I’ve a steady appreciation through the years of the role that “lore” plays in my enjoyment of fantasy. For me, lore is the key element that adds dimension and depth to a fantastical story, what separates it from what I see as straightforward tales of events happening to characters. These lore-filled stories extend the horizon of their tale, connecting it to multiple reference points in time and space — literally creating a web of fictional information, events, and factoids about the making of its world that make the story feel more real to me. Without lore, stories feel two-dimensional and flat by comparison.
I think it’s important that I establish some definitions before I continue, starting with: what exactly is lore? Dictionary.com defines lore as: “the body of knowledge, especially of a traditional, anecdotal, or popular nature, on a particular subject.” The Cambridge English Dictionary follows in a similar vein, calling lore: “knowledge and stories, usually traditional, about a subject.”
Lore within fantasy works best when it is presented within the text to in-world characters and readers through narration, stories, passages from books, conversation, and the like, instead of encyclopedic academic history. There is nothing wrong with what is called an “info-dump,” which is sometimes necessary, as long as it is done artfully and naturally and without too much jargon.
I don’t think it difficult to imagine that a novel attempting to present information in this manner would likely come off to readers as dull. Some members of Backroom Whispering Productions discussed such a problem in the book Stormdancer back in January. Lore may be knowledge, but it is knowledge of a different sort, more akin to what an audience acquires through oral and visual media, such as film and television: a narration played out in front on you. Knowledge like this can have a legendary feel, like tales of Robin Hood or King Arthur, and sometimes it can feel more like its own kind of history, like Herodotus’ Histories.
The best way I can describe this perceived simultaneously anecdotal and historical presentation of lore is to think of it as being akin to exposure to the classic canon of a civilization. For example, a child in Westeros in the series A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF) by George R.R. Martin would generally be introduced to a canon of important, centuries-old works written by clergy, nobility, and scholars, and colored by their biases. Works include The Seven Pointed Star, The Dance of the Dragons, A True Telling, Lives of Four Kings, The Reckoning of Time, and the True History detailing the Andal invasion of Westeros. Together these texts impart a model of culture, chivalry and a particular, Westerosi historical memory on their readers: they are general accurate but not academically rigorous and focus on the deeds of warriors and religious orders, not on socioeconomic trends. Immersion and exposure to narrative, historical, literary, poetic, and philosophical works that, when consumed together, offer a holistic view into a different mode of life from one’s own in a way that might not necessarily seem rigorous on a scholarly level due to the allowance of imagination and hyperbole. Since characters in the ASOIAF series are exposed to these histories, readers are in turn exposed when characters make references to them.
It makes me sometimes wonder if looking at our world — at the events and places of history — through a sort of “lore-like” perspective would help us rediscover a more magical and exciting way of looking at this planet, that it would, perhaps, eliminate the dryness that seems to permeate much of the study of history and society. I will admit that lore is only one aspect of world-building, primarily connected with the level of detail associated with the specific histories and locales of a fictional world. There are other great aspects to world-building like climate, magic systems, geology, flora and fauna, et al. Yet I cannot help but name lore as the element that I think animates fantasy because lore is a distinct method of conveying the fictional universe’s information that surrounds the bare bones of a plot.
I may have instinctively recognized my need for lore in making a fantasy what I perceived as “good” — though lore cannot, in my opinion, substitute for what I see as abysmal plot or writing — but what made my need for lore more actively apparent what, of all things, the video game Skyrim. When I played this game in 2013-2014, I could not help but be struck by the immense, detailed lore that made up the world of Skyrim and The Elder Scrolls series as a whole. In general, I think video games often often feel like the equivalent of a fast-paced, linear, plot and action-oriented novel or movie; sure, I find them fun in small doses, but I can’t deny that they feel rather shallow. But Skyrim? Here was a game that I didn’t just play through to its conclusion before moving on to something else — I was immersed within the world, exploring and discovering its mysteries and its past histories through the books or quests that could be found throughout its vast world.
This discovering of the entrancing power of lore only heightened my appreciation for its appearance and use within fantasy novels. I would find myself returning and re-reading novels like Tolkien’s Silmarillion because of my lore-powered desire to further plumb the depths of this older Middle Earth; once was not enough. Another fantastic example as mentioned above would be George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, where he developed a lore and history so detailed that fans of Martin’s work can spend oceans of ink discussing the events leading up to turning points such as Robert’s Rebellion, Aegon’s conquests of Westeros, the civil war of the Dance of Dragons, the stories surrounding The Wall, Dornish history, and so, so many others.
On the other hand, I believe J.K. Rowling did a somewhat incomplete job in developing the lore of her Harry Potter series. Sure, there is some backstory and exploration of magical history, but it is often revealed in an ad hoc way, such as the recent reveal of a wizarding school in Africa. This type of information revelation doesn’t seem conducive to developing a web of knowledge that is shared by both characters and readers. At an even further end of what I see as the “spectrum of lore” — from has little-to-none to lore overload — is a book like The Hunger Games. I won’t deny that I found it relatively fun when I did read it, but neither it nor its sequels offered me any reason to return to the world of Panem. There is little information beyond the core plot and what is needed to move it forward; we only and infrequently hear of what happens beyond the main characters with little-to-no detail on Panem’s backstory, politics, and the wider world of the novels. In other words, everything is tangential to the core plot and the events closely associated with our protagonist, Katniss. There is nothing for me to learn about the world upon a re-read; no further depths for me to explore.
For me, the level and depth of lore in a novel is what keeps me continuous immersed in a world; it is what keeps me coming back, even when I know the plot and the characters. Lore gives me more to discover, more connections to make, more to discuss on forums with other fans; it creates a community of shared knowledge beyond the solitary reading experience. Look again at George R.R. Martin: his knowledge of history and the methodology of historical writings — such as chronicles and general folklore — allowed him to masterfully craft a world so rich that it requires its own detailed encyclopedia. It gives fans of A Song of Ice and Fire more to ponder beyond the plotlines of its multiple characters.
In short, I think lore is an important part of any fantasy novel and its world, especially in making the novel into something that continuously brings a reader back. This is why I think lore matters.
Readers, what do you think?
*Nota bene: All links to books available for purchase through Amazon are affiliate links, which means Backroom Whispering Productions receive a small percentage of the sales made through that link.