Fiction Friction: Fantasy Counterpart Cultures, Part 1

By Tom Anderson

In my most recent article, I discussed fantasy authors’ ideas for magical stand-ins for technology. This article is the first in a multi-part series in which I look at the more complex, and controversial, topic of how they take inspiration from real-world nations and cultures in their writing. It is worth making clear at the start that not every author will choose to use these in the same way, and it is important to consider the intent before rushing to judgement.

Fantasy counterpart cultures have a long and venerable literary history stretching back to the dawn of the novel. Historically, they were associated primarily with authors attempting to make political allegories, shifting the real-world debates of their age to an imagined setting. This might, it was hoped, make a reader approach a divide with new eyes, rather than being coloured by their existing prejudices. Or, alternatively, it might simply be a way of tackling waspish satire while skirting the limits of censorship. Probably the best-known western example would be Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726), in which English surgeon Lemuel Gulliver travels to several exotic and remote lands. In a strange case of what TVTropes calls ‘First Installment Wins’, the first of these, Liliput (inhabited by tiny people only a few inches tall) has dominated popcultural osmotic images of Gulliver, to the point that many people do not realise he went on to have many more encounters. As Schott’s Original Miscellany put it in the 2000s, Gulliver visited ‘Liliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, Japan, and the Land of the Houyhnhnms’. Spot the odd one out. It says a lot about perception of Japan (both then and arguably now) that it slots so neatly into a list of bizarre and exotic lands beyond the seas!

As well as an adventure-story in its own right, Gulliver’s Travels made a number of political points. Best-known is the Liliputians’ endless and toxic debate over which end of an egg to open first between the Little-Endians and Big-Endians, which was Swift’s satire on consubstantiation vs transubstantiation in Church doctrine (Anglican vs Catholic), saying that the massive and bitter divide between Catholics and Protestants in the British Isles was over something as trivial. Ironically, Swift’s work became so influential that ‘Big-Endian vs Little-Endian’ was appropriated by computer scientists to describe a genuine debate in how computers should store binary data!

There are many other examples in Swift’s work, such as the flying island of Laputa, whose seemingly advanced inhabitants are unable to put their learning to any practical use, and the sentient horse-like Houyhnhnms, who are used as the now-classic ‘enlightened alien civilisation to which humans compare poorly’ trope. This illustrates the overlap between science fiction (Swift himself took inspiration from Cyrano de Bergerac using a voyage to the Moon for similar allegories) and pure fantasy counterpart cultures. Note the contrast with Voltaire, whose Candide was received with far more controversy, in part because it was set in a recognisable Europe rather than shifting its arguments to a remote fantasy island.

Nor was this use of fantasy settings for political and religious allegory purely a Western phenomenon. In China, for example, whose civilisation was equally prone to authoritarian censorship, authors could similarly obtain greater freedom of expression by shifting their setting to an imagined one. Wu Cheng’en’s classic Journey to the West (roughly contemporaneous with Shakespeare) features Tripitaka’s party travelling through a number of fantastic lands on their journey to India, which conveniently feature kings, immortals and settings suitable to furnish debates about political philosophy and Taoism vs Buddhism, as well as satires on Chinese bureaucracy. Later on, around the same time as Swift and Voltaire, another Chinese writer used the thought experiment of an intervention by the moon goddess Chang’e that would make all gunpowder cease to function, as part of an allegory about how he saw that the honour of past warfare had been degraded by such weapons – a trope that will be recognisable to reader of much military science fiction today.

I could give many more early examples, but we now need to join these early stirrings to the fantasy genre as we know it today, and remind ourselves of this context as we go on. We cannot, of course, discuss fantasy without beginning with J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien was not ‘the first fantasy author’ - he grew up enjoying the fantasy works of Lord Dunsany himself – but he did shape the genre as it stands today more than anyone else. Given how dramatic his influence has been, it can be hard for us today to understand the context into which his work was received at the time. With the Gulliverian context that the purpose of fantasy was solely to provide a suitably-remote fictional setting in which to make allegories, Tolkien was ever frustrated with how critics sought such allegories in his work when they were unintended. I already mentioned in my most recent article how many assumed The Lord of the Rings was an allegory for the Second World War, despite much of it having been written or planned before it started.

