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Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Middle-earth
Tehanu's Ninth Note
any years ago I read a short story by the
Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, and that story has influenced the way Ive seen the Tolkien world-building
The story was called "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," and like most of Borges
stories, it breaks most of the conventions of storytelling, being cast in a form like some sort
of essay-cum-letter from a scholarly person who assumes you know his friends and his background,
and that you share their knowledge of all philosophers, living or dead, in six languages.
Its a disturbing little tale, under all the scholarly fussiness.
Over dinner, (the author begins) a friend quotes a philosopher from Uqbar. Nobodys
ever heard of such a place, but the friend insists its in the Anglo-American
Encyclopaedia. Further investigation shows that four pages on the mysterious country of
Uqbar exist in some copies of the 10th edition of that work, but not in others.
It all would have ended there except for the death of an acquaintance who left behind him
A First Encyclopaedia of Tlon. Volume XI: Hlaer to Jangr.
"It was two years since I had discovered, in a volume of a pirated encyclopaedia, a
brief description of a false country; now, chance was showing me something much more valuable,
something to be reckoned with. Now, I had in my hands a substantial fragment of the complete
history of an unknown planet, with its architecture and its playing cards, its mythological
terrors and the sound of its dialects, its emperors and its oceans, its minerals, its birds,
and its fishes, its algebra and its fire, its theological and metaphysical arguments, all
clearly stated, coherent, without any apparent dogmatic intention or parodic undertone,"
says the scholar.
Can you see where Im headed?
Since no other volumes turn up, but there is an explosion of detective and scholarly
activity to try and find the other volumes, somebody "proposes that we all take on the
task of reconstructing the missing volumes, many and vast as they were
that one generation of Tlonists would be enough."
Eventually the complete encyclopaedia does appear in a library in Memphis, and by then
its more-or-less proven to be the work of a secret society, who has laboured for centuries
on this hoaxing game, the Orbis Tertius.
"The popular magazines have publicised, with pardonable zeal, the zoology and topography
of Tlon. I think, however, that its tranparent tigers and its towers of blood scarcely deserve
the unwavering attention of all men. I should like to take some little time to deal with
its conception of the universe." And in that dry, unassuming tone, the story goes on to
startle and confound.
Walk into any bookstore and that is exactly what you see; shelves of books on the Tolkien
universe, the Star Wars universe, the Babylon 5 universe
All well and good. In the story I am describing, all seems explicable, if rather odd, until
objects begin to appear in the real world, just as mysteriously as the books did. A woman orders
a dinner set from Poitiers. "Amongst them, trembling faintly, just perceptibly, like a
sleeping bird, was a magnetic compass. It shivered mysteriously.
the letters on the dial
corresponded with one of the alphabets of Tlon. Such was the first intrusion of the fantastic
world into the real one."
And later the author comes across a drunkard lying dead with a few coins and a small metal
cone the "of the diameter of a die" which weighs almost more than a man can lift.
"These small and extremely heavy cones, made of a metal which does not exist in this world,
are images of divinity in certain religions in Tlon."
Suddenly everyone wanted to be a Tlonist, to believe in Tlon, to write about it, study its
philosophy and so on. Reality gave way under the onslaught of publications from and about Tlon.
"Contact with Tlon and the ways of Tlon have disintegrated this world. Captivated by its
discipline, humanity forgets and goes on forgetting that it is the discipline of chess players,
not of angels
In Tlon, things can be forced into existence through the desire for and belief in their
being, and it seems to me that the Silmarillion was a little like this, and the Unfinished
Tales even more so. Its fanned the flames of a mania for mediavalism, for fantasy, for
historical re-enactment, for swords and sorcery
would that have come about without
The Lord of the Rings? And now, people are insatiable to know more, to invent every detail
of Middle-earth, as though somehow to force it into being. And so, more is written.
But it was Tolkien who originally desired to bring this world into being, and almost had
the genius to carry it off.
I say almost because unlike the secret society of Orbis Tertius, Tolkien is
able to show his world only in the light of his own knowledge, which is vast, admittedly. So
the Silmarillion and the histories are full of languages and legends, myths and poetry, stars
and trees. Ive argued before now that the invention of convincing languages is one of
the most powerful ways of making an alternate world credible. We respond to language subconsciously
and intuitively, every one of us. So many fantasy authors, hoping to command the same sense of
authenticity in their works, try it on by elaborating their own area of expertise.
If their obsession is medieval armour, good on them, but its not an interest shared by
about half the human race. (Those people called, yknow, "Women." )
Tolkiens works are not full of architecture or geology or maths or political intrigue
or criminal law or housekeeping or physics. Borges Tlon was supposedly created by a
committee of experts in many disciplines who handed the task down to successors. In Borges
story it takes hundreds of people to create a world credible enough to obssess the the public
interest. Measure that against the fascination that Tolkiens world exerts over us, and
consider that it was done by one man working with very little precedent. (OK Im waiting
for people to argue that one.)
Looking around where filming is going on gives a stange sense that there is a light overlay
of another country, almost visible, only waiting for the lighting and camera crews to bring it
closer into being. These are places I know well, in some cases, and yet they are being fantasticated.
The process is entirely imaginary, but the more minds share in the imaginary process, the
more force it gains.
This isn't a film set, it's somebody's house in Wellington. It's a good bet they like Tolkien and fantasy...
and they have the means to embody their fantasy in the real world.
So far the good people down at Weta have behaved like responsible and sober-minded citizens, and resisted the temptation to put on Ringwraith costumes and go out one night to freak the living daylights out of some kids taking a shortcut through the woods. Imagine the impact that would have! How much more interesting it would be if a trip to the local shop had the possibility of encountering one of the Nine
"I couldnt see it clearly, officer
.but I heard it sort of sniffing at me!"
To go add to the people who think theyve seen Sean Connery, Ive been expecting a proliferation of false Ringwraiths, Balrog wannabes, people who claim to be Aragorn, people who really think they are Aragorn, people who claim to be actors who are Aragorn, (and will want you to buy them a drink on the strength of that) and so on. Im hoping this country will never recover from having The Lord of the Rings filmed in it.
Fun is where you make it, really, and the opportunities have never been so good.
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