Ponderings on Creative Environments
Rich natural environments and talking (or telepathic) animals in creative narratives, often makes me think with tight introspection. I say this with particular reference to the actual creative process in fantastical literature, which is my preferred subject of persistent and reflective enquiry. I have these little inward discussions about certain writing processes and usage of real or primary-world vehicles to deliver the story, that enrich my own worlds and setting.
Is natural history, that is, our environment, primary or secondary? It is inherent to our real or primary-world, so why is it not the same for our secondary-world?
I am writing a comprehensive world-history for my Realm of the Gnomes saga, and that world also forms the basis of many other projects including Skerry and a short novella, Hestur. However, it doesn’t stop there. I need to understand my world in it’s entirety — what is in it — and what makes it, what needs to be different from our reality, or why have it — because if I can’t understand or believe my world, neither will my readers?
Looking back at early fiction, especially the l9th century, there is plenty of evidence of fantasy writers either consciously or subconsciously focusing on the natural environment in their world-building process. After all, from the lush and scenic settings of The Shire to the anthropomorphic animals in Orwell’s Animal Farm, isn’t it simply all part of the creative process? Isn’t it inherent in our writing both consciously and unconsciously? Where would stories be without the fauna and flora, as too their complex involvement? However, even barren worlds with no life (per se) at all can be rich and exciting … can’t they?
Some writers have obtained influences of the fauna and flora simply for their love and affinity to the outdoor world, a prime example being Beatrix Potter (Leah and Rebanks, 2016). Having a rich country-side setting with talking animals is what makes Peter Rabbit Peter Rabbit, is it not? Could Peter Rabbit have been written in a concrete-filled world with no other animals? I’d like to think that there is a story in whatever parameters you are given, so anything is possible.
For whatever reasons, others have felt a need to incorporate large biodiversites in the name of adding a realistic substance and believability to their works. Visually, James Cameron’s Avatar would deliver a poor experience to viewers if the world and language of Pandora wasn’t present. In Literature, what would the 1908 classic Wind and the Willows by Kenneth Grahame be without the sumptuous habitat and animals, and where would Orwell’s dystopian Animal Farm be without its animal protagonists, deuteragonists and antagonists? More importantly, where would Middle-Earth’s legendarium be without the glorious ecosystem and Shelob, the spider that lives high in the Ephel Dúath Mountains that borders Mordor?
So what makes natural history so intrinsic and important to the fantasy or imaginative worlds from world-building (or secondary world) to anthropomorphism? That’s a mouthful, and a difficult question. What are these influences in creative works? Is it purely creation, or a mixture of cultural unconsciousness as a result of our own biological living — living in the primary world? These are questions I often ask myself, and continue to reflect on.
Fantasy literature incorporates “creature staples” and a narrative similitude that occurs across the genre. Dragons and mythical creatures have been used in both early and modern storytelling whatever the origin; and with the fantastical being its predominant genre, incorporation of mythologies and folk-lore usage still continues and evolves. Were these simply created to relay morals or instill societal rules? Or was having something unreal the perfect vehicle to drive the story and give it predominance in our minds.
As far back as the Greek fabulist Aesop right up to The Völsungasaga, animals have been used in many different ways. They have been incorporated into writing as purely to set a scene or setting, and used as a vehicle to deliver morals to the younger audiences. One of interest to me as a child was Jason being regurgitated by the snake or dragon who keeps the Golden Fleece. Although, at the time it cautioned me not to approach snakes or dragons, it does illustrates the longevity of the fantastical that continues to be refashioned and evolve.
In many of Aesop’s tales animals speak and have human characteristics. Anthropomorphism and personification have ancient roots as storytelling and artistic devices. The fable of The Hawk and the Nightingale is one of the earliest recorded in Greek and there have been many variations on the story since the Classical period*. The story began as a reflection on the arbitrary use of power and eventually shifted to being a lesson in the wise use of resources. Aesop’s tales used to be told in a way that appealed to children and in a way that these morals could be relayed, and more importantly in a way that satirised human society through a different or secondary world.
Children were therefore the ideal vehicle to relay the fantastical purely as they were open-minded and learning the morals of society. They had the innocence or receptiveness towards a truly bizarre and unbelievable situation or world, whereas through various time-periods adults where prone not to believe anything that wasn’t true to real life. A real Peter Pan syndrome. Adults often shunned the preposterous assumption that animals could speak, let alone teach them any lessons about life. It was also hard to believe that flowers and animals appeared on an alien planet, often with absurd characteristics — again, they were unbelievable so they weren’t real. Although, today that seems to be shifting and evolving further visually in light of technological advances and societal changes like liberal thought and cultural change. Dragons and sub-species now appear life-like thanks to CGI. If such images and film reels where shown to pre-Darwinan’s, would they take that life-likeness and interpret it as believable because it’s ‘moving’, therefore it must be real? I’m sure if Darwin had watched Avatar in his own time period, he would probably prepare his next expedition during the credits. I know it’s impossible, but it just hypothesises the cultural significance and wonder.
We are aware of the great influence of the Animalia in Victorian literature (Blount,1974; Cunnigham, 1995; Knoepflmacher, 1983; Ritvo, 1987), but the explosion of Darwinism in 1859 eventually changed the way of thinking towards life on earth. It would be really interesting to explore and examine fantasy stories pre and post the Darwinian explosion. I hazard an unfounded guess, an assumption if you will, that there wouldn’t be a significant difference in usage, but maybe a shift in the way fauna and flora is used in the creative process. Our own creativeness is evolving, and isn’t that a wonder in itself?
Is it simply then, because such fauna are not real that it simply creates a vehicle for a story to appear real? Or is it because making the unreal appear real is what really makes a narrative truly “fantastic-al” and / or “other-worldly”? How and why do we create the unbelievable whilst making it believable, and what’s the real purpose?
For whatever reason, we have to praise the usage of nature and creatures in creative works as a whole through all literary forms (I don’t like using genre). For me, it is both important and paramount to my storytelling. Without my world, I wouldn’t know how to develop my characters, their appearance, what they wear or use to help them along their journey, or plot delivery. I wouldn’t be able to craft a fantastical narrative, and it wouldn’t be help drive an emotional rollercoaster to the reader.
For now, I’ll return to my mutations and sub-created species … alas, I’ll save that for another discourse.
Amélie (2001) Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet [Film]. France and Germany. Momentum Pictures.
Briggs, K. M. (1976) An Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures). New York: Pantheon Books.
Lear, L., and Rebanks, J. (2016) Beatrix Potter: A life in Nature. St. Martin’s Griffin; 2 Reprint edition.
* The original version is numbered 4 in the Perry Index and the later Aesop version, sometimes going under the title The Hawk, the Nightingale and the Birdcatcher, is numbered 567.
Auden, W, H. (1968) Secondary Worlds (a book of four essays).
Wolf, M. J. P. (2012) Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation.