Book Meme 2012: Week 8 – Best Fictional Story Setting

Topic: Which is the best story setting?


Most of the stories take place on the far west coast of that northern continent. Which leaves plenty of uncharted map area to speculate wonderfully about.

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

The First Dawn of the Sun

…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?


Usually we think of the other men in Middle Earth — the Haradrim, the Easterlings, the Southrons, the Wild Men — as being decidedly evil to their core. But in this passage from The Two Towers, Sam’s empathy gives us a different look into who they are.

“A Song of Aryador” by J.R.R. Tolkien

The recent dearth of posts is not what I had planned for this month, but is caused by intensive training for my new job. The review for Series 3 of Doctor Who is in the works (as it should have been long ago), and I am happily taking notes on Series 4 now. I am also continuing through George MacDonald’s Lilith, and am finding it as fascinating and perplexing as was Phantastes. And in the realm of webcomics, I have been reading through the famed Gunnerkrigg Court, a story about an intelligent English girl at a very strange boarding school surrounded by the shadows of fairy tales and myths (and a little sci-fi). But as you wait for more news on those fronts, I’d like to present an especially beautiful poem by the Professor, and one even less well known than his others.

It is found only in The Book of Lost Tales 1, at the end of the section entitled “The Coming of the Elves.” Christopher Tolkien tells us that it was written in an army camp in Lichenfield on September 12, 1915. It appears to be a song of an ancient group of men about the Lost Elves (those who had not gone to Valinor), whom they feared.

A Song of Aryador

J.R.R. Tolkien

In the vales of Aryador
By the wooded inland shore
Green the lakeward bents and meads
Sloping down to murmurous reeds
That whisper in the dusk o’er Aryador:

‘Do you hear the many bells
Of the goats upon the fells
Where the valley tumbles downward from the pines?
Do you hear the blue woods moan
When the Sun has gone alone
To hunt the mountain-shadows in the pines?

She is lost among the hills
And the upland slowly fills
With the shadow-folk that murmur in the fern;
And still there are the bells
And the voices on the fells
While Eastward a few stars begin to burn.

Men are kindling tiny gleams
Far below by mountain-streams
Where they dwell among the beechwoods near the shore,
But the great woods on the height
Watch the waning western light
And whisper to the wind of things of yore,

When the valley was unknown,
And the waters roared alone,
And the shadow-folk danced downward all the night,
When the Sun fared abroad
Through great forests unexplored
And the woods were full of wandering beams of light.

Then were voices in the fells
And a sound of ghostly bells
And a march of shadow-people o’er the height.
In the mountains by the shore
In forgotten Aryador
There was dancing and was ringing;
There were shadow-people singing
Ancient songs of olden gods in Aryador.’

“The Last Voyage of Eärendel” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Eärendil the Mariner, by Ted Nasmith
Eärendil the Mariner, by Ted Nasmith

This is the first poem written by Tolkien about the character of Eärendil, the famous voyager who in Middle-Earth mythology carried the morning star on his brow across the sky. Interestingly enough, the character’s name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Éarendel, a name associated with the star Rigel in Orion, which is a wandering star and the brightest of that constellation. Subsequently, it is an extremely important star for navigation, and makes a fitting inspiration for the name of Tolkien’s great seafaring man. But even apart from these associations the poem is immensely beautiful, a wonderful example of mythopoeia.

The Last Voyage of Eärendel

J.R.R. Tolkien

Eärendel arose where the shadow flows
At Ocean’s silent brim;
Through the mouth of night as a ray of light
Where the shores are sheer and dim
He launched his bark like a silver spark
From the last and lonely sand;
Then on sunlit breath of the day’s fiery death
He sailed from Westerland.

He threaded his path o’er the aftermath
Of the splendour of the Sun,
And wandered far past many a star
In his gleaming galleon.
On the gathering tide of darkness ride
The argosies of the sky,
And spangle the night with their sails of light
As the streaming star goes by.

Unheeding he dips past these twinkling ships,
By his wayward spirit whirled
On an endless quest through the darkling West
O’er the margin of the world;
And he fares in haste o’er the jewelled waste
And the dusk from whence he came
With his heart afire with bright desire
And his face in silver flame.

The Ship of the Moon from the East comes soon
From the Haven of the Sun,
Whose white gates gleam in the coming beam
Of the mighty silver one.
Lo! with bellying clouds as his vessel’s shrouds
He weighs anchor down the dark,
And on shimmering oars leaves the blazing shores
In his argent-timbered bark.

Then Éarendel fled from that Shipman dread
Beyond the dark earth’s pale,
Back under the rim of the Ocean dim,
And behind the world set sail;
And he heard the mirth of the folk of earth
And the falling of their tears,
As the world dropped back in a cloudy wrack
On its journey down the years.

Then he glimmering passed to the starless vast
As an isléd lamp at sea,
And beyond the ken of mortal men
Set his lonely errantry,
Tracking the Sun in his galleon
Through the pathless firmament,
Till his light grew old in abysses cold
And his eager flame was spent.

The Book of Lost Tales 2, pages 271-3

"On an endless quest through the darkling West..."

Tolkien’s “Habbanan beneath the Stars”

[Excerpted from The Book of Lost Tales 1 by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, pages 96 and 97. This is a very early poem of the Professor’s that clearly connects his mythology of Middle-Earth with some Christian and Catholic ideas. Christopher thinks the land of Habbanan might be Arda’s version of Purgatory, where the souls of Men might go after death. At any rate, it is a quite beautiful poem.]

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892—1973)

Habbanan beneath the Stars

Now Habbanan is that region where one draws nigh to the places that are not of Men. There is the air very sweet and the sky very great by reason of the broadness of the Earth.

In Habbanan beneath the skies
Where all roads end however long
There is a sound of faint guitars
And distant echoes of a song,
For there men gather into rings
Round their red fires while one voice sings –
And all about is night.

Not night as ours, unhappy folk,
Where nigh the Earth in hazy bars,
A mist about the springing of the stars,
There trails a thin and wandering smoke
Obscuring with its veil half-seen
The great abysmal still Serene.

A globe of dark glass faceted with light
Wherein the splendid winds have dusky flight;
Untrodden spaces of an odorous plain
That watches for the moon that long has lain
And caught the meteors’ fiery rain –
Such there is night.

There on a sudden did my heart perceive
That they who sang about the Eve,
Who answered the bright-shining stars
With gleaming music of their strange guitars,
These were His wandering happy sons
Encamped upon those aery leas
Where Gods’ unsullied garment runs
In glory down to his mighty knees.