Tolkien’s original goal when he began writing in the 1910s was to create a uniquely ‘English’ mythology, one influenced by the Germanic myths of the past but with an Anglo-Saxon slant distinguished from the German and Nordic emphasis of works like Wagner’s Ring Cycle. He began writing a work called The Book of Lost Tales, in which an Anglo-Saxon sailor would find an island of Elves in the West, Tol Eressëa, and be told stories of the legendary past of the world: the Valar (seen as a synthesis of pagan gods and angelic servants of the real God), the wars of Elves against Melko, the Dark Lord and thief of the Silmarils, and the old friendship between Elves and Men now broken. The work was left unfinished and the framing device not revisited, but the legends Tolkien conceived (originally to provide a backdrop to his constructed languages) would eventually become The Silmarillion.

In the meantime, Tolkien had written an initially-unrelated children’s adventure tale, The Hobbit, and went on to merge the settings so that that book, and its longer sequel The Lord of the Rings, would be set in later years when the Elves were fading from their glory days. Melko (later Melkor/Morgoth) had been defeated, but his servant Sauron remained a threat. Also incorporated was his work on an ‘Atlantis’-type legend, Númenor, derived from Tolkien’s own recurring nightmare of a flood sweeping through the streets of an ancient city. The Númenóreans were the descendants of the Men who had been allies of the Elves in the distant, legendary past, and who had been rewarded with an island continent. But, though long-lived, they had become jealous of the immortality of the Elves (who, conversely, were envious themselves that Men were not permanently bound to the world and could escape it). Most Númenóreans turned to evil in their quest to live forever, culminating in the last king Ar-Pharazôn being seduced by Sauron into worshipping Morgoth and attacking the Valar. This resulted in the world being changed from flat to round, the lands of the Valar disappearing from it forever, and Númenor falling beneath the waves. A minority of Númenóreans remained faithful, and these escaped to found refugee colonies in the west of Middle-earth. All of this is ultimately supposed to represent a vanished, antediluvian past of our own world before the last Ice Age.

I go into a little detail here because it’s important to understand that the setting of The Lord of the Rings exists primarily to serve as a backdrop for the adventure, secondarily to showcase Tolkien’s existing work (such as Tom Bombadil), and finally to imply a long historical backstory. Not all – very far from all – of The Lord of the Rings represents pre-existing development. Important characters like Faramir and concepts like the Nazgûl did not exist until Tolkien made them up on the spur of the moment. Gondor went from the vaguest of sketches about an exilic Númenórean colony to a fully-realised country over the course of the writing, and so on.

Not keen on allegory, Tolkien never used strict fantasy counterpart cultures – but he did often use real-world influences as a storytelling tool. Looking at Gondor and its history (particularly in the appendices) the obvious comparison is the Byzantine Empire – the surviving, shrunken half of a once much greater empire whose other half (Arnor) has long fallen; facing constant intrigue and succession wars from within while fighting off invaders from the east, and so on. Harry Turtledove certainly thought so, converting his youthful fanfiction about a Roman legion lost in Gondor into his own fantasy setting, Videssos, which is explicitly based on Byzantium. (More on this in future articles).

However, Gondor also incorporates plenty of other influences. The idea of it being ruled by Stewards from their plain wooden chair at the bottom of the steps to the throne of the absent King, for example, is a commentary on Scotland, whose House of Stuart is derived from the stewards who went on to take the throne. Denethor even gets a waspish comment that’s a breaking-the-fourth-wall nod to it, and about how his line wouldn’t be so presumptuous. Tolkien himself felt (in a letter) that Ancient Egypt, interestingly, was an influence in how he depicted Gondor’s culture; firstly that the eventual reunited kingdom had a double crown for Arnor and Gondor (similar to how the first Pharaoh, Narmer, combined the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt); secondly, that Gondor’s ruling class became obsessed with building tombs and poring over ancestral records of past glory days, and cared more for their dead ancestors than their living children.

Unfortunately, though excellent in many ways, the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films (which is how many people come to know the setting) do cut out a lot of subtleties like this. It’s easy to come across people who, in all seriousness, claim that LOTR is an example of fiction that focuses on kings and rulers at the expense of ordinary people – who’ve clearly only seen the films, in which characters like Beregond, Bergil and Ioreth are cut so we don’t see Gondor and Minas Tirith primarily through working-class eyes. Of course even then it’s absurd because the whole success of the conceit, as Tolkien eventually recognised, is that we see the grand sadness of fading civilisation (and the venerability of the Elves) through the prosaic eyes of ordinary ‘English’ hobbits (especially the proletarian Sam Gamgee). The Silmarillion, Tolkien later realised, would never connect with readers as well without such a framing device.

