Open Spaces

Watching that Dungeons and Dragons movie last weekend reminded me of something I’ve noticed in fantasy movies that amuses me: the obligatory scene of the heroes riding across a nearly deserted landscape. Fictional fantasy worlds seem to be just about entirely unpopulated. The characters very seldom run across any kind of civilization when they travel long distances.

But given that most of these fantasy worlds are at least somewhat based on medieval Europe, that’s pretty unlikely. The population was lower then, but that meant that each of the settlements was smaller. They weren’t very spread-out, though. When your only transportation is by foot or horse, things tend to be closer together. In a leisurely afternoon stroll in England, I once walked through three villages — and that was on the public footpath instead of on the direct road (which was built on an old Roman road, so it’s a road that would have existed in medieval times). If I’d been on the main road and had walked another half hour or so, I’d have hit two more villages. Apparently, there were even more villages that died off over the years, either literally (a number were depopulated after the Black Death) or just by becoming irrelevant once people no longer needed to live so close together or they relocated to be near railroads.

Germany is similar. You can avoid civilization on the public walking paths through the woods, sort of. You still may run across a farm or a hamlet (smaller than a village), though. Just a casual afternoon stroll can take you through several villages if you’re not on a path designed to be a nature walk.

In some of these fictional cases, they’re avoiding civilization. That’s why Frodo and his friends don’t seem to run into any towns before they reach Bree at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings. But if that world was populated like the England that world was based on, they’d have to work to bypass the villages along the way. I sometimes amuse myself by imagining that the thirty seconds we see of the characters in these movies riding in a vast overhead shot is the only thirty seconds they have to run free between villages.

I watched a Fantasy Cheese (low-budget fantasy full of cliches and tropes) movie a while back that was particularly amusing, in that it had the hero walk across the kingdom to the home of the lord who was supposed to give him a position in his court, and he never ran across another soul — no farmhouses, no villages, no towns, not even an inn at a crossroads. I imagine that was to do with the budget. They’d have had to hire more actors or do more set decorating to have something that looked appropriate. They shot the lord’s home at an actual castle, but there must not have been any good villages that weren’t too modern.

This came up for me in a book I’ve been working on that involves a journey, and I had to rework my map because I realized there needed to be more towns, especially as they got closer to the center of civilization. I’d been thinking in Texas scale when I needed to think Europe scale, or at the very least the northeast of the United States. Being used to Texas warps your thinking. You even look at maps differently. I remember a business trip to Connecticut when my coworkers made me navigate, and until I realized that the fold-out gas station map of Connecticut was on a different scale than the map of Texas, we kept missing exits. It would look like the exit we needed was at least fifteen minutes away on the Texas scale when it was actually right ahead. If you’re in a world moving at horse or foot speed, you’re probably going to have some kind of settlement within a day’s walk of any other settlement if the general area is settled.

So, what fantasy needs is more villages unless the characters are actively trying to avoid people. Come to think of it, I guess the D&D characters were avoiding people, since they’d escaped from prison. Still, that soaring overhead shot maybe should have included a village in the distance.

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