sense of place

Magic in fantasy occurs as a central nervous system of the fiction. And though is it the systematic underpinning of all that happens, it is frequently mysterious, capricious, often dangerous.

Its main logic: rules are rules, and woe to the person that offends or transgresses those powers.

This is at the heart of G.K. Chesterton’s observations about key elements of fantasy (that he extends to Christian philosophy), the first being an absolute sense of wonder. And the second: that transcendent, unknowable rules need to be obeyed and heeded, even if we don’t understand them.

This is the belief that fantasy is built upon. Fantasy rests not on a block-by-block foundation of logical understanding but on a hidden bedrock of great mystery and faith.

Robin McKinley is one of those treasured fantasy writers who has written a slew of wonderful number of novels over a career, and garnered praise and big-time awards (Newbery Medal for The Hero and the Crown, a Newbery Honor for The Blue Sword, the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature for Sunshine).

Sunshine, by the way, is a great work, and gave rise to one of my favorite statements from McKinley: “There is no sequel to Sunshine.” Unlike so many others, she feels no need to write sequels. She writes when she’s ready to write:

It’s not up to me! I can’t do anything unless or until a story comes to me and says, “Write me – write me now.” (. . .)

Yes, there are lots of loose ends.  I like loose ends.  Loose ends are like life, and, proficiently deployed, make a story feel like life.

Here’s her take on magic in Spindle’s End. It wonderfully mixes an original look at magic that pervades everything . . . with a delightful sense of place, all in the first pages of that novel.

The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster-dust. (Housecleaners in that country earned unusually good wages.) If you lived in that country, you had to de-scale your kettle of its encrustation of magic at least once a week, because if you didn’t, you might find yourself pouring hissing snakes or pond slime into your teapot instead of water. (. . .)

If you lived there, you learned what you had to do . . . like asking your loaf of bread to remain a loaf of bread before you struck it with a knife. (. . .)

Generally speaking, the more mobile and water-dependent something was, the more likely magic was to get at it. This meant animals – and,  of course,  humans – were the most vulnerable. Rock were pretty reliably rocks, except of course when they were something else that had been turned into rocks.

And by the way, about magic settling on everything . . . on her website, she claims this as a personal motto, which many of us writers share:

My favorite sofa cushion reads, “My idea of housework is to sweep the room with a glance.”


(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)


“There and Back Again” . . .

In fantasy literature, the story often involves a journey from place familiar to place unknown. Leaving your small cottage, you enter the dark forest. Beyond is terra incognito, where dangerous beasts lurk, strange people are encountered, perilous decisions must be made.

These are the roads to the underground maze of Neverwhere, or the serene treetops of Lothlórien, or the tea parties and croquet matches of Wonderland.

There and Back Again, the subtitle of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, at first seems the epitome of understatement. It suggests the homebody nature of the hobbit, Bilbo’s penchant for the ordinary. The great adventure of going “there,” it suggests, means mostly just being away from home for a while.

But on his return, as is often true in epic tales, the hero finds that home itself has changed. Bilbo’s own neighbors don’t recognize him; they are absorbed in the process of selling off his furniture, eager to take over the cozy hobbit-hole they think he has abandoned. Bilbo himself has changed; he is not quite the same hobbit he used to be.

In that marvelous subtitle, Tolkien has summed up the essence of fantasy. There and back again is the very heart of adventure. To travel through Middle-earth or into any fantasy world is not just a series of stops on a Caribbean cruise. It is a journey into a mythic place.

There’s no “there” there, said Gertrude Stein, infamously, about Oakland, California. In Stein’s circle of hip literati and artists, “thereness” was a prized quality. It described an elevated aspect of place – just as destiny is a special quality of plot, or inner nature is a special aspect of character.

Indeed, this sense of “there-ness” might have been the true meaning of British climber George Mallory’s famous answer to the question of why he attempted to climb Mount Everest. “Because it’s there,” he replied. Perhaps what he really meant was that the high Himalayas had the quintessential “there-ness” of sacred space. Gertrude Stein would have known what he meant.

Perhaps Tolkien did too. As did Joseph Campbell, who wrote: “Sacred place is the place where eternity shines through.”

[This is excerpted from A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder & Enchantment, by Philip Martin, Crickhollow Books, copyright 2009. I’ve also added another excerpt about sense of place, from the “Fantastic Places” chapter, to the Excerpt page of this blog.]

Frederic S. Durbin’s novel Dragonfly (Arkham House hardcover 1999, Ace Fantasy paperback 2005) has a wonderful sense of place, deeply rooted in the central Illinois town Durbin grew up in.

