Throughout history man has desired to transform the world to suit himself. And though some statesmen in real life might have achieved a semblance of such, the goal has only ever been reached in story and myth. In earliest days, men told tales of such fantastic places as Atlantis, Ultima Thule, and Cathay until the rise of the scientific method put a stop to such fancies. Instead, science inspired a more logical approach to lands of never. Thus, the earliest imaginary worlds were those created by philosophers and free thinkers who dreamed of societies that operated on a more sensible basis than the pre-industrial communities they themselves inhabited. Lands such as Thomas More’s Utopia and and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis.
But a funny thing happened even as the influence of science grew and western society became increasingly disdainful of anything that smacked of superstition: writers began to emerge who embraced fantasy as a response to logic and science, which needed the guidance of man’s imagination to give the two direction and purpose.
Enter the fantasists of the twentieth century who provided landscapes of the imagination over which their literary characters could roam, wrestling with moral questions often presented in the form of metaphor or symbol. But none of it seemed real until put on paper. As a result, venturing over the horizon of imagination to the land of “here there be dragons,” the modern fantasist has insisted on categorizing his world, giving it a cartographical pseudo-reality best represented by our 10 Most Fascinating Fantasy Worlds of All Time.
10) Phantom Tollbooth
One of the cleverest of fantasy books, The Phantom Tollbooth written by Norton Juster, came with a map detailing the Kingdom of Wisdom, something that was still unusual in 1961 when the book was first published. Filled with places and landmarks that act as metaphors and puns, the Kingdom of Wisdom is a literary puzzle box that has delighted readers of all ages for decades.
Seemingly a patchwork of lands and climes, author C.S. Lewis’ world of Narnia has captured the imagination of children ever since the first volume in the series was published in 1950. Building his world volume by volume, Lewis ended up with a rich tapestry of geography for readers to explore that includes the countries of Narnia, Archenland, Calormen, and Telmar. But that’s not all! Also included are whole other worlds, possibly even universes!
Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series (the first volume of which was published in 1970) follows the trials and tribulations of the magical Deryni race as they struggle against a larger society that mostly hates and fears them as practitioners of witchcraft. The Eleven Kingdoms, of which Gwynedd is chief, are among the most politically complex systems ever created in the annals of fantasy literature.
Although the action in E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, published in 1922, takes place on Venus, the designation of the familiar second planet of our solar system is purely for convenience because it bears no resemblance at all to the warring nations of Demonland and Witchland, whose struggles are at the center of the novel’s action.
A fictional French province ruled by swineherd turned ruler Dom Manuel, Poictesme became a rich geographical land of imagination through 25 novels written by James Branch Cabell beginning in 1921 with the classic Figures of Earth.
Unlike most fantasy worlds that reside on the world’s surface, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1915 novel of the same name introduced Pellucidar, a land that has the distinction of being laid out on the inside surface of the Earth! A setting that has resulted in one of the strangest visualizations in all of fantasy literature, one that includes its own sun and an a horizon that drifts upward to disappear in the heights of distance!
L. Frank Baum’s story of Dorothy’s adventures in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) took her from Munchkin Country to the Emerald City and parts between. In over 13 subsequent volumes, Baum continued to expand on the geography of Oz, creating one of the richest and most intriguing of fantasy worlds, one that continues to excite the imagination as new writers have gone on to explore its many roads and byways.
Initially a hodgepodge of geographical locations looted from different periods of the world’s history, renamed, and put together in a rough semblance of the European continent, Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria has grown beyond its plebeian origins as the stomping grounds of its greatest hero, Conan the barbarian. Conan first appeared in the 1932 story “The Phoenix on the Sword” and has ever since been adventuring in Hyboria’s lands of dark wizardry and willing women.
2) Tarzan’s Africa
Not usually considered among the lands of fantasy, Tarzan’s Africa is no less wondrous and as filled with lands and nations of never as any other. And best of all, you can get there by camel or boat or airplane without any need for such outlandish devices as phantom tollbooths or fancy wardrobes! First envisioned by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912 for his novel Tarzan of the Apes, the author eventually wrote 23 sequels, studding the interior of Africa with an array of the most outlandish people and places ever conceived.
1) Middle Earth
Perhaps the most detailed, thought-out fantasy world ever imagined, Middle Earth was the creation of author J.R.R. Tolkien, who first introduced it in his 1937 novel The Hobbit but really delved into its vast geography with his masterpiece The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s holistic approach to world building became the example all other fantasists have since followed. For all that, Middle Earth is worthy of being considered the most interesting fantasy world ever imagined.