Medieval Fantasy: A Success and an Impasse
The fantasy genre is often characterized by a medieval time period or some form of pre-19th-century Western culture. Kingdoms, dragons, and wizards are classic elements found in fantasy. There are many reasons the genre and the time period are constantly linked together. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on three common reasons that are often mentioned while discussing the popularity of Medieval Fantasy. The first is the influence of the existing rhetoric surrounding the medieval period, followed by using a technology deprived time to allow magic to flourish and most significantly the influence of the “Godfather of Fantasy,” Tolkien. When speaking of the “medieval period,” I am talking about series who resembles or has clearly been influenced by the medieval Period as well as the Renaissance Period of Europe. As such, series that clear links to the any of the two eras but that aren’t necessarily set in that era will also be discussed throughout the article.
The Image of the Medieval Period
The first encounter that most people have with medieval times, or at least a time that feels medieval, is through fairy tales. Western Mythologies, folklore, and the Grimm Brothers introduced us to fairy godmothers and wands, elves and dwarfs, heroes and dragons at a young age. Modern fantasy books all extrapolate from these works to a certain extent. In addition, the medieval period has been constructed to appear as a place of adventure. There are countless stories of knights in shining armor going off to slay dragons. If not, we have rebels like Robin Hood who serves the good, by doing bad or Arthur and his knights around the roundtable. The idea of a hero going on a quest does not originate in the medieval world, but these stories are romanticized to fit the “Dark ages.”
The simple title, the “Dark ages” alludes to sorcery, curses and death. The influence of Christianity also contributed to fears about spirits, demons and plagues sent to punish sinners. As such, authors already have the necessary material to help them develop a magic system or their own religions. Additionally, in a time period where the Inquisition and Crusades where legally sanctioned events, they get to work with an ambivalent law system that would give their protagonist more liberties. The medieval period gives them the free range to warp what we already know about the time period and make it epic. With the Middle age we already have a basic idea of the politics and some of their life styles but not so much that it’s familiar and we can fully relate to the world. As such, authors can take an event like The Wars of Roses, multiply the amount of houses engaged in the issue, add Dragons, White Walkers and Children of the Forest and you have A Song of Ice and Fire. The medieval period is a perfect setting for intermixing magic and religion because the setting works seamlessly together. Since the idea of magic was already fully ingrained in the period, it makes it easier to stretch out what is already known and turn it into gold. Additionally, one of the most common arguments used to explain why magic and the medieval period works has a lot to do with how magic would be mute in a world that is technologically advanced.
Conflict Between Magic and Technology
The reason some argue that Magic and Technology should not intermix is because of Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. If a story is going to heavily rely on magic than technology must be limited enough that magic still appears spectacular. An example of this is J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Rowling makes sure to emphasize that muggle technology does not work within the Wizarding World. Instead, magic is used to replace technology: the dishes could clean themselves through wands, no need for a washing machine. Wizards travelled by broom, apparition or some other form of teleportation, so cars are seen as delightfully odd. Even phones, something that most people can’t live without anymore, become unnecessary in a world where one can communicate through a fireplace. Technology is mute within the Wizarding World because of magic. The existence of magic is also why certain aspects of the Wizarding World is clearly influenced by the medieval period such as having a school set in a castle, Wizarding clothing emulating that of the 17th century and the intrigued around magical objects.
A common argument against the mixture of technology and magic is that technology would cause plot holes. If an adventure story was set in the modern world where one had to go on a quest or hunt for an item, having access to google maps or any other GPS could make the story less entertaining. It’s one of the reasons fantasy series based in our modern world will find an excuse that explains why technology cannot be used. In The Percy Jackson series, for example, the demigods sent on quests are not allowed to carry phones because technology attracts monsters. Similar to Hogwarts, phones weren’t allowed in Camp Half-Blood. Authors tend to find a convenient way to acknowledge that technology exists without making it influence their story. For an adventure story, often times they must try to find the inaccessible which would be easier to do with technology at hand. As a result, in order to have more frontiers to explore, it is argued that the genre should be relegated to a past that is suited for a certain kind of dynamic.
Many Medieval Fantasy fans believe that the period is a perfect playground for writers because although there were laws, there was more anarchy. With an undeveloped legal system, it is believed that characters and storylines would have more freedom. Especially compared to today, where we have police forces and bureaucratic states, the stakes of an adventure story would be different. Which isn’t a bad thing nor even a restriction, it could, in fact, make the story more entertaining and new. However, those who roam forums seem to believe that a modern law system would hinge on the flow of certain fantasy series. Just imagine how different the world of A Song of Ice and Fire would be with legitimate detectives, as in more than what Ned Stark was, real lawyers or a democratic state? The whole plot would be unrecognizable and possibly less intense, then again George R.R. Martin would probably find a way to make it an excellent story regardless. Still, since fantasy and medieval are so interlinked, putting magic in a completely different timeline is a whole new ballpark. It tends to make it more interesting, but people like tradition, which brings me to Tolkien.
