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"On the Ocean Wave: Sea Voyages in Fantasy Fiction" by John C Adams

Poor roads and the danger of coming under attack from robbers or worse when travelling overland can make a journey by boat seem the natural way to journey afar, but in the fantasy universe the ocean waves can harbour equally fearsome enemies.


The sagas of Viking raids show that in real life, too, only the most stout of heart would choose to travel by sea.


Oceans are emblematic of primal formlessness, their restless energy and turbulent movement without pattern or control. Even the bravest of fictional travellers venture onto the waves at their peril.


The historical Orkneyinga Saga, written in the around 1200 AD by an anonymous author, regales the reader with tales of the Vikings' lengthy trips.


Earl Rognvald sails from Norway to Byzantium and upon reaching Constantinople is given a great reception by the Byzantine Emperor and the Varangians.


Earl Thorfinn sails to the Mediterranean to visit Rome and has an audience with the Pope. Plunder, pilgrimage and forging relations through trade were all motivating forces driving these earls into making risky voyages across thousands of miles of open sea.


Fantasy novels prove that fiction can't bear to be outdone by history when it comes to braving the dangers of the ocean. Even so, they are worth the risk when the potential rewards of the voyage are taken into account.


These are not always what was in mind when the ship left harbour, however. The restless energy of the waves can lead fictional heroes off in unexpected directions, and not all perils lie outside the vessel.


In Janny Wurts' Warhost of Vastmark, a voyage presents a double chance for struggling hero Arithon, Master of Shadows and estranged half brother to Prince Lysaer.


Lacking the money to raise an army, Arithon takes full advantage when luck unexpectedly moves in his favour and he snatches his sister-in-law Princess Talith.


The ransom will fund his resistance against his brother's rule, and by robbing the vessel conveying the ransom to him and forcing Lysaer to pay a second ransom, Arithon is able to humiliate his foe and double the size of the army he can afford to recruit.


His half brother's defeat is further deepened by the suspicions Lysaer entertains after Talith returns safely once the ransom is paid: that the many hours his wife spent with his half brother during the sea voyage have allowed a belief that Arithon, and not he, should sit upon the throne to find a willing home in her heart.


Arithon's victory is, however, tinged with hints of defeat, because the thought of Talith (at once so imposingly regal and so beautifully alluring) has also lodged itself in his mind. On this voyage, the true dangers lay below deck.


Not everyone's motives in undertaking a voyage are quite as lofty as affairs of the heart. Just as the Vikings often sailed long distances to raid and pillage, sea journeys in fantasy novels are often associated with the easy acquisition of wealth.


In George R R Martin's A Game of Thrones series, the Greyjoys (rulers of the Iron Islands and proud holders of the motto 'We Do Not Sow') prefer plunder to farming or husbandry.


'Paying the iron price' is frequently an allusion to obtaining something by snatching it rather than paying 'the gold price' via offering a fair amount for it through trade.


It is considered beneath the Greyjoy pride to raise crops or tend livestock. Patriarch Balon Greyjoy taunts his estranged son Theon, holding the lad's sister Asha up as an example of true iron spirit because she is more successful at raiding villages along the coast.


However, the Greyjoys' relationship with the sea is far more complex than just regarding it as a medium to find easy pickings.


They are in good company across the ages in that regard. The fictional Drowned God of the Iron Islands is not unlike our own Greek gods, many of which are directly connected to the ocean.


Ancient history and religion have strong connections with the sea as a source of the Divine. Buddhism, Tao and Sufism also point to the ocean as a source of the spiritual.


In the A Game of Thrones series, George RR Martin blends the prosaic with the divine to create a deeply held sense of identity for the Iron Islanders arising out of their psychological connection to the waves.


Sometimes, a fictional journey under sail is undertaken for reasons that are not mercenary at all, and in fact the whole point of the voyage is merely to engage in exploration.


In HP Lovecraft's surprising fantasy story 'The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath', the objective is to discover new worlds and rediscover old friends rather than stealing, and the metaphor of expanding one's horizons turns into a literal activity.


Here, the opportunity presented by a voyage is the expansion of the hero's knowledge. The early sections have an endearing note of childlike wonder quite unlike Lovecraft's horror tales.


The voyage presents HP Lovecraft's hero Randolph Carter with extensive opportunities to explore new and varied cultures by sailing across the Cerenerian Sea to Ooth-Nargai and the fabulous city of Celephais.


The reader experiences an idealisation of the sea voyage undertaken for exploration rather than colonisation. It's more Marco Polo than Columbus or Cortés, something that is intriguing given Lovecraft's troubling racial views.


For once, he illustrates a better world of fantasy starkly at odds with the more unpalatable portrayal of non-white civilisations that is a feature of his horror fiction.


The dream nature of Carter's journey, much of which takes place by ship, ends with his awakening back in the real world.


The idealism of his nighttime visions is snatched away with the arrival of day, perhaps suggesting that Lovecraft felt the world of ideas that arises in Carter's subconscious as he dreams is a way for humanity to live at peace with one another.


Not every sailor intends to return from his voyage. In JRR Tolkien's The Return of the King, hobbits Bilbo and Frodo end life's journey by taking a final trip aboard a white elven ship to eternal rest.


They sail from the Havens with Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond, with whom they have already been through so much. In mythology, the sea voyage is frequently associated with the final journey to a heaven located across the ocean.


Mankind emerged from the sea, so it is a satisfying experience when we return to it at last for our eternal rest. The Celts, for instance, believed that the Otherworld must be reached via a sea voyage.


The image is of gentle waves breaking and a sunset.
On the Ocean Wave: Sea Voyages in Fantasy Fiction

There is something poetic, and immensely moving, about the final scene of The Return of the King.


The hobbits' journey, described as 'passing into the West', is reminiscent of an Anglo Saxon or Viking ship cremation, with the light from Galadriel's glass standing in for the literal flames of a burning longboat sailing towards the horizon.


Whatever the motivation of the fictional sailors, the risks and rewards of voyages in fantasy novels mean that they will continue to provide a rich source of inspiration for writers and readers.


There are few scenarios in fiction quite so unpredictable or so fascinating as an ocean voyage.



This article was previously published in Swords and Sorcery Magazine.



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