Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve. Fantasy may be, as I think, not less but more subcreative; but at any rate it is found in practice that "the inner consistency of reality" is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of "reality" with more "sober" material. Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely "fanciful." Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough--though it may already be a more potent thing than many a "thumbnail sketch" or "transcript of life" that receives literary praise.
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.
– JRR Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories”
I read this passage from Tolkien in 1980 when I was a high school student. His words about a green sun – a fantastic invention within an imaginary world – and what it would mean to create a world wherein such a sun could exist have stayed with me since then. When I read a work of fiction, even realist fiction, his words are always there in the background. The supreme achievement of fantastical writers, such as Thomas Pynchon, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Margaret Atwood, is their ability to do just that; create a believable world in which their green suns can reside. This is perhaps the greatest example that Tolkien set for modern writers, and the basis on which he can be included in the pantheon of great modern fantasists. The forced and shallow nature of most popular fantasy works published or put on screen in the last few years (including too much of Peter Jackson’s LoTR and The Hobbit adaptations), are mostly due to the inattention of the authors when writing their green suns.
As much as I love the fanfiction inspired by JRRT’s writings, I often find myself dismayed by the lack of care authors bring to writing their interpretation of this “Secondary World”. The task of creating a compelling original story within Tolkien’s fantastical world is more than simply knowing the names or the descriptions of characters, or understanding a plot device, or having figured out the correct way to say something in Sindarin, or even comprehending a philosophical point. It is the way in which such simple facts (the green suns) are or are not made credible by the author. This points to another common failing in JRRT fanfiction writing, or more properly the criticism of writing a reader does not care for, which is a kind of mental checklist on whether the work is “canonical” or avoids being a “Mary Sue” (author self-insertion) story. Works which are “canonical” in terms of simple facts are all too often incredible in terms of execution – they do not inspire “Secondary Belief”. Arda is not present.
I think this points not so much to failures in authorship as much as it illustrates how difficult good fantasy writing is to do. Still, there is greater and lesser care taken, and some sub-genres are more prone to inattentive writing than others. The “Tenth Walker” genre, for example, may be so poisoned by foul writing on one aside and overbearing criticism on the other that it becomes impossible to write that green sun. I started my fanfic writing life with one of those tales, wrote a lot of uneven material, and got stomped into the mud when I posted it. Ouch. It was a humiliating enough experience that I was not eager to write again. Nothing critical said of the work was at all helpful to me as a writer or a member of the fanfic community. What it did do was send me back to the professor’s own words, particularly the passage quoted above, and think about writing as such and what I was trying to accomplish by writing fanfiction. It emboldened me to come back to the table with a different approach and to take on another hot-button genre – slash.
My foray into writing about sexuality in Tolkien’s world, Legacy, arose from my persistent dissatisfaction with the portrayal of Hobbit social relations and sexuality presented in most slash fanfiction. My wry opinion is that most slash fanfiction is a variation on “Mary Sue”, with the author disguised as one of the standard characters getting romantically involved with the object of the author’s erotic fixation, so it provided some grim amusement to take on the narrative convention after having wrestled with the third-rail Tenth Walker material.
To do this, I had to engage the texture of the world and not just write plot twists to get Character A into bed with Character B. What does it mean to write about an omni-sexual being in the Shire society? It means paying close attention to how this (and not just this) being's sexuality is played out within a game of dynastic politics in a stagnant, agrarian society that is about to get swept up in the maelstrom of continental war. It means taking as a foundation that the most valued social good is to be “respectable” and the highest praise is that someone is “predictable”, and that fortunes are decided by getting into the right marriage, for men as much as women.
Within a few days, the story took on a life of its own. I ended up creating an interpretation of Shire culture based on the teasing glimpses of Hobbit history found in The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and other works, and what had begun as a simple slash story ended up as an examination of social and political relations in the ruling clans and how sexuality as such plays out in these machinations. I wanted to write about how it is possible to write Bilbo and Frodo as not gay in any modern, post-Freudian sense, yet still have room for a wide range of sexual behaviors, few of them sanctioned by the larger society.
Legacy is sex and politics, inspired by Jane Austin and Henry James, examining the political relations between blood relations, and how the coin of respectability merges with and is trumped by the coins of commerce (and vice-versa). It is not simply sexual expression (as if that is ever the case) but is the implicit and explicit manipulation of the sexuality of subordinates (and how they resist that manipulation) by the socially superior. It ponders how our curiosity leads us to agree to things our common sense tells us to stay away from. Most of what I wrote is speculative, and a good amount is artistic license. In this essay, I provide an account of what I uncovered in Tolkien’s own works, and how this knowledge guided my writing.
I add that when I first wrote this essay, Legacy was the only sustained writing I had published, though I had started the follow-on story, On Merry Yule. Since that time, I wrote Hands of the King, a number of short stories, and two more novel length stories about Bilbo and Frodo. The approach I brought to Legacy is what I brought to these subsequent works, as well.