Tolkien called good writing of fantastic literature, or "Fairy-stories," sub-creation. He meant that there is a real creation, but that writers also have the power to create within that creation, in their imagination, and that of their readers. Here is a good short introduction to Tolkien's ideas, and to the themes I touch on in this post.
The three works I am considering in this series (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by Tolkien, The Earthsea trilogy, by Le Guin, and Watership Down, by Adams --see here and here for previous posts) are all works of sub-creation. Why do I say so? All three have a plot, and characters, like most books. They also have a setting. The setting of all three is deep. Tolkien's was the product of decades of imagining, and writing. His son, Christopher, edited several books worth of material, much of it setting for the Rings trilogy. Le Guin's setting includes references to legends, or maybe history, of Earthsea from long before the time of Ged. Adam's setting includes legends of El-ahrairah, the trickster rabbit. All three works include maps, and they are almost required, for a good understanding of the plot.
All three works include an invented language. Tolkien includes parts of several such. The most obvious example is the inscription on the ring. A linguist, he had worked out many details of these languages. Earthsea had a "language of the making," spoken by dragons and wizards. Wizards in training learned the names of all sorts of plants, and their parts, and of many other things, in this language. A few fragments occur in the books. There are also suggestions of at least two languages spoken by humans. Rabbits speak lapine, and there are some fragments. Apparently each animal species has its own language, but there is a common lingua franca, as Adams calls it, so that seagulls and rats have some communication with rabbits.
All three works have a natural history. There are stars, and trees, and flowers, and healing plants, in Tolkien's world. There are rivers. In Earthsea, there are stars and named constellations (see below). There is the otak, a small mammal. There are birds and domestic animals. There are trees. The Immanent Grove is, in a sense, the heart of Earthsea, and it is a place where you can watch a spider spin a web. Adam's world has, especially, plants. Most of the rabbits are named for some plant. Adams frequently describes the rabbits' surroundings, with special attention paid to the plants and the birds.
All three sub-creations have some sort of spirit world, parallel to the world the characters usually inhabit. In Tolkien, the ringwraiths inhabit this spirit world. So does Gandalf. So does Glorfindel. So does Sauron. Frodo himself, and Sam, enter that world when they put on the Ring. In Earthsea, there is a world of the dead, but the wizards, including Ged, can go there, while still alive, and return.
He lay dying. But the death of a great mage, who has many times in his life walked on the dry steep hillsides of death's kingdom, is a strange matter: for the dying man goes not blindly, but surely, knowing the way. When Nemmerle looked up through the leaves of the tree, those with him did not know if he watched the stars of summer fading in daybreak, or those other stars, which never set above the hills that see no dawn. (A Wizard of Earthsea, New York: Ace, 1968, p. 78)
Ged, himself, goes to the world of the dead, early in his life as a wizard:
Summoning his power all at once and with no thought for himself, he sent his spirit out after the child's spirit, to bring it back home. . . . Then he saw the little boy running fast and far ahead of him down a dark slope, the side of some vast hill. There was no sound. The stars above the hill were no stars his eyes had ever seen. Yet he know the constellations by name: the Sheaf, the Door, the One Who Turns, the Tree. They were those stars that do not set, that are not paled by the coming of any day. He had followed the dying child too far. (A Wizard of Earthsea, New York: Ace, 1968, p. 96)
In the final book, Ged has to enter the world of the dead, with a young companion, to heal a breach in the fabric of the world. They succeed, and come back to the world of the living, where their bodies have remained.
In Watership Down, Fiver enters an alternate world, and returns with guidance for Hazel, his brother, and their companions:
"Hrairoo," said Hazel one evening, "what would we have done without you? We'd none of us be here, would we?"
"You're sure we are here?" answered Fiver.
"That's too mysterious for me," replied Hazel. "What do you mean?"
"Well, there's another place--another country, isn't there? We go there when we sleep; at other times, too; and when we die. El-ahrairah comes and goes between the two as he wants, I suppose, but I could never quite make that out, from the tales. Some rabbits will tell you it's all easy there, compared with the waking dangers that they understand. But I think that only shows they don't know much about it. It's a wild place, and very unsafe. And where are we really--there or here?"
"Our bodies stay here--that's good enough for me. . . "
-Richard Adams, Watership Down. New York: Avon Books, 1972. pp. 258-9
As C. S. Lewis once said, there is good death in the Ring books. Boromir dies, trying to protect Merry and Pippin, and having repented of his lust for the Ring. Théoden dies, having restored the honor of his house by destroying the Lord of the Nazgûl. Gandalf dies, so that the Fellowship can escape Moria (He returns again). In Earthsea, death is not exactly good, but it is a necessary part of life. The plot of the third book revolves around rejection of death, which, in Earthsea, leads to a life of less than wholeness. In Watership Down, Hazel dies a good death, after leading his followers to safety, and living a long life.
The rich settings of these works by Tolkien, Le Guin and Adams add much to the appeal of the stories. They are not just a narrative. They are narratives set in complex and wonderful sub-creations.
Thanks for reading.