The Rise of Secondary World Fantasy

Even if the term “secondary world” isn’t a familiar one, every reader of modern fantasy has experienced such places of the mind. Middle Earth, Discworld, Gormenghast, The Hyborian Age, Earthsea, Zothique, Westeros, The Land, Urth – these and hundreds of other worlds have been frequent host to legions of contemporary readers eager to suspend their disbelief and enter wholly into a realm of the imagination. Indeed, such settings have become the foundation of modern fantasy, as ubiquitous as questing farm boys and magic swords. But this was not always so.


A secondary world is easy to spot – it’s a world that isn’t our own, primary world, even if it may have some tenuous ties to our reality. Appropriately enough, the term was coined by the greatest practitioner of the art of secondary world creation, J.R.R. Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” In it, Tolkien seeks to get at the heart of just what is so compelling about our mythic, fantastical, and imaginative history of storytelling. But what he could not have known – writing as he was before the publication of The Lord of the Rings – was that his own created world would one day resonate so strongly, and have such reach, that the very grammar of fantastic storytelling would be rewritten. What Tolkien had to explain to an audience in essay form in the forties, has become integral and intuitive to the way modern audiences relate to imaginative fiction today.


Once upon a time, in the ages long before Tolkien, the fantastic was part of our world. It was the world outside the village, it was the distant mountain never visited, it was a kingdom in a faraway land peopled by the strange and wondrous. It was the dark beyond the campfire, the unfamiliar sound or unexplained shadow, or a past grown dim and half-remembered. It was, in short, part of the continuum of human experience and not set apart as mere entertainment. But, as the blank spaces of the map began to fill, as the monsters and mysteries of unknown lands met with more mundane explanations, and as the scientific worldview colonized the human imagination, the spinners of tales had to find new lands in which to build their kingdoms.

And those lands, those secondary worlds, had to make sense if readers were to spend any time in them. What makes sense in one generation, one culture, may not hold up in the zeitgeist of another, and in an age where manatees have replaced mermaids, archaeologists have laid bare the Minotaur’s maze, and bigger telescopes have banished the canals of Mars, there’s really only one place left for the mythic imagination to reign supreme: a new, fresh secondary world of the mind.


Modern fantasists draw upon every influence, every reference, and every trick to breath life into such worlds. World building has become an art unto itself: meticulous, layered, plausible, and ultra-detailed. Some created worlds are so explicitly systematized and regulated that they are more akin to the setting of a role-playing game than a traditional fantasy saga. But regardless of the level of detail present, all of these secondary worlds are designed to play fair with the reader, to not break the illusion of reality once the reader has taken that first step on the journey of suspending disbelief.

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