DOES FANTASY HAVE TO BE MEDIEVAL?

I’m going to answer that right away: No, it doesn’t.

By now we’ve all read “urban fantasy”—stories set in the contemporary world but with the addition of magic and monsters—or historical fantasy set in Victorian times, or combined with the traditional Western… But still, medieval fantasy hangs in there as the template, the standard by which other forms are relegated to sub-genres like urban fantasy, weird west, steampunk, etc.

Why?

The medieval occupies this pre-literal, pre-realist space for us. It’s a space where the fantastic feels like it could have happened, and, perhaps more importantly, it’s a space that seems steeped in symbol and allegory; where the figures who populate the landscape like dragons and giants can be more than just dragons or giants—they can be allegories for trauma or social disintegration.

…said Jessica Hines, interviewed in “Why Game of Thrones & Fantasy Literature Get Medieval.” That’s a good place to start. But then all aspects of fantasy, science fiction, and horror worldbuilding are allegories for all sorts of things, and like giants and dragons, not just trauma or social disintegration.

Could it be that medieval fantasy is considered the default setting of the genre because we’ve all signed on to Tolkien as the progenitor? In “Empire of Fantasy,” Maria Sachiko Cecire wrote:

What is less known is that Tolkien and Lewis also designed and established the curriculum for Oxford’s developing English School, and through it educated a second generation of important children’s fantasy authors in their own intellectual image. Put in place in 1931, this curriculum focused on the medieval period to the near-exclusion of other eras; it guided students’ reading and examinations until 1970, and some aspects of it remain today. Though there has been relatively little attention paid to the connection until now, these activities—fantasy-writing, often for children, and curricular design in England’s oldest and most prestigious university—were intimately related. Tolkien and Lewis’s fiction regularly alludes to works in the syllabus that they created, and their Oxford-educated successors likewise draw upon these medieval sources when they set out to write their own children’s fantasy in later decades. In this way, Tolkien and Lewis were able to make a two-pronged attack, both within and outside the academy, on the disenchantment, relativism, ambiguity and progressivism that they saw and detested in 20th-century modernity.

So like the old saying if you walk around all day with a hammer eventually everything starts to look like a nail, if you’re a medieval historian eventually every story is set in at least a version of medieval Europe (and/or England and/or Scandinavia)? That sounds reasonable. Of course, there are medieval fantasy stories that pre-date The Hobbit. but the resurgence of Tolkien’s work in the sixties led to imitators in the seventies, including the culturally powerful Dungeons & Dragons, which all worked together to cement a generalized medieval setting/technology as the default for fantasy.

And don’t get me wrong, I love a good medieval fantasy—and I think for all the right reasons. For one thing, that technological context provides for interesting weapons and gadgets, but not the sort of weapons and gadgets that the people who make those things invented since then, which is to say, incremental improvements that became massive shifts. In a medieval fantasy there might be a fireball spell, but no nuclear weapons. Some few people with access to certain magic might be able to speak with each other over long distances, but it’s not like everyone has a cellphone and is in constant communication with everyone else, including emergency first responders and law enforcement that tend to be adventure killers. Fantasy heroes are on their own.

One thing fantasy authors have done a pretty good job of along the way is allowing for much of the social evolution we’ve gone through since then into their invented worlds, even while pushing back on technology. So maybe your weapons technology caps out at the crossbow and the trebuchet, you can’t travel any faster than a horse can carry you, but that doesn’t mean women and children have to be treated as property, something like 99% of the population has to be illiterate, and all the various other aspects of normal day-to-day life in medieval Europe that made it, by our modern standards, a god-awful hellhole must remain.

But then… have we done that?

Have we worked the social horrors out of our fantasy medieval periods? Are we presenting worlds of myth and magic and civil rights and inclusion?

That, in fact, may not be your goal. One thing fiction can do, and that absolutely includes all forms of genre fiction, is depict a world that sucks in some way that’s similar to a way in which our contemporary world sucks, and then provide some kind of working through of that.

In a Paris Review interview, author Kazuo Ishiguro said:

I’d wanted for some time to write a novel about how societies remember and forget. I’d written about how individuals come to terms with uncomfortable memories. It occurred to me that the way an individual remembers and forgets is quite different to the way a society does. When is it better to just forget? This comes up over and over again. France after the Second World War is an interesting case. You could argue that De Gaulle was right to say, We need to get the country working again. Let’s not worry too much about who collaborated and who didn’t. Let’s leave all this soul-searching to another time. But some would say that justice was ill served by that, that it leads eventually to bigger problems. It’s what an analyst might say about an individual who’s repressing. If I were to write about France, though, it becomes a book about France. I imagined myself having to face all these experts on Vichy France asking me, So what are you saying about France? What are you accusing us of? And I’d have to say, Actually, it was just supposed to stand for this bigger theme. Another option was the  Star Wars  strategy: “in a galaxy far, far away.” 

Fantasy in particular has never been anything but an attempt to grab hold of something about that author’s contemporary experience and grapple with it free of the constraints of fact. Fantasy lets us explore and comment in a way that conveys a certain set of truths, as we know it—whether we think those truths are positive or negative—without having to be good journalists and cite our sources or, Heaven forfend, allow both sides their fair argument.

Fiction has no requirement for fairness.

That said then, do we still have to cleave to medieval fantasy as the standard? I don’t think so, and clearly I’m far from alone in that. So then if we question that, what else can we question? Does fantasy have to be, as I used to describe the Forgotten Realms: “Guys fighting monsters with magic?” Does there have to be any fighting at all?

You know I’m Mr. Pulp Fiction, Mr. Sword & Sorcery, Mr. Space Opera… but I’m also Mr. Literary Fiction, Mr. Poetry, Mr. Real Life Pacifist…

Maybe something crept in over the Memorial Day weekend, when a lot of the media turns their attention to war, and too often in a positive way, but here’s a challenge I’ve seen precious few authors take on in the fantasy genre: Could we write fantasy without fighting? Without defaulting to a patriarchal aristocracy and monarchy in our worldbuilding? Without strapping a sword to every character’s hip the same way authors of Westerns strap a six-gun to everyone’s hip, even though very few people in the Old West actually routinely carried guns?

I don’t know… we might be ready for: “People thinking their way out of problems with magic and coming to understand monsters as misunderstood neighbors.”

I don’t know… maybe we need to start with a role-playing game with no combat system.

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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4 Responses to DOES FANTASY HAVE TO BE MEDIEVAL?

  1. Berin Kinsman of Dancing Lights Press is working on an RPG without combat rules called “Pastel”.

    Steve Zoldi

    On Tue, Jun 1, 2021, 3:14 PM Fantasy Author’s Handbook wrote:

    > Philip Athans posted: ” I’m going to answer that right away: No, it > doesn’t. By now we’ve all read “urban fantasy”—stories set in the > contemporary world but with the addition of magic and monsters—or > historical fantasy set in Victorian times, or combined with the > traditional” >

  2. mjtedin says:

    There’s a lot of thought provoking ideas in this post. I wonder what the game designers think of the RPG with no combat system.

  3. Lyri says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynn Jones is a wonderful satire of the medieval fantasy genre, with some pointed asides on Celtic-inspired tropes as well. Made me rethink some of my stories in terms of possible cliches. Thanks again for your post!

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