Posts tagged ‘The Malazan Book of the Fallen’

Monday Masterclass: the length of fantasy stories

Fantasy novels are renowned for being massive tomes – this week’s Monday Masterclass will look at the reasons why.

There are two different but closely related phenomena under examination here. One is the size of individual books, and one is multi-volume series – especially ones telling a single story. Other genres have their fair share of not-so-slim volumes; they also have plenty of multi-book series featuring the same character or characters. Fantasy, more than any other genre, however, puts both together in the service of a single narrative.

Tom Clancy may have written several fat Jack Ryan stories, but they are standalone tales that don’t need to be read in numerical order to be appreciated. Fantasy series do.

Examples

Although published as a trilogy, and generally thought of that way, J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was written as and intended to be read as a single novel – a thousand page novel.

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is a fourteen book series (the last three books being completed by Brandon Sanderson since the author’s death), with a word count of over four million words.

Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen consists of ten volumes of between 700 and 1200 pages each, with additional related short stories by the author and novels by Ian Cameron Esslemont.

Publishing Reasons

So why do fantasy authors put out such big volumes? One could argue that the size of a novel is simply part of the fantasy idiom, that contemporary fantasists write according to the model established by The Lord of the Rings. This is not a great answer, though.

Perhaps the best answer is simply financial: big books – big series of big books – sell. There is clearly a demand for doorstop novels – not just in fantasy, but in crime, mystery, thriller, horror, science fiction and historical novels. People enjoy reading substantial volumes – especially people who read quickly, and who read lots of books. And people who read lots of books often buy lots of books.

There is also the fact that nothing succeeds like success. Both Robert Jordan and George R R Martin (author of A Song of Ice and Fire – five books so far written of a projected seven, including one so long it had to be published in two parts) originally conceived their most famous works as trilogies. The commercial success of their work gave them and their publishers the green light to expand their stories beyond three books, knowing that avid fans would buy all successive volumes.

Another factor that leads on from this is that success breeds bloat. The more successful an author is, the more power they have in the author-publisher relationship. So much so that editors of the most successful authors may be afraid to edit their work as ruthlessly as they would a début novelist. The first of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (called The Sorcerer’s Stone in America as Americans are clearly afraid of philosophers) was little more than 200 pages longs; the final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was more like 800 pages long.

Writing Reasons

There is another set of reasons fantasy novels are so big, and these revolve around the technical aspects of writing fantasy, the ways in which fantasy differs from other genres.

The first and foremost of these reasons is worldbuilding. A novel set in the real world and containing no magical or supernatural elements doesn’t require as much effort to establish and explain the world as a fantasy novel does. A fantasy writer will create continents, cities, races, creatures, systems of magic, politics, society etc, etc, all of which may need to be dwelt on to some degree in order for the reader to understand fully what is going on.

Much writing advice warns against long expository sections of writing – ‘infodump’ – but I think many genre readers – whether fantasy or science fiction or thriller or what have you – actually enjoy such passages (within reason). This leads on to another reason for fantasy obesity: part of the attraction of this genre is the sense of immersiveness some stories achieve. Reading a fantasy novel can involve more than simply appreciating the interplay of characters and plot, but can be a kind of holiday to exotic lands, a lesson in hypothetical biology, physics or sociology. Skilfully done, an extended word count contributes to this.

Fantasy stories tend towards the epic – and epic pretty much means long. Epic stories have huge casts of characters – The Wheel of Time has thousands – they take place over a long period of time and occupy a large amount of space. The characters in fantasy books often have to travel long distances from nation to nation and land to land. They often fight in battles, in wars, and interact with hierarchies of soldiers, nobles, mages and so on. They also need to change drastically from their original personality – often growing wiser and darker; such character changes need time and space to portray realistically.

Reader Reasons

One reason publishers put out long series is that fans want to read them. Readers of fantasy novels get attached to the stories, characters and events they read, and eagerly await the release of the next volume. In a sense, long fantasy series are a kind of literary soap opera.

I’ve been reading The Wheel of Time since shortly after the publication of the first volume back in the early 90s, and my interest in the series has survived the decline in quality, the train wreck of a book that was Crossroads of Twilight, the death of the author and the mediocrity of the new author’s continuation. I will still read the final volume when it comes out, even though I fear I may not enjoy it that much. Why? Out of a sense of loyalty and a desire for closure.

Also, I suspect the average age of a fantasy reader is younger than for pretty much any other genre. Children, teenagers, young adults have more free time to read these massive stories. They don’t have jobs, they don’t have children to look after. Time itself seems to pass more slowly for younger people. A story that can be happily read for hours and days on end has great appeal if you have the time to dedicate to it.

