One thing fantasy excels at is presenting incredible new worlds to the reader. The imagination of fantasy authors knows no bounds when worldbuilding is involved. So below I have picked out some of my favourite fantasy locations to celebrate and illustrate the variety and brilliance on offer.
The Mines of Moria
Tolkien’s Middle Earth contained such incredible places, from Hobbiton to the Lonely Mountain, the splendour of Gondor to the windswept plains of Rohan, or the dark cave of Shelob to the great troll-operated gates of Mordor, that picking just one location is a difficult task. Tolkien put so much into developing his world and its varied peoples that I could create a whole article series on memorable places in Middle Earth. I have picked Moria because of its size, its atmosphere and because of the contrast between Gimli’s expectations and the dark, frightening truth the Fellowship finds within.
The Mines of Moria are immense. The journey through them takes days. The Fellowship eventually finds its way to the great hall with its huge columns stretching up to the dark unseen ceiling and onwards and outwards past rows of columns hidden in the gloom. Yet it also precisely designed, the light coming through from high above to strike the tomb of Balin. In the film, when Pippin knocks the bucket down the well we are shown a greater extent to the mines which the Fellowship never explores; and later as they flee they are dwarfed (pun intended) by the scale of the spaces they move through.
But for me it is the darkness that makes it memorable – and the silence (until things start going wrong for the Fellowship, anyway). This place, previously described by Gimli as somewhere they can expect a royal welcome, a place of industry and activity, now silenced, eerie and sinister.
Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy is wonderfully inventive, refreshingly different from the normally land-based, medieval-style fantasies that make up a sizable portion of the genre. The Liveships are living sea-going vessels, made of a strange magical wood later revealed to be dragon cocoons, and brought to life by having three captains from the same family die on their decks. Thus they are characters, they are trading vessels, and they are the homes of the protagonists.
What I love about them is the originality of the concept, the imaginativeness that they stem from. They are magical living ships linked to a human family, with their own personalities and character progressions, and they are a huge part of the story.
Waylander is one of David Gemmell’s most popular characters, and by his last book, Hero of Shadows, his success as an assassin and wisdom in investments has made him incredibly wealthy.
At the start of the book, Waylander leads a young woman whose life he has saved into his home at night. It is dark and she notices as she descends deeper, that the corridors and staircases are hewn from the rock. She feels the oppression of being underground, and decides to move on come morning.
But when morning comes it becomes clear what the truth is – the door she entered through was at the top of a cliff. The palace is made of rooms cut into the cliff face, and they look out across a sparkling bay.
As with the Mines of Moria, part of what I love about this place is the contrast between expectations and the truth, but I also love the imagery Gemmell uses to describe its beauty. I can picture it in my mind, this shining sun-filled sanctuary from the harshness of the real world, almost hidden from the land side.
Pratchett’s Discworld is, like Middle Earth, a varied and exciting place. From quiet sleepy Lancre to the desert nation of Klatch, and from Fourrecks to the Ramtops, all on a flat circle the sea pours off the edge of, on the backs of four elephants standing on the shell of an immense crater-pocked turtle, Discworld is nothing if not memorable. Ankh-Morpork is the setting of a significant proportion of the many novels, and so full of character itself – without the ability to have a chat with its inhabitants as with the Liveships – that it is, for me, the most memorable of the lot.
Ankh-Morpork is, depending on the book you’re reading, either built on loam or on, well, Ankh-Morpork; former rooms have become basements as floods have buried them under silt, and now the dwarves move around in a network of streets beneath the streets. Ankh-Morpork has its own unique rules, where if there’s going to be crime anyway it might as well be organised; where the Alchemy Guild explodes at least twice a month; where an Elizabethan theatre, a Renaissance era opera house and a very Victorian art gallery can be found happily co-existing; and where a pub that was the Broken Drum one book is called the Mended Drum in the next (though not for long).
Ankh-Morpork is the archetypal fantasy city – it is busy and varied and dangerous and dirty, with a palace and a river (for want of a better word), a university, a prison, a dark and dangerous quarter, a post office and a bank. But it is huge, and it is, like everything Pratchett writes, subtly and light-heartedly poking fun at itself and fantasy in general.
Howl’s Moving Castle
I first read this book by the late Diana Wynne Jones at the age of thirteen, and was instantly hooked on her books, but this was always the best of the lot to me. The castle is this huge imposing structure that floats across the hills above Market Chipping, belching out smoke. But inside it is much smaller, a few rooms and a courtyard, which are located somewhere else entirely – with each window looking out over a different view. And the door opens to four different places depending on which way up the doorknob is.
Contrasts seem to be a theme in why I like places, and here it is no different. The castle looks almost sinister from the outside (I am, here, ignoring the depiction in the Miyazaki film, my thoughts on which you can read here), yet inside is small and cosy and full of clutter. Outside it is clunking and chugging and spewing out black smoke – later revealed to be a deliberate attempt to frighten the people of Market Chipping so they wouldn’t be too curious about the castle – while inside it is quiet and warm and still.
I also love the idea of a door that can open to many different places, and windows that look out onto different views. There’s the castle hovering across the hills, the little cottage in the sea-side town, the dilapidated stables in the capital city, and… well, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read the book (which even if you’ve seen the film, you should do – it’s just not the same story at all.)
But most of all I love the magic of it. The Mines of Moria are a testament to hard work undertaken by hundreds or thousands of dwarves over a long period. Ankh-Morpork is suffused with magic (especially behind the Unseen University which seems to produce incredibly clever cats and dogs that talk) but its charm lies in how varied and believable it is. Waylander’s palace conjures an image of hidden luxury.
And while the Liveships are magical in a way that is so elegantly inventive, Howl’s Moving Castle is magical through and through, in so many ways, and at the same time a very human location, where the bathroom is filthy and the place in general needs a good clean, where ordinary people knock on one of the external doors looking for little spells to keep their boats safe, or to summon a well known wizard to see the King.
It is, more than any of the other places mentioned, such a core of the story that it almost becomes a character itself. In fact, in the (frankly brilliant) stage adaption performed last winter at the Southwark Playhouse, the castle was the narrator – and voiced by the great Stephen Fry.
What other places in fantasy novels and films do you find memorable? What makes them so special to you?