This article on SF Signal is a short but interesting take on one of the key aspects of fantasy fiction.
Posts tagged ‘secondary worlds’
(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.
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’).
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.
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?