All fiction – or most, at least – needs a setting, and the choice of where the story’s going to unfold can play a large part in its success or failure. What would Ulysses have been like if it hadn’t been set in Dublin, or To Kill a Mockingbird anywhere other than Alabama? Probably not the classics they are; but still, Joyce and Lee had it easy, by having ready-made locations they already knew. Not all books have such tailor-made settings, but it’s largely a matter of choosing from a finite list.
Fantasy’s another matter, not only because (with the notable exception of contemporary fantasy) the author must create somewhere for the story to play out, but because there are so many choices of how to approach this creation. Should it be in the remote past or future? Through a magic wardrobe? Or even on the back of a giant space-turtle?
All of these and far more have been used by the great fantasy authors of the past and present, but in the earliest works of fantasy, it was easy enough. If you wanted your hero to encounter gods, monsters and wonders, you just had to send him into distant parts of the world, preferably making sure this all took place a few centuries ago. Anything could happen.
This served for authors from Homer to Mallory, but a problem was gradually growing – as readers became more knowledgeable of distant countries and about the past (which, as we know, is another country too) the suspension of disbelief became harder. Not impossible, and it’s still not (the land of Oz is only a cyclone away from Kansas) but harder. Where else could fantasy stories be set?
Dreams and visions were used by writers as diverse as George MacDonald and Lewis Carroll, but that could only go so far. A better solution was simply to have a setting based on the real-world past, but not actually that past, as William Morris did in his fantasy novels and, to a lesser extent, Lord Dunsany did in The King of Elfland’s Daughter. James Branch Cabell worked a compromise between this and the old method by giving his stories a pseudo-historical setting, but letting his characters wander off the map into countries that never existed.
Lord Dunsany was perhaps the first to create a world for his stories that had no relation at all to our own, first in The Gods of Pegana (more a formal mythology than stories) and later in tales set in the same world. This kind of setting needs and offers no excuse: it merely exists, and the reader accepts that or not. It’s perhaps the purest kind of fantasy creation, and can be found in settings as diverse as Leiber’s Nehwon and the world of Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire. It’s very common in modern fantasy, and is also the type of setting I mainly use – so perhaps I’m biased.
This solution doesn’t suit everyone, though, and one of the earliest alternatives to be used was to establish that the fantasy world was another planet, often featuring an Earth character travelling there. This, obviously, overlaps with SF, but the “sword & planet” style of fiction pioneered by Edgar Rice Burroughs belongs more to the fantasy tradition than to SF, as does David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus – although Lindsay gains SF points for speculating that his planet orbits twin suns.
The planetary setting, though, is often nominal, as in E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, which is supposedly set on Mercury, even though the place is remarkably earthlike, and the characters quote from Greek and Renaissance poets. Or else it has no specific location in space, as with Pratchett’s Discworld.
For the fantasy author who doesn’t care for anything as literal as another planet, there’s always the possibility being reached by magic, of one kind or another. This was common in the tradition of fantasy started in the 1940s by the American magazine Unknown, where real-world characters get transported to some world or other, usually with a specific quirk: a world based a particular author’s work, a world where only primary colours exist, or something of the kind.
The magical portal most fantasy readers know, of course, is the wardrobe into Narnia. In fact, the wardrobe is only used in one book – in others, it’s coloured rings, a painting, or just Aslan’s call. Nevertheless, the advantage of the world through a magic portal is that the reader is introduced to it by someone who’s just as bewildered, just as much an outsider.
Of course, the fact that two worlds exist with a portal in between leads to the inevitable question – are there more? Lewis played with this idea in The Magician’s Nephew, and Andre Norton took it further in her Witch World series. This starts with a man from our world going through a portal to the witch world, and the first two books are largely from his point of view, but several other worlds figure in the series, either as the source of attacks or strange places that characters stumble into through magical traps.
Michael Moorcock developed this concept to its logical conclusion in his Eternal Champion mega-series by importing from science the concept of the multiverse: an infinite series of worlds that might be different from each other in one tiny detail, or might be unrecognisable. Moorcock linked all these up, not only by having events, characters and ideas reflecting and echoing from one world to another, but also by having characters who can slip between worlds and guest-star in each other’s stories.
A simpler solution is to set the story in either the remote past or the remote future. The two best-known cases of the former are Tolkien and Howard. They approached the concept in different ways, but the idea is the same. Howard superimposed the lands of his Hyborian Age onto the map of modern Europe, proposing a prehistoric civilisation which, among other things, reflected his concept of racial development (a model finally blown out of the water by genetic profiling).
Tolkien, by contrast, just tacitly portrayed his Middle Earth as being our world at some stage of the remote past. It’s tantalising to try to find direct parallels, both on the map and in the history (I’ve worked out, for instance, that the War of the Ring must have been fought somewhere between 6500 and 6000 BC) but that kind of thing is beside the point. Tolkien was creating a mythology for the modern world, not attempting to write a speculative history.
Like other planets, setting a story in the future seems to belong more in SF, but quite a number of fantasy authors have used it, starting with William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land in 1912, and including Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe and Terry Brooks. Many, though not all, of these are set on the Earth in its last days. Even more than the distant past, the far future gives the author a virtually free hand, since both the Earth itself and its people (if any) would be unrecognisable after the billions of years needed to bring it close to extinction.
On the other hand, some fantasy authors prefer to stay closer to home. Besides straightforward contemporary fantasy, whether it’s urban, paranormal or any other kind, a number of stories are set in specific mythical or legendary settings, including the Norse mythology of Poul Andersen’s The Broken Sword and Evangeline Walton’s series based on the Welsh Mabinogion. And, of course, Arthurian legend, whether it’s the Celtic Arthur of Marion Zimmer Bradley or the medieval Arthur in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.
This is only a very brief survey of the way fantasy settings have been used in the history of the genre, but I think I’ve covered the basic types. Of course, that almost guarantees that someone will come up with a category I’ve missed, or that the next great fantasy bestseller will have a setting unlike anything seen before.
I think, though, that these eleven are the main groups: the contemporary world; the variation on history; the existing myth; the real-world variant; the standalone world; the planet; the world through a portal; the multiversal world; the remote past; the remote future.
If anyone knows better, please enlighten us.