Artificial Worlds

I just picked up the first book of an epic fantasy trilogy. It wouldn’t be fair to mention the title or author, since I may not even finish the book. The writing is good, yet I have to push myself to read it. In fact, since my younger days when I read and re-read series like Lord of the Rings, Thomas Covenant, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and even (shudder) Gormenghast, I’ve been drawn less to epic or ‘high’ fantasy, and the other day it occurred to me to wonder why.

I still love fantasy that incorporates actual history–such as Tim Power’s The Anubis Gates, and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, for example. What I’m realizing is that I don’t care as much for stories dealing with worlds that have been artificially constructed, however creative the author. I would rather read a novel that touches on the Bourbons or the Plantagenets, instead of aristocratic intrigues in the decadent culture of the Shazooreth city-states. I would rather learn something about Brazilian culture (for instance) than sort out the strange beasts and stranger geography of the world of Otayaba.

At the same time, there are still non-historical, non-urban fantasy (rural fantasy?) series that I like–for example Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest books. Dragons, wizards, castles and talking animals abound in such stories, so what’s the difference? I pondered this awhile and decided that stories like Wrede’s are also set in a world we know, and have known and told stories about for thousands of years: the realm of Faerie. And yes, I think that it is, like this world, a real place–of which Tolkien said, “…it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.”

This doesn’t mean storytellers can’t discover new parts of Faerie. But when they do, I don’t expect them to come with meticulously plotted maps and libraries full of historical scrolls relating wars and dynasties. (Tolkien’s work might seem like an exception to this, but of course Middle-Earth in Lord of the Rings is not Faerie: it’s our own world, Midgard, in the far past.)

So I guess I’m basically a traditionalist, sticking in the timeless mud of Elfland and Earth. Maybe I should give a fancy name to this principle, like ‘Tolkien’s Razor’: No need to build a new world when we have two such magical realms from which to choose.

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