Let’s get back to fantasy countries. Rohan, another land which barely existed before Tolkien came to that point of the story and then created it out of whole cloth, is much more interesting than it may seem at first glance. Tolkien gave the Rohirrim (not ‘the Rohan’ as Jackson seems to think they’re called) Old English names and language, as a ‘translation convention’ that they speak an older dialect of the language that the Hobbits do and have an ancestral convention. As he explained in a letter, however, this is not meant to imply that the Rohirrim share Anglo-Saxon culture in general. In some ways they resemble a group of Germanic foederati settling in Roman lands like the Franks from real history, also sharing stereotypical Germanic features such as blond hair and blue eyes (in contrast to the dark-haired, grey-eyed Númenóreans). In others, however, they are much more like horse nomads who’ve become partly urbanised, thus representing a rare positive portrayal of horse nomads in any Western (or indeed Chinese) fantasy. The centrality of the horse to Rohirric culture is in stark contrast to historical Germanic peoples, especially the Anglo-Saxons, who fought on foot and found Norman cavalry to be an alien novelty at the Battle of Hastings. In the backstory, Gondor essentially played one group of horse nomads off against another, adopting the Rohirrim as allies against the Balchoth from the east and giving them depopulated land to settle as a bulwark. Mostly depopulated, that is; the original native people of the region, the Dunlendings, are not very happy about this colonisation, and in LOTR Saruman is able to exploit their somewhat legitimate grievance to con them into joining his side. (Again, unfortunately this barely appears in even the extended versions of the Jackson films).

Also missing from those films is Ghân-buri-Ghân, chieftain of a tribe known to themselves as the Wild Men and in Elvish as the Drúedain, who have lived in the forests on the mountainous border between Rohan and Gondor long before the ‘Stone-house-folk’ ever colonised the region. In a memorable sequence, Théoden King of Rohan negotiates with Ghân (who speaks pidgin Common Speech but is clearly intelligent) so that the Wild Men will guide the Rohirrim through the paths only they know to reach Gondor in time to come to their aid. All the Wild Men want in return is to be left alone to rule their forest and for an alliance against their common enemy of Sauron’s Orcs, which they are granted at the end of the story. Once again having made up this culture on the spur of the moment, Tolkien would go on to write them into the backstory as indeed having dwelt in the western world long before most Men had ever arrived.

Gondor’s historical enemies are usually described simply as the Southrons and Easterlings (the Elvish names Harad and Rhûn mean South and East respectively). This hides a complexity, especially in the latter term, developed in the backstory of many different groups, mirroring the succession of nomadic steppe peoples who invaded the Eastern Roman Empire in real history: the aforementioned Balchoth, the Wainriders with their mobile cities of covered waggons, the Variags of Khand (a real-life Slavic term for mercenary, used for the Vikings among others) and so on. Tolkien also used Gothic names for the family of Vidugavia, a King of Rhovanion in the east who allied with Gondor against the Easterlings and married into its royal house (again echoing real events in the Byzantine Empire with groups like the Bulgarians). Harad, on the other hand, is a term seen as a vague Gondorian label for the whole of what roughly corresponds to Africa, incorporating the more North Africa-like Near Harad and the more Sub-Saharan Africa-like Far Harad. There is less detail than the East given, other than the connexion of the rogue Númenóreans and Gondorian usurpers with the Carthage-like city of Umbar and how they formed alliances with the Haradrim.

This invocation of historical enemies who loosely resemble steppe nomads in the East and Arabs or Africans in the South is meant to evoke historical parallels between Gondor and civilisations like the aforementioned Byzantine Empire. Like Byzantium, Gondor seems to our visiting ‘down-to-earth English’ hobbit viewpoint character Pippin as a civilisation that is alternately familiar and alien in character; similarly, Frodo and Sam initially see a Haradrim ‘Oliphant’ as more of an exotic wonder than part of the Enemy’s army, and potentially see the men of Gondor who attack it as a threat to them. Of course, today the problem is that this vague invocation gets over-analysed and critics will naturally view it as a negative portrayal of real people who ethnically or culturally resemble Gondor’s enemies.

