March 29th, 2012


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.