Urban vs. Rural

High Fantasy and the Medieval Model

Part one: Urban vs. Rural

Copyright 2011 William R. McGrath

Joseph Campbell, in his “Hero with a Thousand Faces” described the commonly seen elements in classical mythology. One such element is the “Enchanted Forest”,  an important place on the hero’s journey known for healing and gifts, but also for mystery and danger. Its roots begin in the wilds of Eden and in the tended garden which lay to its east, for they are the model of all that followed. Here is the Garden of the Hesperides and the Land of Faire. The Wild Hunt sounds its beckoning call in these woods. We find this theme in medieval and renaissance literature with its castles in deep forests where great treasures are kept and perilous quests are begun. We see this in Tolkien’s Fanghorn, the most ancient of all forests of Middle Earth and in his Eden-like Lothlorean, in Lewis’  lush Handramit on Mars and the unfallen planet of Perelandra, we find it in the dark and dangerous woodland next to Rowling’s castle-like Hogwarts school.

While many fantasy stories do contain cities, most of the important action takes place and most of the important people are met in rural, if not wilderness settings. The magic of these stories is most often seen in the wild places. The wild places of fantasy stories often seem a character in and of themselves. Homes (whether castle or cottage) of important characters are usually surrounded by wild lands in fantasy. The good guys in fantasy tales are often masters of wood craft and know the secret paths through ancient forests. In the high fantasy stories of the last hundred years, cities are often the abode of decaying civilizations, corrupt politicians, traitors and thieves.

In Sci-Fi much takes place in modern cities or on board space ships or other man-made vessels or structures, nearly all of which are morally neutral. If a wilderness is shown in Sci-Fi, it is there that you will find the primitives, the troglodytes, fools and Luddites. I’ve yet to find the equivalent in Sci-Fi  of a powerful character regarding a rural person with the respect of Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil who, “made no secret that he owed his recent knowledge largely to Farmer Maggot, whom he seemed to regard as a person of more importance than they had imagined. ‘There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open.”

“OK” you might say. “I can see the difference between the use of city vs country settings in Sci Fi and fantasy novels, but the real question is why? Why does one genre prefer one setting over the other?”

In the case of Sci Fi, the answer is simple. Sci-Fi is about men (or man-like creatures) using man-made things. It might be about a higher technology than we have today, but sci fi, and especially Hard Sci-Fi is about technology and the natural home of technology is where men are most concentrated, in cities.

In the case of fantasy, the answer is two fold. On the surface the magic in fantasy is something special, it is unusual and not something seen everyday in our world. Nor is it something easily extrapolated from our day to day experiences.  On the practical side for the author, this means the fewer eyewitnesses to the magic the more believable will be its use in the story. The country setting of the story helps ensure this. Gandalf did little more than fireworks in Hobbiton, but kept his real magic in reserve for the wild places ( and more still after his “resurrection” ). Harry Potter and his friends could not do their magic in front of the “muggles” in London. Even in an urban fantasy, such as Jim Butcher’s excellent Harry Dresden series, most of the magic is done at night or in a rural setting, away from eyewitnesses. The only exception to this rule that comes readily to mind is in the alternate history/fantasy Susana Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.” (Clarke handles the issue of the unusual nature of magic wonderfully, by not making an issue of it at all. In the world of her story-set during the Napoleonic wars-magicians using magic, in public, is the norm and thus negating the need for secrecy).

The other reason has more to do with aesthetics. If you are a fan of classic western movies, you know there is always a wide panoramic shot of the western landscape. It’s main purpose (in addition to looking cool) is to say to the viewer, “This is the West, a place of more freedom, but also more dangers than back in the civilized East.” The use of wild country in fantasy stories is very much like this. The wild place says to the reader, “You are not in control here and anything may happen.”

The final reason for High Fantasy’s use of a wilderness settings is much more profound. The definition of a fantasy story is one that contains supernatural elements and the logical environment for the supernatural is found in the natural world. If Sci Fi is about technology, about what is man-made, then fantasy is about its opposite, what is God-made. Ultimately our comparison of Urban vs. Rural in Hard Sci-Fi and High Fantasy in many ways comes down to the Tower of Babel vs. the Garden of Eden (more on this in my next post).

* You can read of my own use of a rural setting in a fantasy story in chapter one of my novel Asulon. It contains a scene which introduces a young man surviving alone in the wilderness and a description of that wild place. You can read this sample chapter or listen to it as an audio book at:



Bill McGrath



Filed under Christian Fantasy, HIGH FANTASY, Medieval Model

4 responses to “Urban vs. Rural

  1. SheilaH

    Interesting discussion of setting, Bill. I can see the application to a modern-day fantasy like Superman: growing up in the rural countryside, Clark Kent could use his “magic”–his superpowers–and live a normal life because there was really no one to see his use of them. But when he moved to the city, the only way to use his powers without losing his normal life was to create a separate persona to wield them–Superman. However, in his case, the rural area was a place of peace and safety, with the dangers arising within the city and crimes of man against man.

    Interesting thoughts! I’m glad you’re attempting to summarize Lewis’s book, which is one that I haven’t read.

  2. And there was much more to Superman’s rural upbringing than just a place to develop his powers. More so, it was a place to develop his values. The whole TV series Smallville is built around this idea, but you also see it implied in the 1979 film and taken as a given in the early comics.

  3. TLB

    What about those who deliberately try to blend wilderness with Sci-Fi?Joss Whedon’s Firefly/Serenity series for example attemted to do this. The “good guys” were those who were living the wilderness, the “bad guys” the Alliance with the high tech, big cities and big ships who had unleashed an evil on the galaxy through their attempt to regulate everyone.
    Where would you classify Weber and Ringo’s Prince Roger/Empire of Man quartet? Or Weber and Flints’ Time Travel 1632 series?

  4. Please remember, I am comparing two very specific sub-genres here, namely Hard Sci-Fi with High Fantasy (the definitions are in my first post). Most of my favorite novels fall into the High Fantasy category and I’m using Hard Sci-Fi as a foil to help define what makes High Fantasy stories suceed. I wouldn’t dare try comparing the entire universe of sci-fi and fantasy, the spectrum of each is far too broad.

    I’m not familiar with the Weber books you mentioned, but I am with the Firefly series. Firefly mixed two genres, space opera and western and while Wheldon may have created something new with the show, I don’t think you can call it hard sci-fi. I see Firefly as a western that just happens to take place in space. It may have different weapons and means of transport, but it had the same ethos as the classic western TV shows I grew up on.

    There is an interesting tie in between that western ethos and high fantasy stories, namely looking at the cowboy and frontiersman of American literature and film as a continuation of the chivalrous knights of the middle ages. For more on this see: http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.1036/article_detail.asp

    Bill McGrath

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