Over at Mefi there was a discussion about an article that claims that J.R.R. Tolkien’s dwarves were really Jews. They were of but apart from society, you see, and really interested in gold, and longed for a homeland of their own (Moria, or the Lonely Mountain).
Now, the thing is, you can actually point to passages in Tolkien’s letters or interviews which support this identification. He even made Dwarvish a little like Hebrew.
Still, as a conworlder, the whole idea bugs me. The thing is, I’ve been asked about bits of Almea in these terms… are these people the Greeks, those the Romans, these the Bulgarians, those the Kazakhs, etc.? It seems that many people think that to create a conworld, you take the real world and just rename all the people. If you do more work it’s to carefully create a Latin-clone for the para-Romans, a Mandarin-clone for the para-Chinese, etc.
But good conworlding doesn’t work this way. You understand this with characters in novels, no? You don’t write a novel by placing Richard Nixon here, Amelia Newhart there, and your aunt Lucille over there. You create characters that might have been real but aren’t. You draw from all over, and you make up things from your own brain, and even the tributes to your old pals are changed and disguised.
I can’t proof-text this from Tolkien, but I’m sure it’s true of him as well. He talked about subcreation, after all, not about subcopying, and he told us quite explicitly how annoyed he was by outright allegory. The Jews might have been an inspiration for the dwarves, but so were the dwarves of Germanic legend– the ones in the Hobbit even have names straight out of the Prose Edda. Plus dwarves are a longstanding part of the European fantasy tradition– they’re there in Malory, in William Morris, in Wagner. Plus, Jews are not particularly associated with mining, or bearded women, or beer, or fights with dragons.
At a first approximation, to create a conculture, you take aspects from multiple Earth culture– or literary models. And you try to make them cohere with their environment, with their neighbors, with the major events of their history. Sometimes the real-world borrowings I’m happiest about are the obscurest, the things that no one would notice but an expert.
At the same time, some of the clear borrowings may be left in for narrative convenience. Not everything should be a medieval European kingdom, but sometimes a medieval European kingdom is OK, because readers (or viewers or players) understand what is possible in that environment, how it works and looks.
An example, with good and bad elements, is C.S. Lewis’s Calormen. A reader quickly recognizes it as a Middle Eastern culture, and isn’t surprised to meet the floridly speaking para-sultan, the cringing vizier, the fast horses and crowded cities. It’s so recognizable that many readers assume that it’s more specific than it really is, thinking that it’s a reference (or an insult) to, say, Islam. But it’s as much Indian as Islamic, especially with its horrific god Tash; I could print out for you a British guy’s description of a temple of Durga that conveys the same lurid tone– this is what some variants of Hinduism looked like to 19th century Englishman, who conveyed it to impressionable youngsters like Lewis.
(As a boy C.S. created a Narnia-like land called Animal-Land, while his brother created a version of India; they ended up putting them in a separate world, India being an island, connected to Animal-Land by steamship routes.)
Plus, Lewis was so steeped in the classics that there’s always an element of Greek in his work, as in names like Aravis, or the Grecoform adjective Calormene. Browsing his autobiography to confirm some details, I also note his delight in Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, which retells part of the Persian epic, the Shahnameh.
The point is, Calormen isn’t simply Arabia or Persia or India or Babylonia; it’s a mixup of all of them, and in some ways it’s a more successful creation than, say, Archenland in the same book. Lewis’s modern British children are fun, but when he attempts to depict Narnian or Archenlander adults he falls into a pastiche of Malory that, fatally, lacks any spirit of inquiry. The wise old king of Archenland will never lead you to question monarchy or the structure of medieval society, as any page of medieval history will. There are no real restraints on Calormen, so it can be simply rousing adventure mixed with light satire. It’s not under any requirement to be perfect and likeable, as Archenland is, and so it seems far more real.
In 2016 some of these borrowings may be considered problematic… but I’m not sure that people are at all consistent or even coherent about this. Is it a bad thing to know something of the Shahnameh, or to use non-Western models instead of endlessly re-creating medieval France? Plus the same people who are very worried about Calormen often swallow George Martin’s Dothraki and Slave Bay, which I’d say are not only more Orientalist, but more questionable because they seem to be meant to be taken far more seriously as a portrait of the medieval world.