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.”

Magic and demons were common themes in medieval art

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.

One of the conflicts that inspired A Song of Ice and Fire

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.

Tara Abernathy, protagonist of Third Part Dead

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.

Works Cited

  1. “The craft Sequence.” Max Gladstone, https://www.maxgladstone.com/series/the-craft-sequence/
  2. Tilahun, Naamen. “Three Parts Dead mixes magic with courtroom drama.” io9, 14 nov.2012, https://io9.gizmodo.com/5960620/three-parts-dead-mixes-magic-with-courtroom-drama.

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33 Comments

  1. Digna
    0

    I’ve recently created a low fantasy world that relies more on social standing than it does the spectacle of magic. I haven’t even decided if I want magic in any form to be part of it at all.

    The story is more about down trodden knights (who are seen as no more than mercenaries) trying to find themselves. To them magic are the muskets a far eastern country have recently invented.

    What medieval fantasy worlds are you all building?

    • ESCALATORS
      0

      I really, really, REALLY want to write stories for a world following its chronological progression, from its earliest prehistoric era right up to the time that someone discovers the atomic bomb, trying to focus more on the realism aspect rather than the fantastical. Unfortunately I have a hard time figuring out which direction to go with that, especially considering I have half a dozen other worlds and projects I want to do at the exact same time.

    • Kassandra
      0

      The world I’m building is pretty realistic.

      The world is medieval, grounded in 1300-1400 during the period in which I place my stories, but the history itself doesn’t feature any kind of medieval stasis: culture and technology evolved exactly the same way they did in our world.

      I think the best real counterpart for my world is the work of Sapkowski (The Witcher).

  2. Chantelle
    0

    I like enjoy medieval worlds because the scarcity of science and technology increases its value and the power it brings.

  3. Caraballo
    0

    Nerds really love medieval fantasy, why? Is it escapism?

    • Stephan
      0

      As a nerd myself, I don’t agree to the notion that nerds like fantasy because the real world is hard on them and they want to escape to a world of chivalry. That wouldn’t explain Game of Thrones – a depraved world where anything remotely good is snuffed out right in the bud and where bullies and monsters win all the time by playing nasty. And for that matter, lots of nerds have remarkable success in the real world too. And even they like fantasy because the real world is just not cool enough.

    • Antione
      0

      Well… until the day two suns rise in the west and a king marches from the east with flying dragons lighting up his path, the nerds will keep the torch of adventure alive and burning by fantasizing about hobbits and dragons and knights and elves.

    • Cherlyn
      0

      I’m sure the escapist and wish fulfillment elements are a part of it.

    • This is a fairly complex question. While Medieval Fantasy has classic archetypes and story arcs that people like to experience over and over again, I think it really serves as an easy stepping stone for authors to tell new stories.

      All Medieval Fantasy stories dip into a well of collective understandings (shared aesthetics, archetypes, settings, etc.) to colour their narrative. People have pre-built expectations and reactions to things they enjoy in the genre (sword-play, epic music playing alongside a horse-riding montage, brave heroes coming together to face impossible odds) and that lets the author use those tropes to tell their own unique tale.

      I’d say that less memorable works are those who try to simply replicate stories and worlds. The most successful fantasy stories (like the oft-mentioned A Song of Ice and Fire series) are those that get people on board with comfortable tropes and conventions and then tell a unique and interesting story with it. People are looking for new and interesting characters, humour, narrative moments, ideas, etc. and if those things come coated in a paint you enjoy, then they’re easier to get into then if they came without.

      Fantasy fans aren’t actually looking for the same characters, world, and story over and over. For an analogous example, take those who enjoy the British Regency period (reading novels like “Pride and Prejudice” and “Jane Eyre”, going to modern ballroom dances, etc.) or stories set in the Wild West. They aren’t looking to escape to those worlds (both are acknowledged as objectively worse in almost every way compared to the modern day), nor are they looking for the same story and characters every time. These genres are capable of instilling very real, human emotions and giving audiences something they’ve never seen before.

      In a funny way, like the author above displayed with their endorsement for the Gladstone series, the key to being a successful Fantasy story comes more from how creatively you twist the conventions and expectations of the genre, rather than trying to keep as much as possible from other works.

  4. A good essay. An interesting way of looking at the past and fantasy mixed.

  5. Shamika
    0

    I am a sucker for this genre. Fantasy settings are exotic enough to create a degree of detachment from my day-to-day reality, yet detailed enough to indulge my desire for ‘digging in’ and gaining mastery.

