Swinging A Stick: How Landscape And Childhood Are Key To The Continued Popularity Of Fantasy Fiction

Once at primary school I tried to convince my teacher that we needed a new word – or at least that we needed one that might exist already, but that we’d somehow forgotten. This is going to be a piece partly about words, and “fantasy” was one that I was never totally happy with. It lacked, as I saw it, the generic precision of “science-fiction,” and I wanted a more specific description for that strand of fantasy storytelling and world-building that (I did not really know at the time, but would have pretended to if asked) has flowed from Tolkien’s consolidation of elves and dragons, dwarves and orcs. I wanted to be able to pin, with a single word, that mixture of magic and folklore, that particular set of imaginative boundaries with which I was so often engaged and so thoroughly obsessed. The best I could come up with was “fantamystical”, which, if you’ve been paying attention for the last twenty years, did not catch on.

Luckily it’s been a very kind twenty years for this area of fiction, to the point where we hardly need the word fantamystical at all (although I am willing to give it one last push if you guys are). A combination of, among other things, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, and screen retellings of The Lord Of The Rings and A Song Of Ice And Fire have made my adolescent anxieties about the ambiguous categorizations of fiction redundant, leaving me with merely dozens of other anxieties, and us with Tolkien-fenced fantasy imprinted on our culture, and our games (this is being written in the gap between the arrival of Pillars Of Eternity and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, with Dragon Age: Inquisition still questing, exploring and adventuring in the background).

Although I might not have known it, there was always a connection between my love of fantasy and landscape. The feeling I had as that 10-year-old boy picking up a stick in the woods near my home on the North Downs in Kent – a stick that could be a sword or an axe, a world of chalk hills and falling leaves that could be the wilderness in any story I wanted – is the same tingling sense of possibility I felt on the shores of Azeroth, and on the parapets of Lordran.

I think this is above all the reason for the continued popularity of fantasy, and for those twenty kind years. There is something about pre-industrial settings which brings us closer to the world around us, and which makes a forgotten knowledge of that world necessary again. This isn’t just attractive because it gets us away from cities and connectedness and work, but specifically because it’s nostalgic for a time none of us can really remember when the earth was more important to people, in general: a vague, utopian not-now.

Tolkien, like the genre he forged, is obsessed with topography. Great green swathes of The Lord Of The Rings consist of detailed, affectionate descriptions of hills, dales, leaves and branches. In a letter to the Telegraph in 1972 Tolkien wrote that Lothlórien, the forest realm of the Elves, was “beautiful because there the trees were loved”, and the same is true of every meticulous glimpse of Middle-earth to emerge from the author’s doting pen. He loved it, and it was beautiful.

Rings further established a geographical precedent for fantasy with something that a teenaged Terry Pratchett found especially appealing. Boys in Pratchett’s school recommended Tolkien’s epic, for one reason in particular. “It’d got maps in it,” he later wrote, which “struck me at the time as a pretty good indicator of quality.” According to the author John Mullan, such cartography isn’t just an indicator of quality, but “how you know you are beginning a work of fantasy fiction: you open the book to find an apparently hand-drawn map of lands unknown to any previous atlas-maker.” These books, this way of telling stories and of imagining ourselves, is defined by place. And now, so are the games that follow them.

A recurring staple of fantasy games is a focus on location and environment, and especially on teeming open worlds and the ability to explore and move through them. It’s the same old pleasure, translated into a new medium: very directly in Shadow Of Mordor, where the game’s defining hook is stalking Orc across the open plains of the Black Land and occasionally watching them take a non-canonical piss in the bushes, and similarly in the sweeping terrain and varied panoramas of Skyrim, Dragon Age and World Of Warcraft. Dark Souls doesn’t have the same primal connection with soil and rock, but does something else with place instead, re-figuring our relationship with the steepled, mapless architecture around us, telling us a story of possibility – we can go anyway we see, if we can find it – and whispered myth as we maze through its circuits and short-cuts.

The same is true of this year’s big fantasy additions. The launch trailer for Pillars Of Eternity opens with a slow crawl over one of those apparently hand-drawn maps, full of place names like Pearlwood Gulf, Twin Elms and Loghome. The most recent trailer for The Witcher 3 is just over two minutes long and, while full of post-Game Of Thrones sex, violence and Charles Dance, still crams in shots of grasslands, lakes, mountains, trees, crags, woods, valleys, cliffs, caves, clearings, horses, wolves, crows, bears, snow, fire, sunsets, seas, clouds, full moons, farms, stalagmites, stalactites and marshes. These fantasy games are selling themselves just as fantasy always has: as landscapes of iron, rock and wood, as much about places to be, as whatever story might unfold there.

The nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s new book Landmarks is full of word-lists like this, words he has collected and that describe with fading precision the ways people have enjoyed or worked with landscape. The book, like fantasy fiction, is about reconnecting with the land, although not through pre-modern myth but rather the arrowed specificity of words. Macfarlane writes about a language that we’re slowly losing, along with “a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place.” His book is about the changing ways we live, and the perceptions and experiences, casualties of these changes, that might disappear without conservation.

