Sunday, September 11, 2011

What is the first secondary world?

Under the influence of Tolkien, fantasy moved towards the creation of secondary worlds. Let me define that term:
A secondary world is a fictional world which is neither a geographical nor a temporal part of our world; and is not connected to it as a dream world, a realm of Faerie, a space of Ideas, a land-beyond-a-portal or anything of that sort. Furthermore, the secondary world should be a real world, not just an allegory.
For instance, the tall tales that Odysseus tells in the Odyssey are fictional and fantastic, but are not set in a secondary world, because they are supposed to have happened on our Earth. On the other hand, modern fantasy writers like Martin and Jordan do use secondary worlds: no explicit or implied relation exists between their fantastical realms and the world we inhabit.

My question is, what was the first book that introduced a secondary world? I haven't managed to think of any clear examples that predate The Lord of the Rings by more than a few years. This is probably wrong. There were probably secondary worlds before 1948 (the earliest book I can think of; see below). But it is not as easy to find them as you might suppose.

For instance, I cannot think of any ancient examples. Later fantasists like Dante, Ariosto and Rabelais evidently put their creations in our own world. Indeed, we can move far closer to the present day and still find the same. The land of Oz can be reached by stepping into a tornado, and is probably supposed to be somewhere in the American desert. Lord Dunsany's Elfland can be reached by humans. E. R. Eddison's magical realm is, if I recall correctly, presented as a dream. A Voyage to Arcturus brings us to its metaphysical mythology by a journey through space. James Branch Cabell's Poictesme is connected to our world through historical transmission of documents. Peter Pan lives somewhere beyond the ocean. Narnia lies beyond a wardrobe. The pulp writers (Howard, Smith, Lovecraft) often hinted that their tales were set in a distant past or future. Fritz Leiber's characters seem to inhabit a weirdly fluid set of dimensions that might very well include ours. Peake's Gormenghast is obviously somewhere on Earth.

The oldest example of a true secondary world that I can currently think of is The Well of the Unicorn by Fletcher Pratt, which was published in 1948. Its introduction explicitly tells us that our world is "another world than the one discussed here"; and it looks and reads much like a piece of modern fantasy. There even is a map at the beginning of the book.

Again, I doubt that this is the first secondary world. So, my general question to you is: what is the oldest example you can think of? There are bound to be some borderline cases, but I'm interested in anything that you think might fit the bill.


  1. I'm not sure I'd discount Leiber. From what I can remember, Erehwon is completely decoupled from our world (although it's been years since I read the stories, so I might be misremembering something).

    Edwin Abbott's _Flatland_, from 1884, might count.

  2. I'm not so sure about Gormenghast; at any rate, Titus Alone really doesn't seem to be set in the real world to me. I think that Gormenghast, like many of Kafka's worlds, is so hyperbolic that it's not really meant to exist in the real world; but because neither Peake nor Kafka are really very interested in truth-functional worldbuilding, it ends up feeling like analogy insofar as it's not our world.

    Two obvious predecessors to secondary worlds are An Island Far Away (which became less plausible once the map got filled in) and Ruritania (which went downhill after the world wars.) I think a major element of modern F/SF is rejection of a world without open frontiers.

    (Even Tolkien is sort of borderline, no? Because a guiding concept of Middle Earth was to provide a sort of founding mythology for England, so it's almost a straight-up analogy and almost a deep-history of our own world.)

  3. Wikipeding around a little, I find a claim that Tolkien himself explicitly said that his work was set in our distant past. Another Wikiclaim I've found is that William Morris was the first to do it, though both of the novels cited there start "long ago" -- still, that could be long ago in the world of the story instead of in our world. I don't actually have the fortitude to read those right now and find out if they really seem like secondary worlds.

    I also share maga's sense about Gormenghast, though I've only read a couple hundred pages of the first book; it seemed like it was set in a world where our laws of nature held, but it wasn't anywhere in our world.

    For another early one, is The Palm-Wine Drinkard set in our world? It's from 1946.

  4. Nehwon was explicitly a separate world ("a bubble rising through an infinite sea of worlds"), but Leiber had his heroes travel to Earth at one point, and a few characters popped over in the other direction as well.

    The commonly-noted forerunner-of-modern-fantasy that you missed is _Lud-in-the-Mist_, 1926. It's set in a fictional country on the border of Fairyland. So, connected in the other direction, but not to us.

    There must be more examples in the pulp fiction of the 20s and 30s. A lot of that was lost parts of the Earth, ancient Earth history, and the far future -- but the balance can't all have been explicitly dream-realms.

  5. Ah, apparently it's been so long that I didn't even correctly remember the name of the world. Thanks, zarf.

  6. @ Matt Wigdahl

    I don't think Flatland counts, since it communicates with our world. (In fact, the way the higher- and lower-dimensional worlds interact with each other is an essential part of the plot.)

    @ Maga

    I have only read Titus Groan, but apparently the series changes as it progresses. I may have been to quick to dismiss it.

    To write this answer, I decided to look Peake up in my Enyclopedia of Fantasy, and then hit myself in the face for not consulting this tome of knowledge when I wanted an answer to my original question! Let's see what is says under "secondary world".

    Hm, it just says that the term was defined by Tolkien in his "seminal essay" On Fairy Tales. (Which is a must-read essay, by the way, as it exposes Tolkien as the escapist Luddite he undoubtedly was.) It says nothing about the history of secondary worlds.

    @ The other guy called Matt W :)

    William Morris would be pretty old; I might take a look at that. As far as I can glean from reading Wikipedia, "The Palm-Wine Drinkard" appears to be set in the afterlife.

    @ Andrew

    Lud-in-the-Mist? I need to check that out, thanks.

  7. Well, the thing about the Palm-Wine Drinkard is that there's a lot of magic etc. even before the narrator gets to the part that's explicitly the afterlife. For instance, the narrator always gives his name as "Father of Gods who can do anything in the world." Tutuola's second novel, "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts," definitely starts in a recognizable Africa (named as such) and features a protagonist who flees a war into the Bush of Ghosts, but I remember the Palm-Wine Drinkard as being less explicit about the nature of the world where the narrator starts. But it probably falls into the same category as folktales set in a magic-infused version of our world.

  8. @Victor: Well, we see a sphere show up in Flatland from 3-space. Despite "sphere" being an ever-more-appropriate description of the average American, I don't think the three-dimensional space was ever equated to our Earth.

    Again, it's been forever since I've read it, so I can't say with certainty.

  9. Other Matt W: a footnote Flatland reads: "When I was in Spaceland I understood that some of your Priestly circles have in the same way a separate entrance for Farmers, Villagers and Teachers of Board Schools (Spectator, Sept. 1884, p. 1255) that they may 'approach in a becoming and respectful manner.'" Which seems to suggest that Spaceland is Our World, though it also leaves open the question why A. Square is describing us as spheres.

  10. How about "The Worm Ouroboros" by Eddison from 1922?

  11. "The Worm Ouroboros" is set on Mercury, so it isn't really a secondary world since we can reach Mercury from here. It doesn't resemble the real Mercury, obviously, but I guess fact-checking in fiction was not considered as important back in the Olde Days.

    But if Fletcher Pratt felt compelled to explain in a foreword the idea of a secondary world, i.e. that ours is "another world than the one discussed here", then that surely means that that particular story was one of the earliest examples of a secondary world, if not the earliest.