Writing Worlds, Reading Landscapes: An Exploration of Settings in Fantasy

Abstract: In fantasy literature, the setting is as important to the story as are characters and plot; but although many fantasy scholars have pointed this out, there is very little criticism that explores the role of the setting in fantasy. The aim of this study is to use a topofocal (place-focused) perspective to examine four aspects of the fantasy setting, including the way in which settings function in terms of their respective worlds and stories. Chapter 2 considers the division of a setting into text and image by investigating the fantasy map through a survey of a random sample of fantasy novels, as well as through a close reading of two maps from The Lord of the Rings. Fantasy maps, while generally adhering to a pseudomedieval aesthetics, may reveal much about the world of their respective works. Chapter 3 explores geographical divisions which also divide different realities. Borders between, for instance, mundanity and Faerie, and between the realms of life and death, may appear to be sharp demarcations but are often gradual transitions from one reality to another. Other areas – polders – are particular realities protected from the outside world by a boundary. These polders are bubbles of the past which extend the world’s topology as well as its history. The chapter demonstrates how a fundamental function for such boundaries and borders is to join opposing realities rather than keep them apart. Chapter 4 examines the relation between nature and culture in four fantasy cities. Each city portrays a highly dissimilar relation compared to the others: where nature is a symbol of just governance in one place, the element of opposition is used as part of a social critique in another; the two domains dissolve into each other in the third, and in the fourth city, nature is a liminal phenomenon between various cultural zones. In each story, however, the nature/culture relation displays a connection to a key theme or concern. Finally, chapter 5 shows how the fantasy genre allows the division between ruler and realm to be bridged, discussing the direct link between them. After an overview of such links, some specific tropes are considered, including the Fisher-King figure and the Dark Lord, and the importance of a non-metaphorical reading of the ruler/realm connection is demonstrated. The topofocal approaches in the four chapters reveal much about the works under consideration, such as their underlying attitudes and central concerns, and prove to be valuable critical strategies in demonstrating how plot, character, and setting are interwoven.

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