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

Rock And Paper

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.

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In this article

Dragon Age: Inquisition

PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, PC

Pillars of Eternity

PC, Mac

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The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC

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About the Author

Nathan Ditum