The Geography of Fantasy
I thought I might write about the amusing conceit of a wealthy, powerful and famous scion of a chronically discriminatory industry hectoring the voiceless working poor about how they shouldn’t bully her clique, because it would generate the same. I’m sure it pleased the powers-that-be in Hollyweird and about 25% of the population enormously. Unfortunately they were 25% who liked her anyway and watched her films. Perhaps the Hollyweird grandees and her bank balance don’t care about the other 75%… Now. It was rather like New York Times promoting a blacklist of advertisers whose products appeared on Breitbart. It’s a weapon that works really well… if no-one replies in kind. Just as in publishing: virtue signaling to NYC publishing by attacking anyone outside their urban left-wing echo-chamber is still SOP. For now.
The worm turns: they don’t seem to have worked that out. I know it’s not the origin of the phrase, but I always have seen history as a sort of worm-drive, needing a full circle to shift on one gear tooth – but inexorable. These things will sweep our industry, change its landscape – and contrary to popular belief within it, the arts and entertainment world follow, rather than lead.
But then I thought even Cassandra needs a break, and I’d talk about the magic of geography in fantasy. No: Geography does not magically transform people… but it does shape people, and their fantasy. I was fascinated to be informed this week that C.S. Lewis’s fantasy Narnia was shaped by County Down, Northern Ireland, and its green landscapes. Being me, I of course wondered why there was not more rain in the books!
Geography has some of the disadvantages and advantages of the cliché and the stereotype character – You don’t have to ‘build’ too much of the landscape of your story in the head of your reader, if you use the standard geographical tropes. The reader may not ever have been in the mountains or deep woods, but they are ‘established’ in their heads.
Diana Wynne Jones in her ‘Tough guide to Fantasyland’
(and used in her Dark Lord of Derkholm and its sequels) had a lot of fun with the sheer inane silliness of some of these tropes, which as often as not make no sense in real geography. Like the ‘stew’ which those on the quests eat, (despite stew being a rather slow, time consuming process, requiring ‘stewing’) on their nightly stops after their horses have covered amazing distances, these are often an escape clause for the lazy or ignorant writer.
What they should be – IMO, is a frame into which the writer builds. I must admit, however, that it is one of the few areas where ‘write about what you know’ can lead you into a lot of trouble, unless you’re careful.
You see, the reality is a lot of your audience… won’t know. Some of course will, and be very irritated if you get it wrong. But all of them will THINK they know – and will be just as irritated if they think you’ve got it wrong (even if you haven’t. It’s their idea, and their money – as a writer you have to appease the former or at least convince them you’re not wrong, if you want that money) Most of us have strong ideas about what geography is like, in our heads. Of course it would be simpler if it was all the same ideas… but even seemingly ordinary things like ‘mountains’ can mean very different thing to people who have been into the mountains – let alone the urbanite who has seen them on TV. For a simple example – the mountains of South Africa (where I was born), and the mountains of Australia, and the mountains of New Zealand are all very different in something really basic – slope. Australian mountains are old and to me quite rounded, South African Mountains middle-aged (with a little middle aged spread), and New Zealand mountains are slim and spiky youngsters with ridiculously (to me) steep sides. And all of the above are not the mountains of the Brooklyn Fantasy reader or writer.
Keeping this in mind we come back to using those ‘stereotypes’ landscapes without slipping into DWJ’s fantasyland stereotypes (It’s worth looking at if merely to know what to avoid), using the strengths of it, without the predictable tropes and boring the reader. This is a balance thing: I can’t make you instantly good at it – it’s one of the skills you learn as a writer. But I keep turning back to Tolkien and the concept of using those preconceived ideas as a frame, in which I shape the picture in the reader’s head with small touches of precise detail. Personally – because so many of these images are so visual in the reader’s head, I’ve found adding non-visual cues – the sounds and smells of a scene very evocative and powerful.
The wind flurry brought angry drops of rain hissing down the blue-gray wall of the surging swell. It roared up the ramp in a seething ravel of white water and rolling stones. The inky blackness across the water devoured the outer islands, and the horizon had vanished into the rain haze. Suddenly it was backlit by a tracery of jagged lightnings showing every black billow of the vast, stark roiling mountains of cloud above the whitecapped gray sea.