Earthsea, Narnia, Middle Earth – the three classic fantasy worlds I
talked about last week – are distinctive places. Most children – most
people you meet – will have a pretty clear picture of at least the last two. If you were
dropped at random into one of these worlds, you would soon be able to
guess which one it was.
There has been a great deal of fantasy
written since these worlds were created, but not much that competes
with them in iconic status and recognisability. Try thinking of names
of other worlds, and “Discworld” is the one that springs most readily to
my mind. At the borders where fantasy and science fiction blur, there
may be others – "Dune", maybe - but what in fact are modern writers doing with fantasy
worlds? Is sub-creation, as Lewis called it, their primary concern?
of all there are the fantasy worlds which offer a slightly different
version of our own. One example is Joan Aiken’s wonderful
alternative Georgian England – not Georgian at all, of course, because
the Stuart kings are still in power, and instead of Bonnie Prince
Charlie, we have ‘Bonnie Prince Georgie’ and a whole series of
wonderfully bizarre Hanoverian plots to bump off the reigning monarch
and put him on the throne. We know we are not going to get historical
accuracy, so we play a happy game of follow-my-leader through the
wildest places. Pink whales (“Night Birds on Nantucket”), a sinister
overweight fairy queen in a South American Welsh colony (“The Stolen
Lake”), a plot to roll St Paul’s Cathedral into the Thames in the midst
of a royal coronation (“The Cuckoo Tree”), foiled by tent-pegging it
down from the back of a galloping elephant… That one initial twist,
parting her fantasy world from history, gave Aiken permission to let her
imagination loose. And her imagination was powerful, joyous, puckish.
Her books are always full of energy, but they can also be eerie, sad. It’s a long walk in the dark/on the blind side of the moon,
a character sings in one of her short stories; and it’s a long day without water/when the river’s gone…
Wynne Jones followed Aiken’s lead: many of her books are set in
alternative universes that closely parallel our own except for one
crucial difference: the existence of magic. She goes so far as
to suggest that the absence of magic in this world is something of an
aberration. Each world diverges from the next in its series because
of a different outcome to some historical event – Napoleon winning the
Battle of Waterloo, for example. ( I suspect that Susanna Clarke, of "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell", read Joan Aiken as a child: her marvellously convincing magical Regency England does seem to owe something, in the best possible sense, to Aiken's lively tales.) And the ‘In-Between Place’ in Diana Wynne Jones's "The Lives of Christopher Chant"
owes something in concept, though not in presentation, to CS Lewis’s ‘Wood
Between the Worlds’ in 'The Magician’s Nephew': a neutral space, a jumping-off ground between universes.
Fascinating, fun, and sometimes
thought-provoking, these books are not high fantasy in the classical sense. They don't offer self-contained Secondary Worlds like Middle Earth, or Narnia. But
they share a purpose with the next one I’m coming to: Terry Pratchett’s
Discworld has grown enormously over the
series. It began – in “The Colour of Magic” as a spoof, a comic take on
popular sword-and-sorcery novels. With characters like the incompetent wizard
Rincewind and the warrior Cohen the Barbarian, it was brilliant comedy,
spot on the mark. But Pratchett was too good a writer to remain content
with such an easy target. The books rapidly became more
serious of purpose (though still extremely entertaining). Discworld
fits all the criteria for an instantly recognisable, self-contained
imaginary world. It is carried through space by four elephants standing
on the back of a giant turtle. It has a consistent geography, with its
central mountain range at the Hub, the Ramtops, the city of
Ankh-Morpork, the cabbage fields of Sto Lat; its directions (hubwards
and rimwards rather than north and south ). There is nowhere quite like
it... except that nearly everything in it is a deliberate borrowing
from our own Earth, viewed through a distorting fantasy lens
that paradoxically allows us to see it rather more clearly. I don’t
know of a more passionate advocate than Pratchett for racial and sexual
equality. We might be reading about dwarves and trolls, but we’re not
fooled. When Commander Vimes employs trolls, werewolves, dwarves,
zombies and vampires in the City Watch, it’s not because they all live
together in Ankh Morpork like one big happy family. Read "Feet of
Clay", read "Equal Rites". Discworld, like the worlds of Aiken and
Wynne Jones, sets Pratchett free to say exactly what he wants in a way
quite different but not less seriously intended than so-called
so we move on to wholly self-contained invented worlds. (I’m still
excluding Elfland, which seems to me a different kettle of fish, and
I’ll explain why some other time.) Some have been created for the sheer
delight of experiencing something fantastical and other: but in the
best fantasy that is never the be-all and end-all. They still have
something to say. Katherine Roberts’ Echorium Sequence is a good
example: it reminds me of the Earthsea books. In the first volume, "Song
The day everything changed, Singer Graia
took Rialle’s class down the Five Thousand Steps to the west beach.
