This is going to be a sort of companion piece to my recent post One Hundred Realms. In that article I discussed the various genres and sub-genres within the fantasy field. I think that most people would agree that, whatever type of fantasy novel you’re writing or reading, an intricately detailed world is likely to be at its heart. Indeed the very act of world-building – i.e. creating an entire world out of one’s head and putting it on a page – is a defining characteristic of fantasy fiction. Sadly, at least half of those worlds are rubbish – and I say that with the dubious benefit of having read as much of the good half as the bad half over the years! I’m far from the only one who finds this frustrating – no less a fantasy luminary than Ursula Le Guin once vented her annoyance at poorly written fantasy in her essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie about forty years ago. As a well-educated intellectual as well as a gifted author, her main criticism concerned the style of language employed. For Le Guin, the world that is created is indistinguishable from the words that build it. I personally think that she’s onto something – after all, her fantasy world of Earthsea is a grand example of what J R R Tolkien once called a ‘secondary universe’. But what is it that separates the likes of Earthsea and Middle Earth from the slew of identikit fantasy dross that plagues our bookshelves (and online stores for that matter) today?
In her saga of the wizard Sparrowhawk, Le Guin depicts a vast archipelago supplemented by a satisfyingly competent map. Not that this matters; the seas the hero sails are far wider than that of solid reality, as he goes off the map and into the realms of death itself. Le Guin was born into a family of academics and it is therefore not surprising that ethnography forms the basis of her fiction. Her societies, although sketched briefly, seem solid, and are enhanced by her deep understanding of the human condition. A similarly scholarly bedrock underpins Middle Earth. J R R Tolkien was a philologist (a sort of combination of historian and linguist) and his is a fantasy world built from artful language. The world of which Middle Earth is part has an entirely mythological origin, created by God in the manner of the Old Testament, and re-shaped many times. Whilst its creation may be fantastical, this ‘Arda’ is above all true to itself – and that’s the crucial part. This reflexive truthfulness is the most important characteristic in a convincing fantasy world – not how scheming its royal courts are – and a great many fantasies fall down here. Fantasy worlds that merely appropriate historical settings or, increasingly, refitted historical settings that have become genre standards, without the author seeking some form of inner journey, are plasticky and unconvincing.
That’s not to say that an author has to go to the extreme lengths of Tolkien to make his or her world feel convincing by inventing entire languages, thousands of years of history and enough maps to fill an atlas. Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock is the supreme example of this. It has no secondary world; its geography is entirely of the soul. It is fantasy in the purest sense and one that, brilliantly, impinges upon plain old Earth. If anything, worldbuilding becomes even more important in fantasy that does not intend to transcend our own world and time. The further from the mythological and closer to the mundane we get, the more we at least need to have the illusion that a real place is operating in the background, otherwise the whole edifice of story crumbles away. Harry Potter’s world, imagined by J K Rowling, lies undiscovered parallel to our own in a most unlikely fashion, but it is so intricately detailed that it just feels right. The fact is that the everyday and the mythical are not mutually exclusive – Alan Garner, for example, incorporates both to magnificent effect. His books are set in the actual landscapes of his native Cheshire, England. He will not even change the course of a road for mere narrative convenience; the result is that his stories remain convincing even when heaving with witches, dwarves and goblins. Michael Swanwick does the reverse, injecting industrial technologies into fairyland in The Iron Dragon’s Daughter with equal success.
The secret, again, is style. Garner’s books are masterfully spare in their use of language, Swanwick’s brilliantly descriptive. So Le Guin had it right, it appears. Some of the most common foul-ups which plague fantasy novels, meanwhile, include the following: maps that make no sense or are just plain lazy (ever had that feeling that the fantasy world of [insert name here] looks an awful lot like Western Europe?); urban fantasies depicting ‘hidden worlds’ so full of supernatural inhabitants that it is hard to believe that they continue to remain hidden; languages full of made up words that just look and sound wrong; characters not adapted in any way to fantasy that could have stepped right out of the pages of a novel from virtually any other genre; worlds full of intelligent species with no real reason to be there other than the fact that the author was (a) inspired by Tolkien, or (b) inspired by that D&D game that was inspired by Tolkien; and so on and so on. On the other hand, what makes the very best fantasy worlds can perhaps be boiled down to internal truthfulness, stylistic accomplishment and a certain, almost academic, rigour. That’s not to say that you need to be an educated intellectual to write a good fantasy novel – far from it. Here, we’re talking about rigour in whatever field – be it geography, mythology, linguistics, industry – interests the author. Whether we’re sketching latter day Valhallas or trying to create a complete Low Fantasy world from the ground up, good fantasy is true, beautiful and rigorous. But then, surely the same applies to all good fiction, right?