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Fantastic Settings

The forest, the Arcadian countryside, the city, the mountains -- ah, settings.  Let's leave aside the social and politics aspects for a bit (and why not?  The writers often leave them out entirely when choosing a setting) and consider just the physical aspects of the world, the archetypal settings and the contrasts between them, and the not quite metaphorical meaning of them.

Idyllic Arcadia:  rolling hills, stands of trees, sparkling streams, lambs frisking in the springtime, fields of crops. . . a likely location for the hero to grow up.  Unusually enough, you don't often get this as a bad landscape in fantasy, a countryside filled with ignorant, surly, willfully insular country bumpkins, though it appears in other genre.  The closest is the uninteresting backdrop to battles and campaigns in military stories.  Otherwise, once the hero grows up he tends to leave.  Often treated as a natural setting, ignoring the enormous effects agriculture and pasture have on the landscape.

The forest has several variations.  On one hand, if the hero knows it, and particularly if it's where he grew up, it tends not to have magic; if it's somewhere he happens on the way, on the other hand, it can hold marvels -- it can be replete with marvels.  And it can run the range from a comfortable refuge, through a strange, deep, ancient labyrinth of trees, to the utterly evil forest, radiating evil and populated by twisted trees and abominable monsters.

Though the later version often merges into the swamp, which is always evil, though often, oddly enough, passable.

The ancient city with its winding streets and fountains and towers, and walls.  And magic.  Many a hero grows up here, and when he does, often enough, he stays.  And why not?  The city is also the place of intrigue and politics, and heroes and villains can operate here without ever finding the stage cramped.  Though the city can also be a way station, especially for characters from elsewhere, where they stop to consult the Wise King or the Sage.  Or have a siege.  Obviously the best location for it, since it has the walls.  And deep underneath is a labyrinth of passages and rooms.  Sometimes verging on an underworld.

The wasteland.  This may be a desert, but not by nature.  The barren place, where thorns are the only thing that grows, the haunt of  goblins and other unpleasant beasties, kept withered and unpleasant by the malign presence of the Dark Lord.

What are some of the settings you remember best?  Do you recall other archetypal settings prevalent in your reading?

Part of


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 13th, 2010 02:17 pm (UTC)
Not exactly fantasy
I recently reread Mary Gentle's Golden Witchbreed, which is more-or-less science fiction, but includes some weird stuff about cross-breeding between species from different planets (lots of handwavium) as well as ruins of a fallen civilization. And the visiting Terran envoy, who has lots of adventures of both exploring and fleeing hostility, winds up fleeing into the swamps. They're scary, but they're also, and relatedly, the place of refuge of a different sentient alien species. Whatever those swamps are, they aren't evil, though the people Christie has been traveling with and trying to learn about think of them that way.
Feb. 13th, 2010 05:46 pm (UTC)
Re: Not exactly fantasy
There's always the chance to play with the metaphorical associations of the setting.
Feb. 13th, 2010 02:53 pm (UTC)
One of the most remarkable stories I ever read, as far as settings go, was Drujienna's Harp, by Ellen Kindt McKenzie. Children from this world travel to the other world, which is arranged in concentric circles. The center is dead flat and barren; people don't live on that surface, but underground. Further out there is a land of mists, and further out even then that is a broken, hot land, like a not-quite cooled skin of a volcano (only with broken rocks). Eventually you reach the sea. Everyone I know who's read the book has really vivid, visual memories of the landscape.

I spent a lot of childhood pretending to live in the world of giant trees that was Greensky, from Zilpha Keatley Snyder's trilogy (Below the Root, And All Between, and Until the Celebration). And I liked the landscape of Lawrence Yep's Sweetwater, a half-submerged city.

Edited at 2010-02-13 02:54 pm (UTC)
Feb. 13th, 2010 07:01 pm (UTC)
Oooo yeah -- striking arrangements of settings will get you, every time.
Feb. 13th, 2010 04:22 pm (UTC)
When I was growing up, forests and cold brick cities were something I saw only in fantasy novels. I grew up in Southern California, and the fantasy landscapes I latched onto were ones that looked most like the Mediterranean type landscape I grew up in. Brushlands, rolling hills, dry mountains, cold, rocky shorelines, foggy mornings, sunny afternoons, dry brown and gold summers, rainy green winters, and not all that many trees really stood out against the forested backdrop of a lot of high fantasy.
Feb. 13th, 2010 06:10 pm (UTC)
And after growing up in Connecticut -- hilly forest for me.
Feb. 13th, 2010 07:00 pm (UTC)
The hills north of Hampshire in Richard Adams' "Watership Down" as seen through the eyes of the rabbits is a wonderful if mundane setting.

Fritz Leiber's decadent and corrupt Lankhmar in all its wretched squalor becomes a character in its own right in Leiber's tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

These are two of my favorite memorable and diverse settings.

Feb. 13th, 2010 07:23 pm (UTC)
And they neatly showcase opposite metaphors for setting, the urban and the rural!

Hmmm. Except that what I really remember about Watership Down is the Orwellian warren.
Feb. 14th, 2010 07:47 am (UTC)
How many people here have heard of Oostvaardersplassen? Oostvaardersplassen being a reserve in the Netherlands given over to the wild, with only minimal (and I do mean minimal) human interference.

