Tolkein vs Pratchett

A Quick Comparison on World Building

How do authors create the fascinating worlds that their stories inhabit? Read on for a short insight.

The following short piece offers a condensed introduction and comparison of world building, focusing on “creation stories” and how such tales are represented in the fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion and Terry Pratchett’s The Colour Magic. This piece will explain how the authors proceeded to explain and create their own world, the narratives that were used, and will compare similarities and differences between the two.

The Silmarillion is a recount of the beginning of the universe and the following ages of the first world in the lands of Middle-earth and surrounding continents. It is written in the style of a historical narrative, retelling stories which hold some sense of compatibility with our own reality. The Colour Magic, however, is set in a universe that follows “common sense rather than logic” and offers the narrative of a universe not as compatible with our own, creating its own content outside normal cultural and physical understandings. The Colour Magic is not a singular text with a sole purpose of explaining creation and early history, but rather is the first of many books in a series, introducing the reader to base levels of creation and existence lore.

Tolkien’s The Silmarillion is a collected reinvention of ancient mythologies and folk lore, in which he took inspiration and reinvented into his own history, starting from the beginning of time itself. Tolkien, an English literature and linguistics scholar, who taught at Oxford and served in the first world war, used his cultural background and what he called lore of the “Northern Spirit” as the basis for his inspiration. Contrary to this Terry Pratchett, also an Englishman, grew up in the 1960’s, and was influenced much by science-fiction. His “Discworld” is based on varying mythologies from around the world, most notably India, which holds the lore of a turtle and an elephant carrying the world. Pratchett’s wider access to a broader range of literature and other culture’s mythos, due to the time he was born into, and the lack of a passion for Northern and European folk lore, may account, some part at least, for the differences between the two styles.

Tolkien’s creation of The Silmarillion was pioneering and ushered in the concentrated world building that fantasy authors now take advantage of. Due to Tolkien’s work in The Silmarillion, the depth of writing and thought he put into the world and history, he changed the landscape for creative writing in the modern era. Pratchett’s Discworld, introduced through The Colour Magic, was released after the success of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which uses similar aspects of absurdist reality and comedic satirical writing within narrative. Pratchett, however, unlike Adams, introduced this to the fantasy genre rather than the science fiction. Pratchett is one of the founders of satirical, comedic fantasy writers in the modern era, his success giving a path for others.

The ultimate difference between the two authors and their works, the themes of creation and existence within a universe, is that Tolkien relies on past historical lore and mythos to present a relatable and recognisable universe and creation when compared to the audience’s reality. Pratchett, does not do this. He, instead, relies on the audience’s willingness to imagine and accept the absurd as part of his rhetoric that common sense is preferable to logic. Thusly the end products are one text, The Silmarillion, which gives a narrative of a planet and land created by a God and host of angels, and another text, The Colour Magic which presents a flat Discworld, carried on the backs of four great elephants, standing on the shell of an impossibly large turtle floating through space.

If you have not read the works of J.R.R Tolkien or Terry Pratchett please do yourself the favour of giving it a go. You won’t be disappointed.


Words by S. Z. Telford

Illustration by Leroy Lim

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