Last weekend’s Mint Lounge was a travel special, and I was asked to talk about some of my favourite journeys in fantasy. Hopefully I don’t need to clarify that I wouldn’t necessarily want to be on all of these journeys; but they’re lovely, and they’ve stuck with me.
A link to the Lounge version here, or a slightly edited piece below.
It’s a cliché of the genre that most works of fantasy begin with a map; from Tolkien’s beautiful depiction of the route to the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit to the steampunk-inspired beginning of HBO’s Game of Thrones. A big part of the joy of secondary world fantasy is in exploring the worlds created; world-building may often serve as an excuse for shoddy writing, but it can also be a joyful thing in itself.
Many works of fantasy are built around a quest of some sort. The quest is one of the most basic forms of narrative there is, but it also provides an excuse to further explore these worlds. There are people who complain that, for example, the bulk of The Lord of the Rings is basically a long walk through Middle-Earth. This is absolutely true, and it’s wonderful if you like that sort of thing (most of the time, I do). But the fantasy journey can contain scenes of genuine wonder even for the unbeliever, and I think the examples below achieve just that.
Ged’s Pursuit of the Shadow:
In Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea a young wizard, unleashes a terrifying shadow that haunts him for long after. Eventually he comes to the realisation that he must face the thing that he has released into the world, and he follows it into unchartered realms of the ocean. Many fantastic journeys are made memorable by an undercurrent of fear. Characters are pursued by enemies, or face the knowledge that there is danger all around them. Ged’s pursuit of his shadow is completely different. The hunted becomes the hunter, and a sense of triumph colours the whole venture.
With hand and spell Ged turned his boat, and it leaped like a dolphin from the water, rolling, in that quick turn. Faster than before he followed, but the shadow grew ever fainter to his eyes. Rain, mixed with sleet and snow, came stinging across his back and his left cheek, and he could not see more than a hundred yards ahead. Before long, as the storm grew heavier, the shadow was lost to sight. Yet Ged was sure of its track as if he followed a beast’s track over snow, instead of a wraith fleeing over water. Though the wind blew his way now he held the singing magewind in the sail, and flake-foam shot from the boat’s blunt prow, and she slapped the water as she went.
Arthur Gordon Pym goes South:
The voyage documented in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is not one that a sensible reader would wish to be on, replete as it is with shipwrecks, cannibalism, and ghost ships. Eventually most of the ship’s crew is slaughtered by a tribe of savages.
This is all very unpleasant, but the book’s most memorable journey is the small section after this litany of horrors has come to an end. Pym, Peters, and the ‘native’ they have taken captive drift further towards the Antarctic in a canoe. As they travel South the narrative takes on a numb, detached quality. Yet “we were entering upon a region of novelty and wonder”; the water turns white and warm, and white ash occasionally rains down upon the travellers. And then, in a sudden burst of activity, the boat rushes towards a cataract, a chasm opens, and Pym sees “a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow”. And on this weird, ambiguous note, the book abruptly ends. Pym’s journey is no one’s idea of a dream vacation, but it’s impossible to forget.
…and Caspian goes East:
C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian embarks upon a quest to find the seven lords who remained faithful to his father. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is most people’s favourite Narnia book. There are echoes here of The Odyssey, with its perilous seas and series of strange and magical islands, and of Coleridge in a nightmarish episode in which an albatross figures strongly.
Yet the best part of the voyage comes after all islands have been left behind. In a way this is the reverse of Pym’s journey above. In both cases the sea becomes warmer and calmer, but where Poe’s book speaks of drowsiness, Lewis gives the impression of extreme clarity. The sun becomes bigger and brighter; where Poe’s ocean turns milky, here the water is so clear that entire civilisations of mer-people can be observed fathoms below. And when the water does turn white, it is because it is covered in flowers.
We never find out what is at the utter East; we are left with the image of Reepicheep the mouse paddling his coracle over the wave at the end of the world, “very black against the lilies”. It is enough.
Dhrun in the Forest of the Tantravalles:
About half of the plots in Jack Vance’s Lyonesse books involve people travelling on one quest or another. And yet Dhrun’s journey in the first book, Suldrun’s Garden, stands out.
The eldest child of princess Suldrun, Dhrun is fated to rule the Elder Isles. But he is kidnapped by the fairies, and a changeling left in his place. After a childhood spent among the fairies of Thripsey Shee, Dhrun is cast out to make his own way in the world. To help him he has a magic purse and a sword that comes when called. But he is also cursed to carry seven years of bad luck.
There’s something of the fairytale to Dhrun’s story (as he insouciantly defrauds trolls and defeats ogres before joining a medicine show), and Vance makes use of a droll, courtly style that is reminiscent of Perrault. But the real wonder here is in Vance’s ability to tell a genuinely dark story full of things like slavery and sexual abuse and still infuse the whole with the luminousity of something remembered from early childhood.
My God, it’s full of elephants:
An elderly hero is on his way to the city of the Gods, which he plans to blow up. What he doesn’t realise is that if he succeeds it will mean the end of the world. Someone has to stop him, but he already has a massive head start.
This is the problem that confronts the characters in Terry Pratchett and Paul Kidby’s Discworld graphic novel The Last Hero. The solution, naturally, is to build a spaceship powered by specially-fed dragons, fly off the edge of the world, and count on gravity (or whatever the equivalent of gravity is for a flat world on the back of four elephants on the back of a turtle) to make sure that ‘down’ eventually turns into ‘up’. Needless to say, things go horribly wrong. This is expected when you have a mad genius, a cowardly wizard and a simian (“Ankh-Morpork, we have an orangutan…”) on board. There’s a moon landing, all sorts of shenanigans involving flatulent lunar dragons, and somehow it all ends happily enough.