Indeed, its very vagueness becomes a sin; that the Haradrim are not fully realised as a civilisation is viewed as an orientalist insult, rather than it simply being that the story doesn’t go through Harad – and, before it went through Rohan, Rohan wasn’t realised as a civilisation (or invented at all) by Tolkien, either. The fact that the Dunlendings are never more than ‘the native enemies of the Rohirrim’ to the story shouldn’t be taken as Tolkien having a go at the Celts whom they loosely ethnically resemble, either. All the same, the choices of counterpart-culture portrayals and some of the descriptive language used certainly betrays the fact that the story was conceived as being penned for an English audience of the 1930s, and we can probably guess that Tolkien would have made different choices if he was writing for an audience today. Indeed, he came to regret his choice of Hebrew-inspired phonemes for Dwarvish names (Khazad-dûm, etc.) which he chose because it is perceptibly seen as alien and unrelated to English-speakers (in contrast to Indo-European languages like German), and because it is the ‘secret’ language of the Dwarves they do not share with outsiders. (Remember when he was writing, Hebrew was only a liturgical language and had not yet been revived as a living language). This made sense, except that (as letter writers pointed out) associating this with the Dwarvish race derived from Norse mythology, one of whose defining characteristics is avarice for gold, could easily be interpreted as anti-Semitism. This sort of misunderstanding led Tolkien – a man who had once mockingly written back to a German publisher in the 1930s asking if he was ‘Aryan’ by saying no, he had no connection with ancient nomads invading India, that he wasn’t Jewish but he’d like to claim descent from that great people if he could, and that he’d never been persecuted for having a German name in the trenches of WW1 but if Hitler carried on this way then everyone who had a German name would feel shame by association – to acquire an unwanted and misaimed fandom from far-right lunatics.

This illustrates the problems that arise when it becomes unclear what an author is trying to get at with a fantasy counterpart culture. Harad is nothing more than plot window-dressing to justifiy why Gondor is outnumbered at a pivotal battle, in the same way that ‘the Necromancer’ (later retconned to be Sauron) appeared briefly in The Hobbit purely to justify why Bilbo Baggins had to go through a deadly forest rather than around it. But (unlike the Necromancer) associating the Haradrim with echoes of real-life groups mean those can become unintentionally tarred with association as nothing more than ‘villainous NPCs’ to the story. It’s a bit like the point I’ve made that many people don’t realise that the Grand Theft Auto series is meant to be a parody of how American cities are seen as hyperviolent war zones from their depiction in action movies. It’s still very possible and entirely understandable to take it the wrong way.

This is not to say that merely providing greater depth necessarily helps. Tolkien’s friend and rival C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books feature the Calormen civilisation to the south of Narnia, which (like Harad) invokes tropes associated with the historic ‘Other’ to Europeans, the Islamic world, to emphasise it’s seen as a natural opponent of Narnia. That was arguably fine when it was ‘off-camera’ in the first few books, but then The Horse and his Boy, largely set in Calormen and among Calormenes, provided additional background depth. The Calormenes are not really reflective of the real Islamic world, but rather based on how Europeans misunderstood it during the age of the Reconquista and Crusades. For example, their chief god Tash is based on how Europeans thought that Muslims worshipped a demon called Termagant. The problem arises when this is not a bit of passing detail but developed as a setting; unlike Harad, we can’t just say that we mostly see it through the conceptions of their neighbours and who knows what the reality is, but are asked to accept that Calormen really is like that. Calormen isn’t presented wholly negatively (in one memorable sequence, their education system’s focus on oral rhetoric is compared favourably to contemporary English boarding schools’ obsession with essays!) but it leaves us with an unpleasant pantomime-Alhambra impression. This is, of course, despite the fact that the earlier Narnia book Prince Caspian’s villains are, arguably, European colonialists (the Telmarines, ultimately derived from the crew of a shipwrecked pirate ship from our world; with their usual lack of subtlety, the 2000s Narnia films explicitly presented them as Spanish conquistadores).