Conclusion

There are many reasons why fantasy books and stories are so big – and many of these reasons are closely interdependent – supply and demand fuel each other. A long book can be a double-edged sword: if you love the book, you don’t want it to end; if it’s rubbish, on the other hand, finishing it can be a punishing slog.

Ultimately, I think fantasy writers enjoy having a large palette upon which to paint the world they’ve created and all the characters and the epic stuggle that constitutes the plot. And fantasy readers appreciate the effort that’s gone into creating a living, breathing secondary world. And publishers, of course, like selling book after book of the same story, knowing there is a ready-made audience for each new one.

What are your thoughts on the length of fantasy stories? And what are your favourite fantasy doorstoppers? Share your brains with the world.

Monday Masterclass: Non-human Races in Fantasy

A few weeks ago I wrote about elves in some detail, but this week’s Monday Masterclass is an overview of all non-human races in fantasy fiction (and when I say ‘all’, I mean the ones I can think of an find reference to on the internet).

Definition

The term ‘non-human race’ should be pretty clear, but let me make it explicit. What I’m talking about here are creatures that resemble humans in form and intelligence, but are not human. Science fiction and fantasy are full of such humanoids. In sf, these beings’ existence s explained by their having evolved on their own home planets in parallel to humans on Earth (although they may be genetically related by their respective planets having been ‘seeded’ by genetic material aeons ago.

In fantasy, human-like species are generally created – either by gods or by other races.

However, sf and fantasy races are often portrayed in similar ways. Non-human races often have a particular characteristic that defines their whole race – they may be war-like or rustic or wise. Where most people would appreciate humans as a race of great diversity containing many contradictory traits, fantasy races are often personifications of a single characteristic.

Another commonality is that, while any given story may have non-human races in – maybe a great variety of such races and with a great number of non-human individuals – fantasy (and science fiction) stories rarely focus on such races or individuals; generally, it is always humans, humanity and human concerns that form the heart of genre fiction. This is probably due to the fact that readers and viewers can more readily empathise with humans than with other races.

Common Races

Humans
All right – this Masterclass is entitled ‘Non-human Races in Fantasy’, but we can better appreciate such species if we understand humans’ place in fantasy literature. Humans, as I’ve said, are usually the protagonists. They are also generally the most widespread, populous and successful race. I suggested that this may simply be due to humans making better characters for your average reader, but you can’t ignore the possibility that its simple anthropocentrism – even racism. Related to this latter point is the fact that much fantasy is set in a quasi-European environment with Caucasian heroes.

Elves
In the Tolkien tradition (which derives from the Norse tradition), elves are wise, beautiful, rather standoffish beings who are in tune with nature and magic. They often represent the very best qualities that people might aspire to: beauty, skill, wisdom, long life/immortality. In Victorian tradition, they are seen more as diminutive trouble-makers. Terry Pratchett made them distinctly malign predators in his Discworld story Lords and Ladies. J K Rowling had rather pathetic, servile elves in her Harry Potter books.

Dwarves
Dwarves, in Norse mythology, may have originally been a variety of elves (svart alfar or black elves) who lived underground and were skilled makers of things – weapons and other artefacts. In most fantasy fiction, dwarves are thick-set, but short – of a height between humans and halflings. They are skilled miners, stone-workers and smiths. They are famous for wearing beards – even the women, according to Tolkien. They are also fierce warriors.

Hobbits/Halflings
Hobbits are a race of short people that appear in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. They are, on average, only three and a half feet tall, live in a rural idyll and very much enjoy home comforts such as good food. They are a silmple, conservative folk, but ultimately (as evidence by Bilbo, Frodo and the rest) extremely resilient. They are technically humans, being a distant, diminutive branch of that race. While, in terms of literature, they may be exclusive to Middle Earth, they are common in gaming, where they are known (for legal reasons) as halflings.

Orcs
Orcs are a race of ugly, green- or black-skinned humanoids that are generally about the size of a human, although very muscular. They are violent and unsophisticated and generally evil. In Tolkien, they were created by Morgoth (possibly from captured elves) to be evil foot-soldiers. Later depictions of orcs retain their barbaric qualities, but make them less intrinsically malign.

