It’s becoming increasingly difficult to invent a new country. In the 18th and 19th centuries there were still places unknown to European society – “blank spaces on the earth”, as Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness once put it. New, unheard of countries were begging to be discovered, mapped, explored and, inevitably, colonized.
In Episode 9 of Words To That Effect, the topic was Ruritania. It is the setting of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda and one of the most influential of all fictional countries.
Have a listen to Episode 9: Imaginary Countries and the Ruritanian Romance
There are, of course, plenty of other imaginary countries. Writers love inventing them for a variety of reasons, whether for reasons of ideology, satire, aesthetics, or simply expediency. And, of course, in one sense all countries found in fiction are fictional countries; they are the author’s imagined version of a place, whether that’s Kazakhstan or Tazbekistan, Graustark or Germany.
Many genres, particularly fantasy and science fiction, are entirely composed of imaginary countries and cities, all located within imaginary worlds. Middle Earth, Narnia, Westeros. However, it is probably fair to say that what most people have in mind when thinking of an invented country is one which claims to be on the map of our world, but is not. A country that could be on earth, one whose veracity the reader may even wonder about (Wallaria..? Livonia…?).
Naming Fictional Countries
There’s an art to choosing a good name for a fictional country. If you want it to be convincing, it has to hint at its location and history. The example above, Tazbekistan (from the BBC show The Ambassadors) is quite clearly one of the “-stans”, a region of the world most Europeans and Americans tend to know very little about. Equatorial Kundu, the invented African state in the TV show The West Wing, is plausible because it blends real countries like Equatorial Guinea and Burundi. And there are many other examples.
So, to celebrate the fictional country, I have rounded up some of the best literary examples. They are each important in their own way, as explained below.
7 Key Fictional Countries
The novel that gave its name to an entire subgenre: the Ruritanian romance. Imitators popped up in their hundreds after Anthony Hope’s tale of romance and adventure, The Prisoner of Zenda, was published in 1894. It was adapted for stage and screen and remained popular for decades after its first publication. Hope wrote two follow-ups as well – The Heart of Princess Osra (1896), and Rupert of Hentzau (1898). Ruritania’s location, like most fictional countries, is hinted at but never quite specified. It’s somewhere in eastern Europe (my best guess is in the map above).
George Barr McCutcheon was the American Anthony Hope. His Graustark novels (beginning with Graustark: The Story of a Love Behind a Throne ) are also set in a fictional eastern European country, very much inspired by Ruritania. Like the British author’s work, the novels are romance tales with aristocratic protagonists and they too were huge bestsellers in their time.
While people have always imagined a better or more perfect world, it was Thomas More who gave us the utopia. It is another imaginary setting that spawned a literary genre. More’s Utopia (1516) is a pun on both “no-place” and “good- place”. It is a perfect society but one which does not, and perhaps cannot, exist. More’s imaginary island was the beginning of centuries of literary utopias. The utopian novel reached the height of its popularity in the late 19th century with works like Edward Bellamy’s enormously popular 1888 tale Looking Backward: 2000–1887. Today it is the dystopia which is the dominant form in literature, something which began in the early twentieth century, most notably with Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984.
4. Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia
In the future dystopian world of George Orwell’s 1949 classic 1984 there are only three fictional countries – the superstates of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. The novel takes place in Airstrip One, a part of Oceania, in what was formerly Britain. Big brother, newspeak, thoughtcrimes. It’s a novel which only seems to get more accurate as time goes by.
The fictional island of Lilliput, invented by Jonathan Swift for his famous tale, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), is located somewhere in the Indian Ocean. It is an island of tiny, six-inch-tall people, who are rivals of the neighbouring island of Blefuscu.The voyage to Lilliput makes up the first section of Swift’s great satire, one of the most influential works ever written in English.
A fictional country, which contains a mythical world, which becomes an invented universe which starts to appear in our own world. It’s…complicated. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is a short story by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, first published in 1940, and later part of his masterful collection Ficciones.
7. San Serriffe
Not quite a literary fictional country but San Serrife gets a special mention. It was a 1977 April Fool’s joke in the Guardian newspaper. It was, supposedly, “a small archipeligo, its main islands grouped roughly in the shape of a semicolon, in the Indian Ocean”. In fact, everything about the country was based around typesetting terms – two islands, in the shape of a semi-colon, named Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse, with a capital called Bodoni. You can read more about it on the Guardian site here
These are only seven notable fictional countries. There are many, many more. What have I left out? What are your favourites? Let me know in the comments below or on the Words To That Effect Facebook Page
Interested in fictional islands? Check out Words To That Effect Episode 10 on Robinson Crusoe and the Robinsonade
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