370. Fantasy World Building (3)

When you are ready to build your own fantasy world, you might consider these four things: tone, magic, language, and the concept of the archaic (found in posts Monday, Tuesday, and today).

The question, as we ended yesterday, was language, and who bothers to create them.

I did, in a manner of speaking. The Menhir stories grew from a single image, and I had no idea for years where they were going. Things got invented, and the world of the Menhir grew by accretion. I invented a style of fighting, which required invention of a sword/lance, which required invention of a name, and lancette entered my story’s vocabulary. A thousand place names and personal names got invented. Gradually, the world grew a religious background which became the underpinning for what passes for magic on that world. This morphed into an entire system for the handling of life and death, and words like ai, enreithment, and abahara entered the vocabulary of the story. I invented a kind of peasant dwelling and now we had hartwa. My people started out with oxen and horses but that wasn’t satisfactory, so they were soon riding kakais and using tichan to pull their wagons.

Words begat words, morphographically. Since ai means power and dzi– means man of, then a dziai is a man of power, and the men of the plains whose entire lives revolve around their mounts are, of course, the dzikakai.

As if that weren’t enough, my people started quoting words and phrases from the language of a nearby kingdom — just like the English quote the French, n’est-ce pas. I eventually made myself a glossary, but don’t take that as a requirement. I’ve been living on the world of the Menhir, part time at least, for four decades, but even I get confused sometimes.


I’ve told this story before, but I can’t help repeating it. The scene, as I recall, was Westercon 33, Los Angeles, in 1980. A panel of writers and editors was discussing fantasy, and things had gotten out of hand. After a grueling discussion of what some magical breed of horses in Lord of the Rings ate, they had moved on to the subject of archaic language.

Somebody said it was okay, but don’t overdo it. Somebody said archaisms should be used sparingly, like spice in food. That went back and forth for several minutes until some wag in the audience stood up and asked, “Are you saying we can have archaic, and eat it too?”

I wish I had thought of that.

Marion Zimmer Bradley is well known for her fantasies, but she cut her teeth on science fiction. Her Darkover series was a massive best seller in its day. Darkover is a planet in our universe, populated by humans from a stranded starship, whose powers of the mind come (quite scientifically) from the pollen of psychotropic plants and from interbreeding with non-human natives. Lost and out of contact with their technological roots, they evolve a feudal society. They create an archaic world from a purely science fiction starting point.

Of course this is a reductionist view of a complex and massive series of novels and short stories. But it makes the point that archaism is easy to achieve. For archaism in fantasy, you could almost write a formula:


Of course it takes more than that to achieve good fantasy.

The time-before-known-time is an ancient idea. Atlantis and Mu fit into it. Tolkien’s Middle Earth came before recorded history. So did the world of Conan. The worlds of Michael Moorcock seem to be of this nature, but a closer reading will have to follow them sideways in time.

Alternate histories allow access to archaic worlds coexisting with our modern world. We can go to other 2017s, where the Native Americans are the only Americans, or Rome still rules, or Muhammed became an atheist. Take your pick, and if you can’t find what you like, you can write your own.

Remnant stories also let the past live on. Professor Challenger found dinosaurs still living deep in the Amazon. Hilton’s characters found Shangri-La. Even Rick Brant, in the favorite juvenile series from my childhood, found a lost remnant of an earlier age hidden in the Himalayas in The Lost City.

It would be logical to assume that you could go sideways in time, or backward, or to some lost valley and find dystopian, crowded cities, but that almost never happens. Archaism is about escaping modernity, crowding, complication, and life in cities. Back to simpler times. Back to the good old days. Back to the land of childhood. Back to the middle ages where knights in shiny armor rode pretty horses and rescued damsels with big bosoms and pearly white teeth from dastardly villains — or maybe from dragons.

Does anybody believe this? Of course not. Does anybody want to believe? Of course. And in the friction generated when those two truths rub together, the fire of archaism is born.

So our hero goes back (or sideways) and he/she finds the land of her/his heart’s desire and it isn’t what she/he expected at all. But it isn’t bad. There are problems to overcome, heartaches to endure, and villainy to face, but so what? That’s true in Portland, and Tempe, and New York City as well. In the new/old world  there are beauties and wonders, in addition to troubles. And it’s probably green, with trees and meadows, even if it also has rain and snow instead of eternal sunshine.

Above all, there aren’t any traffic jams. And the cell phone never rings.

Wait a minute. I’ll get my backpack, and we can go.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s