Goblins
Goblins are a diminutive and ugly humanoid race similar to early modern and Victorian depictions of elves (and numerous other fey creatures). They appear in folk tales of many traditions and may have their origins in Hindu literature. Traditionally, they had some magical abilities. In Tolkien, ‘goblin’ is a synonym for ‘orc’. In gaming, goblins are evil creatures bearing a similar relationship to orcs as halflings do to humans.

Giants
Giants are humanoids of great size and strength and have featured in myths and folk tales from many cultures. Mythical giants are often one of the earliest sentient species to have arisen and, as such, have wisdom, but are also antagonistic towards the gods. Fairy tale giants – as in Jack and the Beanstalk – are rather stupid, selfish creatures. The giants of of Stephen R Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are friendly, valiant and wise. In gaming, giants are usually presented only as monsters.

Trolls
Trolls are large, ugly creatures from Norse mythology. They are generally unpleasant and stupid and have featured in many fairy tales, in The Hobbit and in roleplaying games.

Dragons
Dragons were the subject of my very first Monday Masterclass. They – and similar creatures – have been around in mythology and folklore for a long time; Western dragons are usually monsters, while Eastern dragons are usually wise benefactors of mankind. In fantasy, they are a commonly occurring species – although often they lack sentience, and are therefore outside the scope of this article. The dragons of Middle Earth are intelligent servants of evil; other writers have much more sympathetic dragons. Dragons are perhaps the only widely represented non-humanoid sentient race.

Works with Non-human Races

The Wheel of Time
Robert Jordan’s epic series contains a few non-human races, but they are either evil, rare or inhabitants of other dimensions. The evil ones include the Trollocs (which appears to be a portmanteau of troll and orc); these are the orc-equivalents of the world known as Randland and were made from crossbreeding humans and animals. They are taller than humans and have various bestial qualities such as boar heads, hawk heads, goat legs and so on. They are organised in a number of clans.

Their direct masters are a race called Myrddraal, which are Trolloc offspring who resemble their human ancestors. Myrddraal, or Fades, are pale-skinned, eyeless men in appearance and are excellent swordsmen. There is a kind of psychic bond between Myrddraal and Trollocs, so that if a Fade is killed, the Trollocs bound to it suffer debilitating agony.

Ogier are a tall, long-lived race that could be characterised as a cross between elves and giants, with a few dwarf traits thrown in. They grow to about nine or ten feet tall and a 90-year-old Ogier is considered a youth. They have broad mouths and long tufted ears. They love trees and live in magical, localised forests called Stedding; however, they are also legendarily skilled masons and buildings created by them have organic curves. They are reclusive and peaceful, but in the past were known as fierce warriors.

The Eelfinn and Aelfinn are humanoids that have fox-like and snake-like characteristics respectively. They exist other worlds and can only be reached through using magical items. They are difficult to deal with and understand and make bargains with humans that have unforeseen consequences – much like elves of folklore, from which their names appear to be derived.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Steven Erikson’s ten book series (and Ian Cameron Esslemont’s companion books) feature many intelligent, non-human races – which fact illustrates its origin as a roleplaying game setting. They can be divided into various categories.

The invading or foreign races are one that are not native to the world of the Malazan Empire, but originate in the warrens, realms of magic. There are the Tiste Andii, The Tiste Edur and Tiste Liosan – from the realms of Darkness, Shadow and Light respectively. The Tiste races are tall, long-lived and have Asian-like eyes. Their names and origins resemble the original Norse elven races. The fourth foreign race is the Eleint – dragons.

The founding races are native to the world of the Malazan Empire and created civilisation. The Forkrul Assail are an extremely strong, long-lived and quick-healing race that are taller and thinner than humans and have more joints in their bodies. They are famous for adjudicating conflicts by means of killing everyone involved. The Jaghut are another near-immortal race that live in icy environments and are taller and wider than humans and have tusked lower jaws.

The K’Chain Che’Malle are one of the non-humanoid intelligent races in fantasy. They are similar in appearance to bipedal dinosaurs and are divided into two races, long-tails and short-tails – the latter being an engineered race. The K’Chain Che’Malle were the first civilised race in the world. The Imass are a race similar to humans but with golden skin and amber eyes, high cheek bones and heavy brows. They warred with the Jaghut for millennia and eventually made themselves into immortal undead beings in the Ritual of Tellann, becoming the T’lan Imass. The Imass were the ancestors of other races, including the Barghast, Moranth, Trell and humans.

Finally, the Thel Akai were a race of giants that gave rise to the Thelomen Toblakai and other larger than human races.

