“I hate useless, creepy old shit.”
So says my beloved wife on the subject of ancient relics in fantasy novels. Coming in for particular censure are mysterious old buildings, old roads, old statues, and “that stupid Logoth place where everything is a scary little alleyway.”
For my part, I found the stupid Logoth place (Shadar Logoth of Robert Jordan’s first book) both interesting and terrifying, so this remark set me pondering about the value and proper deployment of hoary antiquity in fantasy.
We can start with a brief taxonomy. A writer can conjure a landscape or city dotted with the ancient structures for several reasons:
First: Scenery. Action takes place in settings, and if you have the choice to set your duel in front of a tree or an ancient statue of the God of Ultimate Suffering and Misery, the statue seems cooler.
Second: History. Often the (ancient) history of an invented world is relevant to the plot. One way to reveal that history is through archaeology. Given the dangers inherent in the long expository passage (“The war began in the third year of the fourth age, when Nab’kul and his hordes had despoiled the country and blah, blah, blah”), the inclusion of an old bridge or ruined castle is sometimes a more elegant way to approach the revelation of history.
Third: Mystery. This can be a cheap trick, but I fall for it every time. Stick a mysterious windowless tower in the middle of a grassland, tell me that no one has ever been seen to enter or leave, and I will wonder about that tower for thousands of pages. I will literally read entire books just to discover who built the tower and why.
These uses of archaeology are both practical and effective, and yet I think that most fantasy readers find something even more satisfying in the discovery of ancient cities, roads, and statues: the suggestion of a golden age, that hint that the characters (and by extension, the reader) live in a diminished age but can still walk in the literal shadows of greatness. We might encapsulate the feeling in a single word: wonder.
It’s not a familiar feeling in our modern world. We have skyscrapers and iPhones, electric cars and planes that, you know, fly. I am often astounded at how jaded I have become, even toward things that do not yet exist. The other day I found myself surprised and slightly irritated that we are still reliant on such a primitive piece of technology as the snowplow. It is an effective, but essentially medieval device. When do we get self-cleaning roads?
This attitude, of course, is the antithesis of wonder, but it is hard to avoid if you live in the first world in the twenty-first century. Odds are good that whatever cool shit people built back in the day – temples, churches, castles – we could built them taller and faster now.
Fantasy, however, gives us a chance to recover that feeling of wonder, the lost sense that those who came before were actually smarter or more skilled, a feeling that would have been familiar to most people throughout human history: an early medieval peasant looking at a Roman aqueduct, for instance, or Alexander the Great considering the pyramids of Egypt. Most people before us had the capacity to be humbled by the creations of the past in a way that we do not. Fantasy affords this capacity.
That said, the subject deserves at least one more post. After all, as my wife insists, “If there’s an ancient statue, it had better do something.”
“Why?” I ask. “Why can’t it just be a cool statue?”
She rolls her eyes. “Because it’s fucking fantasy!”
I’m curious to hear the thoughts of others on this issue. What sort of archaeological artifacts have proven especially intriguing or important in other works of fantasy? What’s just useless window dressing?