Ah, the Shire. It’s peaceful. It’s beautiful. The neighbors gather for one hundred and eleventh birthdays without too much fuss. Sure, your relatives may plot to acquire your nice little hobbit-hole if you go on an adventure, but all in all, it’s a lovely place to live.
Why would you ever leave?
Hundreds of fantasy novels start off in similar settings: a small town absent of danger and conflict and instead filled with hot apple cider and evening fires. For most of us, we would dream ourselves lucky to fall into a little hideaway with all the creature comforts and a hint of magic, but unfortunately, or fortunately if you value things like plot and personal growth, writers continue to pull main characters away and heartlessly place them in the midst of danger and….adventure.
This trope goes beyond the written word. Where does Link start his quest? What about Ash and the other Pokémon leads? In their own idyllic neck of the woods, of course. It’s a common tool in Science Fiction and Young Adult as well. Though Katniss from the Hunger Games didn’t think her small hometown was much to brag about, it sure was better than where she was headed.
The opening setting in fantasy novels do a lot of work. They give readers a sense of what the character’s daily life is like and build up the imagined world supported by plenty of details. Most importantly, they present something at stake. After all, Frodo wouldn’t have gone on his journey if he didn’t care about saving the Shire from darkness.
So here’s a shout out to the top five small towns of the fantasy world, listed by increasing fantastical nature.
Number Five: Dorset County – from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
During World War Two, it was common for families to relocate their children away from heavily targeted and bombed larger cities to rural areas. In the Narnia series, the Pevensie siblings do just that and evacuate from London to the countryside, specifically, to Dorset.
The children settle into a large home owned by a Professor Krike and run by servants. The housekeeper guides tour groups through the home and generally frightens the children, foreshadowing the White Witch.
Dorset County is a real place in England with clean air and breathtaking views. It provides the perfect British jumping point for the siblings to land in Narnia when Lucy climbs through a wardrobe and encounters a Faun. As lovely as Dorset is, Narnia is that much better.
Number Four: Westland – from Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind
Richard Cypher lives in Westland, which is one of three parts of the known world. There’s one united government but no known magic. We know, lame trade off.
In his daily life, Richard is a woods guide and his brother is the new minister of the region. How does one make a living as a woods guide? By escorting important politicians through dangerous forests and knowing a lot about plants.
Fortunately Westland gets a whole lot more interesting for Richard when he saves a girl and learns that one of the locals is actually a wizard. The trio soon find a way to traverse the boundary.
Number Three: Winterfell – from A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
Winterfell is cold, remote, and politically powerful, but also where the Stark children grew up and had, clearly, the only safe and stable years of their lives.
As a stronghold, Winterfell is large, protected by immense double walls and a moat. It’s said to be over 8,000 years old and located on the Kingsroad. Outside the gate, the quaint, seasonal Winter Town springs up as death and ice encroach on the peasants and farmers.
This definitely isn’t the shire—innumerable threats hang over every head—but there are many home-like comforts to the castle, such as the Godswood hot springs that provide heated water to run through the thick walls and the very old, Old Nan who tells Brandon Stark stories. Though at first all of the Stark children are eager to be away on adventure, as the series advances, Winterfell becomes a nostalgic symbol of the life they lost.
Number Two: Shady Vale – from The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks
Shady Vale is just what you’d expect of the name. It’s a peaceful, small town surrounded by woods and mountains. Though elves and trolls exist in this world, Shady Vale is populated by the Race of Men, who live in quaint wood and stone homes.
A family adopts a half-Elven child named Shea and raise him alongside their own son. As adults, the brothers run the family inn, until a Druid shows up with warnings and the truth about Shea’s lineage. And of course Shea can’t stay in Shady freaking Vale.
What you don’t see, under the surface of it all, is that Shady Vale is Earth, 2,000 years in the future. Nuclear fall out killed most of the humans in the world and mutated what was left into different fantasy-based races. Technology receded back to the middle ages, but magic is on the rise and powerful.
Number One: The Shire – from The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
The Shire is the pinnacle of cozy, early settings in fantasy lit. There are no Big People (that’s us), just hobbits and the occasional wizard. Hobbit-holes tunnel into the sides of hills and Bilbo Baggins has the best of them, complete with bedrooms, wardrobes, pantries, and kitchens.
It’s really no place for adventure, but adventure does come, as it always will, just as you set up to read your mail quietly on your stoop, pipe in hand.