Marsupial Pockets, Pachyderms, and Infinite Turtles: World Building in Fantasy

In Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein mock the deist clockmaker analogy—the universe is like a clock and thus there must be a clockmaker—by asking why the universe isn’t analogous to a kangaroo. Such an analogy, they suggest, would force interesting conclusions, namely, that the universe  “was born of another universe after that universe had sex with a third universe” (36). (While I know that Cathcart and Klein are laughing at the absurdity of their analogy, I kind of like the idea of a baby universe nestling in the pouch of its marsupial mother.) Fortunately for us, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld isn’t just analogous to a giant turtle; it’s actually carried on the back of one. And, in The Light Fantastic (1986), this world does seem to have sex and reproduce at a cosmic scale.

Come, and trip it as you go,

On the light fantastick toe.

(John Milton, “L’Allegro”)

Discworld, of course,  rests on the back of four rather large elephants who in turn stand on the shell of Great A’Tuin, a colossal—“ten  thousand miles long”—turtle that swims through space. One thing is for sure: Discworld brings the world-building aspect of fantasy into sharp relief.

The initial nod might seem to be toward ostensible medieval notions of a flat world, or European notions of Hindu creation myths involving elephants and turtles supporting the world.  Certainly, in the 1927 essay Why I am not a Christian, Bertrand Russell ridicules what he characterizes as the “Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise.” Why not construct a fantasy world out of the cloth of the most antiquated and ridiculous caricatures of a world view?

It might have seemed easy to Russell, but it isn’t so easy in retrospect. What do we really know of elephants and turtles in Hindu cosmology? How do we know what is literal and what is symbolic? A modicum of humility is warranted when confronted with alternate cosmologies, whether Hindu or Ojibway creation myths.

In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking’s tells us the following story:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

Without leaving the crazy silliness of it all behind, we begin to find ourselves in heavy territory. The remarkable absurdity of this world-image jars certain philosophical conceits by invoking infinite regress and paradox. Donna Haraway deploys a variant of our Discworld image to characterize science:

As my colleagues put it, science is practice and culture (Pickering 1992) at every layer of the onion. There is no core, only layers. It is “elephants all the way down,” in my purloined origin story about science. “Elephants all the way down” is an aphorism from the Indian origin story that has the world supported on the back of a pachyderm, who is, in turn, supported on another elephant, and so on, ad infinitum. Everything is supported, but there is no transcendent foundation, only the infinite series of carrying all there is. (“ A Personal Reflection on Love and War”  126)

The Light Fantastic begins with our heroes catapulted over the edge of the world into outer space in pursuit of the big questions: Where is A’Tuin going? And what is the Great A’Tuin’s sex? While the second question is never answered, the plot of the novel answers the first one.

The central crisis in this novel focuses on the appearance of a bright red star in the sky, the fear that A’Tuin is going to collide with this star, and various but mostly  inept attempts to prevent apocalypse. (Unlike the sun that rises and sets every day on the Disc, and which the wizards estimate to be about a mile across, this red star is very large, even bigger than A’Tuin.)

And as the star waxes, magic wanes: “Magic is weaker here, on the littoral of light.”  In the cities, where panic sets in and cults of the red star grow in size and power, wizards are killed or forced to flee.

Rincewind is a wizard who can’t cast spells because he once read the Octavo, a book with eight great spells, and one of the great spells in this book hid in his mind. In The Light Fantastic, the wizards want to read all eight spells to ward off the red star, but the spells don’t want to be read, so they try to prevent the wizards from finding Rincewind. Rincewind is accompanied by Twopenny, the world’s first tourist; his luggage, a trunk (or chest) made from the “timber of the sapient pear tree,” which follows Twopenny everywhere; Bethan, a chiropractic former Druidic candidate for human sacrifice; and the geriatric and toothless Cohen the barbarian.

There are a large number of similarities between Pratchett’s The Light Fantastic and other fantasy worlds.  For instance, Hayao Myazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城 or Hauru no Ugoku Shiro, from Ghibli Studios) strongly resembles the magical traveling shop in The Light Fantastic. Both Howl’s Castle and the magical traveling shop seem to mediate between worlds and places. Akin to the reworking of science fiction that occurs in Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s series and Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy , Pratchet’s Discworld series is a comedic and satirical parody of fantasy that pokes fun at the clichés to create humour and subverts generic conventions to produce novel effects and insights that are picked up by later writers.

