A journal article I wrote last year has just been published in Fafnir: Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research! The article discusses the environmental aspects of a modern fantasy novel called the Redemption of Althalus by David Eddings.
You can read the full article here for free, or read an explanation if you keep reading:
If you are a regular reader you will know that modern literature is not one of my usual research interests. I do really enjoy reading fantasy novels though, especially those with a good plot and a bit of magic. Ever since Tolkien’s time, there’s been a secret rule that medievalists are encouraged to like fantasy and sometimes even write about its historical roots.
My paper on Althalus was inspired by two different angles:
- Scholars of fantasy have tended to assume in the past that the worlds created in fantasy are completely invented. I think this is sometimes true, especially of scifi, but sometimes the fauna of these invented words is purposefully or subconsciously borrowed from the real world.
- Scholars of wildlife history, have tended to ignore older literary texts as unreliable sources. This is again sometimes justified, but sometimes I think literary texts can be good sources to answer concrete questions about biodiversity, fauna, and the contemporary behaviour of wildlife.This is especialy true when the setting seems to be a kind of magical version of Britain,
I wanted to test whether this assumption was correct, so I looked at a completely fictional source from the modern period. The Redemption of Althalus is a fantasy book by David Eddings. It’s also, handily, an old favourite of mine.
I went through the book and painstakingly pulled all the biological terminology out. I then grouped the data into five groups: domestic and cultivated species, wild animals, wild plants and figurative references (e.g. species used in metaphors like “as brave as a tiger”).
I found that my hypothesis was generally true. The flora and fauna of Althalus is based on the species known by the authors (David and Leigh Eddings) in the forested-mountain ecoregion of the United States of America, where they lived.
Species which are essential to the plot, like dragons, might not be naturalistic, but the background species – the ones used as textures for the story will be naturalistic.
My theory is that this is because audiences want to see verisimilitude of setting, which is a posh term for settings which make sense and are coherent so they don’t distract from the story. If you are reading a story about a dragon hunting in Britain, you would be happy hearing about it hunting a fox in the bluebells but not hunting a tiger up a eucalyptus tree.
The exception was the figurative references. Apparently when we use metaphors, or when characters see things in dreams and nightmares, the audience does not expect these to be based in the same environment, or even to be coherent ecologically.
This means that literary texts are potentially useful sources for ecological historians, but we may not be able to trust the figurative references.
If you’ve read this far, you should read the full paper here.