Posts tagged ‘J R R Tolkien’

Monday Masterclass: trees in fantasy

Although rarely at the forefront of fantasy novels, trees, forests and tree-like beings are a feature of many works of the fantastic. This week’s Monday Masterclass will look at trees in particular (as distinct from forests), with some mention of creatures that have tree-like characteristics.

Introduction

Trees have been a feature of mythology for thousands of years. They are powerful symbols and represent life, strength, nature, endurance, wisdom, rebirth, protection; they symbolise the axis mundi, the link between heaven and earth.

The ancient Greeks imagined trees were inhabited by wood nymphs or dryads (which latter actually signifies ‘oak’). Norse mythology has Yggdrasil (‘Odin’s horse’) or world tree, an ash tree that supports the nine worlds (and with which the modern Christmas tree is identified). Trees of life such as Yggdrasil are common in many traditions. The tree of knowledge of good and evil is another famous mythological tree, the eating of the fruit of which caused Adam and Eve to be cast out of the garden of Eden.

Sacred groves feature in many religions, such as the grove of olive trees outside the Academy in Athens. India has thousands of sacred groves associated with Hindu gods. Celtic druids tended groves, called nemeton, and they were the site of religious rites such as animal sacrifices; some oak trees were thought to be oracular and could be consulted by druids.

Trees and forests have also been associated with mythical beings such as the Green Man and the woodwose, or wild man of the woods.

Middle Earth

In the history of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the first sources of light were destroyed by Melkor, the evil Vala, another of the Valar, Yavanna, made the two trees of Valinor, silver Telperion and golden Laurelin. These trees shed light across the land until they too were destroyed by Melkor. A flower from Telperion and a fruit from Laurelin were saved and these became the moon and the sun. A reproduction of Telperion spawned the White Tree of Gondor.

One of the most well-liked characters in The Lord of the Rings is Treebeard, or Fangorn, who is an Ent. Ents are giant humanoid creatures that resemble trees (the word ‘ent’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘giant’). Along with the passing of the elves from the world of Middle Earth and the final journey of Frodo and Bilbo to the western lands, the situation of the Ents forms part of the major theme of The Lord of the Rings: the end of an era and the rise of Men.

In the trilogy, the Ents are a doomed race. They are guardians of the forests, but they are entirely male. Their womenfolk, the Entwives, lived a different life and were the progenitors of agriculture. They have been lost for many years since being attacked by Sauron. Thus, in Frodo’s time, there are no more Entings, young Ents.

Ents were created at the behest of Yavanna to protect the forests from Dwarves and other dangers. They are extremely long-lived, but not immortal. Ents are subject to diminishing into treeishness – if they cease moving for long periods they grow roots and essentially revert back to being trees.

Ents are a popular feature of roleplaying and other games, where, for copyright reasons, they are often known as Treants or Treefolk.

The Land

In the world of Stephen R Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, trees also play an important role. Woodhelven are tree villages – villages housed in or on the branches of an enormous tree and occupied by woodhelvenin, who are skilled in lillianrill lore – wood magic. Here is a description of Soaring Woodhelven from Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book in the series:

Their approach gave Covenant a good view of the tree village from some distance away across a wide glade. He judged the tree to be nearly four hundred feet high, and a good thirty broad at the base. There were no branches on the trunk until forty or fifty feet above the ground, then abruptly huge limbs spread out horizontally from the stem, forming in outline a half-oval with a flattened tip. The whole tree was so thickly branched and leaved that most of the village was hidden; but Covenant could see a few ladders between the branches and along the trunk; and in some tight knots on the limbs he thought he could make out the shapes of dwellings. If any people were moving through the foliage, they were -so well camouflaged that he could not discern them.

The Land, the setting for much of the Chronicles used to have vast forests, which have dwindled over time (much like the forests in Middle Earth). These forests are protected by forestals, immortals who appear human and are capable of powerful magic.

