I’ve just returned from a round-the-world trip, and all that globe-encircling got me to thinking about the shape of worlds in epic fantasy novels. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed it, but there’s a rather bizarre and archaic trait almost all fantasy worlds have in common: they tend to be flat. There’s no sense that if our otherworldly heroes journeyed for long enough they’d circle their world and end up back where they started.
Sometimes fantasy worlds are literally portrayed as a flat disc, where you might topple over the edge if you do too much exploring, à la C.S. Lewis (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) or Terry Pratchett (The Colour of Magic).
At other times the areas beyond the edge of the map are unknown spaces: unexplored fringes or realms full of danger and mystery, as in Ursula Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore.
And sometimes the rest of the world gets plain old ignored. We are shown “the known world” as it stands, and everything beyond it is irrelevant.
The notion of a flat earth is one humankind stopped believing in a long time ago. People have known the earth was round since at least the 5th Century BC (when it was mentioned in the writings of Greek philosophers). That knowledge may not have been present in other cultures and periods till much later, or been proved definitively till Magellan’s expedition completed the first circumnavigation of the globe, but the concept of the spherical earth is not a new one.
So why do fantasy novelists persist in creating worlds that are, to all appearances, flat? Here are some possible reasons that come to mind:
Old World Settings
This is perhaps the most obvious reason: most fantasy worlds are medieval or at least old-world in nature, with characters riding to and fro on horseback or dragonback or using their plain old feet. The societies are rarely technologically advanced. This considered, it’s hardly surprising there would be uncharted territories beyond the seas, or lands far enough away to be unimportant to our heroes in their quest.
A flat, simple fantasy world reflects the more narrow scope of travel, development and exploration likely in such an undeveloped world. It also suggests a more old-fashioned way of viewing things, providing us that sense of a more mystical, ancient setting.
(It’s worth noting that real world medieval society wasn’t necessarily ignorant of round earth theory, learning it from Greek writings through the spread of the Romans and Christianity).
This Isn’t Science Fiction
The moment you start introducing the notion of a spherical fantasy world, you draw the reader’s attention to the fact this is, indeed, a planet. And that brings with it the question: which universe is this planet in? What other planets are there? How did this planet develop, or is it simply an alternative/ancient version of earth?
All these questions get the reader thinking about potentially suspension-of-disbelief-shattering, science-y concepts. Not what you want in a fantasy novel.
Planets and universes are usually the playgrounds of science fiction, and all hints of them tend to be withheld from the more mythical, magical, old-world settings of high fantasy novels.
(Unless, of course, you’re a comic fantasy writer like Terry Pratchett, and you draw attention to your absurd fantasy universe by having a giant space turtle carry your equally bizarre flat ‘Discworld‘ through it.)
Aside from the fact that alluding to the roundness of a fantasy world draws unwanted attention to its planet-ness, there’s the simple fact that the vast dimensions of its spherical surface and place in the universe can make its characters and events seem insignificant.
Would we all have cared so much about Frodo and his quest to dispose of the ring, had Middle Earth been but one small continent on the planet of X in the distant galaxy of Y? Maybe, but it might have diminished the grandeur of it a little.
The fact that Middle Earth is pretty much the whole of the known world during Frodo’s quest makes the deeds and journeys of the characters seem of utmost importance.
(The Silmarillion does eventually make it clear that Middle Earth is a part of Arda, a round world and likely the earth during an earlier period of history… but the The Lord of the Rings trilogy doesn’t highlight this fact.)
It’s Just Not That Important
There’s also the simple fact that if a fantasy story takes place in only a few lands, then what’s beyond them isn’t important. Why waste time discussing all the lands of a globe, let alone its roundness, if it’s not relevant to the story?
If Westeros was blatantly round, we might start asking if the ice lands beyond the wall form a kind of North Pole, and if that North pole has another side, and if that side also has a wall, or if it just connects to ocean… oh, and where do those white walkers come from in all of this? It’s much easier and more mysterious to vaguely suggest it’s all ‘North’. Note how this map of Westeros finishes just above the wall.
Romance, Magic and Mythology
Lastly, I think there’s simply the romantic appeal of the boundless, ancient fantasy land with unexplored, dangerous or mystical edges. If characters can wander off the edge, or enter into different planes and realms when they explore beyond the known world, it’s more magical and exciting. After all, who wants to go all that way just to end up right back where they started?
So Are All Fantasy Worlds Flat?
It’s not surprising most fantasy worlds avoid suggesting their worlds are round, or even actively suggest that they are not, when you consider the above points.
However, as with everything, there are exceptions. A notable example is Feist’s Magician, which involves space rifts. His fantasy world of Midkemia connects to another more technologically and magically advanced world, Kelawan, and characters travel back and forth through the rifts. I can’t remember if either of these worlds were expressly round, but a focus on inter-dimensional travel, space rifts and moons clearly suggest both are planets in a universe.
All in all, I wouldn’t mind if I saw a few more epic high fantasy novels do away with flatness and tackle the issues associated with roundness. However, I completely understand why most do not. And to be honest, I can’t say I’ll create round fantasy worlds in my own writing… unless there’s a good reason to.