The sense of historical placement and an authentic background behind magic items, heroes, villains, settings makes a fantasy tale come alive. A story is suddenly lifted out of the flat plane, to one of 3D, removing staleness and triteness. This technique of incorporating legends and history is the mainstay of the greatest writers of the genre, and by and large, is an interesting study in itself. Here are some fine examples I would like to share:
“In Eregion long ago many Elven-rings were made, magic rings as you call them, and they were, of course, of various kinds: some more potent and some less. The lesser rings were only essays in the craft before it was full grown, and to the Elven-smiths they were but trifles—yet still to my mind dangerous for mortals. But the Great Rings, the Rings of Power, they were perilous.”
So speaks JRR Tolkien’s Gandalf the Wizard to his humble hobbit companion Frodo around Bilbo’s fireplace in the Fellowship of the Ring.
“The Three, fairest of all, the Elf-lords hid from him, and his hand never touched them or sullied them. Seven the Dwarf-kings possessed, but three he has recovered, and the others the dragons have consumed. Nine he gave to Mortal Men, proud and great, and so ensnared them. Long ago they fell under the dominion of the One, and they became Ringwraiths, shadows under his great Shadow, his most terrible servants.”
Gandalf has gone on to create a pall of apprehension. So much description and rich history in a few lines! In the hands of a master this is what one expects. Indeed, the Rings are no ordinary entities . . .
With a rich history and a plausible background like Sauron’s ring, the author can instil in the reader wonder and awe. The magic item is not just a lump of lifeless material: it’s a living breathing thing with a unique past, inspiring reverence and even fear in the protagonist and ultimately the reader while said protagonist shies away from the ring or indulges in envy or fascination. Perhaps this is why some of the best fantasy has elements as these in it.
One can quickly see that a character that uses a magic item with no history or thought behind its origin is one that invites little interest. The reader is thinking: Yeah, right, another magic ring or lamp? Who cares?
How to integrate this background naturally into the story without disturbing the pacing is a real art. Either through cleverly constructed dialogue or accomplished narrative—as another modern master, George Martin does so well. An excerpt from A Game of Thrones is as follows:
“...but the blood of the First Men still flowed in the veins of the Starks, and his own gods were the old ones, the nameless, faceless gods of the greenwood they shared with the vanished children of the forest . . . They were old, those eyes, older than Winterfell itself. They had seen Brandon the Builder set the first stone, if the tales were true. It was said that the children of the forest had carved the faces in the trees during the dawn centuries before the coming of the First Men across the narrow sea . . . A thousand years of humus lay thick upon the godswood floor, swallowing the sound of her feet . . .”
These brief passages create a sumptuous sense of ancient grandeur. The godswood is not an ordinary forest, but some “dark, primal place untouched for ten thousand years with a gloomy castle rising around it”. One can reach out in Martin’s world and touch these old growth woods and feel the marvel of his living antiquity carved out of ages of dream.
In contrast, the comic thrust of Jack Vance’s Bagful of Dreams is experienced via his impertinent magician, Iolo who describes his craft of catching dreams in his magic bag.
“I live beside Lake Lelt in the Land of Dai-Paissant. On calm nights the surface of the water thickens to a film which reflects the stars as small globules of shine. By using a suitable cantrap, I am able to lift up impalpable threads composed of pure starlight and water-skein. I weave this thread into nets and then I go forth in search of dreams. I hide under valances and in the leaves of outdoor bowers; I crouch on roofs; I wander through sleeping houses. Always I am ready to net the dreams as they drift past. Each morning I carry these wonderful wisps to my laboratory and there I sort them out and work my processes. In due course I achieve a crystal of a hundred dreams, and with these confections I hope to enthral Duke Orbal.”
At first glance, one might think that Vance is being farfetched, even fanciful, but then, given an understanding of his style and mordant wit, a reader comes to see he is something of a uniquely different craftsman, and a little more imaginative and entertaining than a casual read might suggest.