According to the research and work done there it would appear that the world's pre-human state was far more open than we think it was. In other words, when Tolkien's Noldorin awoke for the first time, it was beneath wide open skies with stands of trees in the distance, and they shared their world with bison and lion instead of fox and squirrel. :)

The dense forest, as in America's eastern woodland? The result of human interference. Before Man came herds of wisent and mastodon kept the land mostly clear, and herds of white tail roamed. What Man did after the mastodon were driven extinct was use fire as a substitute for the great beasts, but imperfectly. The modern white tail is largely a solitary animal not because the condition is natural to them, but because the land they live on is too densely vegetated to allow herding.

The Wikipedia page also mentions other re-wilding sites; such as in Siberia, where scientists hope to recreate the mixed grassland and woods pre-human Siberia was known for.

How do you see goblins, elves, and gnomes developing in a veldt as on the east African plains?
Feb. 14th, 2010 07:38 pm (UTC)
On what grounds do they believe that the woodland resulted form the advent of man? Elephants don't destroy woodland.
Feb. 15th, 2010 04:52 am (UTC)
You haven't seen savannah elephants in action, now have you? Bastard's'll tear down entire stands of trees, and are known to munch on shrubberies.

Then you have the wildlife reserve I mentioned above, where they found geese cropping down most everything growing. So effectively the silly beasts almost denuded the land. In the eastern US deer are known for munching on seedlings to the point forest cannot get established where it hasn't been, or re-established where it once was. The world aint always as we think it is.
Feb. 15th, 2010 05:13 am (UTC)
The deer are acting in the absence of predators.

And there's a difference between destroying trees and destroying a forest.
Feb. 15th, 2010 07:57 am (UTC)
Look into the subject and see what the people doing the research have to say.

As for destroying a forest, a few deer won't do it, but when they reach into the thousands it becomes a much different story. As somebody once said, "quantity has a quality all its own."

'Sides, think of the possibilities. :)
Feb. 15th, 2010 04:06 pm (UTC)
Give me a reference.

Besides, thousands of deer means lots and lots of wolves and panthers and mountain lions -- and no more thousands of deers.
Feb. 15th, 2010 05:36 pm (UTC)
The keyword is "rewilding". While Wikipedia is the first result, you're likely to get better information from Rewilding.org. Read up on the subject.
Feb. 15th, 2010 07:41 pm (UTC)
that site does not inspire confidence
Feb. 15th, 2010 05:12 am (UTC)
For your consideration I now present one man's look at the Oosvaarderplassen. It's long, has lots of pictures, and is very informative. Note that all that open space is thanks to the horses and red deer that live there. Them and the geese in the marshes.

Imagine an elven kingdom established ages ago in a world of veldt and savannah. A kingdom of pastoral nomads, riverside farmers, and marshland dwellers. A kingdom where the elves ride tough, hardscrabble horses tending red deer in great herds, while their cousins hunt elk in the scattered woods.

It is a harsh world, of harsh winters and near constant wars; for the elves are in a state of near constant feuding, when they're not using their skills and their magics to keep humans, goblins, and dwarfs alike in check. For the elves have long memories, and hold grudges and spites for a very long time.

Imagine elves who follow the way of the horse and the bow. Elves who dance with the wind, and lay out their dead for vulture and crow to take. Imagine elven convocations in tent cities that shiver with magic and color, and any oath sworn by the Huntsman and the Mare is upheld to the death.

Imagine a nation under threat by other peoples, peoples who think they know how the world should be. Imagine a race who long ago learned to accept the world as it is, but now face extinction from enemies who either will not understand, or who cannot understand.

Learning means having to change how you see the world. But it need not make the new world something to dread and avoid.
Feb. 15th, 2010 04:08 am (UTC)
Let's see. There are many that strike a chord somewhere.

Nantucket as depicted Nightbirds of Nantucket, by Joan Aiken. (Although not as well depicted as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase the image of a Puritan woman in a black frock running along a massive cannon stuck with me. It doesn't hurt that I have relatives on that island.)

The Shadowlands of Tad Williams new series. The idea of a moving line of shadow? Creepy.

So many places in Lord of the Rings ring true and deep. I think it's a combination of the names and the understated way in which he seizes the imagination wholly and utterly.

The cold and frozen world of Alan Dean Foster's Icerigger as well as his world-girdling forest of Midgard.

An ancient yet Nordic world with a massive fortress, dark and dim, and yet ancient shores of battle and Valkyries? All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear.

Alien ribs curling over piles of stone and train-tracks, rife with magic, insect headed women and talking cacti? One cannot escape the incredible savor of China Mieviell's Perdido Street Station. Not to mention the ocean-going archipelago of ships in The Scar.

The coal-burnt brass-girdled environs of London enveloped in dust and alien conquest: Whitechapel Gods

Ah, I fear I am getting far afield. Let me draw closer to true fantasy. I would have to say that the seaborn feel of Ursula K. LeGuin's excellent Earthsea trilogy never tires.

Hard upon its heels though - I read them less than a year apart IIRC - is the cold world of black fortresses and rare wizards as seen in Barbara Hambly's Darwath series.

No taxonomy would be complete without consider the Land. There is a place where one might feel transported. Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, standing upon Stormreach, and surveying the Land? Yes, I want to believe.

There must be many more. I think the supply of worlds and settings that engage our imagination is limitless.
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )


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