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The Journey in Fantasy

"There's a lot of travel in fantasy novels."

No shit, right?

I am currently reading George Martin's A Dance With Dragons and I was reminded of that statement, partly because it is the travel I dislike the most in fantasy books, that meandering, plot padding, vaguely historical tour of a made up land. I've had very little tolerance for that kind of travel since I was a teenager and read a lot of fantasy novels. I've been known to describe Lord of the Rings as a bunch of hobbits walking down a road, stopping for lunch, singing, looking at trees, oh, look, walking, walking for hundreds of pages.

But wait!

A demon!

Half a page later, back to walking for six chapters.

Still, there's no denying that the journey of a character, or a bunch of characters, is important in a fantasy novel. Perhaps moreso than other books of different genres, since the journey brings, first and foremost, a sense of scope, of grandeur. No matter the success or not of the novel or series, that scope is one of the things that fantasy plies it trade in. Some of the work--and indeed, this can be applied to speculative fiction in general--would probably be better served by toning down the scope of its vision, by authors turning their tales more personal, more intimate. I can't really count the number of times that I, personally, have felt that the world was in danger and that I needed to do something about it right this moment and so I set out from home with a backpack and my mates. Maybe other people feel that represent their lives. Who knows. I pity your friends if you do. Still, there is the counter argument that for fantasy the scope, the sweep, the importance of what is happening, is part of the attraction. Take that away and perhaps, like a Bollywood film without dancing, you have lost some of the charm that exists for a lot of people.

For a fantasy novel, it's easy to connect a journey to a strong end goal and the quest is an easy way to solve that. Pick up person A, go to location B, steal item D, return here for instruction H. I remember David Eddings' Belgariad, which I read when I was thirteen or fourteen, did that a lot. It continues still. Steven Erikson's series was not immune to item securing. There's nothing wrong with it as an idea, but it can be a lazy plot device, and Erikson uses it both in both a good way and a bad way in his Malazan series. He did the journey and quest best in Dead House Gates, at least to my mind, with the retreating army struggling from point to point, the assassin who takes a book to a prophet, and the immortal whose memory is deliberately broken, but who wanders the landscape aimlessly with a guard who hopes he never remembers. He does it to less success in House of Chains, where the barbarian character leads his war party and later goes searching for a sword and a horse. The difference between the two, I think, is that the second feels so contrived, so created, that you can feel the hand of the author guiding the characters back and forth, while in the first, the overall result is a much more organic one, with the hand of the author hidden behind characterisation and narrative. It'll be taste that lets you go either way on the decision of what you find works and what doesn't.

Still, there is something interesting in the idea of removing the journey of the fantasy novel. At the moment, I can't think of any fantasy novel without one journey, but I am sure it's out there.* The question that interests me, however, is if by the removal of the journey you can still let in that sense of scope, that grandeur of the world you have created--I guess it's not too difficult to weave in back flashes, use characters from different parts of the world, and so on and so forth. But still, it's interesting, at least as a vague sense of thought and nudging around, a conversation to have with yourself that doesn't require an answer.

* EDIT: I do know it's out there. People are listing them in the comments, but a note for people coming by, I was mostly talking about high fantasy, a terrible term I know.

Comments

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cassiphone
Mar. 29th, 2012 02:33 am (UTC)
I love fantasy without travel! I write it as much as I can, and love to read it too - what I call 'court' fantasy which revolves around, well, posh houses, is one of my favourites. I like the use of cities in fantasy for the same reason - cities are places where things HAPPEN, you don't have to go anywhere.

Basically I have aversions to horses and bracken (in real life as well as in fantasy fiction) so books without either of those things make me happy.

At a panel on fantasy at Swancon last year, Bevan McGuiness and I took great pleasure in discovering that we wrote completely oppositional fantasy - his mostly took place outdoors and in the country, while mine mostly took place indoors, and in the city.

WALLS ARE GOOD I LIKE WALLS, LET'S NOT GO OUT TODAY, THERE'S SOME EVIL TO FIGHT RIGHT HERE.
benpeek
Mar. 29th, 2012 03:23 am (UTC)
lol

but do you get that sense of scope and grandness inside the walls?

(it is true, i forgot all that kind of court fantasy stuff)
cassiphone
Mar. 29th, 2012 03:35 am (UTC)
I think you can in court fantasy because of the characters - grandness is kind of easy to come by in palaces.

(that feels terribly elitist, though)

My favourite Fafrd & the Grey Mouser stories are those about seedy city life, not travel.

Pratchett does brilliantly at bringing epic magical disasters down upon AnkhMorpork and his characters almost never travel (and when they do the travel is not part of the story except on the very rare occasion that it is)

I think magical school stories allow for scope & grandness - little travel in Harry Potter, for example, and indeed the camping bits of the final book were the bits most people hated. (understandable, really. CAMPING, after all)

It depends on your architecture, basically. If the building or city is majestic/important/shiny enough then you can get your epic in without leaving the house.

