posted on May 24, 2020
All The Best Lies
How do we make an audience accept the unreal? How do we make the fictional not just appealing, but believable? What does it take to lure an audience in, to get past their skepticism, to suspend their disbelief? Worldbuilding is nothing new. The art of conjuring fantastical settings in the mind of the audience has been a fixture of all civilizations, mythology being the bastard offspring tying fantasy to our own world, creating corners where the light of reason could be held at bay in the service of noble storytelling. Things are different now, of course. Fiction has moved on. The whole-cloth creation of entire worlds as a hallmark of modern fiction is commonplace now, to the point where works begin to look alike to others.
Novelty is now bound to the internal workings of these worlds, and set pieces have coalesced into recognizable archetypes, some of which are clichéd in use and yield their own stereotypes that can be twisted to other uses yet. Still, as rich as the modern field of fantasy and as endless as the number of stars and galactic wars are, there is quite a bit to be learned from the old school; the ancients—those who did it first. If we really want to get to grips on how to build exciting worlds, it is useful to take a look at how the pioneers did it; how the paths they carved became so well-trodden, where they have lead, and why. Before there was anything else, there was Lord Dunsany. Apart from being a true-blooded English nobleman, war hero and international literary professor, he was to the modern fantasy genre what Moebius is to modern concept design: the ubiquitous granddaddy. His stories, starting with Gods of Pegāna, opened up a wellspring for the modern fantasy genre; for producing from the ground up whole pantheons of gods, their stories, their mythologies, their makings and breakings of worlds; and the conceptions of humans, their heroes and sagas. These elements and most others we recognize started with Dunsany. As has been true for others he, too, started out by writing for his kids, whom he then enlisted to play the parts out for him when the stories were commissioned as radio plays. For Lord Dunsany—such as it had been for Tolkien, and Lewis after him—it was a real struggle and an important point to differentiate this new genre from fairytales and children’s literature. Even though Tolkien would later say about The Hobbit that it was indeed a story written for his own children, he was absolute in his distinction that fantasy as a genre should take its audience seriously, and not condescend to or underestimate them. In taking this stance and adopting such attitudes, the genre was established. The worlds created by these early adopters are all reflections of the writers themselves, of course: their time, place and educational backgrounds all being cornerstones in the facets they chose to emphasize; their literary influences steering much of the action. For Dunsany it was an experiment, as so many things in his life were. His mythology deals much more with the personal forces of his gods and heroes, who are built upon archetypes recognizable by any fan of western mythology. It was far from a recreation but more an understanding of the rules. Dunsany would use all his knowledge of other mythology and lore, from all corners of the empire he served, to create tales that felt like they belonged to a living, breathing, real world—even if that world was not our own. Dunsany would go on to write other stories and in other styles, every so often returning to the realm of fantasy. He often explored the borderlands between our world and others, whether that was through Don Rodriguez’s adventures in the “Spain that never was,” or through the travels of the character Jorkens in his sometimes fantastical, sometimes science-fictional stories. Dunsany would go on to write plays and novels as well, becoming famous not just in the UK but internationally as well, with scholarships and translations of his work emerging
in his lifetime. For all his creative energy it is still important to recognize that Dunsany was first into the fray, and the absence of earlier giants on whose shoulders he could have stood led to him cutting crude paths in some of his worldbuilding, and forgoing others, often leaving vague that which his successors might have elaborated upon. However, where he had knowledge he drew from it and elaborated it, and in everything he did he hold on to the cornerstones of authenticity and believability. His understanding of the world fed his fantasy, giving it fertile ground which his stories could take root in. The genre—now established and set by the work of Dunsany—was soon bolstered by others, though none were more central to its future than J.R.R Tolkien. Where Dunsany had been a wild writer, seldom bothering himself with trifles like revisions or second drafts, Tolkien was an academic, and this would establish another central trend in a lot of fantasy: the encyclopedic population of his worlds. The world that would become Middle Earth would not make due with mystical backdrops and loose outlines; his world would move with the story, and each set piece would be a character all of its own. Perhaps one of the most famous aspects of his fantastical creations were the languages spoken in his world: fully formed and functional, with references to their real-world influences that would give the reader insight into the truths his worlds attempted to convey. What truly set Tolkien apart was his epic, an overarching goal to create for his native country that which had been lost to the Romans and the Catholic Church: a tradition of sagas he longed to see restored and which he attempted to encapsulate. All the glory of Arthur and his Knights; the mischievousness of goblins and little folk; the ethereal and sometimes belligerent nature of the elves and gods of Nordic mythologies; the Christian struggle of good and evil—all had their place in Tolkien’s writing, and rather than just being a fascinating exploration of the boundaries of the style and the freedom of its form, Tolkien introduced clear moral underpinnings for his audience to consider. To wit, Tolkien’s world was created on the same basis as he did anything else: with consideration, contemplation, and cleverness. His world would not just have a history; it would be shaped by it, so that any story he wrote would yield more on the second reading than on the first, and even more on the third. Each reading reveals a new layer to the story, another morsel of the history and a deeper element to the lesson he wanted to pass on to his readers.