Following quickly in the story, comes the orotund Duke Orbal’s brief exposition as Iolo and a crowd of gogglers gather to listen:
“As all know, I am considered an eccentric, what with my enthusiasms for marvels and prodigies, but, after all, when the preoccupation is analyzed, is it all so absurd? Think back across the aeons to the times of the Vapurials, the Green and Purple College, the mighty magicians among whose number we include Amberlin, the second Chidule of Porphyrhyncos, Morreion, Calanctus the Calm, and of course the Great Phandaal. These were the days of power, and they are not likely to return except in nostalgic recollection. Hence this, my Grand Exposition of Marvels, and withal, a pale recollection of the way things were.”
Here, the Duke orates in shameless detail a rich background into the ages of the wizards, while similarly expelling some of his own grandiosity. So, Vance develops the character, while building his world of the dying earth.
And yet there is a tone of seriousness to Vance’s earlier short stories in the Dying Earth series describing the dark dwindling of an earth millions of years in the future:
“At one time a thousand or more runes, spells, incantations, curses and sorceries had been known. The reach of Grand Motholam—Ascolais, the Ide of Kauchique, Almery to the south, the Land of the Falling Wall to the East—swarmed with sorcerers of every description, of whom the chief was the Arch-Necromancer Phandaal. A hundred spells Phandaal personally had formulated—though rumor said that demons whispered at his ear when he wrought magic. Pontecilla the Pious, then ruler of Grand Motholam, put Phandaal to torment, and after a terrible night, he killed Phandaal and outlawed sorcery throughout the land. The wizards of Grand Motholam fled like beetles under a strong light; the lore was dispersed and forgotten, until now, at this dim time, with the sun dark, wilderness obcuring Ascolais, and the white city Kaiin half in ruins, only a few more than a hundred spells remained to the knowledge of man. Of these, Mazirian had access to seventy-three, and gradually, by stratagem and negotiation, was securing the others.”
Here readers are given a brief snapshot into Mazirian the Magician’s mind on the decadence of corruption that afflicts the dim world of a far future earth.
Here are some of my own humble attempts at creating historical grandeur: coming ripe from the lips of the tentative guardian Slag himself in the Temple of Vitus:
“The subworld is a cruel and intriguing place: cave-bound, with pitch black shadows, poking stalagmites, burning bogs, spooks, disgusts, and general rigour. Ur Daklith makes his throne on a pyre of black ghoul bones. He sits on high on his brazier, heedless of the ice-cold or the red-hot flames. His subimps wail and moan in the murks, waiting on him hand and foot while they grovel in slops and slime. Fatuous fools! I was one of Daklith’s lucky guardians, relegated to the far west extent of the realm, manning the lych gate before Imiz-Don, the kirg-haunted swamps. There, I guarded the portal against illicit entry, by smorgs, smoufs, lizipusts, envoy bats and Serkenian poisoners. Ur Daklith has many enemies, you see. ’Twas the same place where Vitus the Victorious came as an angelic spirit and proposed a sally.”
While in a faraway realm, the Time-smith of Ezmaron offers a completely different testimony in a snooty mood:
“The ‘Time Overlord’ or ‘Adjudicator’ has now recently constructed impressive tic-toc engines of his own to make mine look like children’s toys. I like to think that my elaborately-constructed network would soon attract his attention and intersect with the Overlord’s domain. There is a strong flux line positioned here at this exact location of the labyrinth. The ancients knew it well. In fact, this is the original site of Besimark’s old keep, where the First Magician set up his researches and commissioned the Second and Third Mages to work day and night to decipher the diagrams and apocrypha writ on the tablets of old Farlore.”
Afrid the sorceress of Thornkeep, an obscure thaumaturgist, describes the lore of her golems:
“I strive after the precepts of Architrax, the Green Mage. A genius before his time. I became fascinated with the concept of automata and how they could be used to enhance Architrax’s research in a variety of fields. He took his studies to eccentric levels, encompassing botany, elixirs, magical causation, astro-reading, fire throwing, and other worthy disciplines.”
A brief tour perhaps, but one which I hope emphasizes the craft of a few compelling authors and how they have honed in on creating a unique mood of enchantment and mystery through the development of a rich background history—all bringing new dimensions to a fantasy tale.