The looming red star anticipates George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings where a red comet hangs over the sky and is variously interpreted by different characters. Martin’s comet reverses the loss of magic in Pratchett’s The Light Fantastic: instead, the comet corresponds with the rise of Daenerys Targaryen and the return of the old powers to the continents of Westeros and Essos.

Akin to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Martin’s sprawling epic fantasy series engages in serious world building. The similarity is evident in their preoccupation with mapping and history–their effort to provide a complete fantasy world. Similarly, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea offers tantalizing maps and an ontology: the linguistic being of Earthsea is the very basis of the fantastic.

Map of Earthsea

The waning of magic associated with the red star in The Light Fantastic is also reminiscent of Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore, the third novel in the Earthsea Quartet published in 1972, and Gorō Miyazaki’s 2006 Studio Ghibli film Tales from Earthsea (ゲド戦記 Gedo Senki) which fuses The Farthest Shore with Le Guin’s fourth Earthsea novel Tehanu.

What is striking about these variant crises in Martin’s Westeros and Le Guin’s Earthsea is that they involve changing worldviews. In Westeros, it is mostly a matter of forgetting why people 8000 years ago would  go to the effort to build a wall that is 300 miles in length and more than 700 feet high on average. But it’s also a matter of the magic having gone out of the world, so the sensible world view is one that rejects such silly nonsense. But what if things change and the sensible worldview is wrong? What if a worldview produces blindness to a threatening reality? It is similar in Earthsea where magic is fading from the world, and wizards have been discredited. In both cases, the fantasy trope of magic represents an alternative to a failing worldview. In Tales from Earthsea, Le Guin’s critical feminist revision of patriarchal magic in Tehanu is enacted in tandem with the crisis in worldview. Indeed, the crisis is resolved by way of the awakening of Therru to her true being, by asserting the feminine. 

Magic has been a prominent figure of Enlightenment rationalist discourse for several centuries. It marks the antipode of reason. James Randi put it this way: “Science is best defined as a careful, disciplined, logical search for knowledge about any and all aspects of the universe, obtained by examination of the best available evidence and always subject to correction and improvement upon discovery of better evidence. What’s left is magic. And it doesn’t work.” (The Mask of Nostradamus 66) The problem with his statement isn’t what it says about magic.  Randi is emphasizing a dichotomy with science on one side and magic on the other, and this simplified way of organizing the world into either this or that immediately forgets a few things.  Science doesn’t always work. Science is often motivated; indeed when it becomes the lackey for big business or defence departments it can become downright myopic and dangerous.  Donna Haraway’s account of being assigned to teach an undergraduate biology course at the University of Hawaii is helpful here:

I was part of a team of young faculty, led by a senior teacher, who had designed a course to fill an undergraduate general education science requirement for hundreds of students each year. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, home of the Pacific Strategic Command that was so critical to the Vietnam War with its electronic battlefield and chemical herbicides, this University of Hawaii biology course aimed to persuade students that natural science alone, not politics or religion, offered hope for secular progress not infected by ideology. (126)

She goes on to observe that she couldn’t teach the course this way because she was “acutely aware of how intimately science, including biology, was woven into [the Vietnam War]—and into every aspect of our lives and beliefs” (127).

Perhaps most important—and what falls out of Randi’s dichotomy—is that there are so many things that “work,” but for which we don’t have a scientific understanding.

Randi is a great sceptic, but is he a good scientist? Certainly the tactics that he used against  the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research in the late 1970’s have been criticized. The McDonnell Laboratory was set up to investigate paranormal phenomena. As Jim Schnabel shows, in “Puck in the Laboratory,” Randi had two conjurers present themselves to McDonnell Laboratory claiming they possessed “psychokinetic (PK) and extrasensory perception (ESP) abilities” (468).  The Laboratory was initially somewhat taken by the two conjurers, but eventually applied tighter controls, under which the PK and ESP effects couldn’t be replicated. Despite the fact that they discontinued their study of the pair in 1982, Randi held a news conference in 1983 in which he announced his hoax, apparently in an attempt to publicly humiliate the McDonnell Laboratory (470). As Schnabel observes, the “episode received wide media coverage, and when the McDonnell Laboratory’s funding expired in 1985, it was not renewed” (470).

