I need to set the stage for this article first…
I go back a long ways. I remember the “paperback revolution” when I was a child because I could finally talk my mother into buying almost as many books as I wanted. Ace Doubles were just coming out, and I read more science fiction than anything else in my book-heavy childhood. I never went to school with fewer than 3 paperbacks, in case I ran out during the day. All this to say that I know my classic science fiction well.
Fantasy during that period, on the other hand, was largely a wasteland of Victorian juvenilia and the occasional odd foray by a literary sort (think: James Branch Cabell) or a conventional science fiction author — until high school, that is, when at last the authorized paperback editions of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit became readily available in America. I bought them all immediately and devoured them, and they changed my life in unexpected ways.
Tolkien's work has many different excellences, but I want to focus on just one part today: the integrity and consistency of his world and its inhabitants. I'm the sort of person who read all the appendices in LOTR, and they were a revelation. Even though I knew little about the great language families of western Europe, I understood immediately how his assignment of different languages to different groups consistent with their ancient population movements gave great historic depth to their present cultures. This was my first systematic introduction to historical linguistics, medieval literature, and all the fields of which Tolkien was himself a professor. I had a leg up on the concepts from an acquaintanceship with Latin and French, but suddenly I was acquiring copies of the Elder Edda, the Prose Edda, the many Norse sagas, Beowulf, the Niebelungenlied, and all the heroic age and related works of European literature I could find, along with some outlier cultures. I learned about the evolution of Arthurian romance in western Europe, about folklore and mythology from original sources, and especially about Indo-European and other languages.
Though I went to college intending to major in advanced math (that's a whole ‘nother story), I ended up doing dead languages and mythology. And it's all Tolkien's fault, really. At least I got some classical Greek out of it, and a smattering of others (Old Norse, Old English, Old Irish, Middle Welsh, Egyptian hieroglyph, etc.) as well as a foundation in the roots of western literature.
Which brings me back to my main topic: the difference in world building between science fiction and heroic fantasy.
Part 2 of this article is here.