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
; 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. Eversnow Range
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
– the Wars of the Roses – and there’s a picturesque name for a nasty conflict. Arthur unifies England , then things fall apart: treachery overtakes the Round Table: Arthur dies. Britain
Yet some men say in many parts of
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. England
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.