Realism in Middle-earth

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Glorelendil
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Realism in Middle-earth

Post by Glorelendil » Wed Jan 03, 2018 2:24 pm

The discussion in a few different threads got me thinking about "realism" in Tolkien's world. What occurs to me is that perhaps there are (at least) two different ways of interpreting the incredible detail and narrative consistency that Tolkien exhibits.

From one viewpoint his precise use of language, his creation of new languages, and his deep knowledge of medieval cultures are all examples of accuracy, and evidence for realism. Seen through this lens, Middle-earth is a kind of simulation: fictional but plausible peoples living, working, fighting, trading with each other in a world that is, yes, infused with magic but still free of the inconsistencies and contradictions that are rife in most fictional worlds. And thus to fill in the blank spaces you can ask completely reasonable questions about populations and commerce and society and government by using historical precedent. "What do people tend to do in this situation?" "What patterns repeat themselves across human societies?" "How would supply and demand affect this market?" And you get totally reasonable answers.

From another viewpoint, though, one that I espouse, all that detail and consistency and precision is evidence that Tolkien was trying to bring his world to life by making it believable at an emotional (dare I say Jungian?) level, but not necessarily by trying to make it realistic in every way. I'm not an expert on all his letters and other writings, but I know he said that he was envious of the mythologies that other cultures had, and wanted to create a similar mythology for England. Not a history, a mythology. Through this lens, inconsistencies and implausibilities aren't a big deal and don't need to be explained away, and when filling in the blanks left by Tolkien, the question of "what would most likely happen?" isn't really important.

I hesitate to offer too many examples, because I know that's going to trigger a realism debate, with lots of carefully thought out explanations for why such-and-such is not un-realistic* but here's one:

Mantel shelf clocks. Their presence in the Hobbit suggests an anachronistic level of technical sophistication that doesn't mesh with what we see in, for example, Minas Tirith. To the realists this requires an explanation (and I've seen some good ones), but to the mythologists this gets a shrug. Yeah, it doesn't really make sense. But it doesn't matter because it's a myth, any more than it matters that plate armor in Arthurian legend is anachronistic. (With the acknowledgement that, for some, that anachronism matters very much.)

I'm clearly a mythologist, not a realist, but I'm genuinely not trying to argue that my viewpoint is the superior one. Just offering a theory about a difference that may help explain why some of these points about Middle-earth trigger debates that rage so fiercely. (If one needs more of an explanation than "gamers" && "internet" == "argument").

Thoughts?

*(As a related side note, apparently educated/intelligent people are more vulnerable to confirmation bias because they have the mental agility to concoct elaborate explanations.)
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atgxtg
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Re: Realism in Middle-earth

Post by atgxtg » Wed Jan 03, 2018 2:41 pm

I think you might be confusing precision with accuracy. The two are not the same.

And example of that from Tolkien is that almost all of the dates given are very precise, but they have all been translated from their "actual" (that is Middle Earth) terms into modern English, which is turn is identified as Westron. While all this is very precise, is really isn't all that accurate. It does make it much easier for a reader to understand things, than if the professor has used an actual Middle Earth calendar and months.

Also, since MIddle Earth is a work populated by many fantastic peoples and creatures, I'm not sure if "realism" is quite the right term. It doesn't seem so much as THE real world as A real world.

Glorelendil
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Re: Realism in Middle-earth

Post by Glorelendil » Wed Jan 03, 2018 3:10 pm

atgxtg wrote:
Wed Jan 03, 2018 2:41 pm
I think you might be confusing precision with accuracy.
Mmmm....no, I'm not. I use "precise" to refer how he uses words, and "accuracy" to refer to historically/anthropologically accurate ("realistic") details (e.g. the design of halls in Rohan).
The two are not the same.
Agreed. Which is why I use them differently.
And example of that from Tolkien is that almost all of the dates given are very precise, but they have all been translated from their "actual" (that is Middle Earth) terms into modern English, which is turn is identified as Westron. While all this is very precise, is really isn't all that accurate. It does make it much easier for a reader to understand things, than if the professor has used an actual Middle Earth calendar and months.
Sure...but I'm not sure why that's relevant here. Chronological accuracy is a rather different usage of the word 'accuracy'.
Also, since MIddle Earth is a work populated by many fantastic peoples and creatures, I'm not sure if "realism" is quite the right term. It doesn't seem so much as THE real world as A real world.
Well, sure. Nobody...even the realists...are claiming that M-e is entirely realistic. Dragons. Magic. Elves. But some people do enjoy maximizing realism. I.e., "Given typical crop yields at a latitude of where we estimate Dale's location, during an historical period that closely approximates the technology level of Middle-earth, how many hectares of farmed land would be required to sustain the combined populations of Dale, Esgaroth, and Erebor..." That's what I mean by realism.

