When I read “Write about some aspect of Tolkien or his fiction,” I thought about the one aspect of Tolkien most unique to him. Aspect is about as broad a word as you can get, but when I thought about it I think there is one thing that stands out beyond all others in Tolkien’s fiction, and it’s not his symbolism, well constructed prose, descriptive and fleshed out settings, or romantic structure. These are all wonderful aspects, but it is Tolkien’s world that takes the trophy. His world is no empty shell crafted simply to provide The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy a setting with which to occur. Tolkien’s world is a a separate entity in which to two stories Just happen to occur. The appendixes at the end of Return of the King and the Silmarillion articulate quite a few more, but each story hints at thousand more stories yet unknown. Tolkien has fleshed out histories for the second and third ages, filled with highly detailed family trees and maps. What exactly Sauron, the wizards, and Bombadill is, their kin, and those more powerful than them, how the races were created and what is special about each: all of these questions have answers.
Tolkien has even created the languages of all the races. Mordor, the dwarves, the elves, the ents, each race has a unique language that can be learned and spoken. I have a few friends who have learned to speak elvish, and frequently (or used to anyways) post on forums and talk in chat rooms where elvish is the only language used. Tolkien could have made up some gibberish for the few poems and songs he put in the book. He could have, but he didn’t, and that makes all the difference.
Where ever you look, Tolkien has fleshed out the history of almost anything somewhere. Sometimes, in the midst of a heated scene (Merry and Eowyn’s battle with the Witch King comes to mind), Tolkien will go on a tangent about the history of something or other (using the same example: there is quite a long story about how the sword Merry picked up from the Barrow Downs is actually a sword specifically crafted to destroy the Witch King). Sometimes this history can be a little long-winded and take away from the drama or action in the story and becomes almost a little text bookish, I feel, but for this cost Tolkien’s world become almost as real as our own. It’s defined races, history, and languages provide a precedent through which the characters Tolkien’s tales act and feel through.
I have read very few other stories that provided such a cosmology. A few have succeeded, such as Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. He has detailed histories and maps (with a good deal more political intrigue than Tolkien) as well as a consistent language called the “old tongue,” but one language is not four, and the non-legendary known history only goes back a few hundred years, as opposed to a Tolkien’s which goes back a few thousand (what can we say, the elves live a pretty long time, and the wizard’s live even longer). Most fantasy series try to imitate with maps and a few references to historical battles or other significant events, but it seems like the history was only created to help move the plot along. Tolkien’s seems to have almost the opposite thought in mind. He writes the plots to help relay the history in an interesting and meaningful way. It is this idea that the fantasy world should be a world and not a plot scheme that truly sets Tolkien’s fictions aside from those of other writers.