During my Bachelor’s degree, I got sucked into a series by the name of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. It spanned around 10’000 pages of blistering magic, rambunctious characters with a plot so dementedly wide, it left canyons full of unanswered or unexplored questions. Not only this, but the writers supplemented the series with extra novels and novellas, some of which I’ve also read. Still, this wasn’t enough to fully grasp the world that they have created.
To write the series, Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont spent most of their life up until that point creating and plotting the whole story and its subsequent spin-offs, leaving plenty of room for more stories. Their role-playing hobby guided their creativity so that ancient ruins, long-living creatures and cosmic entities pointed to an unusually rich world, along with political and economic systems and the state of science and mythology.
In the real world, almost in parallel, another writer was also creating a massive world. Game of Thrones emerged as the high-stakes fantasy series when it was adapted for TV, to the point that “fantasy” became synonymous with the series. George R.R. Martin’s Westeros and neighboring continents also incorporated a vast world, so that a vast labyrinth of intra and inter family relationships extended generations into the past. What it didn’t make up in geographical scale, it made up in tiny details: It named each character’s servants and squires, their aspirations and struggles, along with similar details of blacksmiths, rogues, sailors, priests, scholars, kings, fishers and all their relationships with one another.
Both series are long and complex, and both feature a four digit number of characters, but they differ just as much. Most apparent is the source material where the series take their ideas from. Erikson and Esslemont drew their inspiration from their professional careers as Anthro- and Archaeologists, showcasing origins of ancient history, such as myths, historical artifacts and the creation of legend. Martin found inspiration from written history.
Tolkien, who paved the way for high-fantasy, too, used history as a tool of inspiration, using in particular, the history of languages . His world of Arda (of which Middle Earth is a part of), like both other series, also contained stories spanning thousands of years, but had the crazy idea to infuse it with fully formed languages containing words, phrases, idioms, grammatical structure, extensive vocabularies and linguistic evolution, despite them never being used much in the fiction he would go on to write.
Each world makes its own history-infused claim to high-fantasy by exploring topics close to its writers. A strength in many ways, it is also a systemic weakness. If every fantasy world has their focus on a single topic, it logically follows that every fantasy world exhibits limits in its fiction in fields of knowledge their writers are not familiar with.
In Malazan, recent histories of many kingdoms are absent, leaving the exact natures of their people unknown. In Westeros, economics never seems to be an issue beyond the times that its models and consequences influence the plot. The detailed world of Arda also leaves out a few details we are simply left to speculate on, such as any concrete understanding of the Nameless Ones.
To infinitely flesh out these fictions is clearly impossible, hence why reading about these worlds will come to a definite halt. There is only so much to be learned from imagination, so that it leaves the nerdiest of the supernerds unsatisfied. The appeal of fantasies however, seems not to be the actual story to be told, but the enticing proposition that every place, every person, every inanimate object that is described, has a purpose beyond that of its own existence.
It turns out, we like such worlds because every single entity in these books is relevant to the protagonists in one way or another, whether it be to move the plot forward, express a philosophical soliloquy or to present a humorous parable that entertains. Embedded meanings in things are the main attractor of fictions, a quality that the real world rarely incorporates.
Our towns, neighborhoods, jobs, entire valleys and fields even, are devoid of meaning. As children, we are drawn to stories to give us a sense of purpose to our actions, and to inform us that we can enact change. They inform us that what we make with our lives affects how much good we can do. Modern life, as much as we want for it to be so, disagrees. Intractable processes, such as cancer, fatal accidents and world conflicts leave us dismayed. Climate disasters, surprise price hikes or irrational rearrangements of the food aisles confuse us, as they have no clear reason why they exist.
Very often, bad things follow all of us, for reasons we don’t recognize at first glance. However, in this futuristic world we live in now, one can find out: GIS datasets, physics lectures, historical reports and a huge breadth of information is all available on the internet for free, with which we can piece together the reasons of whatever it is we have questions to. In learning about new topics, we find new meaning in things: Rocks have chemistry. Buildings have architectural styles. Mud has life. Extracting information, of course, takes effort and grit. But its result is that thing that we call meaning.
Media formats such as those in which Skyrim, Harry Potter, or Star Wars have been presented in, have plenty of such information available to its players, readers or viewers, that create meaning by making knowledge relevant. Fantasy worlds like those, tend to spoon-feed us information, allowing us to enjoy and dive into them like children. They sadly do so for only a limited amount of time, given that they are fictions. What if we wanted an infinite world then, in which we can live in forever and ever?
Such a fiction does exist. It turns out, if we want a stable world to disentangle, to learn from, to delve into deeper and deeper, then we only need to look outside. It’s not just a matter of spending much time in the real world, but also a matter of piecing together hidden relationships. We do so, by looking deeper into any discipline such as archaeology, history or linguistics, and instead of being spoon-fed this information with well formed characters, reality makes us work for our goods. Difficult literature, textbooks and journal articles are not fun to read per se, but they present us with the absolute most detailed world.
Anyone who has tried to understand any field of study is aware of its intangibility. The main culprit for this property is stochasticity, i.e. randomness, which influences everything around us, putting linear etiology into disarray. This is the only way that the real world differs from fantasy ones, so that if one can accept that randomness sometimes exerts its force on worlds, reality becomes more meaningful than any fantasy world anyone might construct. History, along with a million other fields of knowledge come together in mind-bending ways, if you are willing to gaze deep enough into mystery.
Most things in real life have also proved themselves of containing narrative heft and purpose. The stories that all authors present in fictional format have occurred in one way or another. The Chain of Dogs is based on the Trail of Tears, a caravan of native Americans being dislocated from their homes. Implicit in Arda, are multilingual protagonists, which find interesting parallels in Cortez’s communication with the Aztecs. In Westeros, the whole conflict is loosely based on the War of the Roses, a conflict that ended the medieval age in England, that would determine who would be the King of England.
Studying everything over years and decades begins to reveal that our world is at the same time boring and repetitive on the local scale, as it is exciting and fresh on the broad one. Mathematics, for example, has its own idiosyncratic stories as well, that are completely unknown to most people, yet hold as much meaning as our fabricated ones.
The story of the Pythagoreans proving the irrationality of \sqrt(2) remains an enigmatic parable on religion, and power. The career highpoint of János Bolyai’s work on hyperbolic geometry was as revolutionary as it was a redemptive gift to his father, Farkos Bolyai, who felt he had wasted many years of his life studying the subject. The long story of Fermat’s Last Theorem (a name bridging on the mythical) presents a convoluted maze in academia that brought people to their deaths and whose subsequent proof of Andrew Wiles, toiling away at it for seven years, built a world of deceptions, conspiracies and secret meetings.
Any subject has such deep, meaningful stories, which are shaped by the circumstances they lived in. Everything has importance, from the baker from where protagonists buy their breakfasts, to the streets along which they walk. We certainly cannot forgo our broad narratives of Elves, of White Walkers and T’lan Imass. But if we can learn to grind for ecstasy and are willing to let the elusive, and at times shocking nature of mystery infiltrate our imagination, we are able to take advantage of learning about the ultimate fantasy lore: Our own world.