This post originally appeared at Borders’ Babel Clash blog.
I think it’s easy to understand why the concept of the journey is so intriguing in fantasy novels. There are few things which separate our modern world from previous eras more than that of distance and travel. To us, all things are close. The other side of the world is less than a single day’s plane trip away, and the other side of the country can be reached in a handful of hours. The oceans are no longer an ominous, month-long barrier to us, but instead a minor inconvenience. Telephones, the internet, and video conferencing have served to ‘shrink’ the world even more.
But in an era without machines, electricity, and powered flight, travel is far more daunting. It is dangerous and filled with mystery. An arduous journey makes for a visceral reminder that the world the characters live in is a very different place. It also allows for a lot of that world to be shown off, as different exotic locations are revealed. Plot wise, the journey is an excellent device because—assuming the reader is told the destination—one can follow along with the characters and feel a sense of completion and excitement as the destination approaches. (This is one reason why maps in fantasy novels are so useful.)
In the early days of the genre, the journey/quest was such parts of the story that it was assumed that every good fantasy book would have one. The works of David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Tad Williams, and many more (going back to Grandpa Tolkien himself) relied on the journey as a major device for their stories. One commenter in a previous post mentioned that they thought it difficult, perhaps impossible, to imagine a fantasy story without a journey.
Well, I’ve actually written four of them without a journey (The Hero of Ages had a small one at the start.) Oddly, when I first tried to write fantasy books, during my unpublished days, I found myself bored by the concept of yet another book that took place mostly in the wilderness or on a roadway visiting little towns along the way toward a destination. I wanted to write stories that took place AT the destination. That was what excited me. Some of my favorite books (like many of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books) involve no real ‘journey’ in the classical sense.
I think it’s very possible to have a fantasy novel without a journey or quest. However, I must acknowledge the power of that storytelling mechanism. The early Robert Jordan books were essentially journey/quest stories. I know we touched on this a little bit during my first post, but I wanted to do one more specifically focused on this concept. (And I apologize for the lack of a post yesterday; I was asked to do one post during the weekends, and intended to do them Saturdays to give the whole weekend for discussion, but release week signings for Warbreaker kept me away longer than I expected.)