In the Second Chronicles, the characters – having lost the Staff of Law – decide they must travel to the One Tree, from which the wood that made the original Staff was taken, to make a new Staff of Law. The One Tree grows on an island that is protected by a guardian. Once the characters arrive there, their efforts to secure a limb from the tree temporarily rouse the Worm of the World’s End, causing the island to sink into the sea.

Others

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time features its own Tree of Life, also called Avendesora. Like the White Tree of Gondor, a sapling of the tree is cut down by a king, prompting a large war. In the first book, The Eye of the World, the heroes are helped by the Green Man, the last of the Nym, a giant humanoid made of vines, leaves and other tree elements. The Ogier live in Stedding, magical forests, and when they stay in cities prefer to live in Ogier groves.

Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood cycle is set in what appears to be a small area of woodland from the outside, but inside is a near infinite realm where mythical beings are real. In The Magician’s Nephew by C S Lewis, one of the main characters, Digory, must plant an apple in Narnia, which grows into a tree that protects Narnia from the White Witch. In Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles, Ygg is a talking tree that guards the border between Order and Chaos. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin has weirwoods, trees with blood red leaves and sap that were once worshipped all over Westeros in godswoods, groves sacred to the religion of the old gods.

Conclusion

Magic trees are emblems of the reverence in which people hold nature in general, and forests and trees in particular. Many of the fantasy trees mentioned above are set in a melancholy context of the advance of civilisation bringing an end to an old order dominated by the natural world. Fantasy writers can draw on this trope to evoke great sympathy with a dying way of life; it seems to me, though, that no one has done this as well as J R R Tolkien.

While Ents are a favourite denizen of Middle Earth, it’s a little surprising that subsequent writers haven’t incorporated similar beings into their works in the same way that Elves, Dwarves, Orcs and Goblins have been embraced and adapted.

What are your favourite trees in fantasy fiction? What other magical trees do you know of? What other authors have used them in their work? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Monday Masterclass: elves

This week I look at elves – their real-world origins in myths and folk tales, and how they’ve been portrayed in various works of fantasy.

Etymology

The word ‘elf’ comes from the Old English ‘ælf‘, which ultimately probably comes from a Proto-Indo-European root of ‘albh-‘, meaning ‘white’ (also the root of the Latin ‘albus‘). The Germanic word ‘Alp‘, meaning ‘incubus’, is also related to it – it survives in German in the word ‘Alptraum‘ – ‘nightmare’.

The word ‘elf’ is present in various Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian names. ‘Alfred’ means ‘elf-counsel’; ‘Alvin’ means ‘elf-friend’ (and ‘Gandalf’ – the name of a dwarf in the Norse Edda – means ‘wand-elf’). The word ‘oaf’ is a variant of ‘elf’ and used to mean ‘a changeling’ or ‘a foolish child left by the fairies’.

Norse Elves

The elves of Norse mythology were similar to humans in appearance, except for being more beautiful. They were semi-divine beings, possessing supernatural powers. They come in three – or maybe two – or maybe just one type. There are ljósálfar – ‘light elves’, the ‘true’ elves; there are also references to dökkálfar (‘dark elves’) and svartálfar (‘black elves’). These latter may be the same; or one of them (or both) could be another name for dvergar – dwarves. It’s difficult to say for sure as there are few references to elves (of whatever kind) in surviving Norse poetry and prose.

The álfar lived in Álfheimr (‘elf-home’), while the dark elves lived underground or in mountain caves – or, alternatively, in Svartálfarheimr.

Elves were associated with health, fertility and ancestor-worship (and were similar, in this respect, to Roman household deities). Wikipedia has this quotation from Kormáks Saga:

Þorvarð healed but slowly; and when he could get on his feet he went to see Þorðís, and asked her what was best to help his healing.

“A hill there is,” answered she, “not far away from here, where elves have their haunt. Now get you the bull that Kormák killed, and redden the outer side of the hill with its blood, and make a feast for the elves with its flesh. Then thou wilt be healed.”