“Some of the terms I collected mingle oddness and familiarity in the manner that Freud calls uncanny: peculiar in their particularity, but recognisable in that they name something conceivable, if not instantly locatable. Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter. It is thought to derive from the Old English ammel, meaning “enamel”, and is an exquisitely exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen, but never before named.”

It was exactly this sense of the uncanny, an agitation on the periphery of my literacy, that caused me to reach for a clearer, better way of describing that fugitive phenomenon of fantasy and the entire world that comes with it, one that at ten years old I felt I knew more intimately than any outsider.

Another thing that Macfarlane’s book makes clear is that, with my stack of Forgotten Realms novels and imaginative tears on the Downs, I was far from an unusual child. Landmarks has a beautiful chapter about children and nature in which Macfarlane, through the work of educator and author Deb Wilenski, explains how they perceive landscapes very differently to adults, as riddled with portals and doorways. “A hollow in a tree is a gateway to a castle. An ant hole in dry soil leads to the other side of the world. A stick-den is a palace.”

“Place,” Macfarlane writes, “is somewhere they are always in, never on.”

And this, of course, is a feature of children’s fantasy literature, which is so often about doorways and passages to other worlds – to Narnia, or Elidor, or the linked dimensions of the Northern Lights. They are about permeable landscapes containing unbound mystery and potential, and portals which, as we harden into adulthood, slowly close and become solid. Except, perhaps now they don’t have to.

At one point in Landmarks Macfarlane describes Hinchingbrooke Country Park as experienced by a group of reception class schoolchildren observed by Wilenski. He writes about how the 170 acre grounds stretched beyond conventional space and instead became…

”…a limitless universe, worm-holed and Möbian, constantly replenished in its novelty. No map of it could ever be complete, for new stories seethed up from its soil, and its surfaces could give way at any moment.”

Which sounds to me just like the treacherous, invigorating fabric of game worlds, which are, after all, simply a new form of portal through which we can still access the landscapes and fantasy worlds that seem so indivisible to us as children.

It would be naive to suggest that this virtual communion with the land is any kind of substitute for a physical reconnection with nature – our digital preoccupations are more often than not things that keep us inside, after all – but I think that games are a way to prolong and escape back to the magical ways of seeing that possess us as children. A case in point: over the last year I have been toying with the idea of starting a tumblr called “Places I have been that look like Dark Souls”, which would include photographs I’ve taken of, among other places, the cinder-toffee ruins of Whitby Abbey perched on a Yorkshire cliff-top, the submerged brick road leading to the daunting island of St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall and, a little further up the Atlantic coast, the winding paths that cling to the rock at Tintagel, and the irresistible entrance of Merlin’s Cave underneath.

These are places I might not have visited, and certainly would not have seen with the same eyes, if I had not played Dark Souls, and World Of Warcraft, and dozens of others which have kept me in touch with that ten-year-old swinging sticks ever since I was that ten-year-old swinging sticks. I see a triangular relationship between fantasy, and landscape, and childhood, and I see games as a way of sustaining this relationship, and keeping me rushing over and through wild places and stories that you may or may not wish to describe as fantamystical.

91 Comments

  1. 7hink says:

    While I don’t wish to describe anything whatsoever as fantamystical, I did really enjoy this article a lot.

  2. The Godzilla Hunter says:

    I am partial to the word “fantasmal”.

    • mandrill says:

      too easily confused with ‘phantasmal’ when spoken. ppl might think you were talking about ghosts and the like.

  3. SanguineBrah says:

    “There are not many persons who know what wonders are opened to them in the stories and visions of their youth; for when as children we listen and dream, we think but half-formed thoughts, and when as men we try to remember, we are dulled and prosaic with the poison of life. But some of us awake in the night with strange phantasms of enchanted hills and gardens, of fountains that sing in the sun, of golden cliffs overhanging murmuring seas, of plains that stretch down to sleeping cities of bronze and stone, and of shadowy companies of heroes that ride caparisoned white horses along the edges of thick forests; and then we know that we have looked back through the ivory gates into that world of wonder which was ours before we were wise and unhappy.”
    -H.P. Lovecraft, from ‘Celephaïs’

    • bog_god says:

      Thank you for this. I’ve not read a lot of Lovecraft, but what I have stood out for exactly this kind of observation. Even if it was usually being used to give me the willies…

    • eggy toast says:

      He called his cat Nigger, and he hated blacks, Jews and women.

      Please stop quoting him as if he were not a horrible disgusting human being whose works should be forgotten.

      • Premium User Badge

        Gassalasca says:

        If his works should be forgotten then it’s because he was a terrible writer, and most certainly not because he was a nasty, bigoted person. Not separating the art from the artist and hers or his personal life is one of the most immature things one can do.

        • eggy toast says:

          It should be forgotten for both reasons, but continuing the cultural legacy of an embittered hateful bigot is something worth avoiding.

          • jrodman says:

            I think the implication that you HAVE to consider the politics and personality of the artist is misguided, but so too is the one that you CAN’T. Feel free to reject a creator’s works because of their politics or not. It’s valid either way. In my opinion at least.

            Personally I’m working my way though the weird fiction library for purposes of gaming. I’m choosing not to worry too much about Lovecraft’s racism, because that’s not really what I’m doing it for, and I have enough racism from the current era to worry about, in the world and internalized both.

