Continent-shifting cataclysms have been a mainstay in fantasy literature since the 1920s, epic fantasy in particular. It’s a curious thread. After all, human history is such a miniscule portion of geological time that while we’ve seen coastlines shifts or islands rise and sink, we haven’t seen significant alterations of any one landmass since the Stone Age. Continental drift will, by necessity, rarely affect a story or the characters except in the broadest sense. Yet massive geological shifts stay simmering in the foundational works of the modern fantasy genre. Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age, while ostensibly set in our prehistory, has a significantly different-looking map of what would become Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Additionally, the Hyborian Age takes place after the Thurian age of the Kull stories, which (once again) features a map that looks nothing like the one you’ll find in the front piece of a Conan collection.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings also takes place in our Earth’s past, but Middle Earth looks nothing like Europe. And, following the same pattern as Howard, Middle Earth has already undergone significant geological upheavals that occurred in recorded history: the sinking of Beleriand, a place that one constituted a significant portion of north-western Middle Earth; after that, the destruction of Numenor and subsequent transformation of a flat Earth into a round one (I admit this boggled my mind the first time I read The Silmarillion). These aren’t named “cataclysms” in the texts, but they are certainly cataclysmic events, and subsequent fantasies have opted for the word as an echo of these moments that required redrawing the map.
Surely its presence has a lot to do with Tolkien’s legacy in epic fantasy. Because he did it, other authors followed suite when they tried to recapture the feeling of Tolkien’s text. Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan tied the cataclysm to a nuclear war. It amounts to the same thing–a way to tie the secondary world to a past one while subsequently providing a clean break. The Dragonlance books simply had “The Cataclysm” where the gods decided to reshuffle the continents. By that point, it was just an expected feature of the modern high fantasy epic.
The idea does have far older roots in myth and legend; the sinkings of Avalon and Atlantis inspired Tolkien’s Numenor. Further back, we have the biblical and Mesopotamian notion of the antediluvian world filled with angels, demigods, giants and monsters, all swept away by the Great Flood. When the waters receded, the world no longer looked the same and human beings had fundamentally changed. They no longer lived on for hundreds of years, and ever since we’ve only known a world much diminished from the one God, or the gods, initially created.
Then there were the new myths of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that sprung up at the same time as a resurgence in fantastical writing–tales of lost civilizations in Mu and Lemuria, occult rememberings of an impossibly distant past that was since swept away and forgotten. Lovecraft tapped into that milieu with his ancient old ones and non-Euclidian cities now drowned beneath the waves. Howard picked up on the same queues, even wrote in the same shared imagined past–Lovecraft’s intelligent lizard-men appear in the Thurian Age Kull stories, once again reminding us humans are just a small part of the world’s history and the universe at large.
Perhaps the cataclysm’s appeal is as a reminder that the world encounters violent upheavals–human history written onto the land itself. There’s also an anti-Lovecraftian element to the fantasy cataclysm since it so often results from human action; no random comet here, the gods grows angry with us and so bend the very Earth out of shape, they come to our aid in battle and break the continents apart. We are not insignificant. We can change the map. And so, when we choose to read for escape, we’re attracted to a secondary world where human actions are deeply inscribed in the landscape, because for all the doom and destruction it remains a comforting thought.