Folkloric Elves

From being creatures of great beauty, strength and lore in Norse myths, elves changed during the Middle Ages into mischievous, or downright malignant, creatures of diminutive stature (although there exceptions to this description). The mythos of Norse and Germanic elves combined with Celtic traditions, and also perhaps with the Christian demonisation of anything pagan, to produce a being that was a feature of much literature of the early modern period and into the Victorian era.

The story of the Erlking’s daughter (as set down by Johann Gottfried von Herder) concerns Sir Oluf riding to his wedding when he is distracted by elven music. The Erlking’s daughter tries to seduce him with gifts and gold, but he leaves – though not before she strikes him. The next day, before his wedding, Sir Oluf is found dead.

In ‘The Elf of the Rose’, a Hans Christian Anderson fairy story, the elf of the title, who lives in rose blossoms, witnesses a murder and informs the dead man’s lover of the fact while she sleeps. She finds his head and plants it in a pot with a sprig of Jasmine. Although she dies of grief, her brother – the murderer – is killed by the spirits the a jasmine flower.

It’s possible that the earliest depictions of elves with pointed ears date to the Victorian period.

Other Elves and Elf-like Beings

The word ‘ælf‘ was used in Anglo-Saxon translations of Greek and Roman myths to refer to nymphs. The Icelandic huldufólk (hidden people) could be seen as elves (or dwarves). German folklore has moss people and weisse frauen (‘white women’). In Irish folklore, the aos sí (or daoine sídhe or the sídhe) are similar to elves. Welsh folklore has the Tylwyth Teg.

In the folkloric tradition, elves, fairies, gnomes, pixies, hobgoblins and so on are all hard to distinguish from each other definitively; they are all portrayed more or less similarly as very small, michievous beings. The Christmas Elf derives from the elf of early modern folk tale – although it also has similarities with the dwarf of Norse mythology, which was a skilled craftsman.

Elves in Fantasy Fiction

The line between the fairy tales mentioned about and true fantasy literature is blurred, but it is certain that elves were protagonists and antagonists in genre stories from its earliest days. The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany is a tale of cross-cultural marriage and anguish; it dates from 1924. The Broken Sword (1954) by Poul Anderson is a Norse-style story that tells of Skafloc, a half-elf who is captured by elves.

Where Victorian literature portrayed elves as malicious or at least morally ambiguous beings, J R R Tolkien instead took the depiction of elves back to its Norse roots, making them beautiful, noble and partly divine in nature. Tolkien’s writing concerning elves (or Elves – Tolkien capitalises the word; other writers follow suit, but some write it all lower case) spans The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and beyond.

In the mythos of Middle Earth, the Elves awoke in the first age and were eventually discovered by the Valar, who invited them to travel to the Undying Lands. Many of the Elves accepted, but some got lost or otherwise detained on their journey west across Middle Earth. Those who remained were the Elves of the stories of Middle Earth. After the War of the Ring, many of these finally went to the Undying Lands. Those who didn’t apparently degenerated into the elves of folklore – ‘a rustic folk of dell and cave’, according to Galadriel’s prediction.

Tolkien’s elves are immortal (although they may be killed or die of grief), have ‘leaf-shaped’ ears, lack facial hair (apart from Círdan – which may have been a mistake), and have a number of superhuman powers: keen senses, enhanced strength, the ability to read minds and see the future, and the ability to make magical or enhanced items such as the lembas bread and cloaks given to the Hobbits in TLotR.

Elves have appeared in many post-Tolkien novels, in one form or another – many of them either resembling Tolkien’s Elves or deliberately contrasting with them. Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Shannara features Elves, along with along with Men, Dwarves, Gnomes and Trolls. The Elfquest comics by Wendy and Richard Pini have elves that are descended from shapeshifting humanoid aliens that have interbred with wolves (which makes them part of the science fiction genre, technically; arguably, one could even say that Vulcans are sf’s elves). In Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, one group of the near-extinct, near-feral elves, or Sithi, seeks to revenge itself by destroying humankind. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series features elves that are decidedly less than benign: they steal children and use enchantment to fool people into thinking they are beautiful.

