Posted by: kshayes513 | December 30, 2012

Conan Doyle, Tolkien and Story Consistency

In the past year or so I reread most of the Sherlock Holmes canon by wading through the doorstop-sized The Annotated Sherlock Holmes (1988), which collects all of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, along with many articles plus massive footnotes for each story.  The stories are, as ever, terrifically entertaining.  But this time, it was the scholarly accompaniment that got my attention.

I am happy to look at pictures of Holmes’s London and any number of geographical and historical footnotes about it.  It’s when the editor and his fellow scholars go beyond literary history that the unintentional hilarity starts.  The whole crew is obsessed with reconciling all the stories into a single, consistent history of Holmes’s life.

These dedicated – not to say compulsive – Holmesians can argue for pages about anything from the exact date a story took place (even to checking the historical day of the week and the weather to see if it matches Conan Doyle’s account), to exhaustive evidence that such notable characters as Irene Adler and the Prime Minister are actually this or that historical personage. What really made me fall over laughing was this: Watson’s references to the dates of his marriage (in stories written sometimes years apart) are so inconsistent that all the scholars insist that Watson must have been married at least three times!

They are having so much fun with their scholarly wrangling that I can’t help wondering if they know (or care about) what is obvious to the rest of us:

Conan Doyle wasn’t trying to create a consistent narrative or a unified worldHe was just writing a series of stories, off the cuff, about a character who wasn’t even one of his favorites.  The strongest proof that Conan Doyle wasn’t doing any long term planning for the Holmes stories (or even any research, often making up names and cultures for the more exotic characters) is the fact that his most famous villain, Moriarty, was invented for just one short story.

Tolkien, writing almost 50 years later, couldn’t be more different in his approach. He worked laboriously, writing and rewriting many times, and taking endless notes on his own world, to make his histories internally consistent. Whenever he changed an incident or a character, he went back and revised all the other places in his notes and narratives where that incident or character appeared, so that everything would match.

Most famously, after The Lord of the Rings was published, he published a revised edition of The Hobbit, in which the original Gollum, an oddball but friendly little cave dweller, has been transformed into the creepy, murderous Gollum of The Lord of the Rings.  He even came up with an internally plausible reason why there were 2 different versions of the Gollum story. Now that’s consistency!

Why the great gap between Conan Doyle’s worldbuilding and Tolkien’s? I think there are two reasons. One is surely the different intentions and personalities of the writers. Conan Doyle was writing popular stories to supplement his income, and had so little regard for Holmes as a literary achievement, that he killed him off just so he couldn’t be asked to write more stories about him.

Tolkien, on the other hand, was trying from the start to create a consistent language and then a consistent mythology and history to go with it. A self described niggler who fussed endlessly over details, he also cared passionately about Middle Earth. His worldbuilding was as obsessive a hobby as any antiquarian collection or classic car restoration might be to another person.

The more important reason, though, is that in those 50 years, literature and its audience had evolved. By the time The Hobbit was published in 1937, detective writers like Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh were already having their main characters’ lives progress from novel to novel, even though the novel plots were unrelated. So were some writers in other genres, like Arthur Ransome, who carefully connected all the children in his Swallows and Amazons series. Readers were starting to notice when a writer made errors of inconsistency in his own work, because the errors disrupted their  illusion of reality.

The lesson for us worldbuilders and storytellers is that the evolution between Conan Doyle and Tolkien is insignificant compared to the evolution of worldbuilding since.  Most likely, neither Tolkien nor his friend C.S. Lewis would get past SF editors today, at least not without being asked for significant revisions. Lewis’s Narnia books, for all their charm, are unspeakably flimsy on the worldbuilding end (how can you still have wheat for toast at the end of a hundred years of winter?); and Tolkien would probably be stopped by editors demanding that he explain the Shire’s political and economic systems, or why the goblins who couldn’t stand sunlight in The Hobbit had no trouble with it in The Lord of the Rings.

We can’t get away with inconsistencies that didn’t matter at all to editors and readers of 50 or 100 years ago. I think that’s a good thing. What do you think?


  1. The nature of the inconsistency is what determines its importance to me. Banning Lewis from publication because a world full of witches and monsters has wheat that survives a long winter is stupid to the point where I’d consider just giving up on Fantasy. That is unreasonable, and readers who demand authors think like that are just outside my realm.

    Now if the same race of goblins who couldn’t walk in sunlight are running around in the day in the next book without explanation? That requires explanation. But in most cases, world-building means info-dumping that strangles the flow of stories. I’d much prefer the little things be left to my imagination or to an appendix. Maybe in the future of publishing we’ll get Wikis hyperlinked to our ebooks, filling out world details that didn’t belong inside narratives. I’d actually be down for that.

  2. admitting that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, I still like a whole, consistent world for my fantasy reading, so in my own worldbuilding I try to have a character who turns up two volumes later match the earlier version, plus whatever personal growth seems logical. I couldn’t write fantasy without a detailed map and a list of characters (with their ages at the time) who appear in each volume.

  3. Tolkien actually does explain the goblins (orcs, really) pretty well in The Two Towers. I wouldn’t stop reading Lewis or Frank Baum or any of the early fantasists for the reason that I gave. But I do think it’s a good thing that Lewis would have to think his world through more clearly if he were publishing today (the food is far from the only worldbuilding weakness in that world; I bet that sort of thing drove Tolkien crazy when he was reading Lewis’s drafts!). You can no longer get away with saying “it’s fantasy/sci-fi, it doesn’t have to make sense as long as it has dragons and big starships.” (to use the cliched Hollywood executive’s attitude). We have a more educated audience now, which expects their stories to be grounded at least somewhat in their own internal realism.

    As for info dumps – that’s why I found I couldn’t read Weber’s Honor Harrington series, because he stops the story every couple of pages to deliver another encyclopedia entry on some aspect of his world. But no matter how complex or alien the world, I don’t believe info dumping is ever necessary. There’s always a way to work in the necessary information in an interesting way. Especially if the author assumes that the reader is intelligent enough to make a lot of the connections on his own. After I tried and failed to get through “On Basilisk Station” it occurred to me that C.S. Forester’s Hornblower novels were set in a time and place that would have been just as unfamiliar to his readers as Harrington’s universe is presumed to be. So how did Forester convey all that technical and historical information about early 19th century sailing ships, the operations of the British Navy, and the complex geopolitical situation of the Napoleonic Wars? Not a single info dump. He just describes what’s going on, and what Hornblower thinks about it, moment by moment. And does it so artfully, that we have little trouble following the action.

    for anyone interested in how to avoid infodumps I wrote a post on the basics of description/exposition, for my editing web site. I’m planning some more in-depth posts on the same. Maybe soon, now that you’ve reminded me!

  4. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” – that sounds like a quote I almost recognize. I have timelines for both my invented worlds, plus rough maps in my head for general geography. I seem to be able to keep the characters straight without any difficulty.

  5. I’ve had it pointed out to me that I have far too many characters running around, so I’ve cut down on a few but still need a list to keep them straight in my head

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