          • Bereil says:

            In your mind should we be forgetting and destroying every piece of writing or art because the person who created it may have been an asshole?

            Simply put you don’t have to admire the person to admire what they created.

          • pipman3000 says:

            who gives a shit?

          • eggy toast says:

            People who aren’t hateful bigots are “who gives a shit”

            Clearly not you though

          • jikavak says:

            You are being hateful and bigoted right now though

        • Fnord73 says:

          Sorry,Im militantly anti-racist but I dont agree that you should evaluate pieces of art based on the authors personal conviction.T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound are still some of the finest poets ever among men.

      • bog_god says:

        While I won’t argue to know more on this than you, I’d wager that if we cut from our cultural heritage every work by a person who’s views we now consider to be deplorable for whatever reason, we’d have a pale and shallow pool to draw on. He may have been a nasty man even for his time, but I wouldn’t argue that he and his works should be forgotten because of it. And the excerpt above is still brilliant in my opinion – just ignore the citation if it offends.

      • pipman3000 says:

        and literally every british politician and celebrity is a child rapist but i dont see nerds like you tossing all your doctor who dvds into a bonfire because it paid for all those child molestation parties

      • PerspectiveDesigns says:

        I disagree. Just because someone is a terrible person does not make their arts less valid. I still like watch The Cosby Show.

      • Premium User Badge

        syllopsium says:

        Let me guess : Lovecraft’s cat was black. Whilst a case can be made for racism, and other bigoted views (yes, I have read his works) , it has to be seen in the context of the time. His cat was named the N word because it was black. This wasn’t a rarity or necessarily active racism.

        Britain had some less than worldly views in general, and this wasn’t in modern times. Not that this excuses his other viewpoints but his cat is a bad example.

        I think it may be necessary to be quite careful when restricting what media you consume based on moral viewpoints. Personally I think the Gallagher brothers are mostly oxygen thieves, but they have written a few excellent songs.

        • eggy toast says:

          No, he did it explicitly because he was a racist, he lived in New England and it was seen as socially inappropriate at that time and place, thought clearly not as much as it would be now. This is not a “oh its just a romance language word for black” thing, he repeatedly refers to black people as subhuman in many of his writings personal and professional.

      • ffordesoon says:

        No one that important to the development of fantastic literature – indeed, important to our culture as a whole – should be forgotten. Nor should his abhorrent views be erased, minimized, or ignored. Hell, the same should be true of all artists. We always do the future a disservice when we whitewash or edit history to suit our preferred narrative.

      • Niko says:

        Sorry to break it to you, but by today’s standards almost everyone prominent who ever lived was a jerk.

        • Allied says:

          So, it’s ok, then. I’ll just go and enjoy some Mein Kampf… in the spirit of the time.

        • eggy toast says:

          I mostly bring it up because it’s a great litmus test when someone says they prefer reading corny pulp novels to, you know, human decency. It’s one of the quickest and most reliable ways to separate the most horrible people out of any given group of nerds.

          • Flatley says:

            Keep lecturing on “human decency,” dude. You’re a real bright shining star on that front.

      • Matt7895 says:

        What a delicate little flower you are. I take it you didn’t take History or English Literature at school. If you had, then you would know that when studying historical persons, it is logical and rational to judge them by the standards of the time and not to apply modern morals and ethics to them. By the standards of today, people like Winston Churchill would be considered out and out racists, but the standards of the time judged him a hero. The Mein Kampf / Hitler analogy doesn’t hold up, though. Almost the entire world judged him to be a horrific, racist psychopath even by the standards of the 1930s and 40s.

        But I guess everyone is a monster to you. Except yourself, of course.

  4. anark10n says:

    You’re just going to incite the wallpaper junkie in me like that and not provide larger versions of those pictures. Or even sources. Not cool, dude, not cool.

    • jerf says:

      To partially help you: the 1st, the 3rd and the 4th ones are screenshots from Witcher 3, and can be found in good quality e.g. here: link to forums.cdprojektred.com

    • montorsi says:

      And if you are in dire need of some more, behold the power of Frostbite: link to imgur.com

    • JB says:

      And I’m pretty sure the last two are the author’s own, hence the lack of source.

    • anark10n says:

      Big thanks to all for the sources. I can’t play these games so I couldn’t readily recognize them. And i, um, seem to have forgotten that Google has an image search … wow.

  5. Kala says:

    Lovely.

  6. simontifik says:

    ‘Fantamystical’ almost sounds like the French concept of terroir.

  7. theapeofnaples says:

    I enjoyed reading this on a cold, windy evening.

  8. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Wonderful article. I’ve made many fantasy maps over the years, and spent many hours crafting them as a child & teen. Now Campaign Cartographer is an enjoyable way to spend a few hours on a winter evening.

    To this day, when browsing for reads, if the book has a good map in it I’m mostly sold. Conversely, any high fantasy novel without a map is dross and is not fit of the name.

    I can still remember the maps that grabbed me the most – and sometimes it is the simplest ones – Earthsea by LeGuin for example. The islands unvisited in her novels led me to imagine all kinds of societies and stories still to be told.