Simon R Green's Blood and Honour is my absolute favourite example of this - an actor brought in to impersonate a dying prince, piles of family politics and backstabbing, and a castle that's actively trying to eat everyone inside it. Gorgeous stuff.

(I also love his Hawk & Fisher series - police procedurals all within the walls of a fantasy city)

I've never read Gormenghast but more and more suspect that I should.
benpeek
Mar. 29th, 2012 03:58 am (UTC)
i tend to disagree that it is easy just because of the characters, but perhaps it is just my use of granduer that is doing it. for example, you can have characters of importance, but do you really get that sense of scope and grandeur? by that i mean the sense of the world, of the huge scope that is present in say, the martin books, tolkien's shit, and the like, you know?

don't get me wrong. i'm not here to say that travel is good or bad in a book, though i think a lot of people have read this post and thought it is (i mean, really, me, not liking something, imagine).

for example, i love the fafhrd and mouser stories in the cities, and indeed, the series as a whole. i love the novel where they tool around with skeleton girls and strange germans appear, but they're very small scope pieces, even when death takes part. the intimacy is part of the attraction and the joy, and as the series goes along, the characterisation of the two, and their flaws, becomes the most compelling part of it.

but, there's really not a sense of a huge canvas. a huge world unfolding. i reckon journeying, the almost travel writing of fantasy worlds, to a degree, is part of bringing in that sense of granduer, or of scope, if you will.
cassiphone
Mar. 29th, 2012 07:12 am (UTC)
That's a fair point, though I do think you can get that sense from fantasy that feels epic (the Feist/Wurtz Empire series comes to mind) in other ways.

Travel is certainly one of the easiest ways to portray the 'entire world' aspect of epic fantasy, but I don't think it's always necessary. As long as something massive and important is at stake, it can happen in a single place.

(or, it can happen across a variety of locations without the actual travel being an important part of the story)

The travel & broad canvas aspect certainly is the reason that it's so hard to write short fiction that fits into that particular subgenre of fantasy, though...

I haven't read Ice and Swords and Thrones etc, but is there a lot of travel in the Martin books? I got the impression that it was based mostly in one kingdom.
benpeek
Mar. 29th, 2012 07:39 am (UTC)

the feist wurtz series had a whole seperate worlds thing going on, didn't it? like, it was part of feist's riftwar saga (i only read the first one, but it was at a time in my life when i was just giving up on that kind of fantasy book and moving into new interests--i was like, sixteen, maybe?).

the martin books have heaps of travel, to be honest. in first book there's a large section of it dedicated to moving the stark family from one side of the continent to the other. the bastard son moves to a frozen wall. in a 'horse lord' like continent, a girl is sold into marriage with a horse lord who, you know, travels across his continent. the dwarf goes up a mountain, then down... the characters are often just at the other end of continents, too, so it's not like they link up in all his travel.

its actually fairly impressive how far he has spun all his webs and plot lines out, but as every book goes on, you see him losing more and more control over it, i reckon. there's always the chance he'll draw it together in an impressive way, and why not? it's his creation. but it's a bit all over the place right now and treading water as it moves everyone into final positions.
jack_ryder
Mar. 29th, 2012 03:06 am (UTC)
I don't think "Little Big" has the journey (but I think you're mainly talking about High Fantasy.)

"Ombria in Shadow" by McKillop didn't have the journey in it, but then it was a really slim volume.
benpeek
Mar. 29th, 2012 03:23 am (UTC)
yeah, i wasn't very clear that i was talking mostly about the high fantasy stuff. i never heard of the mckillop, so i'll go have a looksee...
alan_baxter
Mar. 29th, 2012 03:44 am (UTC)
What about Perdido Street Station? No journey there. The owl dude (can't remember the name) was on a journey, but he'd reached journey's end at the start of the book. Everything else happened in the city, and incredibly well-realised it was too.
benpeek
Mar. 29th, 2012 03:47 am (UTC)
the end of the journey is still a journey though, i would argue.
alan_baxter
Mar. 29th, 2012 03:55 am (UTC)
Well, by that rationale, every part of a story is a journey of some type.
benpeek
Mar. 29th, 2012 04:05 am (UTC)
that's probably fair enough. almost every story is, one way or another (you either journey physically or you journey emotionally). however, the real question i guess would be if you get that huge sense of scope and worldly stuff going on in the book by just being in the city?

alan_baxter
Mar. 29th, 2012 04:13 am (UTC)
I think in Perdido you certainly do. Can't bring any others to mind off-hand.
benpeek
Mar. 29th, 2012 04:10 am (UTC)
there's also perhaps the point to be made that melville's stuff is a different sub genre of fantasy as well than the one i was talking about.
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