Deserts (and desolate lands) have fascinated me since I was a kid; I’ve always felt myself drawn to them conceptually. But why? I can’t find a particular reason for this — I didn’t grow up in a desert; my ancestors don’t come from a culture strongly associated with one; and I’ve never actually been to one. Even so, this inexplicable link with deserts feels natural. If I ever got to writing a fantasy novel, the story would most certainly commence in a desert.
By this point, deserts have intertwined with my imagination at its core, recurring again and again in both my every day interest — specifically, history and the Middle East — and, more importantly here, the fantasy I choose to read or watch.
The film Lawrence of Arabia, and the novel Dune were early influences that spurred this love of the desolate; and, more recently, I was delighted to see the desert yet again onscreen in the latest film in the Star Wars franchise, The Force Awakens. The desert planet of Jakku was stunning, breathtaking — of course, we had Tatooine before, but that was 13 years and 2 movies ago. I had missed the lonely, melancholy beauty that characterizes the desert.
Maybe that is the reason I love deserts: the beauty of that emptiness, and the melancholy associated with it.
I see in the desert’s emptiness a place where a person can be alone with themselves, discover themselves, and emerge outward from the desert as a different person. It’s the perfect place for a character to transform, the womb for an embryo of a new self. Jesus spent 40 days and nights in the desert before he began preaching, and Muhammad was meditating in a cave in the desert near Mecca when he received his first revelation.
“Any thoughts of guilt, any feelings of regret, had faded. The desert had baked them out.”
Voilà! The desert expunges what was and grants people a new beginning.
Unlike the city, whose sophistication offers “polish,” as Frank Herbert said in Dune, the desert offers “wisdom,” because in the desert, “the line between life and death is sharp and quick” (Dune, 45). This wisdom is born from the unique clarity of vision one can only achieve away from the complexities and games of urban life, as the characters of King and Herbert discover. Lawrence of Arabia discovered this when he spent time in the desert, writing of the tribes he worked with: “[they despised] doubt, our modern crown of thorns. They did not understand our metaphysical difficulties, our introspective questionings. They knew only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without our hesitating retinue of finer shades.”
While the desert in popular imagination seems to usually be associated with the Bedouin (Arab nomads), or Tuareg (Berber nomads in the Sahara), like the Fremen of Dune, it doesn’t necessarily need to be associated with a non-sedentary life.
Deserts, by definition, are places without much rainfall; they are not just the sand-dunes of Arabia, but also the badlands of the “Wild West,” which served as inspiration for both The Dark Tower and the second Mistborn series. Deserts are the canyons and plateaus of the American West that inspired the stunning Shattered Plains in The Stormlight Archive. Deserts can feature in a Romanesque world, as in An Ember in the Ashes (in my opinion, not the greatest book); they can feature in a world inspired by the urbane, medieval Islamic culture of Baghdad, as in The Thrones of the Crescent Moon. And, yes, deserts in fantasy can be like the lush kingdoms of Egypt, as in the Dreamblood series or The Kane Chronicles.
And even further east, there are deserts in China too, with Chinese-style architecture punctuating the emptiness; and in India, the Thar Desert was historically divided among many feuding warrior clans, the Rajputs, who lived in huge fast-holds. My parents visited some of these forts last year, and brought back many pictures.
As I said before, if I ever got to writing a fantasy novel, the story would most certainly commence in a desert. But more than that, I think I would definitely want to experiment with an Indianesque (or Chinesque) desert setting in my world-building for the sake of uniqueness, because the sands and religions of India’s deserts are so different than the deserts of Arabia.
But above all this, even in a myriad of different settings, the depth of the desert remains for the wandering heart, always lurking but a few miles away from any settlements. Out there in the desert are lost oases and mysterious caves abundant for the adventurer who enters; some bear treasure, some wisdom, and some nothing more than mirages.
It’s great stuff for readers and writers.
Readers and writers, do you have a favorite landscape or terrain? Forests, oceans, tundra? Or something else? Please let us know.
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