The Mists Clear… Exploring a Polarised Fantasy Cosmology

I’ve been muttering about writing some notes for the Mists of Albion cosmology I’ve been developing with a friend for a while (he’ll also start contributing some things to this blog as Hypersleeper, so watch this space!), and I think it’s about time for an overall outline after my comments about marshlands in fantasy.

The basic starting point was to go back to original British folklore rather than the current fantasy tropes, and add in the marshes as a key element to the Dark Ages-inspired world. As briefly mentioned  last week, the marshes needed to form a gateway between this world and the next. Or, as appears to have become the case, between one state of being and another.

So what would the nature of this world be? Thinking about it purely in terms of an “otherworld”, the standard trope is a magical realm, with many possibilities. This has similarities with (and possibly originates from) folklore suggesting a “fairy realm” where people can be taken to and have things happen, and the laws of nature in these realms are very much flexible. So we immediately have dwellers in this realm, the elves/fairies, but these needed to owe more to the original folktales than to Tolkien; mischievous beings that are on occasions honoured by some people, and who prey upon those who do not do so. A lot of this I think is down to my liking of White Wolf’s Dark Ages: Fae game. The particular folklorish figures that we picked out were elves/fairies themselves, the Trow from Orcadian folklore, dwarves and giants. These are all fairly conventional fantasy fare, but were rarely so in the original folklore. Part of what we wanted to achieve was to go back pre-Tolkien and see what kind of world we could build.

There would need to be something to make the Mists recede, to make this world a constant  place. There is something quite cool about a constantly flowing and changing landscape, as well as potentially waking up in a different form than that you went to sleep as, but that makes it difficult to relate to in our more stable world. At some point in the original conversation, we came up with the overarching theme of order vs chaos, with the primal Mists representing change and the like, with the stable lands being held together by another force, in much the same way that Creation’s boundaries with the Wyld are determined by the efforts of those trying to drive Wyld back in Exalted.

Charles Warren Eaton Gathering Mists

The main conflict in Mists of Albion uses the land itself as both a battleground and a weapon

It became clear as the world developed that this force (extremely order based) almost needed to be a will, tying in with the theme of a will being the thing imposing order on chaos. I was rereading the History of Middle-Earth books at the time, and had come across an image of the early elves coming across the sleeping forms of the fathers of men underground. This steadily changed into having chthonic “gods” of order dreaming under the earth, as the kernel of the world as a place of order against the formless Mists. As the elves were going back to the original folklore rather than a Tolkienian or post-Tolkienian route, one of the key things about them would be a weakness to iron. The reason for this was simple enough if iron were a solid manifestation of the chthonic beings’ will.

From that point, things have developed kind of naturally, cosmologically speaking. The world is defined by the clash between the dreams of these beings (in one of many pieces of naming shorthand, we’ve called them the Formori) and the Mists, and all beings are defined on a sliding scale between these two extremes. In order to not be formless chaos, even the Sidhe (pronounced si-the, the setting’s fairies/elves) need some measure of order within them, but they represent the first step away from the Mists, consciousness without much of a definite form. Humans come next down the line, with less of the Mists but still enough to be creative and manipulate the Mists through language and ritual in order to produce magical effects. This would have to be quite heavily bound, as raw “Mist essence” would be too chaotic to use in any practical way, so ritualistic magic would have to be the order of the day for humans. No instant spellcasting as their ties to the Mists are weaker than those of the Sidhe, and even the Sidhe would have to be careful with how they used it.

From humans we then moved to gnomes/dwarves in the form of the Trow, who were eventually determined to be Formori worshipers, with all the mind-bending that that would require. As the Formori represented order, those close to them in a spiritual sense would be more ordered, and so the Trow evolved into a monolithic society living underground, treasuring iron and individuals slowly becoming part of the Formori will. There were various other creatures at this point, including other “dwarven” societies, but we’ve moved away from that, for reasons I’ll explain.

One thing that Hypersleeper has remarked on (more of late than originally, but it’s since become more prominent) is that in the original folktales, beings are rarely given a race. This is particularly true of British and Irish folklore, where creatures are often given their name and set of abilities and left at that. These tales have only recently been codified into discrete races, which may or may not be the fault of Tolkien. Even the dwarves of Norse mythology were at times referred to as “dark elves”. So we’ve decided to make this a sliding scale, without fixed points. We’ve used the racial names so far because we’ve been basing it around traditional fantasy tropes, but we want to go beyond that.

One of the things I like best about the original folk tales is how blurred the boundaries are between states of being; people can become changelings merely by living with the fair folk, for example (but in some tales they don’t). So one thing we’re doing is making “races” merely markers of an identity, a point at which to recognise a being’s relation to both the Mists and the Formori. So in the right circumstances, a Trow could become a human and then become a Sidhe in time. This would work particularly well if the historical tradition of burying the dead in the marshes was carried out by the human cultures; they fade into the Mists after burial, returning as a Sidhe. Similarly, those who are interred in burial mounds may reawaken and seek out the Trow due to their new closeness to iron and its source. When this sort of thing happens to a living being, you would get the various folklore and fantasy staples like changelings (a being part-way between being human and Sidhe) and halflings (part-Trow part-human).

Of course, most people would stay with their own “kind” for most of their lives, ensuring that they stay in the same form until they depart their communities in one way or another (by being outcast or dying, for example). This gives another reason to fear strangers; they could be anything under their cloak. People could also disappear, either abducted by other beings and later return, strangely changed. Or they could spend an age in the Mists, and return only to find that only a night has passed for everyone else. The flexibility afforded for storytelling in such a format would allow for easy replication of the historical folklore while providing a new framework for new things.

There are other elements we would like to weave in, such as being that began as “dark elves” in the traditional fantasy sense, and different “dwarven” societies as mentioned above. Now that we have the basic schema, we can work in these details and play with them a bit.

Partly inspired by the Norse sagas and Celtic myths I’m reading, I’m also in the (very slow) process of writing various mythologies for certain human societies, as well as a “recent history” for them. These could serve as the building blocks for reconstructing societal and to an extent racial boundaries now we’ve thoroughly destroyed them; if you are a particular kind of person, certain stories will have more resonance than others. The more you identify with a particular set of heroic tales, the more you will strive to be like them, and claim association (possibly lineage) to them. So the differentiation could be entirely which version of history you believe, rather than your specific ancestry.

Has this made you think anything new about the fantasy genre? Do you have any ideas on how to improve this cosmology? Or anything even remotely related to the above? Please comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts!

About Aramithius

I'm always interested in the birth and expression of new ideas, from world creation to philosophical and metaphysical exploration. Fantasy and its related genres are the perfect vehicle for this sort of thing, and I enjoy exploring it in various ways.
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