Napleon is rumored to have declared, “Geography is destiny.”
Of course, Napoleon was dumb enough to invade Russia and spent the last six years of his life in prison, so it’s not as though he had everything figured out, but still, if he’s right on this score, then fantasy novelists are wrong.
After all, fantasy novels are supposed to be books about people (or demons, or trolls, or dragons, or whatever). The unspoken premise from Tolkien and Lewis right on down is that what matters is human character and the decisions that unfold from character in conflict. No one advises Aragorn not to worry about Sauron because the trade routes, dominant weather patterns, and resource distribution of Middle Earth won’t support a long-term orcish presence outside of Mordor.
For the past ten years I’ve been teaching history (mostly world, some ancient and medieval European), and there is a school of thought (out of fashion at the moment) that accords with the fantasy mindset: the Great Man approach.
As you might infer, the Great Man approach, championed by Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Carlyle, and other major 19th century figures, suggests that history is more or less the story of the great men (and, despite the shitty name of the theory, women), individuals of genius, daring, charisma, and insight who more or less single-handedly wrench the course of history in a direction of their choosing.
One thinks of Shi Huangdi, the first Qin emperor of China, or Genghis Khan, or Joan of Arc. Jesus springs to mind, and Mohammad. Cleopatra. Queen Elizabeth. Had these folks never been born, the argument goes, or had they died in infancy, the great sweep of human history might have been fundamentally altered.
We don’t need to make much of a jump to see that this is the fundamental assumption behind almost all epic fantasy. It matters what Raistlin and Shea Ohmsford do. Had our fantasy heroes made different choices, different shit would have happened, usually some very bad shit. Want to give Boromir that ring, Frodo?
Interestingly, as I mentioned above, the “Great Man” theory has largely fallen from grace in historical circles. Many historians now see different factors as formative and transformational: climate (Jared Diamond in Collapse), trade patterns (Cunliffe in Europe Between the Oceans), indigenous plants and animals (Diamond again, in Guns, Germs, and Steel, along with plenty of others), and, you guessed it: geography. Unfortunately, these elements don’t lend themselves to story:
In the third age of An’Abar, when the Leper King ruled from his blighted throne, a new strain of wheat was introduced, the cross-pollination of which allowed the formerly sterile maize…
The importance of this boring stuff is, however, hard to dispute. I used to begin every class on a new civilization with a full day or two studying the relevant maps. It was amazing what conclusions my students were able to draw simply from the geography without so much as a glance at political or cultural history. Ancient Egypt, for instance, sheltered from foreign influences and invaders by the Sahara to the west, the cataracts of the Nile to the south, the sprawling Nile delta to the north, and the deserts of Sinai to the east, was predictably insular for thousands of years, its government remarkably stable. Or Greece: just take a glance at those islands, peninsulae, and mountains and you know that it’s going to be a land of city states, autonomous units that will resist all attempts at unification or central control.
But Alexander the Great was so… great! He kept Greece unified! He swept through Persia and brought the Hellenistic culture to the east! Well, yeah. I hear that. On the other hand, you don’t see Macedonians running Iran these days. (Although, to be fair, you don’t see Zoroastrian Achaemenids running it either.)
The point is, there aren’t too many fantasy readers out there who want to read a six-book series about the effects of river-silting on the rise and fall of a civilization (although I’d be curious to see some insane writer take up that gauntlet). We want to read about people doing stuff and we want that stuff, at least in epic fantasy, to matter. So what about geography?
I’d argue there’s still an important role for geography to play, and here we come to the map. I’m not sure how most writers work, but my impression is that sometimes the map evolves hand-in-hand with the story while other times a writer lays out the plot then drafts up a map as a sort of background against which the events can play out. By now it’s probably clear that I prefer the former approach (although I’ve read and loved plenty of books in which I’ll bet the writer employed the latter). It’s not so much that it’s bad to use the map-as-backdrop strategy, but I find that the map can be a priceless source of inspiration. A plausible harbor might suggest a merchant oligarchy; scant forests, a lumber monopoly.
I know, I know. No one wants to read about tariffs or fiat currency, and I’m not suggesting they should be the extent of the novel’s scope, merely that these factors can help enrich a world, can make for plausible and exciting politics, trade, and migration against which the human drama that we’re all excited for can unfold. Most importantly, they all spring from the map.
In some novels, the interplay between map and plot strikes me as plausible. In others… not so much. I’m curious to hear from readers here: does geography matter in fantasy, or have my long years teaching history infected my brain?