J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories of Middle-earth, a fictional land that evokes northern European prehistory and legends, have motivated countless imitators and adapters—writers, filmmakers, creators of intricately complex games—who spin tales involving dragons and wizards and cursed landscapes. Such imaginary places and events, in worlds governed by their own rules and historical precedents, encourage us to reconsider our own reality and perhaps escape it, if only for a few hours.
In the documentary J.R.R.T.: A Film Portrait of J.R.R. Tolkien (1996), Christopher Tolkien praises his father’s Middle-earth as a fully imagined “secondary world,” a term used to describe fantasy settings organized by a consistent set of rules that make the fictional universe internally consistent but entirely separate from the real world. In Tolkien’s mythology, Middle-earth is a far-flung geographical outpost in the dwindling twilight of a golden age.
Christopher Tolkien may have done as much as his father to coherently organize the world of hobbits, dwarves, orcs and elves. Sorting through the elder Tolkien’s contradictory drafts and notes, handwritten on scraps of paper spanning several decades, Christopher has offered readers definitive versions of his father’s large store of unpublished stories, beginning with the 1977 publication of The Silmarillion, the unfinished collection of creation myths for Middle-earth. In the succeeding decades, Christopher has edited and published many of his father’s unfinished and abandoned manuscripts, including alternate versions and early drafts of The Lord of the Rings, as well as other stories and poems depicting the adventures of minor and previously unknown characters.
J.R.R. Tolkien has earned world renown for the fantasy novels he wrote in the 1930s and ’40s, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But his more enduring legacy, and perhaps his prouder achievement, is the creation of Middle-earth. Tolkien’s posthumous gift to his readers is many thousands of pages of incomplete stories and new iterations of familiar episodes, published in the 1980s and ’90s as the 12-volume History of Middle-earth. Perusing these pages, readers gain a sense of Tolkien’s obsessive attention to the fictional history he continuously revised in the mid-20th century. The author’s stories about vivid characters may have captured the attention of millions, but what lingers in our imagination is Middle-earth’s rugged landscapes, fantastic creatures and bloody history of heroism and betrayal. Tolkien’s stories allow us to feel, if only for a few moments, that we can be alive somewhere else, in another universe with its own governing principles and majesty. Many novels evoke such a feeling, but few besides Tolkien’s—meticulously rewritten over decades to capture the evolving universe in the author’s mind—are so lovingly written and include such satisfying detail.
Nearly as well-loved as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is Narnia, the magical setting for Northern Irish author C.S. Lewis’s stories about a parallel world accessible through an inconspicuous, shabby wardrobe. Whereas Tolkien’s stories focus on the fates of hobbits, elves, dwarves and questing heroes, Lewis’s depict children from our own world thrust into an alternate reality of adventures that test their moral qualities and faith in powers greater than themselves.
Tolkien and Lewis were dear friends, fellow Oxford University professors and founding members of the literary group the Inklings. Both were also devout Christians; Tolkien, a Catholic, influenced Lewis’s 1931 conversion from atheism to the Church of England. The two authors share a mythological sensibility and a preoccupation with mortals caught in the battle between good and evil, but their stories work toward different ends. Tolkien wanted to provide British readers with a missing early literature, the kinds of origin myths better preserved by cultures such as the Scandinavians. But Tolkien’s British prehistory offered no room for his faith. Lewis’s stories, however, are steeped in Christian allegory, depicting the murder and resurrection of a messianic savior and a Book of Revelation–style apocalypse.
Christopher Tolkien drew the maps for the original printing of his father’s epic The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955), incorporating details from J.R.R. Tolkien’s own sketches of Middle-earth and his descriptions of its geography in the books. Christopher offered readers an updated version, rendered in greater clarity, at the back of his father’s Unfinished Tales, the 1980 collection of incomplete, unedited stories and essays that had remained unpublished in the author’s lifetime. In The Lord of the Rings, readers had to flip to the back of the book for general depictions of the forests, mountain ranges, rivers and plains in the four quadrants of Middle-earth; the more fortunate readers of Unfinished Tales could pore over a meticulously drawn panorama. Subsequent editions of Rings include this map and other richly rendered diagrams of Middle-earth as other illustrators have drawn and painted it. Christopher’s maps of this fictional world set a new standard for the fantasy genre. Readers of other books depicting warfare, swordplay and sorcery have come to expect maps of the geography they describe—landscapes where their imaginations can run wild.
Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth are often also enthusiasts of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, but clear differences separate Tolkien’s world from the game’s. Readers explore Middle-earth much in the way archaeologists and historians investigate lost cultures. Tolkien spent years inventing and rewriting the history, languages and geography of his world, which is more complete in its details than the mostly undefined geography and history of Dungeons & Dragons. The game takes place almost entirely in the imaginations of its players, who are given a basic premise that, on the surface, mirrors Tolkien’s adventures of elves, hobbits, dwarves, orcs and other creatures. But, within limits, players can shape the D&D world to suit their own fantasies and strategies.
The cocreator of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax, admitted that Tolkien’s Middle-earth was an influence as he and Dave Arneson devised the game in 1974. The original manuals included such Tolkien-created creatures as balrogs, ents and hobbits. But Gygax always insisted Middle-earth was merely one among many influences, reminding Tolkien fans, “A look at my recommended fantasy-books reading list in the back of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide will show a long list of other influential fantasy authors.”
Ganon, the central enemy in Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda, bears more than a passing resemblance to the archvillains of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth: Morgoth and Sauron. In most Zelda games, the on-screen hero, Link, who seems at times part human, part elf and part hobbit, must save the land of Hyrule from Ganon’s dark influence. And like Morgoth, who stole the light-giving jewels called Silmarils, and Sauron, whose One Ring is forged so he can gain control over Middle-earth’s benevolent rulers, Ganon uses a great power that was intended for good—the Triforce—to an evil end. Ganon often appears as a giant piglike goblin—what some would call an orc. As with nearly all fantasy worlds created since Tolkien’s novels, it is impossible to overlook the influence of Middle-earth on the Zelda games. And as with Tolkien’s world, the Zelda universe invites its fans to escape into its imaginary geography and history for hours at a time.
Dungeons & Dragons players waging heroic campaigns in the rec room feel an inimitable sense of community; massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) take that D&D experience to the next level. With a huge number of players and a constantly evolving landscape, MMORPGs offer an immersive, visually mesmerizing fantasy world of magic and monsters while creating an online subculture that’s easy to join and spans the globe. World of Warcraft’s publishers announced in 2013 that they had nearly 10 million paying subscribers worldwide.
In the early 1980s parents’ groups and politicians worried that D&D inspired satanism, schizophrenia and worse. The popular 1982 TV film Mazes and Monsters (based on Rona Jaffe’s novel and starring a young Tom Hanks) portrays a man’s descent into madness as he mistakes his imagination for reality while playing a D&D-like game. In a 2009 report Sweden’s Youth Care Foundation called Warcraft the “crack cocaine of the computer gaming world.” Fears regarding the dangers of MMORPGs stem mostly from extreme incidents, including one involving a South Korean man who in 2005 collapsed and died after a 50-hour session of the sci-fi MMORPG StarCraft.
In a 2005 Time magazine interview, when asked what she thought of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling objected to their Christian message of sexual purity. She did not intend her books to be vehicles for moral education. “I never think in terms of what am I going to teach them?” she said of her audience.
Many Christians worldwide consider Rowling’s stories of student wizards a bad influence on impressionable children. The Harry Potter books, they contend, encourage a fascination with witchcraft and the occult, pagan practices directly opposed to the teachings of Christ. Rowling’s revelation that she had always imagined Harry’s headmaster at school, the wizard Albus Dumbledore, as gay inspired a public outcry. Seeing a fantasy-world niche for faith-based audiences, Walden Media, coproducer of the Narnia film adaptations (released starting in 2005), caters to Christian parents. In an interview about the third film in the series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010), Micheal Flaherty, Walden Media’s president, explained that “there are strong Christian themes in the book that were influenced by Lewis’s worldview,” adding that the filmmakers “went to great pains to make sure that we had the themes from the book right.”
Public outcry concerning the addictive nature of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft has rarely exhibited the ferocity of the opposition to amateur wizard Harry Potter. The American Library Association ranks the Potter novels as the most frequently banned or challenged books in the first decade of the 21st century, topping perennial targets Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men and The Catcher in the Rye. While MMORPG critics insist the online games steal their players’ lives, Potter haters believe the books’ seductive power claims an even greater prize: their young readers’ souls.
The appeal of Harry Potter’s immersive universe is a bit different from those of other fantasy realms, and J.K. Rowling claimed in a Time magazine interview that she was in fact “trying to subvert the genre.” Her books’ fantastical elements comprise just one more layer to Harry’s already complex reality. “Harry goes off into this magical world,” Rowling noted, “is it any better than the world he’s left? Only because he meets nicer people. Magic does not make his world better significantly. The relationships make his world better.”