J. R. R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, two of the most important stories of the twentieth century. But before he could write those novels, and particularly the latter one, he had to create Middle Earth, the Fantasy world in which they took place. For Tolkien, everything in those novels had to fit together into a logical, coherent system. Thus, after he finished The Hobbit, he spent over a decade developing and enlarging Middle Earth, while he worked on The Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t enough for a given character to hold a sword, for example. For his novel to be complete, Tolkien felt he must create the races and cultures that mined the ore, refined the metal, and fashioned the sword. Equal consideration would be devoted to the sword, which would be covered in runes and carvings, and sheathed in a history of previous owners and battles waged. Of course, he also needed to know the history, culture, agriculture, beliefs, and all sorts of other things about the peoples involved in every stage of the creation and life of the sword. And we haven’t even talked about the individual wielding the sword yet: his history, family, and aspirations.
Tolkien felt that all of these types of facts, very little of which would actually appear in the finished narrative, were necessary infrastructure for his Fantasy novel. A writer more prolific, such as his friend C. S. Lewis, would no doubt have disagreed. Lewis wrote many fiction and nonfiction books that were popular in his day. Like Tolkien’s work, they have also transcended their time. Yet Lewis was not a Worldbuilder like Tolkien. It was enough for him to select a given idea he wished to pursue, brainstorm a few characters, story elements or essay points, and then leap into his writing. Lewis also diverged from Tolkien in other ways. He chose the Church of England over the Catholic Church, he married a divorced woman, and he promoted Charles Williams, a Christian author who combined Christian viewpoints and teachings with secular issues and beliefs, in the process transforming what conservatives like Tolkien might see as unquestionable and settled religious teachings into spurious, if not heretical theological concepts.
Both men were Oxford educators, passionate about their faith, and talented writers. Yet Tolkien simply wasn’t as inclusive as Lewis. Tolkien must have tried to stretch himself: his friendship with Lewis, despite the other's differing beliefs and actions, seems like proof of that. Still, he also had to retreat to his comfort zone, where he knew who he was and what he believed, in order to finish building Middle Earth, and then complete The Lord of the Rings.
As much as a voice inside tells me that much of my Worldbuilding is unnecessary, like Tolkien I feel I must build a foundation firm enough to support the Fantasy elements of my eventual novel. So I labor each day to complete what work I can, concentrating on my own strengths, and operating from the serenity and security of my comfort zone. Yet, as Tolkien did, I also try to learn from those around me, those whose beliefs and actions sometimes clash with mine. Only God (whatever you call Him, and however you define Him) is omnipotent. He alone encompasses everything. I, like J. R. R. Tolkien, am a limited mortal. I may be more rock than rubber band, more brittle than elastic, but still, as a writer, and as a man, I yearn to stretch.