  9. sillythings says:

    I so strongly agree with the final paragraph. Though I am not as taken to RPGs myself; that sense of appreciating real places and of an increased connection with nature because of video games? That’s exactly what Proteus did for me. To quote myself (from my review of the game on Steam):
    But what Proteus succeeded at most for me personally, and why I keep coming back to it in my mind is this: It is a game that loves nature, and its love for it is infectious. It appreciates the seasons and the changes they bring. It knows the power of a beautiful sunset and the serenity of a summer night’s soundscape. It understands the dread and beauty of autumn leaves signifying the passing of time. It’s familiar with the romance of a melancholic winter’s eve. It manages to capture the essence of both nature’s biggest hits and the underappreciated details and distills them into this simplistic, impressionist pixel painting. The fact it goes for abstraction rather than realism is part of it’s power, I think. It lets you fill in the gaps, pull from your own pool of memories; supports reminiscence. It lodges itself in your mind and after having played it; it will make you recall it, remember it’s sounds and the feelings it brought up when you encounter that which it portrays in real life. And then, you will learn to love the game even more than you might have loved it when you played it.

    Another example (and one that’s closer to being “fantamystical” than Proteus) is Sword & Sworcery EP. To those that haven’t played it, the game quite cleverly hides away certain content behind specific phases of the moon – as in, our actual lunar cycle, in real time. So when I was playing the game, I suddenly found myself looking up at the sky and paying much closer attention to the moon than I think I had ever done before; and that was truly magical.

    • yhancik says:

      Yes! And Eidolon felt even more like that to me. For all its flaws, it gave me a stronger feeling of being in a place – maybe related to the way it made me feel lost in it. In comparison, Proteus (for all its qualities <3) feels more like a landscape.

      And both manage to not have orcs and dragons :p

  10. Dorga says:

    Pffft, I never understood the allure of this fantamystical genre.

    • yhancik says:

      Neither have I, which is why I was interested to try to understand its appeal better.

      The nostalgia for the pre-industrial, utopian not-now makes perfectly sense to me. But I still don’t understand why, of all the possible not-nows, we so often chose to fetishise the European Medieval period (which is hardly utopian), and why we constantly fill these with fantasy staples such as orcs, elves, dragons, big dudes with big swords, thin dudes with bows, magicians in robes, skeletonish/evil/livingdead bad-dudes, castles and stuff.

      That they’re otherworldly fantasies if maybe only half of the story. I’m afraid their success also comes from their comforting familiarity.

      • yhancik says:

        (ugh, pardon my Saturday’s bad English – I miss the edit button)

      • Blackcompany says:

        Well said. I’ve often thought the same thing – that we fixate on these things not because we long for something different, but because these staples of the ‘fantasy’ genre are familiar and comforting.

        What I would not give for a little more ‘fantasy’ in my games and books and movies. Worlds like those in Oblivion’s Shivering Isles, or Morrowind. Like Zelazny’s Courts of Chaos. Realms that are not familiar and that do not feel like some sort of comforting home away from home. Worlds like those seen in the Dark Souls games, that perhaps feature familiar elements in terms of nature or architecture but which utilize those things and other, less familiar ones to create a sense of place that is almost…alien.

        We need more Alice in Wonderland and less Tolkien in our fantasy these days, methinks.

        • jrodman says:

          Yeah, I think this is pretty much it.

          There’s enough of an open door to imagination with “magic” and “kingdoms” but yet there’s such a well-established set of general expectations that we don’t have to work too hard at it. A comfortable and familiar playspace.

          Beginning to play Dungeons & Dragons was almost trivially easy for me as a kid. Trying to play other RPGs was a stretch as I tried to figure out how the imagination space worked with other players.

          With a really talented and motivated group, digging around in a brand new space is a superior experience, but finding people capable of doing so in a way that works for everyone is super hard.

  11. Nereus says:

    The whole reason I play games is because I live in a society that doesn’t appreciate nature, and going places where I can appreciate it is less than cost effective on a disability benefit.

    I remember spending hours playing Crysis when it first came out. Not shooting Koreans, or enjoying those nifty suit powerups. No. I spent hours just playing on the beach in the starting area, watching the light shimmer off the water and the trees sway in the ‘wind’. I get slightly sad that instead of preserving these places we are tearing them up to build machines to render visual representations of them.

    It reminds me of a story which represents humanity in a microcosm. There was once a lone tree in the Sahara desert. It was able to survive because its roots extended far enough down that it could still reach water. IT was the only tree for miles around, and had become a navigational landmark. One day a drunk driver hit it with their car, and killed it. So we replaced that tree with a metal sculpture of said tree. True story.

  12. PerspectiveDesigns says:

    This reminds me of a wonderful time in my youth when my family moved out of an apartment and into a house with a large yard. The yard had a grassy area with a few treas, a large section with pebbles, and then a small corner filled with dirt and surrounded by dark trees. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful yard, but I thought it was fantastic. I imagined each section of the yard as vast swathes of land. I built tiny dirt hills in the corner that I pretended were mountains. The playground in the middle was a castle. During the Winter my friends and I would build small snow forts and duke it out, or fight to the death with sticks. As a child it truly felt magical.

    • Blackcompany says:

      That is truly wonderful. Sounds fantastic. In more ways than one.