Raymond E. Feist is one of a number of fantasy authors to tackle the general concept of Calormen (a vast, culturally Ottoman or Arab empire that outweighs its ‘European’-like neighbours, but is usually too busy putting down rebellions elsewhere to conquer them) in a more nuanced way. In his Riftwar Cycle, the equivalent is the Empire of Great Kesh, southern neighbours to the ‘European’ Kingdom of the Isles (whose nobility is a mix of English, French and other names depending on the region). Kesh used to control the lands north of the Mediterranean-like Bitter Sea as well, but the Kingdom conquered it during a period of Keshian instability; still surviving autonomously are the coastal ‘Free Cities’ which include many culturally Keshian traders. Like the Calormenes, the Keshians are the numerically superior periodic enemies of the Kingdom, but their armies are frequently tied down by revolts at the other end of their empire against the Confederacy of Lesser Kesh. From the second Riftwar book onwards, the Keshians are treated as more than the ‘offscreen plot opponents’, with the appearance of the enigmatic Lord Hazara-Khan (ambassador to the Kingdom who, of course, has no connexion with the Imperial Intelligence Corps, which doesn’t exist, naturally) whom Prince Arutha finds to be a worthy and likeable opponent. The fourth book, Prince of the Blood, is set in the capital of Kesh itself and develops the culture of the setting considerably. Of course, the Riftwar books also feature the Empire of Tsuranuanni on an entirely different planet, which is built mostly on the model of China combined with Japan.

Terry Pratchett does something similar, in a more humorous way, in Discworld. This setting gets more of a pass on using stereotypes in fantasy counterpart cultures because it’s explicitly part of the comic nature of the setting, and the West gets dunked on along with everyone else. Ankh-Morpork is the chief setting of the books, being a strange mixture of Victorian London, Gilded Age Seattle, Renaissance Italy (many of its noble families have Italian names; Lord Vetinari, the semi-benevolent dictator, is a riff on Florence’s Medicis) and the great cities of central Europe such as Prague (the Brass Bridge resembles the Charles Bridge there). The Sto Plains north of the Circle Sea (again, similar to the Mediterranean) loosely stand in for Europe (with Quirm as France, it names full of French double meaning puns) but with more of a tilt towards Eastern Europe; Sto Lat, for example, is named for a Polish drinking song. Elsewhere, places such as Lancre and the Chalk can stand for homely rural England in Pratchett’s conception, not translating things directly to a specific location. Conversely, some lands are based on a more focused stereotype, such as Llamedos for Wales (a perpetually raining country that seems mostly inhabited by bards and druids).

To bring it back to the Calormen/Kesh comparison, the southern coast of the Circle Sea is Klatch – a name used both for a whole ‘African’ continent, and for an empire covering a large part of it that again fits the ‘Ottoman’ like cultural counterpart. The Klatchian capital, Al-Khali, is described as a counterpart of Ankh-Morpork across the sea ‘but with sand instead of mud’ and plays host to a number of pantomime Thief of Bagdad-type stereotypes such as ‘the Square of 967 Delights’ – which we tend to accept more than in Calormen, as everything in Discworld is somewhat comic rather than one culture being singled out. Klatch does get a somewhat more serious treatment in Jingo, a book with a strong anti-war message whose backdrop involves a potential war between Ankh-Morpork and Klatch. Again, it helps that it’s alongside other comic fantasy counterpart cultures such as Tsort and Ephebe (Troy and Greece), Djelibeybi (exaggerated Ancient Egypt – when Americans weren’t getting the pun, Pratchett added another country called Hersheba) and Omnia (mostly based on Iran, with a bit of stereotypical Spanish Catholicism).

Other Discworld fantasy counterpart cultures include the Agatean Empire, which is mostly China mixed with Japan (like Feist’s Tsuranuanni) and evokes old European ideas about the East by being a place where gold is literally so abundant it is cheap as lead; Howondaland, a vague term roughly corresponding to ‘darkest Africa’; XXXX, the equivalent of Australia; Genua, a Disneyfied version of New Orleans that was a lot funnier before Disney made The Princess and the Frog; Borogravia, Mouldavia and Zlobenia, feuding Ruritanian Balkan-type countries; and their former dominating power, the Uberwald Sorcerous Republic or ‘Evil Empire’, which manages to be a mix of both Hammer Horror Transylvania and the Soviet Union. With a few exceptions (such as the aforementioned Jingo), Pratchett generally used fantasy races like trolls and dwarfs to look at real-life social issues such as ghettoisation, and left the human fantasy counterpart cultures to be more comic background material. This is therefore a neat reinvention of the old Swiftian ideal of using a fantasy setting to displace controversy to a remote context and allow it to be looked at more objectively by the reader.