My focus on Discworld is intended to highlight the fetish for world-building that is one of the striking features of so much fantasy. Beginning with medieval revival, which exploited the supposed irrational worldviews of the so-called Dark Ages  between the decline of the Roman empire and the Renaissance, fantasy plays a delicate game of inhabiting the familiar and rationalizing (or often just positing) the remarkable.

Marion Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon offers a vivid case in point. The story carefully follows the traditional storylines established by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes, Sir Thomas Malory, Alfred Tennyson, and others, but it diverges by shifting the point of view from which the story is told to that of Morgaine (Morgan Le Fay). Most of the geography of the world is familiar—post-Roman Britain. This is a world that is already fantastic—dragons, headless knights, Merlin—because it reiterates the conventions of medieval romance. But Bradley modifies the “already fantastic” by identifying it with the Celtic matriarchal Avalon, and especially the Lady of the Lake and her priestesses of the Goddess. The rest of the world—the new patriarchal and Christian world—falls out of the fantastic for the most part.

This precise revision of the fantastic in Bradley corresponds with the removal of Avalon from the world, just as the fairies, in the book,  were themselves displaced at an earlier time. The power of the Goddess isn’t questioned or problematized, which makes sense because Morgaine tells the story.

In some ways, the novel is akin to a protracted version of Borges’ “The Witness,” which marks the transition from a pagan to a Christian worldview.

In Bradley, magic is redeployed as a feminist trope: while we’re invited to suspend our disbelief and accept its literal power, it symbolizes the feminine and a worldview that is antithetical to patriarchy.

One the most compelling incidents in The Mists of Avalon occurs to Morgaine after she is pregnant with her half-brother Arthur’s son. Twice, Morgaine becomes lost on the isle of Avalon and finds herself in a fairy world.

Avalon and the “elf-mounds” that lie beside or behind it are adjacent or overlapping fantasy worlds.

“There are now two Britains, Igraine: their world under their One God and the Christ; and, beside it and behind it, the world where the Great Mother still rules, the world where the Old People have chosen to live and worship. This has happened before. There was the time when the fairy folk, the Shining Ones, withdrew from our world, going further and further into the mists…” (13).

The alternate ways of seeing the world are merely false or eradicated, but they remain latent in the geography, traps or havens for the unwary. Morgaine tells us that “only an occasional wanderer now can spend a night within the elf-mounds, and if he should do so, time drifts on without him, and he may come out after a single night and find that his kinfolk are all dead and that a dozen years have gone by” (13).

Morgaine’s own experience of the elf-mounds is one of the genuinely fantastic sequences in the novel:

To this very day I have never known how many nights and days I spent in the fairy country—even now my mind blurs when I try to reckon it up. Try as I may I can make it no fewer than five and no more than thirteen. Nor am I certain how much time passed in the world outside, nor in Avalon, while I was there, but because mankind keeps better records of time than the fairy folk, I know that some five years passed. (407)

Given Bradley’s descriptions of Avalon and the fairies, we might wonder if “world” is even the proper word. Perhaps enclave or pocket would make more sense. Are these fantasy pockets? Pockets within pockets. Tom Shippey might call them polders: adapted from the Dutch technique of reclaiming land from water, fantasy polders  are “demarcated by boundaries…from the surrounding world” (Encyclopedia of Fantasy qtd. In Shippey 166-7). In “Threshold, Polders, and Crosshatches in the Merlin Codex,” which elaborates a model of fantasy in terms of “boundary situations,” Shippey cites a range of related terms including thresholds, crosshatches (one of China Mieville’s favourite words), wainscots (Harry Potter), and portals (think Alice in Wonderland and Narnia).

We could explore each of these ideas at length, but the key to The Mists of Avalon  is that the pocket or enclave or receding but still occasionally accessible realm is a literal recollection of an older worldview. (I wonder if palimpsest might be the right word—thinking of H. D.’s Trilogy.) The new world that replaces it—the Celts replaced the faeries, the Romans replace the Celts—is a physical manifestation of a set of beliefs about the world. In this sense of worldview, the pockets or polders become “worlds”—and such worlds become inherently geopolitical.

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012