Harry Potter and the Tacks of Brass (2 of 5)

THE STORY SO FAR: a meditation on the prevalence of ‘brass tacks’, non-metaphorical readings of the Potter books has led to the suggestion that the world-building of the ‘Potterverse’ may be at fault.

There are, I think, four main approaches to world-building in fantasy:

1. Nuts and bolts
A troll’s stolen your blanket. Where are you going to get a new one? Fortunately it’s Thirdday, and market day in Cedar Lake is Fourthday – and Cedar Lake is only twenty thryms away, so if you saddle up your quaghorn and ride all day and all night you’ll be there in good time. Unfortunately the road to Cedar Lake passes through the Merry Green Wood, which – despite its name – is dark and treacherous at night, so you’ll have to find another route… And so on. Nuts and bolts world-builders really do build a world – not only can they show you Cedar Lake on the map, they can tell you when and how it was founded, and about its longstanding rivalry with Willow Bank a thrym and a half up the river Hak. None of this need have anything to do – perhaps, should have anything to do – with anything we’re familiar with in our own world; there is no focus-pulling, no shock of recognition as the metaphorical import of a local detail hits home.

What’s interesting about this approach is that, although constructed worlds certainly don’t have to make sense, once you’ve accumulated a certain level of detail they do – at least to the extent that the edges all join up, and the world-builder can answer any question that may arise. (The real world isn’t that different: ‘Why Maundy Thursday’ is actually a perfectly good question, with an answer that makes sense on at least one level. (Latin, apparently.)) And there’s a certain satisfaction in that, even if after a while filling in the blanks gets to feel a bit like, well, filling in the blanks. Moreover, beyond a certain point what you have is, basically, a whole world, which in itself is asking to be compared with our own: here are the kind of things that people can do in this setting… Elaborate and painstaking though this type of world-building typically is (arguably has to be, if it is to be successful), in another sense it’s the most basic; it’s certainly the most undirected. You focus-pull the whole world or none of it.

Then there are two approaches to world-building that do relate to, or reflect on, our experiences in the world we know.

2. Spilt religion
We don’t have any experience of magic in this world, but we do – collectively – have experience of the supernatural, in the form of religion. Hence the second approach to world-building, which is light on geography and heavy on numinousness (is it numinousness, numinescence or numinosity?). This is the approach Mark Kermode is fond of lampooning in sword-and-sorcery films – “Lord Biddly-Bong armed with the Sword of Fiddly-Flop,” and so on. The grammar of a world like this isn’t religious, but it is religiose: it’s filtered through some combination of the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and the Latin Mass. So if there’s a lot of kneeling in reverence, with people being addressed as supreme high lords and kings; if you’re dealing with a lot of hierarchies and/or family trees; if a lot of characters and things have Big Important Names; and if spells and incantations in incomprehensible languages are a big deal – then it’s a fair bet that the magic that’s ultimately holding up this particular world is the magic that’s practised in church on Sundays. (This isn’t a dig at Tolkien – he knew perfectly well what he was doing.)

3. Spock’s beard
A second kind of reflected world is the parasitic world, a world whose roots in our own aren’t hidden. Satires and political parables obviously come under this heading, but it also covers utopias, near-future projections, what-if’s and alternative histories told in the form of fantasy (Star Trek was a mine of those). The mark of a world like this is that you don’t have to ask how it would all work, because you already know: it works just the way it does in our world. Either that, or it works on the basis of rules and mechanisms that are hidden or disavowed in our world, but brought into the open in the fantasy; or else it doesn’t really work at all, thanks to the exaggeration of trends which, again, exist in the world we know. There aren’t so many titles of nobility or neologisms in a world like this, and there are a lot more jokes.

Some worlds in this category are parasitic on fictional worlds; Discworld is an unusually well-developed example of this approach. Or rather, it began that way and then changed. Or rather, it began that way and in one sense developed in that way, although… hold on, let’s do this properly.

