Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

In fantasy novels, to leave a City is almost invariably to enter a landscape. Outside Contemporary Fantasy and Urban Fantasy, there are few suburbs or purlieus in the worlds of fantasy. Landscapes almost invariably convey a sense, though often the effect is subliminal at best, that every nook and cranny, every chasm and crag, every desert and fertile valley is potentially meaningful. And how a landscape is described in fantasy is what that landscape means. A wasted landscape (see Waste Land) almost necessarily signals Thinning, or the desiccating attentions of a Dark Lord – Sauron in J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) hates even vegetable life and has virtually sterilized his own land of Mordor. A fertile landscape almost necessarily signals an Arcadia, or a Polder, or a wasted landscape which has enjoyed Healing. A populous landscape thrives; an empty one awaits the return of the folk. Landscapes which waver from one state to the other are likely to represent the outskirts of a region where different versions of Reality may conflict, where landscapes may be seen as puns, pointing towards two different meanings of the world (see Trompe-L'oeil).

The first landscapes of any significance for writers of fantasy were probably those painted by Hieronymus Bosch, who came very early in the European move towards understanding that it was possible and legitimate to treat the "backdrop" to human action – i.e., the "natural" world – as a subject worth intense concern. Some of the great Taproot Texts of this period – e.g., the works of Ariosto – are much concerned with landscape. "Pure" landscape painting came later, and has had little influence on fantasy. Painters after Bosch who, like him, join actors and world in meaningful discourse include Pieter Bruegel, Matthias Grünewald, John Martin and Richard Dadd. These painters were to varying degrees influential upon the great fantasy illustrators who followed them – Gustave Doré, Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, etc. – all of whom plastically interweave landscape and action. This interweaving was embodied in prose by William Morris in The Well at the World's End (1896), whose unrolling of endless landscape has been hugely influential.

That tradition has continued. It is only when landscape becomes an end in itself that fantasy is not being served: in true fantasy, landscape and action are different aspects of the same Story. [JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.