I’ve said before that I’m not a stickler for realism in fantasy, per se; but neglecting how things actually worked has costs, because authors miss opportunities for more interesting stories. The long journey is a perfect example. Going back deep into the mists of time, epic heroes are expected to take long journeys. J.R.R. Tolkien codified the trope for modern fantasy writers, and now you can hardly swing a cat without hitting a dozen fantasy books wherein characters travel from one side of their world to the other. A few examples suffice: Terry Brooks and the Shannara series, the Wheel of Time, to a lesser extent George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire.
The thing is that most of these depictions bear very little resemblance to how actual traveling tended to work in premodern societies. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; if realism gets in the way of a good story, then by all means, let’s chuck it out! But understanding how transportation worked back in the day can help us create new stories, or put new twists on old stories.
The first thing to understand is that most societies do not keep track of distances between locations; they keep track of how long it takes to get there. This makes sense; it might be only a few miles from one side of a steep mountain to the other, but actually traveling that distance could take most of a day. On the other hand, two villages might be twenty miles apart from each other, but if the intervening space is a flat, grassy plain, then it would be a relatively easy journey of less than a day. Travel time becomes more important than distance as the crow flies—after all, we aren’t crows.
(James C. Scott, in his brilliant Art of Not Being Governed, notes that the upland societies he studied would describe distances in terms of units of time that are relevant to their situation. For example, you might say that a particular clearing is “three boilings of rice away.” Or, someone’s house might be “two cigarette smokings away.” In a society without clocks, such units of time make sense as well.)
Travel paths are guided by the contours of the land. This is particularly true for vehicles; the United States railroads, for example, were laid out where they were (along flat areas and valleys) because the heavy coal-freight cars could not climb up grades of more than a few degrees. In consequence, communities further up in the hills had no access to the railroad. Whereas American towns and cities had previously been spread across several kinds of terrain, once the railroad arrived population was inexorably sucked into the lowlands, where the new towns could access the national transportation network.
In the ancient world, the easiest and fastest way to travel anywhere was by water. This was especially the case when you had to transport a lot of cargo, such as grain. Scott writes that Chinese merchants transporting grain by ox-cart would only travel about 250 kilometers; any further than that, and the oxen would eat more grain than they carried. Charles Tilly notes that it was roughly as expensive to transport grain from one side of the Mediterranean to the other by ship, as it was to transport it across 100 miles on land. This had drastic effects; it was common for seaport warehouses to be filled to bursting with grain, while scarcely a few hundred miles away villages were starving.
It is no surprise that most cities are placed next to a river. Rivers were the highways of the premodern world. Roads on land were important too, but were typically a second-best choice. The greatest cities stood at junctions between rivers, where merchants needed to transfer from one river to the other, or between a river and the sea. Amsterdam is a classic example.
On well-traveled roads, you typically ran into a village every several hours of traveling. Often, these villages were little more than an inn and a trading post, meant specifically to cater to travelers. Conversely, in times of political upheaval, good roads meant an easy passage for marauding bandits; small villages tended to evaporate as their residents fled for defended cities, or up into the hills where they could escape danger.
Traveling cross-country was possible but unusual. There would be no guarantee of food or easy passage, and it was dangerous to go off the path. Wild animals, poisonous plants, treacherous footing, all gave ample reasons to stay in the well-trodden areas. There is a reason that African explorers carried machetes. Otherwise, you simply couldn’t make it through the jungle. The European forest was similarly impassible. Mountainous areas too were formidable obstacles; have you ever tried hiking up a mountain?
Now, how can you turn all of this into plot elements? First of all, I believe there’s not enough fantasy-traveling over water. (A good counterexample is Eric Flint’s and David Weber’s 1633, not surprising given the emphasis on military logistics.) To be sure, most fantasy stories will have the obligatory canoeing sequence, but it is usually a short sequence soon forgotten. But imagine if your main mode of transport were to go down the length of one river, and then make portage to the next one, and the next? There are possibilities there for new sorts of plot obstacles, hair-raising dangers, river pirates, and more. Plus, you get the benefits of land mere feet away from your boat, allowing detours off of the river and into untamed wilderness whenever the plot demands it.
Second, because travel tends to follow predictable paths, it makes ambush far more likely and realistic. This can work for and against the heroes. There’s no need for contrivance to make sure your heroes intercept the dastardly villain, when said villain can only pick one realistic path to travel on.
Third, a bit of research can help you depict just how hard it really is to go off the road. If our heroes need to avoid danger by leaving the main highways, why not emphasize how this makes them giant studs?
Finally, how many times have you skimmed over yet another paragraph describing the heroes’ journeys? With a little more realism, such passages can actually become interesting to read, precisely because they can be filled with unexpected details. For example: if it is so expensive to transport goods over land, what goods are being transported and why?
I hope that this post can help you restore a sense of size to your fantasy worlds. Again, I’m not asking for realism for its own sake; but use the ideas here to come up with new stories to tell, or new ways to tell them. Difficulties in travel impose constraints; how your characters overcome those constraints is a story, if you want to tell it.