In both The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner on the one hand, and Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry on the other, elves – or similar beings – are referred to by their original Norse names of: lios alfar are benign creatures, while svart alfar are evil and more like the goblins of Tolkien’s works. The Malazan Book of the Fallen has three related races – the Tiste Liosan, Tiste Edur and Tiste Andii. They come from, respectively, the warrens of light, shadow and darkness – thus resembling the three kinds of elves mentioned in ancient Norse literature.

Conclusion

Although elves have become a cliché, they are a firm fixture in the wider fantasy genre. While fantasy authors these days don’t write about such beings per se, they are still provide the inspiration for many aloof, nature-loving, magical races. And in the worlds of gaming – be it tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons or computer real-time strategy games like Warcraft – elves are an essential part of the experience.

Elves are mysterious, often dangerous, but also steeped in sadness. Tolkien’s elves are wise and stoical, but they live so long and experience so much, that eventually they must retire from the world. The elves of folk tales that trick people and steal children are just as melancholy, yearning for things that will only bring them grief in the long run.

Whatever the future of elves within the genre, it will likely be a diverse one, with a range of portrayals from the traditional (and traditional within different traditions: Tolkienesque, fairy tale, Norse mythology) to the original. So far much of the reimagining of elves has been a reaction against Tolkien and towards a medieval model. I’m sure there’s great scope for doing something completely different with elves – the trick will be to retain their essential elvishness.

Sources: Wikipedia, Malazan Wiki, The True Elves of Europe, Timeless Myths, Ask Nicola, Dictionary.com, MMORPG.com, Fairy Tales Collection, Suite 101.

Monday Masterclass: magic

(This week’s Monday Masterclass is a little bit late. Maybe I should call it Tuesday Taster Class.)

Last week I wrote an introduction to secondary worlds. That post quickly got longer and somehow less detailed than I had intended, so this week, I’m going to start exploring some of the various aspects of secondary world creation that fantasy writers must consider when starting a project.

Choose Your Magic

First and foremost is magic. Magic – whether in the form of a raw energy that can be utilised by people with special abilities, or in the form of magical creatures, objects, events or places – is the defining aspect of fantasy. A great deal of thought must be given to the rules of any system of magic in a good fantasy story.

Perhaps the most basic choice a writer has in designing the secondary world is high-magic or low-magic. A high-magic world is one that is, maybe not full of magic and things magical, but one where such things are not uncommon. A low-magic world is one where wizards and beings and artefacts of power are extremely rare.

Other things to consider are: Is the power to use magic innate or can it be learned? What can magic do and not do? What are its drawbacks and risks? What kind of energy is it? Does it come from within the magician or is it drawn from the environment in some way? Can it be harnessed as a raw energy or are special substances, objects etc required? Are there different types of magic? If so, how do they interact with each other?

The question of who can use magic is an interesting one – and one that can be interpreted politically. Many fantasy worlds require magic-users to have some innate magical propensity for their talent. There is a sense in which this is an elitist view – in other words, some people are just better (ie, more magical) than others. In other secondary worlds, there is a more democratic ethos – that is, anyone can learn magic as long as they put in sufficient effort.

High and Low

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is a good example of a high-magic world. The magic-users of this world are all part of a powerful organisation that, while based in one city state, has great influence across the continent in which the story takes place. Many of the main characters of the books can use magic; those that don’t often have quasi-magical abilities. The hero’s two best friends, for instance, aside from being affected by something called ta’veren, which twists fate in their presence, have between them unnatural luck, memories from past lifetimes, wolf-like senses and the ability to communicate with wolves, and access to the World of Dreams.

