Fantasy is so captivating for so many people because it promises a world very different from our own. Fictional worlds have magic, mystery, and dragons, not to mention a greater sense of danger and adventure than our own current-day planet Earth. Stepping into Middle Earth, or Narnia, or Westeros, is exciting because we are experiencing completely alien and unpredictable.
And yet, most fantasy worlds end up repeating the same tired tropes. For example, the geography and climate strongly resemble medieval Europe and the main characters are usually light-skinned. This blog has already pointed out how most fantasy world maps are left-justified, with the ocean to the west, because writers are consciously or unconsciously basing their landmass on Europe. Writers write what they know, after all, and most fantasy authors are European or American. But extra credit is due to writers who break out of this mold and create something truly unique.
That’s where Earthsea comes in.
Map of Earthsea, originally created by Ursula K. Le Guin, redrawn by Liam Davis (via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_Earthsea.jpg)
Earthsea is the setting of the Earthsea series of fantasy novels by American writer Ursula K. Le Guin. Beginning with 1968’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin set out to build a universe which subverted all the typical tropes. I have not read her series yet, but based solely on the world map above, I would have to say it appears that she succeeded.
There are no major continents on Earthsea, just an assortment of numerous small islands, the largest of which, Havnor, is about the size of Great Britain, but does not resemble it in shape. The defining feature of Earthsea is not the land, but the water, which surrounds all the islands and stretches in all directions. The people that live in Earthsea are, by and large, red-brown in coloring, unlike most of the denizens of other fantasy universes. Le Guin even employs a Taoist philosophy to underpins Earthsea’s treatment of magic; the usage of magic is good when it is in balance with the natural world, and bad when it upsets that balance.
Earthsea reminds me of other worlds which came after, such as the world from the video game The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, which was released in 2003.
Map of the World in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, by Deviant Art user YoshisGhost (via http://yoshisghost.deviantart.com/art/Zelda-Wind-Waker-Map-178433407)
When the game first came out, many long-time Zelda fans were very skeptical if not outright hostile to the idea of a world where Link had to travel by boat from island to island. It broke with the series’ structure of using a horse to travel between locations in a world reminiscent of a traditional fantasy novel. However, players gradually warmed up to it, and now the game is often praised as one of the best in the series for upending the standard tropes and trying something different. It seems to me that the Earthsea series did just that, only several decades earlier. I hope that more fantasy writers, and videogame designers, follows these examples in being more creative with worldbuilding in the future.