Of the many works of speculative fiction I’ve read, these three books stand out as being truly epic. They have very little in common when it comes to setting or flavor or protagonists. The first is about rabbits establishing a new warren, the second a far distant sci-fi human future, and the latter a far distant fantasy past involving humans and non-humans. What is it that all of these books share that makes reading them feel like an epic experience?
They’re each a heroic saga whose world building is rife with history and cultural narratives.
Throughout each of these works we’re introduced to snippets of creative works that exist solely within the world itself – in Watership Down, we have the mythological tales of El-ahrairah, which are shared throughout the novel. The protagonists use these stories within the story exactly the way we use our myths, fairy tales and folk lore in reality – to entertain, to inform, to inspire, to comfort, to frighten, to steel resolve, to learn.
In Dune we have snippets of personal journals and historical accounts and interviews that are used to introduce chapters, giving us the impression that we, the reader, exist in a time beyond the time in which the events of Dune are unfolding. We receive knowledge that the story we’re going to witness may not have made it to the future intact, but instead may be subjected to biased interpretations and missing data and deliberate lies. We’re witnessing the kind of grand events that historians will argue over for centuries, perhaps millennia, to come.
Lord of the Rings, of course, is based in a rich tradition of real myths, as well as Tolkien’s own created myths inspired by those real myths. He talks about the history of his world, recent and distant, he shares the art of his world in the form of poetry and song, and he connects his past to his present. He has maps and very specific geography. He has historical figures that are spoken of with casual familiarity the way we might speak of George Washington or Joan of Arc. He has entire languages. He even talks about different styles of architecture and clothing.
Does a creative work need this level of world building to be a great read and a memorable story? Absolutely not. But it’s good to be able to identify what world building on that level will bring to the reader, and whether or not I, as the writer, should even attempt it, and if any given story is even the sort that would benefit from that level of immersion.
Sometimes the heart of your story requires a world lightly sketched so as not to draw attention away from that heart. The Last Unicorn would have lost its ethereal charm if Beagle had solidified his world the way Tolkien solidified Middle Earth, and Lord of the Rings would never have felt quite as epic if it had not included scenes like Samwise confronting Shelob, holding aloft his gift from Galadriel and crying in the Elven tongue:
A Elbereth Gilthoniel
o menel palan-diriel,
le nallon sí di’nguruthos!
A tiro nin, Fanuilos!