In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the character Data questions whether or not he, as an android, can lay claim to a culture. Another character assures him that he is a culture: a culture of one. I have always liked this idea, because I've often felt like a culture of one myself. I think everyone does at some point, though perhaps some of us more often than others. The richest, most fully developed "culture of one" that I can think of is that which took root in the mind of J. R. R. Tolkien.
Last spring, I was able to see the exhibit, "Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth" at the Morgan Library in New York City, and just in the nick of time, too, because the artifacts were packed up shortly afterwards and sent home to the Tolkien Archive in Oxford. I call them, "artifacts," because the letters, photographs, paintings, runic inscriptions, and newspaper doodles that Tolkien left behind have as much to do with the archaeology of Middle-earth as they do with Tolkien's development as an artist. In The Lore of Old Elfland, I stop by many of the places where Professor Tolkien would have paused to gather inspiration for his Middle-earth.
No, I don't think he combed through the Norse Sagas and Old English poetry, grabbing a sword here and a ring there, just to equip his tribes of elves and force words into their mouths, for that is not how good stories are written. He immersed himself in those stories and poems because he loved them, and because they were the means by which he, a philologist (a "lover of words"), made his living. Eventually, his knowledge of medieval literature and his upbringing as an Englishman bubbled up into his own Middle-earth (Midgard in Old Norse), just as today's modern fantasy writers, even those who have never read a word of Tolkien, continue to channel his work.
Did Tolkien create his races of elves, dwarves, and hobbits with the intention of writing an epic fantasy cycle? I don't think so. I think he created them for his own enjoyment, just as he jotted down that now famous sentence, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," to relieve the boredom of grading papers. (The really remarkable thing about this opening sentence of The Hobbit is the fact that Tolkien never needed to change it. Many writers, including this one, continue to revise their opening sentences until the book goes to the printer.)
How about you? Do you have your own Middle-earth, or "Elfland," as I call this realm of the imagination in my book? I hesitate to call it an "imaginary place," because, while such realms might begin in an individual's mind or in the collective consciousness of a culture, they can still be "true." Are hobbits real? No, they are not. Is it true that two little guys with hairy feet can take down an all-seeing monster if they really put their minds to it? Yes, it is!
While Tolkien is known as an author, poet, and philologist, he was also familiar with the archaeology of his time: the great ship burials of southern Scandinavia and Sutton Hoo in East Anglia, the sun discs and swords that opportunistic peasants have been pulling out of grave mounds since as long as there have been grave mounds, and the handful of rings we have from Roman Britain. By the Viking Period, many of these objects bore runic inscriptions naming their owners or their makers. In the mythology of northern Europe, the elves and dwarves are expert craftsmen, just as they are in Middle-earth. Each race also has its own set of runes. The runes that appear on Thror's Map in The Hobbit are not so different from the historical Elder Futhark, but take a look at the Tengwar script which, as Tolkien tells us, "had been developed by the Noldor, the kindred of the Eldar"1 in the Third Age, and you can see that by this time, he was really cooking. The Tengwar look, if anything, a little like the medieval calligraphy style of uncial, with a few frills added. You can't transcribe English into Tengwar letter for letter because Tengwar is designed to express the languages spoken by the elves; Tengwar is pure Tolkien.
Can I read and write Tengwar? I cannot. I enjoy it for its aesthetic value, and even more, I enjoy the idea of Tengwar, but I would rather spend my time learning a living language, one that will put me in touch with more people over broader distances, than mastering an artifact of one man's imagination. Still, I can't resist the impulse to invent my own scripts, of which I have a few. So far, no one else can read them, or has even wanted to, but my youngest child, taking his cue from me, has come up with his own original alphabet in which he writes the stories that take place in his own original world.
If you have not yet laid claim to your own Elfland—and you want to—creating a writing system is a good way to start. (If you don’t think you'll be able to master your own alphabet, you can skip down to the paragraph in this article that starts, "So, you don't think you'll be able to master your own alphabet.") I invented my first secret script when I was in seventh grade. It's become more sophisticated over the years, and I use it to this day. A personal secret script comes in handy for so many things: making Christmas lists your kids can't read, cheating on tests (not that I've ever done that...okay, so I did do that, back in the days when we had to cover our textbooks in brown paper grocery bags. The thing was, once I'd copied all the answers onto the book covers, I knew them pretty well and never needed to consult my cheat sheet. I'd tricked myself into studying!), or writing out the first uncertain lines of a story without fear that someone will look over your shoulder and laugh. (
Inventing your own alphabet is not that hard. You could take your inspiration from nature—leaf shapes, feathers, cricket legs—or find a writing system you like the looks of—Hangul, Epigraphic South Arabian, Linear A (still undeciphered!)—and play with it. Turn the letters upside down or on their sides. Add frills. Make it pretty. Make it yours. Then use it to write out your most secret wishes, your deepest dreams. Declare it the official language of your Elfland, and once you've done that, invent some compatriots. Who are they? What are their most sacred traditions? Do they live next door or somewhere among the stars? It doesn't matter if you never turn the information you gather into an epic fantasy cycle; your Elfland is yours to keep.
But, it should also be something you can share, as Tolkien did. Elfland is not a place to hide, though it may be a place where you can work out some of the problems you encounter in the "real" world, especially if you invent a mythology: that's what mythologies, fairy tales, and folk tales are for, after all. Feature one of your folk heroes on your Christmas cards. Christmas cards are great way to force people to look at your art and read your (very short) stories—I've been doing it for years! Can't draw? Cut out pictures that remind you of the landscape, peoples, and cities you've dreamt up and make a scrap book.
So, you don't think you'll be able to master your own alphabet? Here's a short cut. All of my books feature paper crafts, because that's my preferred medium. I love papers of all sorts, and I've urged my readers to use gold origami paper, Japanese washi, and heavy drawing paper brushed with tea to make it look like parchment. But recently, while playing around with the crafts in The Lore of Old Elfland, I discovered that many of the projects look really cool when folded from newspaper—but not just any newspaper. Last summer, a friend brought me a roll of Nepali lokta paper, wrapped in Nepali newspaper. I haven't made anything with the lokta paper yet, but I liked the look of the Devanagari print on the newspaper so much that I used it to make the Álfröðull Ornament from my book. I wanted more, but there wasn't anyone coming from Nepal for a while, so I hit up my other neighbors for foreign language newspapers. I made another Álfröðull out of a Chinese-language newspaper, a tiny broomstick (the instructions for which can be found on page 294 of Llewellyn's 2018 Sabbats Almanac), and the White Witch Window Star from my book, The Old Magic of Christmas out of a Korean newspaper. And because I don't speak Chinese or Korean or Nepali, the effect was one of instant mystery. To me, the Korean especially no longer looked like Korean but like the runes that the elf Dain acquired for his people in the Old Norse poem Havamal.
One of the best things about being a published author is getting to see the crafts people make using my instructions. Yes, it's a kick knowing that perfect strangers are studying my words and doing what I tell them, but the real pleasure is seeing how different the results are, and knowing that an artifact of my imagination has successfully passed, and been transformed by, someone else's.
As I said, Tolkien invented Middle-earth for his own amusement, but he didn't stop there; he shared it with the rest of us. And every time one of us reads his work or looks at one of his watercolors or Elvish heraldic devices, we're making Middle-earth over again in our own minds. So go out there and make your own Elflands; knock on the doors of people you don't know and ask them for a newspaper. Cut, fold, paste, write. Make it pretty. Make it yours.
1Page 395 in Tolkien, J. R. R. The Return of the King, New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1995.