In any event, I disagree that it feels like "a real world." To me it feels like a mythical world, in which population densities/distributions don't make sense and anachronisms abound.
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Otaku-sempai
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Re: Realism in Middle-earth

Post by Otaku-sempai » Wed Jan 03, 2018 3:46 pm

The mantle clock is easy! It was crafted by a Dwarf in the Ered Luin and purchased by Bilbo or one of his predecessors. We could also suppose that the Men of Westernesse might have had the skill to construct it, but then the clock would have to have been incredibly ancient or at least an artifact of Arnor.

I'm not sure, but I think that Tolkien ultimately abandoned most of his 'English mythology' goal by the time of the writing of The Lord of the Ring. At least some elements of it are present; not just the magic, but also an idealized Age (or series of Ages) that doesn't conform to our understanding of geological and biological development. He does present us with a somewhat sanitized vision. However, is that all there is to Middle-earth, or was Tolkien just unwilling to scratch the surface and show us what was underneath?

Tolkien's idealized world is fine for a novel, but a bit limiting to Loremasters that want a more nuanced and versatile environment for their campaigns. It's reasonable to not expect your Heroes to hire prostitutes for their pleasure or to bet on bear-baiting matches. However, that shouldn't necessarily preclude seeking out a brothel or gambling den in search of information or another individual. There are still people who do awful, unspeakable things to others. And just because Tolkien never wrote of such places and people, doesn't mean that they don't exist in Middle-earth. We just need to dig below the surface. ;)
"Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he."

Glorelendil
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Re: Realism in Middle-earth

Post by Glorelendil » Wed Jan 03, 2018 4:12 pm

Otaku-sempai wrote:
Wed Jan 03, 2018 3:46 pm
Tolkien's idealized world is fine for a novel, but a bit limiting to Loremasters that want a more nuanced and versatile environment for their campaigns.
I don't find it limiting at all. There are many...infinite?...ways to create a "nuanced and versatile environment". The inclusion of specific elements will always be an aesthetic choice.

EDIT: Here's an exercise. Give me a scenario where you feel a brothel adds to the richness and depth of the story, and I'll see if I can offer an alternate version that doesn't include the brothel.
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Re: Realism in Middle-earth

Post by Otaku-sempai » Wed Jan 03, 2018 5:02 pm

Glorelendil wrote:
Wed Jan 03, 2018 4:12 pm
I don't find it limiting at all. There are many...infinite?...ways to create a "nuanced and versatile environment". The inclusion of specific elements will always be an aesthetic choice.
Well, not all Loremasters are the same. I wasn't trying to say that ALL LMs would feel that way.
EDIT: Here's an exercise. Give me a scenario where you feel a brothel adds to the richness and depth of the story, and I'll see if I can offer an alternate version that doesn't include the brothel.
That'a a trick question that you are only asking because brothels have been brought up so much in discussions such as this one. My point was that there is no reason to suspect that Middle-earth would not possess places of vice and criminal organizations. They might be far less common in some places than in others, but look far enough and deep enough and they should be somewhere. But maybe no pimps in Bree!

We can even take Frodo's assertion that there has never been a recorded incident of a Hobbit killing another Hobbit in the Shire and play with it a bit. No Hobbit has accidentally slain another in a physical confrontation? Or are we only counting intentional murder? Maybe Farmer Greybottle really did die of a sudden illness, or perhaps his wife slipped him some suspicious mushrooms or berries. The authorities didn't investigate very hard. The perfect crime is the one that is never discovered.

But, yes, if a mission involves hunting down a high-ranking officer in Sauron's army who frequents a whorehouse near the Sea of Nurnen, it would be easy to change the venue to a gambling den or some other place. Happy? ;)
"Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he."

Glorelendil
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Re: Realism in Middle-earth

Post by Glorelendil » Wed Jan 03, 2018 5:59 pm

Otaku-sempai wrote:
Wed Jan 03, 2018 5:02 pm
But, yes, if a mission involves hunting down a high-ranking officer in Sauron's army who frequents a whorehouse near the Sea of Nurnen, it would be easy to change the venue to a gambling den or some other place. Happy? ;)
I really wasn't intending it as a gotcha. I don't see how brothels or even gambling dens are necessary, and I thought a back-and-forth playing through a scenario would be informative.

