Sunday 4 July 2010

Other Worlds (3) Why write fantasy?

My first of these three posts (a trilogy of posts does seem to be the right number for talking about fantasy worlds...) discussed the three classic fantasy worlds I grew up reading and loving: Narnia, Middle Earth and Earthsea.  My second, last week, talked about a variety of more recent fictional worlds.  In this post I’m going to ask the simple question: why?  What’s it all about?  Why bother to invent a world, anyway? And are all fantasies equal, or are some more equal than others?
Until recently I never thought I would, myself, go to the trouble of creating a world. Though I write fantasy, all my books so far have been set in a version of our own world.  I’ve described the three Troll books as a Viking-Scandinavia-that-never-was, and my latest, ‘Dark Angels’/‘The Shadow Hunt’ is set on the England-Wales border in the late 12th century: true as I could make it to the historical conditions, but including a menagerie of supernatural creatures that really were believed in by people of that time – trolls, elves, ghosts, water spirits.  My books are not so much an alternative Britain and Scandinavia (like Joan Aiken’s alternative 19th century England) as the real Britain and Scandinavia, plus.  I wanted to use some of the many wonderful folk beliefs lying about the world.  Folk legends spring from particular places, particular landscapes, and there was little point in inventing an imaginary country to put them all in.  Now, however, on the brink of building my own fantasy world, it seems worth while to stop and consider the reasons why.
For aren’t fantasy worlds merely the fictional equivalent of theme parks?  Places where you can go to see the dragons?  Easy options on the writers?  All you need is a few mountains – let’s call them the Eversnow Range; a deep and dark forest – Dimhurst, perhaps, or Tanglewood; a city on a hill – Goldthrone, or Valiance – oh, and a river to join them all together – and you’re away.  You people the place with a pseudo-medieval society operating on feudal principals, with peasants, thieves, soldiers, lords and a king – shake in supernatural creatures of your choice, and stir. 
Unfair?  Yes, terribly; and no, not at all.  This is the generic world Diana Wynne Jones christened Fantasyland.  And if any of you have missed out on her brilliantly witty and razor-sharp book mapping out the many, many clichés of fantasy – why, for example, the place is infested with leathery-winged avians, why visits to taverns nearly always involve brawls, and why so much stew is consumed – you need to read it.  It’s called ‘The Tough Guide to Fantasyland’: strap on your sword, pull on your boots and don that cloak: your quest is to go out and find it – now.  (At the very least, if you are a writer, it will encourage you to provide your characters with a more varied diet.)  
I’m thinking aloud here.  A fantasy world can have some or all of these components and be brilliant – or it may be really stale and clichéd.  These things by themselves are not what fantasy is really all about.  They are only the trappings of fantasy, and often pretty threadbare too. 
Why can’t a fantasy world involve a more modern society?  Why should swords be considered more picturesque than guns, when both are designed for killing people?  If ‘picturesque’ is really all we are aiming for, we have no business writing fantasy at all. The medievalism of most modern fantasy worlds is due to the influence of Lewis and Tolkien – both medieval scholars, both steeped in the worlds of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and the Norse mythologies – heavily filtered through  late Victorian romanticism. (Of course they could both read the Eddas in the original, but we know of  Lewis in particular that he met the Norse legends as a boy, probably from a book looking something like the one pictured above - wonderful, isn't it?...) And the Morte D’Arthur and the Faerie Queene are themselves exercises in nostalgia and romantic yearning for a golden age of chivalry that never was.  Malory was writing at a time of fierce civil war in England – the Wars of the Roses – and there’s a picturesque name for a nasty conflict. Arthur unifies Britain, then things fall apart: treachery overtakes the Round Table: Arthur dies.
Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he will come again, and he shall win the holy cross.  I will not say that it shall be so, but rather I will say, here in this world he changed his life.  But many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse: HIC IACET ARTHURUS, REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS.
 This must have been cathartic stuff, back in the bloodstained fifteenth century.  It still is!  And then Edmund Spenser was as much engaged in national myth building as telling a story: Queen Elizabeth I as Gloriana: Tudor England as a European power.   And Wagner’s Ring cycle was part of 19th century German nationalism...  Smaug owes so much to Fafnir.
I really have nothing against medievalism in fantasy per se: I loved and love Malory, Tolkien, Lewis, the Eddas, The Faerie Queene, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, the Narnia stories, almost anything by Robin McKinley, and so on and on.  But these are stories, these are writers, who have something to say: something they throw their hearts into, something worth listening to even if in the end we don’t agree: because it’s sincere.  Medievalism by itself is not enough. 
There are plenty of badly written, badly conceived fantasy novels – as in other areas of fiction – which give the genre a reputation for puerility, superficiality, escapism, schlock.  The ingredients are the sword and sorcery clichés: blond warriors with bulging muscles and magical swords, scantily clad nubile princesses, evil dark lords, bald executioners, bold thieves, dull politics involving emperors and rebel lords, battles to save the universe or at least the world, yawn, yawn… together with a giveaway coarseness of imagination, a lack of subtlety and moral depth: a readiness to assume that one side is right and the other wrong regardless of how they actually behave.  Thus in certain fantasies, ‘heroes’ can perform feats of sadistic violence which readers are invited to admire – so long as the victims are labelled evil.
It may seem harmless, but I find this type of fantasy with its warped values especially disturbing when aimed at children and young adults, and it seems to me that the fantasy setting is used as an excuse.  “It’s not real,” we might imagine the author and publisher arguing: “it’s just a fantasy!”  The same kind of thinking takes children to visit the London Dungeon, a tourist attraction which makes entertainment out of ancient instruments of torture.  Because it seems ‘old fashioned’ and long ago, it’s somehow not real.  The owners wouldn’t dream of getting busloads of schoolkids lining up to see tableaux of waterboarding or electric wires being attached to the genitals – but thumbscrews and racks are all right, apparently.  Because no one really believes. No one uses their imagination sufficiently to understand that these things aren’t quaintly historical, but instruments of appalling cruelty. 
So when shouldn’t we write about fantasy worlds?  Well, I don’t think we should be writing fantasy as fancy-dress, or to colour our fiction with a few dragons and warlords, or because we fancy a hero with a sword.  We shouldn’t be writing it, either, because it maybe looks an easier proposition that researching a genuine historical period and finding out what people’s real fears, ambitions and problems might have been.  Nor should we be writing fantasy if, by placing our heroine Rose and our hero Jack in a cottage in a village in a wood, with a barely realised outer world, all we are really doing is cutting down on our list of characters and making sure we don’t have to consider anything much beyond a couple of miles radius.
And when should we be writing fantasy?  When that is the way the truth shows us it wants to appear.  When, as in poetry, there is no better way of saying what needs to be said.  When with all our heart and soul we see that a story needs dragons, that is when the dragon will appear in his real fiery glory: not as a tired plot device and something for the hero to slay, but a symbol of something enormous – destruction, perhaps, or greed, or terror, or beauty, or ancient knowledge, or even – as in Chinese legend, of good fortune, harmony, the Tao.  And – for whatever purpose the dragon appears – we will apprehend it in a more vivid, more complete way than we ever could without him.  This is what symbols are for: not to be reduced to their meanings, but to enhance meanings, and to make us understand the world more fully and to see it anew.  And this, to my mind, is what fantasy is for, too. 



