The secondary world is practically the ruling art of epic fantasy, holding within it not only scenery, names and races that are different from our world, but producing histories, laws and creatures that make it a world in and of itself. It is not only other-worldly creatures that differentiates the fantasy world from our own, but it is the law of magic and how it effects that world and its inhabitants. In epic fantasy, the setting of the secondary world dwells in the likeness of the medieval period, and seldom veers from it. We can probably thank J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a medievalist, for such a permanent brand since it was he who set the mold for (modern) epic fantasy. It makes me wonder if Tolkien had not been a medievalists, and, instead, created his epic story within a more modern setting or a setting that reflected the ancient worlds of 3000 years B.C., would epic fantasy have taken a much different form?
Edward James, former professor of Medieval History at the University College in Dublin, wrote: “After 1955 fantasy writers no longer had to explain away their worlds by framing them as dreams, or travellers’ tales, or by providing them with any fictional link to our own world at all.” Here James was referring to the publishing of The Lord of the Rings, the original epic fantasy which popularized the secondary world. Even though Tolkien had said that Middle-earth was simply a pre-history of our world, we all know that Middle-earth is a fictional world outside any realm we’ve ever known. Maybe Tolkien was not ready to admit that he was severing his work from the standards of previous fantasy literature which always had some ties to the “real” world. Today, we cannot think of epic/high fantasy being any other way. As Edward James had also written: “This has become so standard in modern fantasy that it is not easy to realize how unusual it was before Tolkien.”
For a writer, building a secondary world can be a pleasure, almost like a hobby—fed by many other interests that correspond into a cohesive system. In other ways it could evolve into an obsession of knitting together histories, magic systems, and order of societies down to the slightest detail. The latter can be good, if skillfully used as the backdrop for good characters within a good story; otherwise, it does no good and is simply just a made-up world. A writer has to avoid being geeky about their world and concentrate on the story. The secondary world, no matter how complex, is still only the setting for the author’s characters and their story—not the story itself.
The secondary world can be that neutral ground between the author and the reader where ideas and issues are explored without making things too personal—as they may be if written in a more contemporary fashion within our world. It can be a means of helping us relate on some things that we experience in the real world. The secondary world can be a way to undo the complexity or confusion of our own world, simplifying things and bringing a kind of focus to the characters and the story that may be lacking contrast within tales that take place in the primary world. Yet, at the end of the day, the secondary worlds that we journey through in fantasy fiction still consist of the same old trials and conflicts that plague us in this world: life and death; war and peace; good and evil; etc.
Tolkien wrote about the secondary world in his 1947 essay, On Fairy Stories. He talks about the art of the “story-maker” to become a “sub-creator” in order to present a world where the reader can step into a state of belief of that world. He says of the story-maker: “He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.”
In his essay on fairy stories, Tolkien speaks profoundly on the art of creating a secondary world. The skill of the writer must be good enough to make their world credible. Tolkien says, “To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.” He also mentions the course in which writers draw from reality when creating their world, saying: “Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: “inner consistency of reality,” it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality.”
So to use a simple illustration, when watching the makings of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, we see all the great detail that they went into in order to bring life to Middle-earth on the screen. They took time to grow vegetation and gardens to make the Shire a reality. Great detail was given to everything from the cooking ware to the armory to the selection of the landscape. Now, when watching the films prior to seeing the behind the scenes creation, the viewer has no care as to how much work and meticulous designing it took to create the visuals that sucked them into the film. No, the viewer is simply immersed into a story within an enigmatic world where they are caught up into 3 hours of wonder, suspense, humor and adventure. The camera does not zoom in on all the artistry and skill used to bring life to Middle-earth; its focus is on the characters and the incorporated scenes used to present an epic story.