The set pieces of Middle Earth—from the Khazad Dum to Orthanc, from Minas Tirith to Barad Dur—all carry some element of his loves and his hates, his fascinations and his disgusts, and his true and authentic feelings. To a reader, this translates to immersion. C.S. Lewis, one of Tolkien’s contemporaries, wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, set in its own fictional world, with its own set of dramas and tribulations. The differences between the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth—both in the way they help influence how the narratives that play out read, and in the way, they were conceived—set up a dichotomy that shaped the fantasy genre as it moved into the latter decades of the 20th century. From an initial look, the worlds are quite similar: there is a growing threat and, in its shadow, the protagonists somewhat reluctantly take up the call of good and go forth to do battle with evil. Magic and mystery, prophecies, and fantastical creatures abound, and some sort of final struggle where evil—in spite of all—is defeated through the fulfillment of a prophecy. In both works, it is possible to see all the elements that follow the genre up to the present day, and one could be forgiven for conflating the two, but there is a very key difference between them. Lewis, when building Narnia, was writing a story first and foremost. He made the world of Narnia as he went along, creating what was needed to suit the narrative and to underpin the final moral lesson. In doing so, he relied mostly on elements already available to him: mostly Greek mythological beings, the stalwarts of English folklore, and a smorgasbord of anthropomorphic animals; the twist being the rarity of humans which lends the world a whole lot of charm. His world corresponded in large part to what was the shared fantasy lore of the day, so to speak. This suited Lewis well enough and allowed him to introduce enough specific elements to make the reader feel curious about the story. However, much like the worlds built by Dunsany, Narnia was shrouded in mystery and mysticism, and little was explored beyond the limited scope of the narrative. Therefore, when talking about the Narnia stories, it’s the characters you remember, and of course the glorious Cair Paravel, and the castle of the malevolent Queen Jadis. Very little of the world, even less of its nature, and none at all of the magic and its mysteries stand out, leaving the audience wistfully ignorant, but curious for more. While they were contemporaries, it is fair to say that Middle Earth had a greater influence on the growing fantasy genre as a whole than Narnia did.
The greatest example of this is the way the currently shared fantasy lore is so heavily derived from Tolkien’s works. Elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs and all the rest—with all their offshoots and half-breeds, name changes and iterations—have their roots firmly planted in Middle Earth, so much so that much of the genre comes off as ironically conservative, with subsequent additions to the formula tending to represent iterations on preexisting ideas rather than reinvention.
Moving forward, these two diverging trends became fundamental to the genre as a whole. While Tolkien’s vision might have had a greater foundational influence overall and would be a favorite in top lists of major influences for decades to come, Lewis’ method of feeding of the available and much expanded shared fantasy universe, became the path mainstream fantasy would end up following, leading the genre into a new flourish egged on by the pulp print genre and burgeoning comic book industry. Books, movies, TV series and games were all fertile soil for the fantasy genre’s growth, and classics—ranging from the Wheel of Time series to Conan the Barbarian and Xena: Warrior Princess, Willow, and DragonHeart—all helped define what fantasy was, could and should be, according to the emerging industry. While the field was growing, shared fantasy lore stayed much the same, a selection sampled here and there by creators whose emphasis leaned more and more towards appeal rather than vision, cliché over character, spectacle over substance.
Of all the varied realms created to house the myriad stories of this period, few remain vivid or alive to me. This isn’t for their lack of complexity, size, stories or characters, but because of their tendency to so closely resemble the rest of what is out there, with only minor variations, which shows little more than a love for an already established and explored convention. Of course, one should never discount the outliers, and there were (and are) heroes aplenty. They explored the wild ranges that spanned the ever-diminishing void between fantasy and other fiction, expanding the understanding of what the genre could embody and reveal, and how it might be remade. Writers like Gene Wolfe, George R. R. Martin, and Terry Pratchett, among many others, are deserving of the praise heaped upon them not just for standing out in a crowded field, but for creating stories that embody the most important thing in this genre and highlight what makes world-building so important—the fantastical, the believable, and the unexpectedly magical.
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Portrait by Filipe Pagliuso