Havens And Hells In Fantasy
When we talk about how we feel when reading we often refer to characters or plot. We vent about a villain we hate or gush about a hero we love. A devastating turn of events or an amazing plot twist might prompt us to express how moved we were. When it comes to setting, however, we tend to be less expressive of our emotions.
Not completely inexpressive, however. Readers are often fascinated by creative worldbuilding or awed by the beauty of a fictional place. Some fans become so caught-up in a fantasy universe that they devour fictional encyclopaedias, or even write their own fan fiction in tribute to it. However, most of us rarely stop to take a look at the finer influences of fantasy spaces on our emotions. This is probably because a place in a book rarely brings us to tears or makes us laugh the way characters or a tragic event can. But places still manipulate and provoke our emotions in interesting and powerful ways, and can contribute greatly to our overall feeling about and experience of a book.
One way I believe settings can do this is through the use of what I’ll dub “Havens” and “Hells”.
In some fantasies, characters have spaces that act as sanctuaries. These are places where the characters feel somewhat at home or at ease, even safe and protected (comparative to other spaces). They are often, but not always, comfortable, homely, fascinating or beautiful spaces. Think the Gryffindor Common Room in Harry Potter and Rivendell in Lord of the Rings, or even less rosy places like the Dragon’s Castle in Uprooted and the graveyard in The Graveyard Book.
Fantasies with constantly journeying characters tend to have weaker Havens, whereas static fantasies in which characters mostly stay put tend to build stronger more familiar ones. Often, Havens influence us simply because we enjoy being “in” them. They are places full of fascinating or fun or comforting things we and our characters enjoy being surrounded by. However, there are some other ways Havens can provoke strong emotions.
As Spaces for Reflection and Recovery
When characters have been in danger or gone through great trauma, a return to a Haven can intensify the sense of relief and loss that we feel. The dangers of the outside world are momentarily put at bay, and we have the space to reflect with relief or sadness on events. These down times also amplify the sense of rise and fall in the narrative with regards to suspense and pacing.
In the Mistborn series, Vin’s return to headquarters after losing a crew member and friend, highlights that person’s absence and emphasises the loss.
If Havens become familiar enough and are used throughout a fantasy series, they can act as strong sources of nostalgic attachment. They offer us a familiar place to set anchor. This is particularly true of fantasy series with instalments that explore completely different time periods and characters within a fantasy world. Place then acts as the strongest link to the other stories we have read.
The Discworld series regularly does this with Ankh Morpork and the Unseen University, making these unpleasant places oddly loveable, familiar sites. In the Old Kingdom series, the Abhorsen’s House on the waterfall offers sanctuary to many different generations of Abhorsens.
By Transforming into Hells
This is one of the most powerful ways a Haven can act on our emotions – sadly, in its destruction. When a previously safe, beloved sanctuary becomes the site of upheaval, tragedy or evil, it can hit hard.
While Hogwarts is never a truly safe place, it is still a beloved haven. Thus during the siege at the end of the Harry Potter series it’s not just the threat to the characters we love, but the threat to the place itself, that makes us feel so emotionally invested in the battle.
Many other series destroy Havens or turn them into sites of massacres, for example Gentleman Bastards, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and Kushiel’s Dart.
Just as fantasies have Havens, they also have spaces I would classify as “Hells”. Sometimes these are indeed fire-and-death-filled wastelands reminiscent of religious depictions of hell. At other times, they are simply bleak spaces that make the characters feel alone, under threat, or out of their depth.
Think of Mordor in Lord of the Rings, The Blight in the Wheel of Time series, or the corrupted wood in Uprooted.
These spaces work in the opposite way to Havens – we do not enjoy inhabiting them. They make us uncomfortable, keep us on-edge and amplify our fears for the protagonists. Sometimes they even repulse us. However, there are some additional ways they can influence our emotions.
As Sites of Traumatic Memory
Hells are particularly effective when they hold bad memories and historical associations. Whether the dark happenings of the past are only alluded to, or we as readers have actually seen them earlier in the story, they add a haunted and harrowing aspect to the space that makes a character’s entrance to it all the more tense. In particular, if the characters can see evidence that bad things have happened here, but do not know the cause of them, the suspense and mystery is increased.
The Mines of Moria are a classic example of this, but there are plenty more abandoned cities in other fantasies where skeletons and signs of struggle allude to a dark history. Conversely, in series like Daughter of Smoke and Bone or Throne of Glass, characters have to return to sites where they previously endured torture or violence or witnessed death, and it has a very personal horror for them.
By Transforming into Havens
Some Hells can become fascinating and emotionally-laden sites by transforming into Havens. Often when spaces that at first appear threatening and evil are transformed into familiar, safe spaces (either through actual change or through change in the perceptions of the character) they are all the richer for it.
In the Obernewtyn Chronicles, for example, the protagonist is sent to an ominous institution in the mountains where she may be experimented on or tortured. However, through an unexpected turn of events this very same Obernewtyn Manor becomes a Haven that provides a home and sanctuary in future books. In Uprooted the dragon’s castle even becomes something of a Haven after at first being more of a Hell.
SPOTTING HAVENS & HELLS
Every fantasy place is bound to be complex, and settings in fantasies can’t all be neatly divided into Havens and Hells. However, many do act out these basic roles in their own unique ways, and amplify or act on our emotions in doing so.
I find it fascinating to consider how these fictional spaces we “inhabit” when reading can feel intensely familiar and comforting, or alternatively, repulsive and frightening, to us. Perhaps for aspiring fantasy authors it is worthwhile remembering that it’s not just the roles of characters and plots, but the roles of places within a narrative, that can touch the emotions of readers.