Brief digression on Discworld
The first couple of Discworld books set out to be a kind of Tough Guide to Fantasy Land in fictional form; we see the tropes of post-Tolkien, post-Conan fantasy through the eyes of a literal tourist, accompanied by a local informant who is also an amoral, self-centred cynic. As a result, ironic distance between the narrative voice and the world-building is built in; the world is constantly having to be explained, and it’s explained very much in terms of which bits will hurt you and which will let you stay out of trouble and mind your own business, preferably while getting drunk.

[Author’s note: Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasy Land was in fact published in 1996, thirteen years and approximately 28 books after The Colour of Magic, so perhaps she was setting out to write TCOM/TLF in encyclopaedia form. Or perhaps this analogy doesn’t really work.]

[Author’s note to the author’s note: if 28 sounds like an awful lot of books, that’s partly because I’m counting books other than the Discworld novels, of which only(!) 17 were published in that period. It’s also because, once you start looking at Pratchett’s complete bibliography, it’s really hard to arrive at a definitive number of books (do you include the Maps? the graphic novels? the Josh Kirby art books? The Annotated Cat?). But fundamentally, the reason why 28 sounds like an awful lot of books to complete in 13 years is that it is. The man just wrote.]

Discworld stays parasitic – right to the end, it’s always in some sense ‘about’ this world – but it doesn’t stay put. The first major development is when other characters, in addition to the rather one-note Rincewind – whose emotional repertoire doesn’t run to much beyond cynicism and panic – start to act like people rather than fantasy characters. Specifically, they start to look beyond the plot and think about the world they’re in, and in particular about what this world is like to run. Granny Weatherwax is the first, followed by Vetinari and then Pratchett’s greatest (and favourite?) creation, Vimes. The invention of politics, in other words, is what keeps the Discworld series fresh, after that first volcanic surge of creativity had died down. (Bear in mind that there wasn’t a ‘Death series’, a ‘witches series’ or a ‘Watch series’ when Pratchett wrote Mort, Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards!; they were just the fourth, sixth and eighth Discworld books, all of which appeared within three years of the second.) I remember an Interzone article from around the time of Guards! Guards!; the author cited one of Vetinari’s more jaded observations, on the difficulties of governing a city full of thieves, idiots and idiotic thieves, and expressed concern for Pratchett’s state of mind – might it be time for him to give Discworld a bit of a rest? He had no idea – but then, neither did any of us.

Pratchett always seems to have been on the lookout for different ways in which Discworld could reflect our world; the first ‘political’ books were rapidly followed by a cluster of books (not the most successful) in which elements of our reality literally leaked into Discworld (e.g. Moving Pictures), and a series (e.g. Hogfather) in which Pratchett’s borrowings from myth and legend were explained as free-floating story elements, drifting through the multiverse and spontaneously instantiating themselves. Finally, Discworld seemed to embark on a process of convergence with the Industrial Revolution, from The Truth (the press) to Raising Steam (the railways). However many details were filled in, though, the edges never quite met; the contours of the map were always shifting as new stories emerged and needed to be told – driven ultimately by what Pratchett had to say about our world.

Hail and farewell, Discworld; what an amazing achievement that world was. (But always – as I was saying – a parasitic world.)

4. Wet paint
So there are nuts-and-bolts worlds, numinous worlds, parasitic worlds; lastly, there are (in the immortal words of Helga Hufflepuff) “the rest”. These are worlds where somebody’s set out to achieve something quite specific – a religious parable in which the humblest are elevated through unmediated communion with Jesus Christ; a satirical wish-fulfilment fantasy in which an orphan is hideously mistreated by grotesque parent-substitutes but discovers he is vastly more powerful than they are – and then lost interest in the necessary world-building, but ploughed on with it anyway. These are bodged-up worlds, without any consistent register; the local effects often work brilliantly, but the whole doesn’t even try to hang together. It’s not a world reflecting and meditating on the religion and wonder that we know; it’s not a world reflecting and lampooning the society and politics we know; and it’s not a world existing independently, an island entire of itself. It’s just… well, here’s a world, and here’s a story, and here’s another one. The telltale sign of a world like this is the continual discovery of new wonders, mysteries and other plot mechanisms, as the developing stories require. The Queen proverbially thinks the world smells of fresh paint; characters in worlds like this have a similar experience, as the sets are continually dressed and re-dressed around them.

NEXT: …and we’re back to Harry Potter.

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