      One of the reasons Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 resonate with me the way they do – despite the small frustrations I find in them from time to time – is the place or area names. Blighttown. Forest of the Fallen Giants. Anor Londo. The Lost Bastille.

      In my youth I lived in very rural area. Patches of woodland and even some deep forest surrounded our land. We even had one very small, deep, dark patch on the property for quite some time – no larger than half a football field square, but it was deep and dense because years ago someone had dumped barbed wire fence in it and no one wanted to deal with digging the stuff out. So it became the ‘Barb Wire Pit’ for us.

      The church behind our privacy fence had its own distinct identity as The Churchyard. And the woods beyond were Mossland or the Moss Wood, deep and dark and filled with grey moss hanging from the wizened trees like the beards of old men who’d seen the years and found them hollow or tiresome. To the left of that were The Woods – a lightly forest area where we built forts and such, and half a mile or so beyond them, The Deep Woods, dense with huge old trees and dark even in the light of day.

      And each of these areas – and others – had its own names and with those names its own identity in our minds. Like the places or areas of Dark Souls, the Deep Woods were a distinctly different place than the Moss Woods or Fern Woods or Barb Wire Pit. We’d play some games in one patch because – even though we didnt realize it at the time on any conscious level – that place fit the game better than any other around.

      We’d only do survival or lost in the woods type games in the Woods, on the edge of the deep and staring into those dark woods. Likewise, Commandos were in the Fern Woods and Barb Wire Pit and the Old Barn in between the two, with the large garden as the backdrop. Because it just felt right – even if we didnt understand it or why.

  13. AngoraFish says:

    A very perceptive article.

  14. ExitJudas says:

    It is a rare gift to read an article that puts feelings you have had for your entire adult life into words you have never been able to find yourself. Thank you very much.

  15. Elliot Lannigan says:

    Thank you for linking to that Guardian article. It and your own article are two of the best I’ve read in a very long time. And it’s true, landscapes are dominantly the #1 reason I enjoy fantasy in all mediums, and by extension fantasy video games. Whether its an RPG or a Far-Cry-like FPS or a walking simulator, exploring fascinating new places is always at the forefront of my gaming motivations.

  16. LennyLeonardo says:

    Love this article. Reminds me of the best TV intro sequence ever:

  17. jnqvist says:

    What a fantastic article. Yes,truly,there is such a thing as this bond,this ‘triumvirate’ that you spoke of in the final sentence,and even though I was never able to point a finger at it myself,I always felt the same way,especially the landscape and childhood part of it,with fantasy being a manifestation of both… It is odd and sad that people often give up on what they were,knew and felt when they were ‘little’ so to speak,or at least younger,as they grow up. Sometimes it seems to me that people knew more when they were little and still not versed in the ‘ways of the world’,because they understood opportunities,possibilities and the magic that the unknown carries. I love RPS because of gems like this one. And I liked the book that you used the paragraphs from,it also seems like worthy of a read.

  18. jnik says:

    Seriously consider reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. Whatever other strengths and weaknesses it has (and oh boy, both in spades), it is dripping in place. Supposedly the project got started from his desire to go hiking on Mars, and it shows.

  19. eggy toast says:

    Sometimes I dream that Tolkien had died in the war and never wrote a published work.

    It’s not that his works are bad, but they dominate everything that has followed like an iron fist.

    • eggy toast says:

      Also while I say “not bad” no matter how much one likes them they are massively flawed in a large number of ways.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      I agree, but it’s also worth remembering that what he wrote was hugely influenced by story structures, imagery, characters and details that were already part of his culture (had to resist saying “our culture” there). You might as well lay the blame on the writer(s) of Beowulf, or everyone living in Norther Europe for the last couple of thousand years.

      • yhancik says:

        But would that part of our (?) ancient culture be so omnipresent if it wasn’t for the success of Tolkien & co? Very personally, I don’t remember being exposed in my childhood/eduction to a disproportionate amount of medievalish history/fiction. On the other hand, I strongly remember stories about prehistory (weird animals, dinosaurs, dawn of man!), ancient egypt (woah, mysterious pyramids, weird animal-faced deities), the Gauls (I’m Belgian), stuff that happens inside us (there was a fascinating cartoon about that) or aliens (ufo sightings were very popular here when I was 7-8 years old). This is more what I feel as “my culture” than orcs and elves.

        • LennyLeonardo says:

          I think it’s always there -our folkloric heritage as it were- but Tolkien put an “acceptable” face on it. Personally I prefer the gnarly old traditional stories of the sort that influenced the Hellboy comics, or the stories in the Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell universe. But I do feel like those stories are part of a much larger tradition which is culturally “mine”. Perhaps I’m kidding myself about that, though, because I like folklore so much.

      • eggy toast says:

        I understand your point, it’s very difficult for anyone creating anything to be divorced from their cultural legacy, and Tolkien certainly went out of his way to embrace that legacy. The problem is that instead of his version being a diverging path of the cultural stream, it turned into a Three Gorges Dam and not only drowned out everything similar that was in place but confined everything that followed to a very tiny path.

        • bamjo says:

          I remember reading an interview with a noted science fiction author (Asimov?) discussing the stagnation of the fantasy genre in which he referred to the “tyranny of Tolkien.”