They followed her eagerly enough. A Mainlander ship had broken up on
the reef in the recent storms, and the Final Years were being allowed
out of the Echorium to search for pieces of the wreck.
the reader has picked up hints of reservations about the culture which
treats a shipwreck as an excuse for a class outing. The task of the
Singers on the Island of Echoes is to spread healing and harmony; they
are the diplomats of their world, and are able to talk with the
Half-Creatures, such as the Merlee who live in the sea and are trawled
for by sailors who sell their eggs as delicacies. The boy, Kherron
running away and picked up by fishermen, is told:
wait right over there with your bucket. When we draw them in, there’ll
be lots of wailing and shrieking. Don’t you take no notice. Soon as we
toss you one of the fish people, you get right in there with your knife.
No need to wait for ‘em to die first. They ain’t got no feelings like
we humans do. Got that?”
Kherron does – but soon:
he was surrounded by flapping rainbow tails, coils of silver hair
tangled in seaweed, gaping mouths and gills, reaching hands, wet
pleading eyes – and those terrible, terrible songs.
“Help us,” they seemed to say.
shook his head. “I can’t help you,” he whispered... [He] watched his
hand fumble in a pool of green slime and closed on the dagger. He began
to hum softly. Challa, shh, Challa makes you dream...
creatures’ struggles grew less violent. One by one their arms and
tails flopped to the deck, and their luminous eyes closed. Kherron
opened their guts as swiftly as her could and scooped out handfuls of
their unborn children. It helped if he didn’t look at their faces. That
way he could pretend they were just fish.
strong stuff, and Roberts is clearly interested in the differences
between a superficial adherence to peace and harmony – the soothing
songs of the Singers, the diplomatic missions – and the blood and guts
reality that it may not be possible even literally to keep your hands
clean. Colourful adventures in imaginary places don’t have to be
anodyne: even heroes and heroines may do some very bad things. But in
YA fiction, the learning process is usually what counts, and hope is
Dickinson’s fantasy trilogy – beginning with ‘The Cup of the World’
(2004) – is a more downbeat series. You could almost call it a teenage 'Game of Thrones' - plenty of Machiavellian politics, less sex and violence. It’s set in a claustrophobic
medieval-style kingdom, in a world pictured as held in a vast cup and
circled by a snake or cosmic serpent. All of the characters are flawed:
civil war is rife, and the main characters are themselves descendants
of invaders from over the sea. Long ago, their ancestor Wulfram led his
sons against the indigenous hill-people, whose goddess Beyah still
weeps for the death of her son. It’s an intricate story which no brief
summary can do justice: but the narrative is dark and fatalistic, with a
gloom bordering at times on pessimism. This trilogy is a great
corrective to the notion that fantasy is all about crude oppositions of
good and bad, white and black. The main characters’ best intentions can
lead to disaster, and often their intentions are selfish anyway. The
descriptions of the world are lovingly detailed and rich, the writing is
beautiful, and these are books I greatly admire.
and more recent, Patrick Ness’s trilogy “Chaos Walking” is set on
another planet. The border between sci-fi and fantasy is fuzzy at best. Is this a
fantasy trilogy? Why not? There is no reason other than convention
why a fantasy world has to be medieval. The books ask: is there ever an excuse for violence? And
there isn’t a clear answer: Todd, the adolescent main character, has a
good heart and wants to do the right thing. But how do
you know what the right thing is? Can you trust your own judgement?
Are people what they seem? Can even first love – the most intense of
experiences – sometimes be a selfish excuse for doing harm to others?
Like Katherine Roberts’ Kherron, Todd
learns that you can’t always keep your hands clean.
enjoyed “Chaos Walking” immensely, but began to feel towards the end
that I could have done with just a little less non-stop, breathless
action, and a little more world-building. This is a trilogy which takes
the moral choice to the level of a sixty-a-day habit. I loved the
first book the best, maybe because there was more leisure to examine
Todd and Viola’s (and Manchee’s) surroundings:
main bunch of apple trees are a little ways into the swamp, down a few
paths and over a fallen log that Manchee always needs help to get over…
leap over the log is where the dark of the swamp really starts and the
first thing you see are the old Spackle buildings, leaning out towards
you from shadow, looking like melting blobs of tan-coloured ice cream
except hut-sized. No one knows or can remember what they were ever
s’posed to be…
… I start walking all slow-like up to the
biggest of the melty ice-cream scoops. I stay outta the way of anything
that might be looking out the little bendy triangle doorway… and look
What will we see?
The accusation that fantasy is escapism has always seemed strange to me. Far from being away with the fairies, what fantasy writers do is to take that little step sideways out of this dimension so that they can turn around and take a really good look at this one. At its best, fantasy offers perspective, the chance to run thought experiments, the chance to alter history and see what might
have happened. A chance to look at serious issues with the heat off: Terry Pratchett can tell stories about dwarfs and golems and trolls and really he's talking all the time, quite clearly, about race relations. And nobody accuses him of writing allegory, or preaching, either. And it's all fabulously entertaining.
Next week I want to ask: Why do we do it? And what are the pitfalls? When shouldn’t
you be writing fantasy?
What’s it all for?