Nature and Narrative
Rich natural history in creative narratives, is something I continuously ponder on. I say this with particular reference to the influence of nature in the creative process focusing on the fantastical in literature.
Is natural history, primary or secondary? Is it inherent to our real or primary-world? If so, why is it not the same for our secondary-world?
Believe the World
I am writing a comprehensive world-history for my fantasy world. It forms the basis for many other projects, such as Skerry and Hestur. Why, because I need to understand my world in its entirety. From what is in it, what makes it ‘tick’ and what needs to be different from our reality, to why even have it at all. The rationale is that if I can’t understand or believe my world, neither will the reader, and to be quite honest — every little bit of detail has a function … a place.
Looking back at early fiction, especially the l9th century, there is plenty of evidence of fantasy writers consciously and subconsciously focusing on the natural environment in their world-building process. After all, from the lush and scenic settings of Tolkien’s Shire to the anthropomorphic animals in Orwell’s Animal Farm, it is simply part of the creative process. Where would stories be without the fauna and flora, as too their complex or fleeting involvement? Even barren worlds with no life (per se) can be rich and exciting, and have a function to the narrative.
Influences and World-Building
Some writers have been influenced for their love and affinity to the outdoor world. A prime example is Beatrix Potter (Leah and Rebanks, 2016), whereby having a rich country-side setting with talking animals makes Peter Rabbit Peter Rabbit.
Many other authors have felt a need to incorporate large biodiversities in the name of adding realistic substance and believability to their fictional works. Visually, James Cameron’s Avatar would deliver a poor experience to viewers if the world and language of Pandora was set in the medieval. I know, that seems a little preposterous, but what would the 1908 classic Wind and the Willows by Kenneth Grahame be without the sumptuous country habitat and animals, and where would Orwell’s dystopian Animal Farm be without its animal protagonists, deuteragonists and antagonists? And where would Middle-Earth’s legendarium be without the glorious ecosystem, the Nazgûl’s winged creature, 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, a difficult question, and even harder to answer. 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 (life in the primary world)?
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. The fantastical is the genre largely favoured. This is due to the incorporation of mythologies and folk-lore usage, which still continues and evolves. The fantastical was perfect in relaying morals or societal rules. Having something unreal was the perfect vehicle to drive the story, and give it predominance in our minds.
As far back as the Greek fabulist Aesop, and further forwards to The Völsungasaga, animals have been used in many different ways. They have been incorporated into writing to set the scene or setting. Animals were used as a vehicle to deliver morals to younger audiences. One animal or beast that remains fresh in my mind from childhood is Jason being regurgitated by the snake (or dragon) — the keeper of the Golden Fleece. Although, at the time it cautioned me not to approach snakes or dragons, it illustrates perfectly the longevity of the fantastical. This is a prime example of narrative evolution, and the refashioning of storytelling.
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. There are also many variations of 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 morals could be relayed. More importantly it satirised human society through a different or secondary world.
The open mind
Children were therefore the perfect vehicle for relaying the fantastical. They were open-minded and learning the morals of society. They had the innocence or receptiveness towards a truly bizarre and unbelievable situation, creature or world. Whereas through various time-periods adults were prone to disbelieve anything that wasn’t real-life: a true Peter Pan effect. Adults often shunned the preposterous assumption that animals could speak, or that dragons roamed the land. Adults also refused to accept they could be taught lessons about life. It was hard to believe that flowers and animals could talk, appear on an alien planet, and often with absurd characteristics or bizarre functionalities. Again, they simply weren’t ‘believable’, so they weren’t real, and therefore just a child’s story.
Today, the use of rich environments seems continues to shift and evolve from the page to the screen. Technological advances, liberal thought and cultural / societal changes have all contributed. Dragons and sub-species now appear life-like thanks to CGI, but modern culture now knows this to be unreal, untrue and ‘fictional’. There is a general acceptance of the visual ‘wow’ factor, and a subtle shift seems to be focusing on technology to deliver the most realistic and fluid output. If such moving images where shown to pre-Darwinians, would they take that life ‘likeness’ and believe in its existence? I’m certain if Darwin himself would have watched Avatar in his own time period, amazement of the bioluminescent species would probably have forced him to plan an expedition to Pandora — even before the end credits! I know that’s rather far-fetched, but it just hypothesises the cultural significance, the time, and genial wonder.
Creativeness is evolving
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 the evolution of fantasy stories pre and post the Darwinian explosion focusing on their natural science. My unfounded assumption is that there probably wouldn’t have be a significant difference in the way it is used, purely because of our cultural timeline. Maybe just a shift in the way fauna and flora is used creatively as knowledge evolves. Therefore, our own creativeness has to be evolving, and isn’t that a wonder in itself?
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. The later Aesop version, sometimes referred to as The Hawk, the Nightingale and the Birdcatcher. 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.