  1. Hi Katherine,
    Wow what a post! And just what I needed to read, too (I've designated this summer High Fantasy Writing Time)!
    You're absolutely right - why is it that most fantasy universes have a (generic) medieval style? The only thing that I can think of is perhaps too much "technology" (even something as old as gunpowder) might clash with the presence of magic...?
    Personally, the world I'm working on has more of a Renaissance look to it, but that's still old.
    I just read a wonderful fantasy a few weeks ago - Garth Nix's SABRIEL (first in a trilogy) that has a really complex fantasy world: one kingdom is more the traditional medieval-looking type, while the neighboring country resembles early 20th century Britain (they've got machine guns and explosives and other such gear). It was so cool, but also kind of strange to read, just because most fantasy worlds are so...generic.

    It seems like good high-fantasy world-building is harder than any other because the writer literally must create everything - he or she must think of every aspect of life (culture, dress, technology, beliefs/religion, even language). With all these points, it's definitely easy (as a reader) to spot the Tolkiens from the imitators :) I can't imagine anything harder (or more rewarding) than creating a world entirely from the headquarters of the imagination!
    Now I REALLY can't wait to read your next masterpiece! :D

  2. Brilliant post, Katherine. Yes, DWJ's A Tough Guide To Fantasyland should be required reading. Thanks for giving us lots to think about, again.

  3. That was me, Ellen Renner, above. My son's has obviously been tinkering with my accounts again. Sigh.

  4. Another wonderful post. I suspect we instinctively place fantasies in the "medieval" era because this our default setting were civilisation to collapse. Feudalism, dark woods etc would all come back. But yes, Diana W-J's Rough Guide is essential reading.
    I particularly admire Robin Hobb's fantasies, though they do veer off into some nutty stuff in the 9-volume Assassin's Apprentice series. (Amanda Craig)

  5. Amelia, I'm so glad you mentioned Garth Nix. I'd meant to include him in the last post about modern fantasy, but inexplicably forgot. The Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre do form an unforgettable pairing, and on top of that there's the brilliant depiction of the way into death, down through the river gates. Fantastic.

    Amanda! Thanks for the comment, even if you do have to masquerade as anon. I haven't in fact read any of Robin Hobb. Sounds as though i should!

    Glad to see many DWJ fans here.

  6. Amazing post.

    A lot more things for a new fantasy writer to think about. I am writing short stories while I get my larger series into outline form and work on the first book.

    My first novel for Broken Cast (working title) is set in our world some time about 1600-1800 BCE. The time and environment is the perfect setting for the story I want to tell.

    I do think that most fantasy novels are set in medieval times because of the romance western culture has attached to it. We have these ideals of a simpler life and richer everything (elaborate dress, traditional fare, simpler living). It is easier to sell this image as a door into something that seems better than what we have ourselves, but when you dig a bit deeper things are not what they seem, which certainly is the case when considering the actual lifestyles of humans during that time. This outwardly perfect ideal but darkened truth makes a lot of people more secure in their own situation not being quite so bad.

    There is no such thing as a social history of the Medieval period and women were usually only mentioned in regard to their fathers and marriage. Because history was written by/for those with power and prestige we see the romance and grandeur of the court and life there rather than its dirty secrets - we know they are there but we only speculate. It is easy for writers to use this, and other historical settings, as a backdrop for working out the issues of a protagonist. It also makes it much easier for our readers to identify with the characters of the based on what they know meaning the writer can concentrate on the story rather than the way the world is different to ours.

  7. Tracey, thanks so much for dropping by, and good luck with your own (highly non-medieval) fantasy!

    I agree with you about the spurious air of romance attached in many people's minds to the Middle Ages - I think there's always been a supposed 'Golden Age' a few hundred years before whatever the present happens to be. On the other hand, I wouldn't say that social history about the Middle Ages is mainly guesswork, or that women are usually only mentioned as marginal to men (though this may often be true.) A mistake a lot of people make about the Middle Ages is assuming they are somehow heterogeneous, when in fact they span nearly 500 years of ever-changing history and social conditions. During that period, as you'd expect, there were plenty of strong women, acknowledged as such by their own societies - off the top of my head I can come up with such different characters as Hildegard of Bingen, Hilda of York, Christine de Pisan, Heloise, Margaret of Anjou, Julian of Norwich, Joan of Arc, Eleanor of Aquitaine - and the list goes on. Plus, there was a lot written about peasant life: think of 'Piers Plowman.' The trouble is that many writers just go for a vague, generic, medieval 'feel' without an attempt at real historical accuracy - and this perpetuates our modern myth!

    On of my gripes is that people imagine that writing fantasy is easy - you just 'make it all up'. In fact, I never expect to write a book that doesn't involve masses of research...

  8. "The same kind of thinking takes children to visit the London Dungeon . . ."

    That's it in a nutshell. Schlock fiction (fantasy or otherwise) is mostly written and read by seekers of cheap (sometimes horrific) thrills - the kind with no redemption in sight. Do people really prefer it when given a more decent, life affirming option?
    People who prefer a nuanced, full bodied wine over a glass of schlock will know the difference between the two. The difference can be learned by most people, but the willingness to learn and the appropriate mentoring must be present.
    This post might also be about the difference between art and craft. I'll have to think about it over a glass of wine.
    Thank you for mentioning Diana Wynne Jones' book. I confess I haven't read it - yet.

  9. I have often wondered why I loathed so much fantasy when I have the utmost respect for Tolkien and a few more of the *passionate* writers you have mentioned.
    This post has clarified that.
    I have deliberately sort to avoid any fantasy element in 'The Thirteenth Pharaoh'. I am wary of setting my feet along that road - it goes ever on and and on. I fear where it may lead me. (Though I have some annals hidden away from forays into that kingdom).
    Thank you again, Katherine.

  10. I love DWJ's Guide to Fantasyland and I also have found very useful Orson Scott Card's Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy (even though I am not a huge admirer of his books.

    There are lots of very helpful "world-building" sites on the Web, particularly Patricia Wrede's and Holly Black's and I use them to convince teenage would-be fantasy writers that world-building takes time and is difficult!

  11. Tolkein succeded partly because he was so scholarly; it was a real world, based on a lifetime's study of myth and literature. Unfortunately his legacy is an awful lot of bad ( and faintly pornographic) fantasy, written by sloppy writers who think it's easy. real fantasy, set in a consistent, and wholly realised world, can be a joy.
    I read your blog on a day I was trawling a certain area of London, looking for an entry-point to the fantasy story I have in mind - your blog has sharpened my thinking and given me new ideas.
    Can I add Ursula Le Guin and Catherine Fisher as examples of fantasy writers to get it right?

  12. Do you know, I haven't read Catherine Fisher? I must take a look. But yes, LeGuin absolutely.

  13. I am so glad I found your blog, Katherine - these are wonderful posts! And I'm also glad someone mentioned Catherine Fisher, who is awesome. I also recommend Kristin Cashore highly, not so much for the "world building" as for the characters and how they deal with genuine moral dilemmas. "Fire" has one of the best villains ever, and the title character is a young woman struggling to claim and use her power in an ethical way - a problem all of us have, whether we recognize it or not. I'd also like to mention Diane Duane's "young wizards" and Michelle Paver's excellent "Chronicles of Ancient Darkness" - and Megan Whalen Turner. Her worldbuilding and plotting is exceptional. (the Queen's Thief series).

    Great blog, and a wonderful post. BTW, I really enjoyed "Troll Fell" and will now be looking out for the rest of the series. Here from twitter, where your blog was linked.

  14. Mary-j, thanks for visiting. I am a huge admirer of Megan Whalen Turner, and agree her world building is excellent. Michele Paver too. I don't know Kristin Cashore, so thanks for the tip - and for your kind words about 'Troll Fell'!

  15. I must recommen Ysabeau Wilce who's first book is enchantingly titled Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Set in the imaginary world of Califa a truly original fantasy world located somewhere in the neighbourhood of California.
    .'..highly original, strange and amusing.' Diana Wynne Jones.

  16. Thanks for this - I have it in the tbr pile, and now you've recommended it, I must definitely take a look!

  17. This post is great - it really made me wonder why medieval should be the standard fantasy world, and that got me thinking to what else could inspire a fantasy world. So, mission accomplished!

    On the note of Garth Nix, his Keys to the Kingdom series is wonderful, or certainly what I've read of it is (I'm working my way through them at the moment). Each book takes place in a different fantasy realm that's part of a bigger fantasy world, realms focused around bureacracy gone wild, rampant industrialisation and a giant maze that is part of a world-sized game. Marvellous and so unlike most other fantasy worlds.