          I agree with everything that’s been said, but I think that the Tolkien milieu is more prevalent in movies and games these days than in literature, especially given the rise in so called “urban fantasy” that seems to dominate shelves. Granted I haven’t read much fantasy since I was young, but I recall series like the Wheel of Time diverging from Tolkien’s tropes.

          I stopped reading fantasy because it felt very similar between different authors and series, not in the green orcs vs. skinny elves vs. diggy dwarves sense, but in that the authors couldn’t seem to break out of the stereotypical hero’s journey, band of adventurers style story structure.

          I suppose blame for that could be laid at Tolkien’s feet, but I feel that the real culprit has more to do with author’s and publisher’s fear of low book sales and entrenched reader expectations for escapist fiction in general.

          • eggy toast says:

            I agree that its not Tolkien’s fault, he just did such a good job that everyone else tried to imitate it. Having said that, I personally feel like even fantasy stuff that tries to diverge from his legacy still winds up feeling very much informed by his writings.

            It’s funny that you mention Asimov, I was just saying recently how marked the difference is between the legacy of Asimov, Clarke or Bradbury compared to Tolkien. All still widely read authors certainly and all left a huge legacy on sci-fi books and movies and stuff, but none of them had nearly the monolithic towering domination over future generations that Tolkien wound up with.

  20. Mezmorki says:

    Indeed, in a game like Skyrim, for me the ONLY appeal is in the immersion and the aesthetic experience of navigating the landscape. From a Narrative perspective the game isn’t terribly interesting, from a plot, quest, and player driven standpoint. From a Challenging gameplay standpoint it is nearly laughable. Curious that I should find the landscape so compelling and in the same stroke Bethesda gives the players to tools to skip it. Bethesda does many things, but it’s their world building that shrines brightest.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      Same. That’s the reason mods like Frostfall and such are so appealing. They help to connect you with the landscape. And I agree that fast travel really yanks you back out of it. I liked the compromise of taxi-carriages, though I wish they’d been fully integrated, like the ones in Red Dead Redemption. That game was a more successful fantasy than Skyrim in my opinion, but I don’t want to go off-topic.

  21. cpt_freakout says:

    Great stuff! Our daydreams are what keeps Romanticism’s flame alive.

  22. Ex Lion Tamer says:

    Just a fantastic piece, and quintessentially RPS. Somewhere Jim is nodding in approval.

  23. Tim James says:

    Posting pictures of real-life Dark Souls places seems to be a popular past-time. If you capture your own images, you’ll certainly be contributing to the cause.

  24. Sarfrin says:

    Great article. Just the sort of thing I look to RPS for.

  25. Allied says:

    What’s with the Freudian junk? A weirdo with a disturbed and twisted attitude towards sex, who made up reams of nonsense on the spot to sucker in desperate fools for cash and power, a living mockery of (and possessed of a mocking attitude toward) the scientific method, who never conducted an experimented or indeed ever provide any evidence for the bizarre beliefs he spouted (preferring to, as with his “hypotheses”, merely invent them on the spot to suit the mood), who destroyed all the lives he touched as some sort of self-appointed arbiter on the human condition. The only two things Freud contributed were the backlash in the real, scientific community of psychologists that adopted a radical behaviorism to combat his bunk pseudoscience – though this indirect benefit is counterbalanced by the fact you have the grim, brainwashing attitude of modern advertising. Of course, Freud (and his descendants) never contributed any actual fact to the field, but they did broker the then newfangled idea that advertisers shouldn’t inform people in a matter-of-fact manner as to the relative merits of a product, but try to bamboozle them with pretty images unrelated to the actual product or service.

    So, maybe quit with the Freud crap in future and let a mad man and his crazy ideas rest where they belong – with the likes of faith healers and psychic surgeons.

    Ok? Thanks!

    • Wednesday says:

      Oh dear lord, really?!

      The man was a pioneer. The fact that Isaac Newton’s theories a are no longer the bleeding edge does not make the man a charlatan, or his work useless. Hell, you can say the same thing about Einstein. Human discovery is an iterative process, we stand on the shoulders of minds long passed. What Freud did was open up a field of knowledge before brutally misunderstood. My history of the subject is not perfect, so I am sure there is a legion of others who deserve equal credit, but that hardly makes him unique.

      A “mad man” with “crazy ideas.” Is this really a sober assessment? Or are you, like many I’ve met before, damning a whole man and a whole philosophy based on a dislike of elements of it. I did the same with Nietzsche myself.

      • Allied says:

        Truly expert troll. My congratulations. You almost had me. Right up until Nietzsche. That I’m afraid, was a little too obvious.

        • eggy toast says:

          I’m not fan of Freud either but he demonstrably got many things correct as evidenced by the fact that his daughter used his work to revolutionize the field of advertising from door to door sales men into Mad Men more or less by herself, by applying psychoanalytic principles to generate desire for products. Check out Century of the Self, Freud’s real legacy isn’t a bunch of dumb stuff about dreams, its Super Bowl ads.