Although J K Rowlings’s Harry Potter books take place within the wider, non-magical world of muggles, magic and its use are so prevalent in the stories, that we can call the Britain of Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic a high-magic secondary world.

The Gormenghast trilogy, by Mervyn Peake, on the other hand, is perhaps the very lowest of the low end of low-magic worlds. There isn’t really any magic in Titus Groan’s world (unless you count the high technology he encounters in Titus Alone – but that’s more sf territory). In the first two books, at least, there is an air of darkness and mystery, there are baroque ceremonies and a vast, labyrinthine castle, there are larger than life characters and strange events – but no definitively identifiable magic.

You’ll notice that I’ve contradicted myself by saying that magic is the defining aspect of fantasy and then introducing a fantasy story without any magic. Clearly, by this definition, the Gormenghast books are not fantasy – but they do take place within what appears to be a pure secondary world – one with no connection to our own.

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a low-magic world. In TLotR only certain beings can perform magical feats. The Valar, the gods of that world have long since left it to its own devices. Within Middle Earth there are still a few of the Maiar, powerful beings created in the early days of the world; Gandalf, Saruman and Sauron are all of this race. Apart from them, the elves are the only others who are capable of magic, and elven magic is less powerful, more territorial. The rest of the magic of Middle Earth is contained in objects like the Rings of Power and in beings like the Ents or Shelob.

Indeed, what gives Tolkien’s masterwork its elegaic beauty is the fact that much of this magic passes away at the end of the story – the One Ring is destroyed, which in turn destroys the other Rings, the elves sail west to the Undying Lands.

George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is another well known low-magic world. In it there are dragons – but only three – wights – but they are rarely seen – and sorcery – but only performed by one or two characters and with indirect or vague results. Instead, A Song of Ice and Fire is a study of medieval conflict, brutality and politics.

Detail and Description

In some secondary worlds, magic is a mysterious force, the practicalities of the use of which are not explained. In others, magic-use is explained in great detail.

In The Lord of the Rings, the Maiar can use magic because of their divine heritage; others are able to use magic because of their great learning. But how either perform their specific works is not elaborated on – the reader just has to accept that the characters can do what they can do.

In The Wheel of Time on the other hand, magic and its use are described in great detail. Magic is called the One Power; this comes from something called the True Source. The One Power is divided into a male half (saidin) and a female half (saidar); it is further divided into five elemental Powers, Air, Water, Earth, Fire and Spirit. Channellers must have the innate ability to channel – which may be weak or strong – then they are trained for years, or they learn on their own, often unconsciously (these latter are called wilders).

Creating a magical spell, or weave, involves seizing hold of the appropriate half of the One Power (each of which has different, but fairly cosmetic qualities) and then creating strands of each element required. Creating a fire, obviously requires only Fire; if you wanted that fire to move through the air, as a fireball, you would need Fire and Air. Healing is the most complex form of channelling and requires all five elements woven together in intricate form.

Channelling is tiring – the more complex the weave and the more One Power used to create it, the more tiring it is. At the beginning of the story, only women are legally and practically able to channel – in a previous age, the male half of the One Power was tainted by the Dark One (the evil god) so that male channellers eventually go mad and start destroying everything around them. This twist and its ramifications is one of the more interesting aspects of the world Robert Jordan created.

Other Examples

In most fantasy stories, mages, wizards, sorcerers come into their power by come combination of innate ability and long training. In Stephen R Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, however, the main character (Thomas Covenant) comes into his powers by the simple coincidence of having a wedding ring of white gold – a material of extreme rarity in the world he finds himself in. In order to use this magic, he doesn’t need to go to a magical university – instead he needs to find his self-belief, an issue that is intimately tied up with his belief in the Land in which the story takes place.

Donaldson created another interesting take on magic in the Mordant’s Need series. In it, magic – called Imagery (which cleverly contains the word ‘mage’) – requires mirrors. The mirrors, correctly used, translate things from other worlds. The hero, Terisa Morgan is translated to the world of Mordant in this way. In one scene, two mirrors facing each other across a field of battle summon a chasm in the middle of the ground.

In Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen magic comes from places called warrens with exotic names like Omtose Phellack and Kurald Galain. These warrens are not just sources of magical energy, but entire realms that can be entered physically. Omtose Phellack, for instance is a realm of ice and the special warren of an ancient race called the Jaghut.

Magical items are a staple of fantasy and often serve the function of emphasising a hero’s righteousness – Arthur’s Excalibur, for instance – or of thrusting a modest character into the midst of great events – Bilbo and Frodo’s Ring. Also, magical artefacts are simply the tools of the trade of a mage – such as Harry Potter’s wand. Sometimes they may be relatively simple and tractable tools; often, though, their use comes with inherent dangers: the wild magic generated by Thomas Covenant’s white gold ring always threatens to get out of control, and could even destroy the world; Michael Moorcock’s character Elric of Melniboné must contend with an evil sword that brings him strength but also misfortune to those around him.

Places can also be loci of magic. Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter has the mundane realm of Erl neighbouring the magical realm of Elfland, where magic is possible and time flows differently. Elfland or Faerie or similar ideas have been around in folk tales and fairy stories for hundreds of years. Magical locations can be more specific: the wizards’ school in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories has two special places where powerful magic is easier to perform. In Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, Ryhope Wood seems to be a small English forest from the outside, but inside is a vast magical realm where archetypal beings come to life.

Times, too, can be magical. The full moon is the most obvious example – a time when werewolves transform and lunacy is rife (the word ‘lunatic’ comes from ‘luna‘ – ‘the moon’). In Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Malazan novel, Night of Knives, the action takes place over the once in a generation event called a Shadow Moon, when the warrens become permeable and eldritch powers vie for control.

Words and Language

In some secondary worlds, language is key to the use of magic. For the wizards of Earthsea, names are vital; to know something or someone’s true name is to have power over it or them. However, when a wizard travels to other lands, language changes, and if the wizard doesn’t know the new language, his power over things diminishes. The magic of Harry Potter requires the use of special short incantations, which form a kind of sham Latin. In R Scott Bakker’s The Second Apocalypse series, mages effect magic by simultaneously speaking words in one language and thinking words in another language.

This leads on to a further point – the terminology used to describe magic in a fantasy novel. I feel that words like ‘magic’, ‘mage’, ‘wizard’, ‘sorcerer’ are overused to the point of cliché and parody. A believable secondary world needs terms that are original but authentic. Robert Jordan used terms like ‘channel’, ‘weave’, ‘One Power’, as well as making up new names like ‘Aes Sedai’ (the female order of magic-users). Other writers, like Stephen R Donaldson, use obscure synonyms for magic, such as ‘puissance’ (‘power’), ‘thaumaturgy’ (‘miracle-working’), or ‘theurgy’ (‘divine intervention’).

Conclusion

There are many more types of magic used in secondary worlds than I can cover here: necromancy, telepathy, divine intervention, deals with devils and so on. Hopefully the above gives you some idea of all the considerations a writer must undertake before settling on a system of magic for his or her new secondary world. Personally, I’m planning a system that requires a kind of meditative state to alter reality, using an original set of of words that I’ve adapted from Latin roots.

What are your favourite kinds of magic from fantasy stories? Which ones are the most original? Which are the most believable? Post below with your comments and ideas.

Monday Masterclass: secondary worlds

Definition

On the face of it, a secondary world is easy enough to define: a made-up world that is completely different from our own world, created by an author as the setting of a story. Terms such as ‘constructed world’, ‘fantasy world’ and ‘fictional world’ are partly synonymous with ‘secondary world’.

