Fantasy worldbuilding is obsessed with European-inspired societies and geography. Were we to move past this obsession, we could unlock the full creative potential of the genre.
Words by Rhys Lorenc
If you’ve read, played, watched or consumed even a meagre amount of fantasy, you’ve probably encountered a fantasy map or two, sitting after the title-page or on the pause screen, filled with place-names and markers that don’t mean a damn thing to you—not yet, anyway. If you’re a true masochist, maybe you’ve tried writing fantasy. Taking inspiration from your favourite books (and watching a handful of worldbuilding tutorials on YouTube), you’ve drawn a map of your own, replete with place-names that you hope will someday mean something to someone.
Consumer or creator, the world that you’re dealing with probably has two defining geographic qualities:
- The far north is cold
- The far south is hot
Until recently, I hadn’t realised this myself; I was aware of the well-worn observation that most fantasy takes place in a medieval setting, but this I hadn’t considered. Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Kingkiller Chronicle, the Elder Scrolls series, The Earthsea Quartet ,the First Law series and countless others all spend most of their time in the northern hemisphere. The north is cold. The south is hot.
There are exceptions. BioWare’s video game franchise Dragon Age takes place in the southern hemisphere of its fictional world, as does Brandon Sanderson’s novel series The Stormlight Archive. But these counterexamples exist against a deluge of icy savages to the north and desert savages to the south.
There are many possible reasons for why this is the case. Most fantasy authors were born and raised in the northern hemisphere, and would likely find such a setting more comfortable to write in. Likewise, there’s a perception in the genre that fictional societies resembling cultures of the past should sit in a geographically similar place to their real-world analogue. In other words, fantasy medieval Europe tends to be in the fantasy northern hemisphere. And considering most fantasy stories are set in fantasy medieval Europe, the north is cold, and the south is hot.
The oversaturation of the northern hemisphere has an interesting consequence: new writers will likely assume that the quintessential fantasy story is a story of the northern hemisphere, and, by extension, a story about Europe. Despite living in Australia, every single one of the maps I’ve made are in the northern hemisphere. I didn’t even consider the thematic consequences of mapping below the equator.
By now you might be thinking, “Who cares? Why does it matter that the north is cold? Why won’t you let me enjoy my duelling knights and caress my throbbingly hard magic systems in peace?”
Well, my straw-man fantasy reader, to quote, Ursula Le Guin, author of the timeless Earthsea Quartet, the fantastical world “…[is] an alternate world, outside our history.” You can’t take a plane to Middle Earth and you can’t point to its location on a map relative to Kazakhstan. So then, why must the north always be cold and populated by violent vikings, and the south peppered with deserts and peoples of nebulously Middle-Eastern affect?
Fantasy is about imagining a world beyond our own. Generally, fantasy worlds become backdrops to explore what constitutes a hero, the nature of good and evil, the role of violence in society, etc. The prevalence of the northern hemisphere in fantasy is part of a wider problem in the genre: fantasy is largely unwilling to live up to its name and give us some properly out-of-the-box societies. Just as few fantasy stories will be set entirely in a desert culture, few stories will have a protagonist from, say, an archipelago of primarily nonwhite people who don’t worship any deities, as in the world of Earthsea.
There’s a common belief that that which rests on top is more important. The apex predator is, linguistically, not at the bottom of the food chain, but at the top. (See this study for more info on the metaphoric associations with vertical position and cardinal directions.) Putting fantasy Europe in the north, then, gives it prime importance, and giving Europe prime importance has some messy implications.
Why does the map even need to be laid out in a similar way to our world? Maybe your culture is centred around the rising sun, and hence what we would regard as east is depicted at the top of the map, with the poles to the far left and far right of this hypothetical map.
Or you could live up to the promise of this genre and throw out the geographical conventions of our world entirely. In Terry Pratchett’s satirical Discworld setting, the world is not a sphere, but a disc resting on the backs of four giant elephants, which in turn are standing atop a giant turtle. The edge of this absurd world is warmer, and as one travels towards the centre of the disc, it grows gradually colder. The cardinal directions are based not on the poles, but on whether one is heading to the edge or centre of the disc (or simply going round in circles).
My point here is simple: if there’s no reason for why the north is cold and the south is hot, if you can’t explain why you wanted to have fantasy Vikings in the north and fantasy Arabs to the south, consider the potential of an entirely different setting. Be a pioneer of unexplored fictional worlds. Make something weird and new. Try to give a voice to the voiceless. Challenge your readers’ preconceptions about the different forms culture could take. Explore what a society might look like in a world where the ocean is ever-visible, what identity is for men and women who only ever tell a handful of people their true names, what good and evil means to a people who don’t believe in heaven and hell. (Basically, just do yourself a favour and go read Earthsea.)
Why is the north cold and why is the south hot?
I don’t know. You tell me.
Should fantasy maps and worldbuilding expand their horizons? Comment below.