Living in a fantasy world

​Trolls and Tolkien and the landscapes of the far south.

A FOREBODING CLOUD CLINGS TO THE UPPER PEAKS OF A GREY-BLUE, SHARP-EDGE MOUNTAIN. YOU STAND ON A ROCKY OUTCROP WITH A GOOD VANTAGE POINT OF THE ICY LAKE IN FRONT OF YOU AND BREATHE IN THE MOSS-SCENTED AIR. THE LAKE IS UNFATHOMABLY DEEP AND FAERIE LORE SAYS IT’S A PORTAL TO ANOTHER WORLD.

A lore that’s come to roost as truth since baby dragons began crawling out of it a fortnight ago, hunting travellers on the nearby walking track. Dozens have been seen, all fiery-eyed and lashing tail-ed, patrolling as far as Lake Mackenzie Hut and winding their lythe bodies around Conical Hill.

Behind you is the Valley of the Trolls. The Watching Warriors from Glenorchy sent you to talk to the trolls three days ago. You were supposed to find out what had happened to the people of Te Anau – no one’s been able to get there since the dragons were spotted. But the trolls are sick of the ways of humans. They made that much clear when they captured half your company, severed their limbs using their axes and fed them to the dragons. You escaped, but now you’re trapped, between the rocky abode of trolls and the dragons’ watery hiding place. A valley with nothing but foes. As the sun sets, more clouds gather around the mountains, settling into the crevices and slowly turning, burning, deep oranges, bright yellows and mystical shades of lilac.

THE LANDSCAPES OF THE EPIC

Despite the rife troll and dragon problem, the lower South Island is a wonderful gateway to some of the best outdoor experiences in the country. Of the thirteen National Parks in New Zealand, ten are in the South Island and four (the four best ones) are on our doorsteps. These wild, magical landscapes are ripe for sending already vivid imaginations into overdrive.

High fantasy (or epic fantasy) is a subgenre of fantasy that’s often characterised by its vast, other-worldly setting. C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and of course J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy are the obvious examples and it’s no surprise that film-makers turned to Aotearoa to capture or be inspired by the epic landscapes that surround us.

Stories like Sonya Wilson’s Spark Hunter, Elizabeth Knox’s The Absolute Book and Casey Lucas-Quaid’s Into the Mire are set in fantasy versions of the landscapes which surround those of us who live in the far south. But there’s also a growing number of authors working in the speculative fiction and fantasy genres who choose to call this region home. Many of these authors grew up in cities and populous places, writing landscapes from their imaginations. Living here has transformed how they see their fantasy worlds.

Helen Scheuerer

In 2018, YA fantasy author Helen Scheuerer took herself to Tāhuna Queenstown for a holiday to rest, wander and ride horses through the rolling valleys. A few evenings into her holiday, she began scribbling down notes for her second fantasy series, The Curse of the Cyren Queen. There are quests, cinematic landscapes and magic, with sword-wielding female heroes at the core. Originally from Sydney, Australia, Helen met her partner while there and the couple decided to stay.“We love the region so much,” she says, “The beauty of it, the mountains, the wide open spaces, the wineries.”

Helen’s first series, The Oremere Chronicles, was written in Australia. She spent time living in the notorious Cross – the dirty, slightly dodgy side of Sydney – as well as in a more relaxed beachside town.

“Because of the genre that I write in, I’ve always written about these epic landscapes and in this style. When I came here on holiday, I’d written and published my first two fantasy books already, both set in these Lord of the Ring-sy settings. I remember flying into Queenstown for the first time and being absolutely gobsmacked – I could see, in real life, what I had been picturing in my head for so long.”

Helen says that though the style of her writing hasn’t changed, she’s been able to finesse the detail of her fictional places. “It’s different, being able to see the textures of the mountains for myself. The vastness of them and how the light plays on them and how the mountains can look so different from one half-an-hour to the next. […] There are parts of the Curse of the Cyren Queen that are very Central Otago. In book two, they’re crossing a plain of tussock and there are mountains in the background. I would never have had the words to describe it, or been able to picture it in such detail, without having seen it. It was very inspirational, very influential, to be able to see in real life these settings that I’ve pictured in my head.”

The physical aspects have become part of Helen’s narrative too – now she knows what it really feels like to ride a horse through rolling valleys, to walk for long hours in the mountains with a heavy pack on her back and to hear what wilderness sounds like.

Te Anau-based author and editor Sara Litchfield agrees. Living on the border of Fiordland National Park, a World Heritage Site, gives Sara access to rugged and remote terrain that few people have seen before. “There’s lots of untamed, incredibly wild, Jurassic-era-like forests and dramatic cliffs that make you wonder why more people don’t get away with murder around here.”

Over time, she’s slowly retreated to smaller and quieter places. She lived in the UK (London, Cambridge, Edinburgh) and Singapore, then Queenstown before moving to Te Anau. “I’ve been getting to truly remote and more spacious areas. Closer and closer to nature to where you don’t have to commute to go on an adventure. And that has changed my writing. I think you can see a lot more of a connection to nature in my creative writing now. I started off working in a fantasy space, creating completely made- up places or reimagining familiar spaces with an otherworldly spin. Living here has given me more of an appreciation of how otherworldly reality can be. So more ‘real’ locations have now entered my work, but they’re as fantastical as the ones I was making up previously.”

Sara Litchfield

Sara says the truly remote places, like George Sound, have fired her imagination the most, “the sort of places where you can’t go without a lot of effort… or a helicopter!”

“Others are more accessible; it’s incredible how easy to get to Milford Sound is and you’ll still feel like you’re at the edge of the world. The Great Walks, Milford, Kepler, Routeburn, are just a day’s walk away but they make you feel like you’re in another world.”

Sara’s first novel, The Night Butterflies, is set in a dystopian world, a once-majestic British university town that has crumbled. Though the setting is inspired by Sara’s British roots, the novel was written while she was living in Queenstown.

“I was living in a log cabin in Alpine Retreat, it’s a magical location, surrounded by forests and we’d get snowed in occasionally. I remember writing at a little table in a window alcove, I was very much a pantser-writer and each day I’d come to that table not really knowing what I was going to write. One night, all you could hear was the rain and that became a scene where my characters were trapped in an acid rainstorm in my re-imagined Cambridge. On another evening, loads of moths were flying into the window and that became a theme, too.”

Her work-in-progress is Evergreen, a novel that’s part mystery, part environmental thriller, and part fantasy. A large portion is based in Fiordland.

“It’s very close to home. I have a character who grew up in Te Anau and the story travels across New Zealand. The common thread is New Zealand’s wild, immersive and untamed places. […] I think if I left New Zealand and moved back to Cambridge, New Zealand would haunt me. My fiction writing would continue to bring me back here.”

It’s this haunting experience that drives the writers who live down south. While our imaginations were forged in cities, the wild, immense and slightly terrifying landscape that surrounds us makes the fantasy become a reality, and the reality becomes fantasy. The next time you find yourself in a moss-covered grove in a creepy wild woodland, imagine that the scraping sound outside your tent might not just be another tramper out for a midnight nature wee, or a weka snuffling for crumbs. It could well be a troll fixing to axe your toes off or a dragon quietly pondering how little protection your ultra-lightweight backpacking tent provides your soft flesh. From moths battering themselves against a window to feeling the weight of a pack on our backs, the landscapes of the epic are all around us.

BETHANY G. ROGERS