One reason I wanted to do my deep dive into fantasy this winter was that I was looking to recapture some of the wonder I had when I first discovered the genre. I remembered wanting to crawl into the books and visit places like Narnia and Middle Earth, and it’s been a long time since I felt that way. I wondered if it was just because of being an adult, experiencing the difference between being 11 and being all grown up and aware of practical things like indoor plumbing, electricity, good beds, and not having Evil Overlords constantly trying to kill you.
I found in rereading The Lord of the Rings that I do still have that sense of wonder. I wouldn’t have necessarily wanted to join in the quest, but I’d love to hang out at places like Rivendell. I’m quite certain they’ve got good beds and have figured out things that work like electricity and indoor plumbing.
But now I’m wondering why I so seldom get that feeling from the fantasy worlds in more recent books, and I suspect that on some level, maybe we’ve (fantasy authors) become too good at worldbuilding. When the world is so fully planned out that you’ve worked out not only the magic but also the political and economic systems and cultural interactions, is there much room left for wonder? I keep seeing Tolkien on lists of “hard” worldbuilding, but I’m not sure I agree. Yes, he has detailed histories and created entire languages, but I’d argue that what’s in the books is pretty “soft.” The magic is really nebulous. There’s only a vague sense of what magic can do, who can do it, and how it works. There’s definitely no economic or political system of note (in fact, if you think too much about it, the economics don’t work at all). There’s a lot that remains totally unexplained. There’s a rich backstory and a lot of poetry in made-up languages, but that’s the extent of the worldbuilding. That leaves Middle Earth as a bit of a blank canvas. Readers have a lot of room to fill it in to suit themselves.
I’ve seen a lot of critiques of the worldbuilding in the Narnia books, mostly that there’s no consistency. Figures from Greek mythology are right there with things from northern Europe, and throw in Father Christmas and a lamppost, and none of it fits. But I think that’s actually the entire point of Narnia. It’s the ultimate fantasy world, full of all the things a fantasy/fairy tale/mythology reader would want to run into in a magical world.
Basically, it’s the fantasy version of Neverland. Neverland is a bizarre amalgamation of all the things a boy from that time period would have read about in the fiction (pulp or otherwise) of that day. There were pirates, of course, because authors like Robert Louis Stevenson had popularized them. And there were “Indians,” which were staples of pulp novels, plus Buffalo Bill had brought his Wild West show to London. Throw in some mermaids which, if you want to get Freudian, are the perfect women for boys of the age when they’re fascinated enough to want to look but not quite ready to touch, and it’s basically a heaven for a pre-teen boy of the late 1800s/early 1900s who’s read a lot of adventure stories and wants to have all the adventures.
I imagine Narnia was Lewis’s idea of a dream world, with all the things he’d read about existing in one place, with talking animals, naiads and dryads, unicorns, giants, witches, and dragons. And, what the heck, Father Christmas, too. If you’re going to visit one fantasy world, Narnia would be a good choice because it’s all there.
Have we lost some of that wonder and fun when we spend so much time on creating coherent worlds that have consistent cultures with religious, political, and economic systems? If the world feels too real, does it lose something as a fantasy world? I’m still pondering this question and how it might apply to my writing.
I’m sure there are other factors at work. With the popularity of “grimdark” fiction, the worlds aren’t really places we’d want to physically visit. Being in Westeros would probably suck. It’s fun to read about, but I wouldn’t want to go there. It would not be a fun place, even outside the events of the story. There are a lot of fantasy books I read, and even in my mind’s eye they’re gray and brown, full of mud and dirt. Yeah, that’s realistic. The real Middle Ages wouldn’t be a treat to people from our time. Some of the clothes are pretty, and castles look cool, but that life would be pretty unpleasant from our perspective, even if we lucked out into an upper-class life. But do “realistic” and “fantasy” have to go together? Should they?
I’ll have to dig back through my bookshelves and memories to think of other fantasy worlds I’ve loved and wanted to visit. And I’ll have to consider these things as I build my own worlds. It may be tricky finding the balance between a place where things can happen where there’s something the heroes need to do, and a place I’d want to visit.
Do you have any favorite fantasy worlds you’d want to visit?