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Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Middle-earth Tehanu's Ninth Note

Current Note
 The Return of the King
Past Notes
 Following Tolkien's Footsteps
 Tad Episode
 Scary Stuff
 Monstrous Regiment
 Kalevala and the Silmarillon
 Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Middle-earth
 Silmarillion, Creation, sins of the artist
 Rarefied Air
 Quests, Myths and Archetypes
 Arthur: Quests and Legends
 Yin and Yang Quests
 The Power of Myth
 His Dark Materials
 Are We Not Geeks?
 The Two Towers Film: Tricks And Treats
 Two Towers Review, Part 2
 The Return of the King
 Where To From Here?

Many years ago I read a short story by the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, and that story has influenced the way I’ve seen the Tolkien world-building phenomenon.

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. It’s a disturbing little tale, under all the scholarly fussiness.

Over dinner, (the author begins) a friend quotes a philosopher from Uqbar. Nobody’s ever heard of such a place, but the friend insists it’s 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 I’m 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…..He calculates that one generation of Tlonists would be enough."

Eventually the complete encyclopaedia does appear in a library in Memphis, and by then it’s 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. It’s 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. I’ve 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 it’s not an interest shared by about half the human race. (Those people called, y’know, "Women." )

Tolkien’s 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 Tolkien’s world exerts over us, and consider that it was done by one man working with very little precedent. (OK I’m 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.

wellington Keep
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 couldn’t see it clearly, officer….but I heard it sort of sniffing at me!"

To go add to the people who think they’ve seen Sean Connery, I’ve 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. I’m 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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