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Lord of the Rings vs. Harry Potter - A Lesson in Worldbuilding



Lord of the Rings vs Harry Potter

Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are two of the most iconic series of all time, both in their incredible novels and movie adaptations. The Lord of the Rings itself has over 150 million copies sold. Likewise, the first novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, has sold over 120 million copies, making these two of the best-selling books ever. While both are beloved fantasy stories for children, they are very distinct, with Lord of the Rings, a high fantasy epic with profound themes, and Harry Potter, a more modern-day coming-of-age fantasy; both share a worldwide fanbase of avid readers and watchers.


So why compare the two?


This is not a “which is better” analysis, though I have my opinion, and I’m sure you have yours. No, we are comparing these two because they have something in common: Some of the most influential fantasy worldbuilding ever. Even a look at modern fantasy stories can give you a glimpse at just how much of an impact these two series have made. You can’t have a high fantasy epic with elves and dwarves and halflings without thinking about Tolkien’s work, with his portrayal of these creatures impacting the modern versions. In history, elves were diminutive mischief makers that lived in nature, and in 1800, fairies and elves were widely considered to be simply different names for the same magical creatures. But when you think of a fantasy elf, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Perhaps something like a human-sized, immortally beautiful creature with elegant armor that might wield a bow and arrow. 


Male Elf with Bow and Arrows in tree


Then, of course, there is Harry Potter. Anytime someone thinks of a school of magic now, whether in the modern world or not, what is the first thing they think of? Well, more often than not, Hogwarts, of course. Even my own school of wizards in a completely different fantasy world with an education that more mirrors the “space wizards” of Star Wars was compared to Harry Potter. Put young people learning magic in a classroom, and boom, Harry Potter reference. 


This doesn’t even have to do with the stories of these series, just the world that two incredible authors created. So how did they do it? How did they do it differently? And how can we learn from their success? That is what we are going to look at today. 


Tolkien did not plan to write Lord of the Rings. I know that it’s strange to think about it now, but Tolkien was content after writing The Hobbit and wanted to focus on his favorite thing. 


Worldbuilding. 


It is rare to have a story with more lore books than the actual series, but that is what Lord of the Rings boasts. But while most casual fans will never read The Silmarillion and its fellows, the influences of Tolkien’s meticulous and rich world are seen throughout the story. And because of this, Middle Earth is a world that lives and breathes. There are histories upon histories, stories upon stories, all of which build and move aspects of this world. With every taste we get throughout the trilogy, from languages, to mentions of Eru Ilúvatar to Varda (also known as Elbereth or Gilthoniel), to the songs of the different peoples of Middle Earth, to the immaculate maps and hinted or spoken histories of these places, not to mention his definitive versions of the elven, dwarf, ents, and halfling folk, Tolkien’s masterpiece proves itself to be a fleshed out fantasy world beyond compare and inspiration to thousands of stories and authors after him. 

The strength of Tolkien’s worldbuilding resides in the time and care he dedicated to it before he ever put fingers to typewriter on Lord of the Rings. Tolkien crafted his world across six decades (seventeen of those years devoted to writing and publishing Lord of the Rings), with his son Christopher compiling and editing the First and Second Age writings as The Silmarillion as well as a magisterial 12-volume History of Middle-earth after Tolkien’s passing.


But what about Harry Potter?


Harry Potter’s worldbuilding is not a tale of six decades of work fulfilled. In fact, the first book took six years to write, and the collective series took seventeen years (ironically, the time it took for Tolkien to write and publish Lord of the Rings). Though Rowling spent five years planning out the seven-book series, the power of Harry Potter is not in its tight narrative or deep world-building. Harry Potter’s world-building has something else special about it. I have long said during my journey as a writer that if you can have your audience long to live in the world you’ve created and easily craft their own character and story, you will have a winner. Take Marvel or DC, a world of heroes with room for more heroes, or Star Wars, where you can be a Jedi or Sith, Bounty Hunter or Soldier, human or alien, and have several eras to choose from. Let’s call it…the D&D effect. Readers (or Watchers) can easily roleplay themselves in the story or create their own stories. And that is the power of Harry Potter’s world-building. You have a world like our own but with a world of magic just behind the scenes and, what’s more, things like what type of wand you would get, what house in Hogwarts you would be sorted into, what kind of magic you would specialize in, etc. 

I even designed my own character for Harry Potter!


Blonde Harry Potter Female Character


Tolkien shares in this D&D effect (which makes sense because Tolkien’s mythos undoubtedly inspires D&D), but there is something special about Harry Potter when it comes to this. At a Comic-Con convention I attended, we had two actors from Harry Potter on a panel. The entire audience (around two thousand) was sorted into houses and had a cheering competition. There is something special about a kind of story world that can bring people together like that. 


So, what do these two teach us about world-building? 


Well, worldbuilding takes time and care, drawing power from pulling the audience into something they can engage with. Of course, I don’t know anyone so dedicated now who has been crafting their fantasy world for six decades, but the points still stand. But nowadays, especially with titans such as Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, world-building something profound, unique, and memorable that people can get immersed into is becoming harder and harder, and simply slapping some last-minute lore or a quickly drawn map isn’t enough. There is nothing new under the sun, and that was the case even during Tolkien and Rowling’s time when they created their works. 


So what can we do? 


Well, for starters, learn from those who have done it well. Your Tolkiens and your Rowlings, your Riordans and Colfers. What do they all have in common? Well, Tolkien himself didn’t pull all of Middle Earth out of thin air. He drew on various influences, including language, Christianity, mythology, archaeology, ancient and modern literature, and personal experience to craft his world and stories. The same goes for Rowling. 

There might be nothing new under the sun, but you are unique. So, what can you do? You can look at the histories, mythologies, and stories that came before worldwide. And, instead of a cheap, quick copy of one of them, pull from many what appeals to you, what delights you as the author, and apply your ideas and spin on them. There may be a set number of colors to work with, but there are almost infinite possibilities of patterns you can weave them into. Learn from those who have done it before, what worked and what didn’t, and strive to emulate their success. 


World-building is tough. It is both my favorite and least favorite thing about writing, simply because of the time it takes to do it well. There is a lot of research, lots of writing, and reworking. Still, at the end of the day, it can be one of the most fulfilling and memorable things about a story (as seen in Harry Potter) and is critical for pulling readers (and watchers) into the story you create. 


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Very interesting post, Madigan. I like that you weren’t trying to say that one was better than the other.


Also,as a side note, I take it you are a Slytherin? I’m Hufflepuff.

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Thank you!

Technically, by friend confirmation and testing I'm Ravenclaw, but I just thought it would be fun to have a character that's in Slytherin 😊

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