The expression was first used by Tolkien in his essay, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, an attempt to define and defend the fantasy genre. A fairy-story, according to Tolkien, is not merely one that contains fairies, elves or similar tropes, but one that concerns the Perlious Realm, fairy-land. A fairy-story is not a traveller’s tale, such as Gulliver’s Travels, nor is it a ‘beast fable’, a story with talking animals, like ‘The Three Little Pigs’, even though such tales contain definite fantasy or fairy-like elements.

The key thing is that the existence of Lilliputians or Brer Rabbit within a world that is supposedly our own (primary) world, requires a suspension of disbelief. In contrast, the skilled author of a secondary world (the ‘sub-creator’ of a ‘sub-creation’) is able to construct a logically consistent realm

which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed.

So far, so good. But the picture, I think, isn’t nearly so simple. There is a sense in which all fiction takes place a secondary world. The world of the Harry Potter books clearly shares much with our own world – but it is equally clearly not our own world. The London of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories is even closer to what we would understand as our own reality – except that there were no Holmes, Watson, Lestrade or Moriarty in Victorian England.

One could argue still further that even the truest history is only a version, an interpretation of what happened in reality, that the historian’s research and understanding mediated through his writing, mediated still further through the reader’s comprehension, results in enough difference from fact – or at least ambiguity – to constitute a secondary world.

The concept of a secondary world is nuanced still further by the fact that no author operates within a conceptual vacuum: no secondary world can hope to be truly original and therefore independent of the real world because everything a writer creates must be based on something, whether it’s history or other fiction. The legendarium of Arda, the world of Middle Earth, is based on northern European mythology; if it truly were a secondary world, such links would be impossible. Like the biblical Eve being formed from Adam’s rib, Arda is made from the flesh our own world.

In addition, Tolkien and other writers have posited or hinted that their secondary worlds are versions of our own world, either as alternate histories, the distant past or the far future. Other writers have used framing devices that imply that our own primary world and their secondary world exist side by side, in parallel dimensions that can be reached through magic, dream or a mysterious portal.

A secondary world does not have to be a fantasy world – that is, one that contains magic. Science fiction abounds with fictional realms as much as fantasy.

I wonder whether it may be worth refining the term ‘secondary world’ with a few qualifications to make its use more precise. For instance, we might call a fictional world that is completely removed from the real world a ‘pure’ secondary world. One that operates in another dimension that is somehow reachable from our own could be a ‘parallel’ secondary world. ‘Remote’ secondary worlds would be ones that take place in distant times or places (which we could further specify as ‘temporally remote’ or ‘spatially remote’).

An ‘adapted’ secondary world would be one that is spatially and temporally coterminous with our own, but in which important aspects have been changed – such as an alternate history or the presence of magic. A ‘modified’ secondary world would be similar to an adapted one, except that the degree of difference from the real world would be less drastic – for instance, the story could be set in a fictional town, but the history and laws of the world would be unchanged from what we know. Finally, where a fictional world is, to all intents and purposes, the same as the real world barring the events of the story, we might refer to it as a ‘close’ secondary world.

Some Secondary Worlds

Perhaps the earliest secondary worlds were the magical or divine realms of religion and tradition. The cosmologies of most religions have at least a few such parallel worlds – Christianity and other religions have  Heaven and Hell (which latter might be further divided into Gehenna, Purgatory, the Limbo of the Fathers and the Limbo of the Infants); Buddhism has a similar hierarchy of realities including hell, the realm of hungry ghosts, the realm of animals, the realm of humans, the realm of low deities, to the realm of gods; Greek mythology contains such places as Olympus, the Garden of the Hesperides, Hyperborea, Nysa and the Elysian Fields; European mythology has such locales as the Norse Valhalla, the Irish Tir na nÓg and the Welsh Annwn.