And maybe the difference is simply that some people like the seedy atmosphere provided by a brothel, whereas I find it jarring because it doesn't "fit" into the world I envision. Whereas in, say, Conan's world I would absolutely include the brothel, and probably make it a drug den (damned lotus-sniffers) as well.
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Rich H
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Re: Realism in Middle-earth

Post by Rich H » Wed Jan 03, 2018 6:27 pm

Glorelendil wrote:
Wed Jan 03, 2018 5:59 pm
Otaku-sempai wrote:
Wed Jan 03, 2018 5:02 pm
That'a a trick question that you are only asking because brothels have been brought up so much in discussions such as this one.
I really wasn't intending it as a gotcha. I don't see how brothels or even gambling dens are necessary, and I thought a back-and-forth playing through a scenario would be informative.

And maybe the difference is simply that some people like the seedy atmosphere provided by a brothel, whereas I find it jarring because it doesn't "fit" into the world I envision. Whereas in, say, Conan's world I would absolutely include the brothel, and probably make it a drug den (damned lotus-sniffers) as well.
Felt like a bit of a 'gotcha' to me too mate so agree with Otaku on this; you have mentioned them in more than just this thread and recently!

Personally I don't have a problem referencing such places; I've described brothels when the players have visited the docks of Dale, for example, as I think it adds background flavour, verisimilitude, and presents a part of the world outside of Tolkien's stories but that would still exist.

I agree with you that they'd likely be more 'front and centre' in a game like Conan where they'd be more commonplace in adventures but I could definitely use the setting of a brothel* for rescuing someone captured and taken to the Toft (they have to get those half-orcs somehow), investigating within a spy-based adventure where secrets are being sold to enemies by loose-tongued officials visiting such a place and the players have to investigate, or to explore slavery beyond just the convential 'chains and picks' found in fantasy games. All those are viable plots within a Middle-earth campaign and can still also explore and support the more common themes of Hope and Shadow and loss but with a different dynamic.

YMMV and all that; it obviously does, which is fine.

* No, I don't want to debate it because I do think you have an agenda here that I don't really want to engage with. Sorry.
Last edited by Rich H on Wed Jan 03, 2018 6:38 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Realism in Middle-earth

Post by Otaku-sempai » Wed Jan 03, 2018 6:37 pm

Glorelendil wrote:
Wed Jan 03, 2018 5:59 pm
I really wasn't intending it as a gotcha. I don't see how brothels or even gambling dens are necessary, and I thought a back-and-forth playing through a scenario would be informative.

And maybe the difference is simply that some people like the seedy atmosphere provided by a brothel, whereas I find it jarring because it doesn't "fit" into the world I envision. Whereas in, say, Conan's world I would absolutely include the brothel, and probably make it a drug den (damned lotus-sniffers) as well.
Fair enough, though surely a gambling house is far more reasonable and less skeevy than either a brothel or opium den even in Tolkien's Middle-earth. :twisted:
"Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he."

Glorelendil
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Re: Realism in Middle-earth

Post by Glorelendil » Wed Jan 03, 2018 8:01 pm

Otaku-sempai wrote:
Wed Jan 03, 2018 6:37 pm
Glorelendil wrote:
Wed Jan 03, 2018 5:59 pm
I really wasn't intending it as a gotcha. I don't see how brothels or even gambling dens are necessary, and I thought a back-and-forth playing through a scenario would be informative.

And maybe the difference is simply that some people like the seedy atmosphere provided by a brothel, whereas I find it jarring because it doesn't "fit" into the world I envision. Whereas in, say, Conan's world I would absolutely include the brothel, and probably make it a drug den (damned lotus-sniffers) as well.
Fair enough, though surely a gambling house is far more reasonable and less skeevy than either a brothel or opium den even in Tolkien's Middle-earth. :twisted:
Well, it's not simply that any of the above are too "skeevy" for me. It's that there's a bunch of things that exist in real cities that feel...maybe "too real" is the right phrase. Almost that it pops the illusory bubble by becoming too much like the real world.

Ok, here's another example: tooth-aches, and dental issues in general. Certainly in a medieval city LOTS of people would have tooth decay, regardless of social status or Shadow points. One would realistically expect that in Minas Tirith to find both bad teeth and "dentists" of some sort.

But that doesn't feel like something Tolkien would include, even if he got into an enumeration of businesses. I could see the list including grocers and butchers and saddle-makers and haberdashers and apothecaries. But not dentists.

Does that make any sense?
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