The Influence of Tolkien
Tolkien by no means created the fantasy genre, but it can’t be denied that he is one of its pillars. His influence can be seen throughout the genre, especially in High and/or Epic fantasy novels. What is known about fantasy, can greatly be attributed to the world that he created and tropes he helped established. A lot of known fantasy authors grew up reading Tolkien or have engaged with his work in some shape or form. By osmosis, the long-time fantasy fan who becomes a writer gains an understanding of medieval history. They might set their story in the time period and draw inspiration from the most renowned fantasy series. This is why at a certain point, “Fantasy” was synonymous with dwarves, elves, a quest to destroy a magical artifact and world conquering evil. Even Fantasies that aren’t explicitly medieval have some of these elements because of Tolkien’s influence. Essentially, fantasy and medieval history will often come hand in hand because of what comes down to tradition.
Gladstone: Rejecting Medieval Fantasy
With all that said, is fantasy necessarily medieval? Would magic work in a non-medieval world, despite Clark’s Law? Absolutely, there are countless of non-medieval and non-western, for that matter, fantasy novels who offer a completely different experience than what many are used. One series that completely comes and destroys everything that is known about what fantasy “should look like”, is Max Gladstone’s The Craft Sequence.
The author’s own short introduction to the series is the following :
I write the Craft Sequence series of books and games, set in a postindustrial (and post-war) fantasyland, where black magic is big business, wizards wear pinstriped suits and conduct necromantic procedures on dead gods, and day-to-day commerce rests on people trading pieces of their souls for goods and services. The Craft Sequence books are legal thrillers about faith, or religious thrillers about law and finance. Plus there are hive-mind police forces, poet gargoyles, brainwashing golems, nightmare telegraphs, surprisingly pleasant demons, worldshattering magic, environmental devastation, and that deepest and darkest evil: student loans.
So, they’re pretty much like real life! 1
Gladstone disregards many of the reason some go out of their way to set a fantasy series in medieval times. His series is set in a reality that is similar to ours and uses magic. As for technology, he chooses to go in the route where it’s not as developed since they have magic. The magic system is one of the most intriguing aspects of the book because of the way is it linked to the law. One cannot use magic without forming a contract with a god and consequently study law. As for the economy, instead of having money, their currency is “soulstuff,” as in they pay for everything with parts of their soul. Like many fantasy series, magic and religion are closely linked and they run society. As of right now, there are nine books set in the same world but they don’t need to be read chronologically since most of them are somewhat stand alone. For the remaining of the article, I will focus on the book that was first published Three Parts Dead.
What is glorious about this series is the way the world is built, as one reviewer explains
“The setting has elements of traditional fantasy lands but also more than a few hints of an industrial revolution: the city Alt-Coulumb is run on the steam and heat their god generates, so there are also very minor hints of steampunk… this is a world where industry is fueled by a mix of religion, magic and atheism. It’s set in a godly city in a godless country.” 2
A lot of the elements which made many feel as if fantasy best suits the medieval period is dismantled with Gladstone’s series. Even the influence of Tolkien isn’t evident. There is no chosen one, or an old sage who already knows how the main character should defeat their enemy but refuses to tell them. It also has a diverse cast, something that is desperately missing in a lot of mainstream fantasy novels. The two main characters of Three Parts Dead are women, the main protagonist is black. Across the series there are queer characters, transgenders, and people of various ethnicities and well-developed female characters. The ignorant argument that women weren’t important, that people of colour weren’t in Europe, and that no one was LGBTQ in medieval times, and so have no right to be represented in a medieval story cannot exist with this series. Not that it should exist in the first place since the argument is baseless, but that’s a post for another time. Placing a fantasy series in a modern era gives the possibility to have a more welcomed representation of diversity. This is not to say that a medieval based fantasy cannot be diverse, in fact, they should be, but unfortunately far too many aren’t because of an image that’s been built about what the medieval time looks like. With an urban setting, the author has all the liberties in the world.
By branching out into different timelines, as well as different cultures, authors are able to present a completely new perspective to their readers. There’s nothing wrong with being traditional, however, it will never push boundaries that are completely unexpected because there will almost always have a sense of familiarity. With a new time period to work with, authors can play with known conventions and warp them into something new or simply disregard it. It’s a challenge that can lead to something beautiful. The medieval period and fantasy genre will more than likely always be linked. However, that is not the limit of the genre. Exploring new settings can offer a completely different narrative.
What do you think? Leave a comment.