          • Allied says:

            I’m afraid you seem to have misunderstood Century of the Self… or at least “understood” something that wasn’t actually present. Again, Freud and his descendants have not contributed any facts, anything valid, anything scientifically verified or indeed – verifiable. His and his descendant’s ideas are total bunk, and a mockery of the scientific method. Even if they were consistent, they could not be tested. As I said, they only contributed – if that can be said, as surely it would have arrived from other minds too and probably already had (simply now forgotten) – the idea the advertising could brainwash, not educate. There is no semblance of Freud in advertising now. They do what works, of course – and that is not anything to do with Freud. And even if you were right in reading that in Century of the Self, Adam Curtis is a journalist. Not a psychologist. I am. And there is a reason Freud is execrated in the scientific community. He is touched, here at Cambridge at least, only as an example of what NOT to do. Of what happens when the scientific method is spurned.

            Freud’s circle of influence now is relegated to a bunch of rich weirdos that meet in Vienna every year, and “counselors” who are often in urgent need of real psychological help themselves, that use an unhealthy and exploitative relationship with vulnerable people (who often, somehow, even up having sexual relations with them), inside what could best be described as a cult. A far cry from psychotherapy best practice, these nutters actively do harm every day they “work”. Eventually, the practice of psychoanalysis will be banned… after we manage to ban psychic surgery and faith healing – both still legal, believe it or not, in the UK.

        • Wednesday says:

          Troll? That’s rather ironic given the subject manner. Given your previously stated views, it is little wonder you’re not conscious of the concept of “projection.”

          I used Nietzsche as my own, personal worst example, a thinker who’s ideas were more complex than my knee jerk, ill thought out impressions were. I still hold with just about nothing the man says, but I would at least concede that he is not a humanity despising nihilist.

          It’s funny you mention “here at Cambridge.” Perhaps I am off the mark, but I’m not surprised. You are arrogant, conceited, rude and pretty much a bigot.

          Troll indeed…

          • Allied says:

            Ah, turned you down did they? Can’t imagine why.

            And “projection”? Oh dear, oh dear. This is a psychoanalytic term… and totally without factual basis. Imagine, if flat earthers had their own lexicon, and tried to convince you using it. This is what you are doing now. It’s… embarrassing.

          • Wednesday says:

            And be surrounded by odious oiks like yourself? No, I never applied. I did graduate from a University in the top ten, but I don’t feel the need to wave my acidemipeen around.

            Your first post was ranty, Everything else since then has been bile, your last post could probably melt plywood. Lets not mention that Freudianism is a school not just of psychological thought, but also literary, and literary study (a much more salient bloody field, given that we’re talking about the analysis of a text!) doesn’t particularly feel any need for scientific method.

            Your smugness is sad. Win or loose, you still felt the need to behave like and utter berk to some one who merely disagreed with you.

            I hope you’ve got a little more respect in the seminar room, else I really bloody pity your fellows.

          • Allied says:

            “Lets not mention that Freudianism is a school not just of psychological thought, but also literary, and literary study (a much more salient bloody field, given that we’re talking about the analysis of a text!) doesn’t particularly feel any need for scientific method.”

            Now that’s a new one. I’ve heard people cite belief, faith, dreams, all kind of nonsense to back up “ideas” they had. Never had someone say “well, we’re looking at things as a literary study, so I don’t need to even provide anything resembling (to my misguided self) as evidence”. I’ll be sure to share this joke at parties, thanks. “Why, how dare you point out my poorly reasoned arguments! I presented them as part of a body of text, intended only for literary analysis!” What a hoot. That’s the arts equivalent of a “do not replicate” request right there.

            And I’m unsure that “oik” is the insult you are looking for. That’s slang for a “lower class” person. Not many of them here, sadly. Perhaps “toff”? Though, I’m from a lower middle class family and went to state schools, so I’m not sure that’d work either. Perhaps if you can find something that approximates to “person that knows more than myself, who makes me feel inadequate”, you could use that.

    • ffordesoon says:

      And when did you first begin fantasizing about your mother?

  26. Suopis says:

    This reminded me a fact that Ursula K. Le Guin made a map before writing her Earthsea adventures. It gave a basis to her stories which were always stunning.

    I enjoyed this read a lot. Thank you.

  27. ffordesoon says:

    There’s a German word (one I first learned about by following a link from RPS, funnily enough) which I think might describe the same feelings “fantamystical” is getting at with a touch more elegance: sehnsucht.

    From Wikipedia:

    “Sehnsucht represents thoughts and feelings about all facets of life that are unfinished or imperfect, paired with a yearning for ideal alternative experiences. It has been referred to as “life’s longings”; or an individual’s search for happiness while coping with the reality of unattainable wishes. Such feelings are usually profound, and tend to be accompanied by both positive and negative feelings. This produces what has often been described as an ambiguous emotional occurrence.

    It is sometimes felt as a longing for a far-off country, but not a particular earthly land which we can identify. Furthermore there is something in the experience which suggests this far-off country is very familiar and indicative of what we might otherwise call “home”. In this sense it is a type of nostalgia, in the original sense of that word. At other times it may seem as a longing for a someone or even a something. But the majority of people who experience it are not conscious of what or who the longed for object may be, and the longing is of such profundity and intensity that the subject may immediately be only aware of the emotion itself and not cognizant that there is a something longed for. The experience is one of such significance that ordinary reality may pale in comparison[…]”

    An inexact match, perhaps, but it feels like both terms are getting at the same phenomenon, the same general feeling. It’s likewise present in Freud’s “uncanny.” That strange and inescapable longing for a place, a time, a set of circumstances which does not and perhaps has never existed. And yet, in spite of logic and reason and evidence, in spite of never having traveled there before, the yearning is inevitably for a return to that place.

