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Ocean in Fantasy Books

When Hydrogen and Oxygen meet Magic

By Julie ShetlerPublished 2 months ago 4 min read
By KELLEPICS on Pixabay

Words are moving. We find ourselves flipping pages, imagining characters, and returning to stories. But what inspires authors to create fantasy books in the first place?

The ocean can be a muse. It's a source of mystery in our own modern world, where most mysteries are presumably uncovered. Even though it laps at the shores of our terrestrial domain, its salty depths are still like a completely different world. The ocean remains unknowable. An underwater setting can engage fantasy readers, just like stories set in outer space pique the curiosity of sci-fi readers.

In worlds with dragons and elves, the ocean remains. It is a fundamental constant in our understanding of life. Water is at the forefront of our search for life on other planets. Thus, in fantasy worlds, faraway lands often share the Earth's aquatic fate. The presence of the ocean, as well as a few common themes around it, weave many works of fantasy together.

By Victoria_Watercolor on Pixabay

The first writings of dragons came five centuries ago, engraved into an ostrich egg. This timeless egg serves as a world map, with delicate carvings in the hollow shell. The artisan carved the warning "Here be dragons" in the waters surrounding South-East Asia. Authors wonder about what kinds of creatures live in the depths. The ocean is vast, and with a little imagination, any number of creatures could be inhabiting it. Marine creatures in fantasy include water dragons, mermaids, and krakens.

Great beasts in the depths are an archetype throughout literature when considering epic adventure tales such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

By Fragoso on Pixabay

But the ocean can be a total opposite to monsters in the abyss.

According to the great Zodiac wheel, Pisces is an emotional sign. The two Piscean fish guard the gates of eternity and transcendence. It’s the last sign before the Zodiac wheel starts a new rotation. Just as astrological water opens the floodgates to emotion, so does the ocean. It is said that a dream that takes place underwater represents subconcious emotion. The ocean is a mystical, feminine, emotional force. It can be used for poetic symbolism.

The ocean is part of the central plot device in The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. The first page of the book describes the main character's movements as "like a shadow on the sea”. He often compares the unicorn’s appearance to the ocean in his poetic prose. This is a foreshadowing the end of the novel where (spoiler alert) she discovers that the rest of her kind are being held prisoner at sea. The ocean is used for foreshadowing throughout the novel.

Peter S. Beagle uses the grace of the sea to disguise a herd of the most beautiful creatures of his magical world. This plot device shows the depth, majesty, and beauty in the ocean herself.

Another instance of using the ocean as a poetic symbol can be found at the end of J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic series The Lord of the Rings. In this Fantasy saga's closing scene (spoiler alert) there is a division between the characters staying in Middle Earth, and those characters who are embarking on a voyage across the sea. Here the ocean is a symbol for travel and transformation. The separation between characters is meant to bring up emotions, symbolized in the sea between them.

In fantasy the ocean can also symbolize emotions. It can be personified as angry, sinister, or gentle. Christopher Paolini writes in Eragon “The sea is emotion incarnate. It loves, hates, and weeps.”

By hullabaloo22 on Pixabay

Just as the ocean adds to the mystery of our Earth, so it contributes to mystery of imaginary realms. The optomotrist’s billboard in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby watched over the indiscretions of New York City with blind eyes. The ocean is like this. An aura of anarchy is created, and with it the perfect place for pirates to take hold. In stories, just like the real world, the ocean watches mercilessly as events unfold. J. R. R. Tolkein sensed the impartial nature of the ocean when he wrote, “dropping vain tears in the thankless sea” in The Silmarillion.

There is a trend of underwater fantasy like a wave through the genre. One very popular current book is Alexandra Christo’s To Kill a Kingdom. She writes, "In my heart, I’m as wild as the ocean that raised me." The oceanic imagery and untamable personification adds depth to the work. Other up-and-coming ocean-themed fantasy novels include Prince of Song and Sea by Linsey Miller, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, The Deep by Rivers Solomon, and Sea Witch by Sarah Henning.

Do you have any deep-sea fantasy book recomendations?

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Julie Shetler

Adventure is calling...

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  • Melissa in the Blue2 months ago

    I think you’d love deep light by Frances Hardinge! There’s also skin of the sea by Natasha Bowen but I’ve not read it so I can’t comment on how much you’d like it. Lots of love from one ocean lover to another! Xx

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