“What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator.’ He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World.” (“On Fairy Stores”)
The publication of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in 1954 introduced a new understanding of fantasy and inspired countless authors to strive for believable secondary worlds, many of them strikingly similar to Tolkien’s. However, few authors, if any, have come close to achieving what Tolkien did. A lifetime of work enabled Tolkien to create a world so internally consistent and so detailed, it seems real; one senses intuitively that Tolkien knows the answer to nearly any question that could be asked about Middle-earth, even if the information never made it into his books. Tolkien himself found his world so real that he frequently described himself as its chronicler, the one who discovers it, rather than as its creator. Below are some of the reasons that Tolkien’s worldbuilding remains unmatched.
Tolkien scholarship seemingly always starts off with a reminder that Tolkien’s stories grew from his languages, rather than the other way around. His Elven tongues came first and became the basis for Middle-earth as Tolkien pondered what kinds of people would use those tongues. As a philologist, or someone who studies languages and how they develop over time, Tolkien was uniquely positioned to develop detailed, realistic fantasy languages. His Elven tongues are carefully crafted as if they stem from a common ancestor, then grew apart over time, taking on specific changes, just as real-world languages do. It is probably safe to say that few other authors have possessed the same level of expertise in crafting their own fantasy tongues. Indeed, many are content with creating only a few words to add flavor to a story.
In addition to creating languages (a task so dear to him that he reportedly spent more time on it later in life than on revising The Silmarillion), Tolkien also took care that each of his cultures had consistent names. Tom Shippey explains in J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century that Tolkien believed people could intuitively recognize languages and would notice if he were to, say, mix Scottish-sounding names and Germanic-sounding names in the same culture. So he not only makes cultural nomenclature consistent, but will also use language to do things like distinguish between Bree and the Shire through their place names. Not many other authors are likely to worry about mixing names, nor are they likely to worry their readers will notice.
Tolkien is also famous for the way in which the ancient history of Middle-earth peeks through at times to give his story a sense of depth and of time. He expresses how this strategy can evoke a feeling of longing in the reader in a letter to his son Christopher: “I think you are moved by Celebrimbor because it conveys a sudden sense of endless untold stories: mountains seen far away, never to be climbed, distant trees (like Niggle’s) never to be approached – or if so only to become ‘near trees.’” Something is always just out of reach in Middle-earth, hinting that it contains a vast history, just like the real world.
To help give his world a sense of history, Tolkien spent a good deal of effort making detailed timelines that cover thousands of years. Interested readers can learn snippets of history stretching far back to the early days of Gondor and beyond. Such details add to the realism of the work as Tolkien always seems to know what is happening in any given time or place in his world, making it, again, internally consistent.
Finally, Tolkien creates a realistic world by paying attention to the details, even the ones few people are likely to notice. He spent time devising possible heraldic devices for various Elven characters. He drew some plant life that can be found in Middle-earth. He created calendars for the Hobbits and the Elves. He created a system of distance measurement for the Hobbits and painstakingly ensured that no one in The Lord of the Rings ever traveled a greater distance than would be actually possible. He even spent a significant amount of time revising parts of The Lord of the Rings when he discovered that the moon phases described in certain scenes meant the timelines of various characters were not aligning properly. Most readers are unlikely to check how far Frodo walked each day or catch a moon phase discrepancy. These things mattered to Tolkien, however, and his obsession with fixing them probably contributed to the twelve years it took him to write The Lord of the Rings. Few other authors are likely to spend so much time focusing on the details that they practically forget to publish. Yet Tolkien’s concern ultimately paid off by creating a richly developed world.