The above probably don’t qualify as secondary worlds – at least in terms of being the deliberate creation of an author. However, Atlantis was likely invented by Plato (c 428-427 BCE – c 348-347 BCE) – possibly based on the destruction of cities by natural disasters – and used as the setting discussed in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias. The latter describes Atlantis in some detail as being the province of Poseidon, located in the Atlantic and being as large as Libya (ie, Africa) and Asia combined. Poseidon had a child with a mortal, and this child, Atlas, and his descendants ruled Atlantis until their divine blood was so weakened that they succumbed to mortal debasement and Zeus decided to punish them. The dialogue stops at this point, unfinished.

Medieval romance has a few secondary worlds. Arthurian legend as we know it, while based on folk tales and possibly historical figures, comes in large part from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudohistorical History of the Kings of England, as well as from successive writers like Chrétien de Troyes and Thomas Malory. The presence of magical artefacts (the Grail and Excalibur), magical places (Avalon) and magical beings (Merlin and the Green Knight) make the world of Matter of Britain an adapted secondary world in my scheme.

The much less well known King Horn, a chivalric romance from the thirteenth century, is set in the fictional kingdom of Suddene and the characters travel by sea to the realm of Westernesse. Fantasy readers will, of course, recognise this as another name for Númenor; Tolkien took the name from King Horn.

Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), is a detailed description of an idyllic communal, Humanist island society, possibly somewhere in the New World. The enlightened practises of the Utopians form a critique of European Church and society of the time (Martin Luther presented his 95 theses in 1517). The word ‘Utopia’ means ‘no-place’. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is another satire set in remote lands; as is Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872; ‘Erewhon’ is an anagram of ‘nowhere’).

Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women is one of the earliest modern fantasies. In it, the main character, Anodos, finds out from a fairy hidden in a desk that he has fairy blood and is subsequently transported to Fairy Land, a land where fairies live in flowers and make them glow, and where the vengeful spirits of the Ash and Alder Trees are bent on killing Anodos.

William Morris, perhaps better known for his socialism and textile design, was also a key writer in the development of fantasy. Books such as The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End are modelled on medieval romances in setting, story and language – which latter fact can make them a little hard to read. They differ from much proto-fantasy by being set in pure secondary worlds rather than related to our own by some means.

In E R Eddison’s The Worm Ourboros (1922), the story revolves around a war between the Demons of Demonland and the Witches of Witchland – all of whom are human: the names are just names. The story is framed at the beginning with the story of a man here on Earth who is granted a vision of the events unfolding on Mercury – a science fictional device which is completely pointless and isn’t even returned to at the end of the novel.

In The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) by Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett (better known as Lord Dunsany), the hero, Alveric, travels to Elfland to woo the elf princess Lirazel; in Elfland, however, times moves much more slowly – and this leads to heartbreak when the couple return.

From here on we tread on more familiar territory. The Hyborean Age of Robert E Howard’s Conan stories is an alternate past of our own world, as is Middle Earth, as I mentioned above. Other, more recent fantasies that are set in a secondary world of the remote past are Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series (which, because time is a wheel, and continually repeats itself, is also set in the distant future), and Charles R Saunders’ Imaro series – works by a black author set in a fictional ancient Africa.

Twentieth century fantasists have often followed in the vein of C S Lewis’s Narnia stories by having heroes transplanted from the real world into a fantasy world – examples include The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay, one of the best post-Tolkien fantasies, and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R Donaldson.

Latterly, it has become more common for writers to eschew any connection at all with the primary world, so Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen, George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and R Scott Bakker’s Second Apocalypse (to name three of my favourites) all takes place in what I’ve called pure secondary worlds. On the other hand, even more latterly, with the rise of urban fantasy, that connection with our own reality has been established even more firmly.

The idea of the secondary world goes hand in hand with fantasy more than any other genre of fiction – largely thanks to Tolkien coining the phrase. It is even somewhat difficult to conceive of fantasy as taking place in anything other than a world with a different history, geography, society from our own, even different sentient races and different laws of nature (ie, magic).

I wish I had time and space to describe more such fictional realms, and in greater detail. Maybe that will be the topic of future Masterclasses.

What are your favourite secondary worlds?