Given the pitfalls described above, one might choose to simply swear off fantasy counterpart cultures altogether. But then one runs into problems such as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, where it’s pretty hard to keep track of Caemlyn vs Cairhien due to a convenient stereotype to hang on the similar names, or Brent Weeks’ otherwise excellent Lightbringer series, where I never managed to internalise any of the names and cultures of the Seven Satrapies. Like it or not, the good thing about fantasy counterpart cultures is that they’re easier to recognise. Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora takes on a lot more character when we can recognise its setting as a fantasy version of Venice or a similar city.

To my mind, the problem in fantasy is not so much that cultures can get reduced to ‘offscreen plot levers’ or comic stereotypes, but that fantasy is so dominated by the ‘mediaeval European fantasy’ plot thanks to slavish copying of Tolkien, including by many American authors. It seems perfectly reasonable to instead do a fantasy focused on an allegory of pre-colonial Africa in which the native powers are well developed settings, and the European colonisers are reduced to mostly offscreen plot lever villains, for example, but it has taken a long time to get authors (and publishers) who will consider such things. Even the fantasy settings of Japanese RPGs have a tendency to lean on the European Fantasy angle, though often with incongruous local elements mixed in such as ninjas and pseudo-Buddhist monks. Ironically, these have normalised such elements to the point that they have now migrated back into Western fantasy.

I will mention one example I know of an author who has attempted to apply the fantasy counterpart culture principle to a non-European setting instead, which I already brought up in my most recent article. Ken Liu’s “Dandelion Dynasty” trilogy, much like Turtledove’s Videssos books do with Byzantium, features thinly veiled and embellished real Chinese history shifted to a fantasy setting. Specifically, his books are set around the events known to our history as the rise and fall of the Qin Dynasty, the Chu-Han Contention and then the rise of the Han Dynasty. The books open with Emperor Mapidéré (Qin Shi Huang) ruling the whole of the Dara archipelago, having conquered it from his homeland of Xana with a fleet of silken airships. After Mapidéré’s eventual death, deterioration under his unworthy successor leads to a civil war in which the great warlord Mata Zyndu (Xiang Yu) eventually becomes the pre-eminent power as the Hegemon, and exiles his thief-king ally Kuni Garu (Liu Bang) to rule the poor lands of Xana. Kuni stages a return and eventually defeats the Hegemon, becoming Emperor Ragin (Gaozu) and founding the Dandelion (Han) Dynasty. All throughout this, we hear about the Classical Ano logograms (Chinese characters), the Moralist philosophy of Kon Fiji (Confucianism and Confucius), Imperial examinations and so on.

As hinted above, the characters and events follow real life so closely that one’s first thought is why Liu didn’t just write historical fiction. However, the interesting fantasy element comes largely in the geography and the technology of what Liu calls ‘silkpunk’. Rather than the continental empire of China, Dara is a group of one large and many small islands, meaning sea power is more important than in historical Chinese history. In the second book, Dara is attacked by a group corresponding to the Xiongnu nomads of real history, but they come from a distant continent over the sea on ships, rather than over land on horseback. The silk airships, lift-gas and warriors on flying kites of Dara contend with the enemy flying dragons off their ships in a way that’s explicitly compared to aircraft carrier battle groups. Like many other modern fantasy authors, Liu also plays with more modern gender roles in comparison to his historical prototype, such as Kuni Garu introducing female generals and (lighter) airship pilots. Throughout all this, reflecting the historical isolation of the real China, no other cultures other than the not-Xiongnu (the Lyucu) have yet appeared.

This sort of model, to my mind, proves there is a lot of life in the old dog of fantasy counterpart cultures yet; it could easily be applied to bring the histories of many other regions of the world to a wider audience. As always, the important question for an author is to think what he or she is trying to achieve with such a culture, and to make sure the reader also understands that, or misunderstandings and offence may well ensue.

I shall continue this series in the next article by asking a new question: what if, instead of building a fantasy culture after a real-life one to evoke it, one instead takes the opposite approach – and mixes and matches real-life cultures, languages, ethnicities and roles to obscure any correspondence altogether?

Discuss this Article

Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.