In that dark fantasy novel, 10-year-old Bridget Ann (nicknamed “Dragonfly”) lives in her Uncle Henry’s small-town funeral parlor. As Hallowe’en approaches, strange things are happening, and Uncle Henry summons a mysterious friend, Mothkin, to investigate. Together, Dragonfly and Mothkin discover a doorway in the basement to the spooky underground world of “Harvest Moon.”

Dragonfly begins:

Bad things were starting to happen again in Uncle Henry’s basement. These were things that had happened before, when the wind swung round, when the trees all felt the blood rush to their leaves after the exertion of August and the idling of September; when the chuckle-dark harvest moon shaped pumpkins in its own image, brought its secret wine flush to the scarecrows’ cheeks; when the rich bounties of the land lay plump for the taking and the light left them alone for longer and longer at a time.

In an interview by Nicholas Ozment, Durbin talked about the Midwestern sense of place so present in Dragonfly:

One delightful thing about the rural Midwest is that we have the sunny, upper surface of things—big sky, open fields, honest horizons keeping their polite distance. But then we’ve got these secret spaces: old farmhouses with attics and basements, barns, whispery hedgerows, and the creeks cutting across the land, overshadowed by thick, dark timber. Three steps out of the field, and you’re in this hidden world of shadows. The land itself is like a perfect model for a story.

The novel reminds me of Ray Bradbury, another son of small-town Illinois. And in the Ozment interview, Durbin confirmed he was naturally inspired by Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Mr. Cougar and Mr. Dark’s carnival [in Something Wicked] is a whole lot like my Harvest Moon bunch—and the bad guys even fly around in a balloon! Several people have told me my style reminds them of Ray Bradbury’s. Our “way of moving the camera is the same,” as one friend puts it. I suppose it’s natural, since we’re both Illinois boys from small towns. We seem to think a lot of the same things are numinous.

Here are a few more lines from Dragonfly:

I always marvel at October, how it can be so full of opposites. It’s as if, since the leaves are doing something so dramatic and carefree in changing all those colors, the Earth thinks it can get away with anything.  . . . Take that smoky smell: you don’t see all that many people actually burning things, but that smell is everywhere, drifting behind the rarity of the air like hidden darkness pooling behind the light, like Earth makes it somewhere in secret and slips it into the scheme of things, thinking no one will notice.

Durbin also writes for Cricket (for children), and Cicada (for young adults). Here’s some of his insightful thoughts on the topic of dark fantasy, or horror stories, for young readers, again from the Ozment interview.

Ozment: You mentioned that you grew up reading Grimm’s fairy tales—the real stuff, not the expurgated versions. Do you think a dose of terror is healthy for young imaginations?

Durbin: We have to be very careful how we define “terror.” It is most definitely not healthy to expose children to the cruelty, gore, and sickness that run so rampant today in the horror genre. A friend of mine says, “It matters what images we put into our minds, because we’ll never, ever get them out.” That’s true for adults, and it’s even truer for minds that are young, impressionable, and in full absorption mode.
That having been said, it’s also true that no one can shelter kids from scary ideas. Kids will encounter horror. On the one hand, they have life experiences: pets die, relatives die, people get hurt, and you always hear things. On the other hand, kids seek out horror. There’s a monster in the basement, they know, because they’ve got their ears pressed to the basement door, they’ve opened it a crack, they’ve tiptoed down to the third, squeaky step. Kids will find things to be terrified of. I was so scared of a moss troll doll that my mom had to hide it in a drawer. Every year or so I’d beg her to get it out again, and she’d finally oblige, and I’d be so scared she’d have to hide it again. See? It’s the moth to the flame. Kids passionately want to be scared in a safe environment.

That environment is the key. If a child is happy and secure, with parents who behave like parents, he or she has a sense of perspective. There’s a line between real life and the Dark Woods. In that situation, yes, fictional horror can be a delight and, like any good story, can help kids grow. But I make a distinction here between scary stories and the sick, disturbing stories of cruelty—those aren’t good for anyone. And I can only pray God help the children who don’t have a healthy, safe environment. As fantasists, with our stories of dedication, love, and the triumph of goodness, we try to throw those kids a lifeline.

For the rest of that excellent interview, visit Ozment’s blog, Ozmentality. Nicholas Ozment teaches English at Winona State University, and also writes speculative fiction: fantasy, horror, and magic realism, and reviews horror movies at His essay “Gandalf’s Staff, Prospero’s Books: The Ethics of Magic in Tolkien and Shakespeare” appears in Tolkien and Shakespeare: Essays on Shared Themes and Language (McFarland Press, 2007).

At the time of the 2008 interview, Frederic S. Durbin had been living in Japan for more than a decade, teaching English at Niigata University.