Tolkien vs Pratchett – A Quick Comparison on World Building

discworld-001The following short piece offers an condensed introduction and comparison of world building focus on “creation stories” and how such tales are represented in fantasy fiction, focusing primarily on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion and Terry Pratchett’s The Colour Magic. The following will explain how the author proceeded to explain and create his own world, the narrative that is used, as well as comparing similarities and differences between the two texts.

The Silmarillion is a recount of the beginning of the universe and the following ages of the first world in the lands of Middle-earth and surrounding continents. It is written in the style of a historical narrative, retelling stories which hold some sense of compatibility with our own reality. The Colour Magic, however, is set in a universe that follows “common sense rather than logic” and offers the narrative of a universe not as compatible, creating its own content outside normal cultural understandings. The Colour Magic is not a singular text with a sole purpose of explaining creation and early history, but rather is one of many books in a series, introducing the reader to base levels of creation and existence lore.

Tolkien’s The Silmarillion is a collected reinvention of ancient mythologies and folk lore, which he absorbed and created his own history, starting from the beginning of time itself. Tolkien, an English literature and linguistics scholar, who taught at Oxford and served in the first world war, used his cultural background and what he called lore of the “northern spirit” as the basis for his inspiration. Contrary to this Terry Pratchett, also an Englishman, grew up in the 1960’s, and was influenced much by science-fiction. His “Discworld” is based on varying mythologies from around the world, most notably India, with the lore of a turtle and an elephant carrying the world. Pratchett’s higher access to a broader range of literature and other culture’s mythos, due to the time he was born into, and the lack of a passion for Northern and European folk lore may account, for some part at least, for the differences.

Tolkien’s creation of The Silmarillion ushered, in many ways, the concentrated world building that fantasy authors now take advantage of. It can be argued that due to Tolkien’s work in The Silmarillion, the depth of writing and thought he put into the world and history, he changed the landscape for creative writing in the modern era at least. Pratchett’s Discworld, introduced through The Colour Magic, was released after the success of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which uses similar aspects of absurdist reality and comedic satirical writing within narrative. Pratchett, however, unlike Adams, introduced this to the fantasy genre rather than the science fiction. Pratchett is one of the founders of satirical, comedic fantasy writers in the modern era, his success giving a path for others.

The ultimate difference between the two authors and their works, the themes of creation and existence within a universe, is that Tolkien relies on past historical lore and mythos to present a believable and recognisable universe and creation when compared to the audience’s reality. Pratchett, does not do this. He, instead, relies on the audience’s willingness to imagine and accept the absurd as part of his rhetoric that common sense is preferable to logic. Thusly the end products are one text, The Silmarillion, which gives a narrative of a planet and land created by a God and host of angels, and the other text, The Colour Magic presenting a flat Discworld, carried on the backs of four great elephants, standing on the shell of an impossibly large turtle floating through space.

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