    I suspect this unquenchable desire, or a version of it, manifests itself in every strain of fantastic fiction, from fantasy to SF to superhero comics to horror. I wonder where it comes from?

    • eggy toast says:

      Oh look someone online who doesn’t speak German finding some word to obsess over, never seen that before on the internet!

      • Fnord73 says:

        oooh, look, some british twat who likes to stereotype people. I too happen to like the word sehnsuch very much, thankyou, though I am Norwegian. One of my favourite Neubauten tracks taught it to me.

      • ffordesoon says:

        Christ, man. I’m hardly “obsessing” over the word, and I certainly didn’t mention it because I find German words “exotic.” I care about the idea behind the word, not which country it comes from. Nor did I say anything else worth such a snide response, except write an on-topic response to a thoughtful article.

        What precisely did I do or say that annoyed you so much? If I’m to be judged by you, I’d like to know what crime or social fopah I committed that earned your scorn.

        For that matter, why should it annoy you to see someone you don’t know and presumably could not care less about write a comment celebrating an interesting word in a language they don’t speak? What’s wrong with being interested in things outside your experience and/or frame of reference? Why should anyone be ashamed of their own curiosity, especially when considering matters so lacking in prurience? Shouldn’t we be celebrating the quest for knowledge, no matter how trivial?

  28. webs1 says:

    Wow, such a good article, and still the comments are almost ruined by insufferable little idiots like Allied and eggy toast.

    • Molay says:

      This is so very true. I cringe every time I see a post made by Eggy Toast, and he sure makes lots and lots of them all over the comment section… Worst is when he belittles people for no good reason in one comment, then pretends to be a shining white knight in another. A defender of race and ethnicity in one post and someone who despises interest in foreign cultures in another post. It seems some people don’t recognize his name yet either, as they take his comments serious and seem to get hurt by them. A bloody shame.

    • Premium User Badge

      Ninja Dodo says:

      Yeah, shame about the comments… but that is what the block function is for.

    • Allied says:

      Ah, the good old ad hominem. And “idiot”? Come on, you can do better than that.

      • webs1 says:

        You should do yourself and all of us a service and leave those big words you obviously don’t understand to the adults.
        I wasn’t even talking to you (since I have the strong feeling every interaction with you is nothing but a waste of time), so ad hominem isn’t even remotely appropriate here.

        But it will certainly delight you to hear that I actually did better than that – I wrote an email to the Department of Psychology at Cambridge to inquire if your assertions regarding the standing of Freud are based in anything resembling reality or if you are just giving them a bad name just for fun.

        • Allied says:

          I’m sorry, by “insufferable little idiots like Allied” I thought you were, you know, talking about me. Perhaps you have confused yourself? And you’ll let us know if you hear back? Which psychology department at which Cambridge did you email, by the way?

          And the longest word in my brief sentence was seven letters. If you’re going to use childish insults like talk of “big words”, at least pick one that works.

  29. bill says:

    This was an excellent article, and it definitely captures one of the things l love(d) about fantasy novels, and about games in general (not only fantasy).

    I’m not sure we need a new word for fantasy, but I think we need a word for this idea of being caught up in a place/space and the movement through it.

    One of the best kids novels for this isn’t actually fantasy, it’s Swallow’s and Amazons. And it does have a map!
    (Winnie the pooh also has a good map).

    I remember when I was a kid I often tried to “write” a fantasy novel like The Hobbit… but what I actually did was spend ages drawing a cool world map and making up names… the actual writing never got very far.

    Interestingly, I’ve discovered that I tend to enjoy 3D viewpoint games much more than 2D/Isometric/Fixed-viewpoint games.
    I think this is for the same reason… moving through a fantasy world is like being a kid moving through a forest. I just don’t usually get that vibe from 2D.

  30. Premium User Badge

    Ninja Dodo says:

    That was a wonderful article.

  31. Matfink says:

    This article reminded me of Farmer’s ‘World of Tiers’ books. Amazing imagination.

  32. DarKcyde says:

    This article was simply fantastic. You have my applause sir. If there is somewhere we can nominate this for an award please point it out.

    I have personally explored many interesting caves around the world, and the experience is that much richer for a childhood fascination with the Underdark. Also have to point out that visiting the location of real-world Chernarus in the Czech republic was an experience that Arma and DayZ players should not miss.

    In fact, I think that my style of travel is also influence by this fantasy-landscape-childhood triumvirate. Certainly all of my adult trips have the feel of an adventure, exploring strange new landscapes and meeting interesting people. I’m still a young man and I have stories laid up for many years. I hear others tell of their getaway to some tropical resort spent drinking and tanning, and can barely imagine how they enjoyed it. It sounds boring and dreadful to my adventurous sensibilities. Not only does fantasy keep us in touch with a more ‘childlike’ outlook on the world, it affects the experiences we go on to create in our own story.