The Hearth/Backpack Spectrum

There’s been a lovely discussion of cozy fantasy happening over at, of all places, the Whetstone Sword & Sorcery Discord server. Cozy and S&S could hardly be more different, but the Whetstone folks made a number of sharp insights, including one we wanted to share.

One user (who agreed to be quoted, but insisted he not be credited beyond “a user”) suggested what he called the “hearth/backpack spectrum.” From his excellent post:

I think it makes sense to imagine different cozy fantasy stories along a spectrum, which represents how far away from the home/hearth the story moves. What you call backpack fantasy would occupy one end of the spectrum, whereas stories set in a home/kitchen/garden would make up the other end. The neat thing about such a spectrum is that the position of any given story on it would correspond roughly to how far away the protagonists move in space from the hearth/home in the story.

A User, Who Is Very Cool and Smart

How cool is that?

He went on to add, “An inn can function as a temporary ‘home’ in this sense even if it’s located far away from the characters’ original homeland. If the story is about baking a pie with the ingredients that are found in the inn’s kitchen, it’s close to the hearth. If the protagonist has to enter the wilderness to obtain ingredients for said pie, it becomes more of a backpack fantasy.”

We couldn’t agree more. The idea that the genre (well, sub-sub-genre) definition maps directly to the story’s geography is immensely appealing. It also raises the question of where the spectrum ends. That is, can you go so far in one or the other direction that you fall off the edge, as it were, and cease to be cozy?

Certainly it seems possible to go too backpack. That user again: “If the story takes you all the way to Mordor, then it’s probably not a ‘pure’ example of cozy fantasy.” Just so. The Lord of the Rings definitely has cozy and backpack elements, but ultimately it’s very much in the epic fantasy mold. (In fact it probably created the epic fantasy mold.)

Ditto something like the Belgariad, which seems to get mentioned on cozy fantasy request threads because its characters and setting feel comfortable to longtime fantasy readers. (They’re actually quite S&S, but that’s a whole other discussion!) The Belgariad is about a journey, but again, it’s a journey about saving the world from ultimate evil—and leaving behind your home village in the process.

What about the “hearth” end of things? Is it possible to go so far that way you… crawl up a chimney or something? It’s tougher to imagine, but it may relate to the importance of setting in cozy fantasy. If a “hearth” story took place literally in a single room, the reader likely wouldn’t see enough of the setting to develop any attachment to it. There’s not much wonder to be found in sitting around doing nothing at all.

Reading cozy fantasy, we want to be drawn into the imaginary world of the story. To do that, our characters must explore that world for us, because we can’t jump into the book and explore it ourselves (unfortunately). If they don’t go anywhere at all, we’re left wanting, but if they journey too far we lose sight of home.

3 thoughts on “The Hearth/Backpack Spectrum

  1. I couldn’t help but think of the cozy fantasy HEARTHWIZARD by Ree Taylor (Amazon) when I saw this article. Also, some of the cozier SF books by M.C.A Hogarth come to mind (but read the summaries carefully, some of her SF books are Very Much Not Cozy).

    Liked by 1 person

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