night beyond the Walls of the World, into the Timeless Void; and a guard is set forever on those walls, and Eärendil [the Mariner, the elf who became a wandering star] keeps watch upon the ramparts of the sky.
~ “Of the Voyage of Eärendil.” The Silmarillion. 315.
The Beauty of the Sunrise in a Holy Land
…Manwë bade cast the ropes that held her, and straightway the Ship of the Morning arose above Taniquetil and the bosom of the air received it.
Ever as it rose it burned the brighter and the purer till all Valinor was filled with radiance, and the vales of Erúmáni and the Shadowy Seas were bathed in light, and sunshine was spilled on the dark plain of Arvalin, save only where Ungweliantë’s clinging webs and darkest fumes still lay too thick for any radiance to filter through.
Then all looking up saw that heaven was blue, and very bright and beautiful, but the stars fled as that great dawn came upon the world; and a gentle wind blew from the cold lands to meet the vessel and filled its gleaming sails, and white vapours mounted from off the misty seas below, that her prow seemed to cleave a white and airy foam. Yet did she waver not, for the Mánir that fared about her drew her by golden cords, and higher and higher the Sun’s great galleon rose, until even to the sight of Manwë it was but a disc of fire wreathed in veils of splendour that slowly and majestically wandered from the West.
Never ever as it drew further away so grew the light in Valinor more mellow, and the shadows of the houses of the Gods grew long, slanting away towards the waters of the Outer Seas, but Taniquetil threw a great westering shadow that waxed ever longer and deeper, and it was afternoon in Valinor.
~ “The Tale of the Sun and Moon.” The Book of Lost Tales 1. 211-211.
…and many more possible examples…
Fantasy and science fiction are both at their greatest when, in showing us new wonders, they show us further the glories of God, His creations, and His Truths that underlie His creations. This, I believe, is the highest calling of art, and is what fantastical stories are ultimately supposed to do. And Tolkien has done this the best of any author I have ever encountered. In short, I think that of all the worlds invented by humans in our stories, Tolkien’s Arda is the greatest Art.
Which passages from Tolkien speak most beautifully to you?