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During this most recent Thanksgiving vacation, my brother and I ended up watching parts of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies on television. This is not an uncommon occurrence; we’ve immersed ourselves in the beautiful scenery from Middle Earth countless times.
While watching the third Hobbit movie, Battle of the Five Armies, this time, I happened to notice and remark on something that always struck me about Middle Earth: it is, for the most part, a vast and empty place. While there are some settled regions that give us either a stately (Gondor) or cozy (Shire) vibe, settlements are few are far between, and the breathtaking beauty can be quite lonely. Unlike in the real world, where there are people and tribes everywhere (like Rohan), the settlements of this world, like Bree and Dale, are few and far between.
Where are the countries; the farms; the places of worship; the artisans? Are they there throughout the world but left in the background because Tolkien was more interested in creating a new mythology? Or are politics and economics not a part of this world by design? I’m not the only one to find this strange. Leigh Butler of Tor.com notes, about a different series with an empty world:
This is a thing which seems weird to me, just because it is so unlike the world I know, where an ever-burgeoning population has long since claimed every last bit of livable land on the planet, along with most of the non-livable bits to boot. Sure, there’s plenty of empty land/wilderness out there, but almost none of it is unclaimed wilderness…Ergo, the idea of just having huge empty swaths of perfectly arable land lying around with no takers is startling, to me anyway.
Perhaps the omission is deliberate. When we get the closest thing to the actual formation of a new country, with all the institutions of a state, like an army, in Isengard, it is portrayed negatively by Tolkien. The establishment of a new power and new industries is not well looked upon, and Tolkien implicitly criticizes Saruman.
The two best ways to explain these empty spaces in fantasy come from two different traditions in fantasy: those that derive from history-based worlds (like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire) and mythology-based worlds. The former argue that there are really no real empty spaces and that these are all inhabited by tribes, stateless farmers, or city-states as in the real world. In GRRM’s works, the Mountains of the Moon are not empty but inhabited by bandits and tribes. The Dothraki live on the open plains, the equivalent of which, minus Rohan, would have mostly been uninhabited in Middle Earth.
The truly empty world on the other hand, is inspired by myth and often offers no explanation for why it is the way it is. People and places are only there where you need them to be, to tell a moral, or to move the tale onward. It is a sort of timeless world, outside of history; the setting for a story. Although the real world is filled with people and histories everywhere, people, to make sense of their world, all too often see it as though it is the second type of world, the mythological-type, constructed to tell a tale.
In many ways, this contrast is reflective of the tensions and transition in the fantasy genre from being more mythologically oriented to more historically oriented. So too in the real world, as in our fantasy worlds, we find out there are in fact people and places we’ve barely heard about that can one day touch us in some way or the other, and that most stories are more complex than the moral tales of old.
This itself demonstrates some of the tensions in the fantasy genre of late, especially as it pertains to the genre’s biggest sources of inspiration and influence; it further emphasizes this more recent, still-ongoing transition within the genre from the mythological to the historical.
But there is at least one satisfying explanation for the empty spaces you see in a lot of fantasy, and it comes from Chapter 10 of the second book of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, entitled The Great Hunt. What Tolkien implies throughout The Lord of the Rings, Jordan spells out in Hunt. In the world of Wheel, we see a humanity that is literally dying out in the face of evil, to which the character Ingtar asks: “…what nation standing whole today will fail tomorrow? We are being swept away, humankind. Swept away like flotsam on a flood” (Hunt, 187). The book explains in regard to the empty lands where countries should have or could have been:
“They could not hold together…Crops failed, or trade failed. People failed. Something failed in each case, and the nation dwindled. Often neighboring countries absorbed the land, when the nations were gone, but they never lasted, those annexations. In time, the land was truly abandoned Some villages hang on here and there, but mostly they have all gone to wilderness.” (Hunt, 186)
While this explanation does seem to go against the human imperative to eke out a living in even the harshest of conditions, like the Free Folk of GRRM’s world, who live in the least hospitable region of their world, but still live and thrive there, it is satisfactory in explaining why, in a lot of fantasy worlds, there are empty spaces, beyond the needs of telling the story itself.
But for myself, I find it is even more satisfying when a world is filled up, like the real world, so that there are always new places to discover, however obscure.
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