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Posted by Matt | December 31st, 2010

There is, to be clear, no such thing as the Encyclopedia Fantastika. I use the label because my models for these brief pieces are the wonderful “motif” entries in John Clute & John Grant’s The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and in Peter Nicholls and Clute’s The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

SAIL AWAY. At the conclusion of some fantasy stories, especially those with epic themes, a subset of the victorious heroes will sail away from the land of the tale, forever departing it. This image of sailing away, of leave-taking over water, is powerful because, in the best tradition of the fantastic, it unites a complex mesh of primal narrative themes, psychological metaphors, and actual cultural activities. In epic fantasies, centrally concerned with the restoration of rightness and health to a land afflicted by wrongness, heroic figures are typically bonded with the land. The land will reflect their moral advancement, and in turn their moral standing is a gauge of the land’s health. For the heroes to sail away displays that the land has been healed as much as it can be–that the hero’s work has been done. In this display, the instability of water marks an important contrast to the land. Merely walking away from a land can be an act of repudiation. But the contrast of a newly-stabilized land with water can suggest that something has been birthed, often a new nation or ordering of nations, based on a concept of rightful rule. And so, by association, a new hero. This hero’s sailing away is often a stately farewell, ceremonial–a sign that proper order has been restored to the land. This often marks another contrast, with what was often a panicked and unruly initial departure earlier in the story. Sailing is a potent symbol of mastering chaos.

On the other hand, there is more than a hint of death ritual in scenes of sailing away, as sending the dead away by boat, and/or a land of the dead reachable only by crossing water, figures in many world cultures–and is duplicated in such scenes as the Departure of Boromir. The departure of the hero necessarily results in a land lessened by their absence. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, this lessening is a literalized departure of what the heroes symbolize: that is, the departure, or death, of moral absolutes and certainty from the world. In this sense sailing away as a movement can be a deliberately anachronistic evocation of a time when sailing was a perilous to journey into the unknown and unmapped. This uncertainty is now our world writ large. Similarly in The Lord of the Rings, and in other epic works such as Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, the hero’s departure is connected to the departure of magic and possibility from the world. In these cases the departure has connective and explanatory content. It connects the fantasy world with our own, or one like our own, and explains the mundanity of our world. This has led some critics (cf China Miéville) to label this narrative of departure as consolatory, in that the modern world is presented as inherently imperfectable–and so discouraging of attempts at perfecting it. The hero has healed the land, but only imperfectly; and the land, in turn, is often unable to heal the hero: the hero has perhaps become too pure for the land to sustain. This disparity, that the hero must often leave the land and move on to some heaven-like realm to receive healing, sets ultimate limits on our ability to improve conditions in this world, and so is often conservative. And the associated element of sacrifice often makes it a movement utilized by Christian authors or authors steeped in Christian cultures. This can also be true of the sort of SF that can read like fantasy: each of Gene Wolfe’s Sun series, for example–New, Long, and Short–ends with a departure by ship. But in cases where heroes are offered a chance to sail away and refuse this opportunity–as do both Taran and Eilonwy in Alexander’s Prydain, or Raederle at the end of Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster trilogy–there can be both a conservative sense of knowing one’s proper place, of quasi-Christian rejection of temptation, combined with an un-Christian groundedness in the land and affirmation of its vitality and the primacy of the relationships it offers. Ursula Le Guin’s original Earthsea trilogy cleverly mixed these possible endings: the commonly-told ending, the book’s narrator tells us, is that the hero Ged, having given up his magic, sailed away never to be heard from again; but, we are also told, others hold that he returned to the forests and mountains of his homeland, where we first encountered him.

The content of the movement of sailing away is not just metaphorical–the question “what would it be like to live in a world in which qualitative differences between lands were incarnate” can be evocative because many cultural stories of our world have historically represented lands in that fashion–America as a golden land of opportunity, for example. This can have negative consequences. Insofar as it is often an entire race that sails away (Tolkien’s elves, Alexander’s Sons of Don), this movement can be connected with notions of racial essentialism and can have colonial connotations. It can feel like attempts at justification: there is a pattern of a “superior” race sailing to a land, saving it from great evil, and then sailing away; and it is the rare fantasy in which those who remain are depicted as glad to see such drive-by saviours depart. It is also a movement generally rejecting of multicultural ideas, in that it tends to imply that there are separate, rightful places for different races and other groups. Exceptions–such as the friendship of Legolas and Gimli, who teach each other to love each other’s realms–are nearly always individual, and nearly always due to love. There can be a complexity to this movement, then, even in “classic” genre works often regarded as morally simple: the meaning can change depending on the scale examined, and so will be read differently by different readers at different times. And with these tropes established by the classics, more modern fantasies can–deliberately or not–offer larger subversions of the motif. In VanderMeer’s Finch, for example, the usual movements of departure are first revealed to be false, and then fail; and what is left, as the eponymous Finch observes by rickety rowboat, is a teeming mass of races and peoples with equally valid land claims now faced with the challenge of living together, however imperfectly.

If you have any good examples that I missed, or further thoughts, feel free to add them in the comments.