Posts tagged ‘Middle Earth’

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.

Advertisements

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?