  6. Sol Kuhn
    0

    Medieval fantasy stories are downright romantic. Many glorify knights, codes of honor, righteousness and saving fair maidens.

  7. Ivette
    0

    The thing that feels so appealing about most fantasies, but especially the ones of the medieval variety, is the simple bisection between good and evil.

    • Jeane
      0

      So true. Sauron is bad. Frodo is good. Good may have several shades, but you know who to root for and who to hate.

    • Quinn
      0

      Yup! Even in A Song of Ice and Fire, one of the more morally ambiguous popular fantasy series, still posts the conflict as good versus evil. For the most part, the Starks are the ones that we root for. They may not always do the most correct thing, but they always mean well. For the most part, we hate the Lannisters, these evil, incestous prats, even if some of their motivations are purer than we’d expect.

    • I actually believe that the binary between good and evil is one of the things I hate the most about fantasy stories. I much prefer a morally grey area because the world isn’t black and white. The best slnarratices in my opinion are those where the antogknist isn’t only evil for the sake of being evil but is someone that we can see and agree with their opinions to a certain extent

    • Alecia
      0

      Sometimes, it’s nice to escape into world where the good and right wins, not the bad and dark.

  8. Dylan
    0

    The world created by J.R.R. Tolkien was rich, wonderful, and appealing.

  9. Hortensia
    0

    I think that one of the things that I feel like the genre is failing at is relying too much on our world for inspiration. Things tend to be European and noticeably like the myths from our world. I don’t think I realized this was an issue for me until I read Mistborn where everything is a made up creature and there’s no dragons or elves and the magic is simple, but interesting.

    • Salley
      0

      I completely agree.

      I think the hardest thing for some people is realizing that their medieval fantasy does not and should not look like OUR medieval period.

  10. gasss
    0

    I tend to feel that the medieval fantasy cliche is a very useful one, mostly because it’s so familiar.

  11. Augusta
    1

    One of the main gripes I usually have with Medieval Fantasy is that stories are not grounded in the real world well enough. The only series of MF I have genuinely enjoyed is ASoIaF, because Martin does an excellent job of making his world believable when he can. Place names are interesting, but not so exotic they make me think “This is a Fantasy story”. When characters are injured, they stay injured, and the plot is mostly borne of the characters’ decisions. Moreover, aspects like the wars, massacres, and maneuverings that so define the series for many readers/viewers are based on real historical events.

    Basically, it boils down to a sense of authenticity, which I feel is important for something set in a Medieval-ish place/time. Even if all the buildings are castles, keeps, and cottages, it won’t feel right if it doesn’t feel authentic.

    • lupic
      0

      It sounds like you’re a fan of low fantasy over high fantasy.

  12. Miss Healy
    0

    I love Tolkien. His works were massively influential and created a world so rich that it could (and has) served as a quick, cheap, and easy basis for countless others.

  13. Sharla
    0

    Medieval fantasies has become fairy tales for early adulthood (and mature adulthood as well).

    • Mitsuko
      0

      The child in all of us loves a good fairy tale.

  14. Julienne
    0

    I like this kind of story because it takes relying on technology out of the equation. without magic or technology, a leader must rely on his wits and creativeness, seizing whatever advantage he can, be it a beneficial weather event, a critical enemy mistake, and make it his own to conquer new lands.

    i know that people do this nowadays WITH technology, but it feels more important when one mistake can relieve you of your kingdom, or crush your entire army.

  15. Luise
    0

    I am tired of the all-too-common plot line of a person from humble beginnings who eventually defeats a powerful villain.

  16. Apryl
    0

    The Common theme across all these medieval creations is the rich scope they offer for exploration. I feel other conventional movies and books require just a passive role from the viewer/reader.

  17. This discussion reminds me of the Western genre, which was also constructed as a web of tropes, all based on a romanticized period of human history. Many elements of the “Wild West” as the genre depicts it were born more out of dramatic depiction than history, and yet so many of its conventions are as iconic (and historically inaccurate) as Medieval Fantasy.

    A key difference of course is that Medieval Fantasy generally depicts a world that is not our own, whereas Westerns are set on Earth and expected to only bend the laws of reality slightly for heightened drama and narrative enjoyment.

    That being said, it would be interesting to see how Medieval Fantasy has changed the way people view the Medieval time period, and what constructed tropes people take as historical record, in the same way the Western genre has come to dominate our collective understanding of the Wild West historical period.

    • You should definitely check out Brandon Sanderson’s Alloy of Law books, the second trilogy in his Mistborn series. He has a very intriguing way of blurring fantasy, scifi, and western genres in the way he carries his magic and politics throughout the series.

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