Orc Analogues

Many works of fantasy have some sort of race that is equivalent to the Orcs of Middle Earth. The Wheel of Time has Trollocs, R Scott Bakker’s The Second Apocalypse meta-series has sranc – engineered, lithe, bestial humanoids that enjoy killing and even raping the open wounds of their victims. Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series has the Shanka, a brutal, bestial warrior-hunter race. The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay has urgach and svart alfar, which appear to be direct analogues of orcs and goblins from Tolkien (Kay worked with Christopher Tolkien on putting together The Silmarillion, so it’s inevitable he drew some inspiration from the creator of Middle Earth).

Fantasy is the literature of good versus evil; these primeval forces require avatars to carry out their ends. On the side of good, we have humans (we like to think), elves, dwarves and so on. The nature of the conflict may be magical or metaphysical in many respects, but, often, it is purely physical. Warfare on an epic scale between humans or beings that closely resemble them on the one hand, and creatures that are morally and physically twisted approximations of humanity on the other, is a mainstay of fantasy stories.

While the presence of intrinsically evil races is a common trope, it also raises certain questions about racism. In as much as the races mentioned above have some intelligence, is it realistic – dare I say fair? – to depict every single individual as irredeemably evil and thus fit for nothing but being hacked to pieces by a hero? Monolithic characterisations of good versus evil arguably reinforces a tribal, us versus them mentality. Stan Nicholls’s First Blood series is rare exception to the rule and reverses the common image to have a band of orcs fighting against humans to save their civilisation.

Conclusion

When used well, non-human races can give a work of fantasy extra colour and vitality, mystery and authenticity. When used poorly, they can be little more than a rehashing of stereotypes. The best fantasy writers tend to use non-human races sparingly, but when they do, they think carefully about the races’ role and history in the world they’ve created. The best non-human races are those that are distinctive, having an alien quality – maybe a subtle one – that differentiates them from both humans and from other non-humans.

These days, it’s difficult to use any of the standard fantasy races (elf, dwarf, orc, goblin) unless you do something vastly different with them. Standard depictions are mostly the province of roleplaying and computer games. On the other hand, being too original can also be a danger – the races can become alienating if their psychologies are difficult to understand – especially if such creatures are fully fledged characters rather than sword-fodder.

And having a race whose sole duty is to be sword-fodder raises other potential problems – if they are intelligent enough to make and use weapons, why aren’t they intelligent enough to form societies, have diplomatic relations with others, have a moral system? The nature of good and evil is a key element of this, and it requires careful consideration of how good and evil forces interact with the world and with each other.

What important non-human races have I left out? What are your favourites (or even least favourites)? What are your thoughts on the subject of non-human races in fantasy?

Monday Masterclass: Top Ten Fantasy Swords

Having looked at the history of swords and King Arthur’s Excalibur in previous weeks, this instalment of Monday Masterclass lists some of the more interesting swords in modern fantasy literature. Most of these weapons are magical – which, naturally, makes them a cut above (pun intended) their mundane counterparts. The non-magical blades have special significance that sets them apart from many other named swords in fantasy fiction. Here they are, in alphabetical order:

Callandor

Callandor is one of the key magical artefacts from Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. It is also known as The Sword That Cannot Be Touched or The Sword That Is Not a Sword, both soubriquets giving hints as to the sword’s nature. Although it appears to be a crystal sword, it is not a sword, but rather a type of magical object called a sa’angreal, which allows a channeller to wield huge amounts of magical power.

In the distant past, Callandor was placed in a fortress and surrounded by magical wards that prevented anyone except the Dragon Reborn, the reincarnation of a great leader, claiming it. Rand al’Thor, the hero of the The Wheel of Time takes Callandor thus proving to many people – including himself – that he is the Dragon Reborn. Later, he uses it to single-handedly destroy armies, and prophesies indicate that it will be needed in the forthcoming apocalyptic Last Battle.

Dragnipur

This sword is from Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. In appearance it has a black, light-absorbing blade that is six and a half feet long, and a silver hilt with a dragon skull pommel. It was created by an Elder God called Draconus and is wielded by one of the series’ most popular characters, Anomander Rake.

This is another weapon that is far more than it appears – it contains a gate to the Realm of Darkness. Whenever a being is killed by Dragnipur, their soul is transported into the world within the sword, where they find themselves chained to a massive cart, which is being pulled through darkness by all the blade’s victims. The cart contains the gateway to the Realm of Darkness; it is being followed by a terrible storm of Chaos, a storm which is eventually confronted by the sword’s inhabitants.

Inigo Montoya’s Sword

Inigo Montoya is a character from William Goldman’s satirical fairy tale The Princess Bride. He is the son of a master bladesmith who is commissioned by a six-fingered man to make him the perfect rapier. A year later, the six-fingered man returns to pick up his weapon but refuses to pay what Montoya senior asks – and kills him and scars young Inigo on his face, and leaves without his rapier.

Inigo spends the rest of his life training with various master swordsmen, constantly improving his skill – using the rapier made for the six-fingered man. He seek across Europe for the man who killed his father – until the events of the novel finally present him with the chance for vengeance – and the chance to utter the famous line, ‘Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.’

Narsil/Andúril

These swords are from J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the extended history of Middle Earth. Narsil was created in the First Age of the world by a dwarf called Telchar. Its name means ‘fire-white light’, referring to the light of the sun and moon. It was wielded by the Man Elendil, who used it to defeat Sauron, but it broke when Elendil fell. Elendil’s son, Isildur, used it to cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand.

The shards of the sword became an heirloom of Isildur’s family, until they were reforged to create Andúril, which means ‘Flame of the West’. Its blade is etched with seven stars, the sun and moon and various runes. It glows with the light of the sun and moon. Aragorn wielded Andúril, and, like Rand al’Thor with Callandor, used it to prove his identity as the king of Arnor and Gondor (which nations were thus similarly reforged into a single whole).

Possible Sword

The Possibility Sword is a weapon that appears in China Miéville’s novel The Scar. It is wielded by by Uther Doul (who, of course, shares a name with King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon) and it is a kind of quantum weapon – has the ability to make every possible strike when used. The more likely a particular strike is, the harder the blow delivered. Opponents are therefore cut to ribbons by a single attack.

Sting

Another weapon from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – and also from The Hobbit – Sting is actually an elven knife, but is used by the Hobbits Bilbo Baggins and Frodo Baggins as a short sword. It was named Sting by the spiders of Mirkwood Forest, which Bilbo fought, and was found by Bilbo in a Troll-hoard. It glows blue when Orcs are near. It was finally given by Frodo to Samwise Gamgee.

Stormbinger

Stormbringer is the weapon of Erlic of Melniboné, a character featuring in many stories by Michael Moorcock. It is has a black blade carved with runes and was created by the forces of Chaos. It is, in fact, a demon that consumes the soul of – and thus kills – anyone who is injured by it, even slightly. Stormbringer imbues the frail, albino Elric with great strength, but also fills him with great bloodlust, for which reason Elric hates Stormbringer.

Elric and Stormbringer seem to have been a model for Anomander Rake and Dragnipur, mentioned above.

Sword of Gryffindor

The Sword of Gryffindor features in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. It was made by a goblin called Ragnuk the First for Godric Gryffindor, one of the founders of Hogwarts. Upon Godric’s death, the goblins believed it should have been returned to them, so from then on they considered it to have been stolen. It has the power to show up whenever it is needed and can absorb things that make it stronger. Thus, when Harry uses it to kill a basilisk, it become impregnated with basilisk venom and gains the power to destroy a horcrux.

Sword of Shannara

The Sword of Shannara features in Terry Brooks’s Shannara novels, including the first, Sword of Shannara. The weapon was made Urprox Screl and incorporated druidic magic and the druidic medallion, Eilt Druin, was forged into the hilt. The sword has the power to reveal the truth of anything. The druid Bremen gave the sword to the elf king, Jerle Shannara, and it subsequently became an heirloom of the royal family. It was used by Jerle to defeat the Warlock Lord by revealing to him the falsity of his belief in his immortality.

Vorpal Sword

The vorpal sword appears indirectly in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In the book, Alice finds and reads the poem, ‘Jabberwocky’:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought–
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

The word ‘vorpal’ has been interpreted to mean ‘sharp’ or ‘deadly’, or even to be a compound of ‘verbal’ and ‘gospel’. In more recent times, vorpal swords have appeared in various fantasy games, where they have the power to kill an opponent outright, sometimes by beheading.

Conclusion

Swords are the sexiest of fantasy weapons, and its no surprise that authors feature them in their stories. Some are special because of their innate qualities, some because of the stories of their wielders. This list is far from exhaustive, but I think it’s an interesting selection of fantasy sword, showing some common themes and some fascinating innovations.

What other swords from fantasy literature would you add to this list? Post your favourites in the comments.

Sources: Top 10 Badass Swords, Getasword.comWheel of Time Wikia, Encyclopedia Malazica, The Lord of the Rings Wikia, Harry Potter Wikia, Shannara Wikia, Wikipedia.

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?