Stuck In Time

Yup. Peasants. Peasants, peasants everywhere.

Yup. Peasants. Peasants, peasants everywhere.

What is it with fantasy novels and the Middle Ages? I mean, seriously, think about it for a second: you have a genre in which you can do anything, anywhere, with anybody, and where is it always set?

12th-14th Century England. Every damned time.

Don’t get me wrong, I like a good medieval fantasy world as much as the next guy, but it does get old. To some extent I need a break from knights and castles and monarchies and so on. I need something fresh. Something more exotic, with perhaps fewer old Europe overtones. There are authors who have done this, and done it well (Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World comes to mind), and those works serve to remind us that Tolkien didn’t set any laws about where we could go and what we could do in fantasy. Just because he pirated Saxon lore to make Middle Earth doesn’t mean you need to follow in his footsteps.

Of course, that doesn’t have to mean an abandonment of Europe as a whole. As much as we need more African, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Native American fantasy worlds (boy howdy, do we!), there is a reasonable argument to be made that fantasy literature is traditionally rooted in European myth and, as it is primarily marketed to Europeans, it seems reasonable that Europe and its reflections will remain a force to be reckoned with in the fantasy genre for a long time to come. Fine then.

So why does it need to be the middle ages all the time?

When I say ‘all the time’, I mean that literally. So many fantasy worlds are apparently frozen in a kind of permanent quasi-feudal society. It never changes, never grows, never evolves. Go back a thousand years in the world’s history, and they’re doing the same things – wearing the same armor, using the same technology, building the same kinds of places, farming the same kinds of stuff. Why is that? Are they just incapable of technological advancement? Are the people in that world just stupider than the ones in ours? Seems improbable to me.

The fantasy world should grow and change like our own. It should have shifts in culture and history and technology and religion, just like we have. It should change, and the way it reflects our world should change with it. Why not fantasy set in the High Renaissance? The Victorian Era? The 1950s? The Napoleonic Wars? The Ancient World? Why not have cultures based more on Renaissance Russia or 3rd Century Turkey?

The answer comes back to my old belief that fantasy novels are, at their heart, conservative. The fantasy genre is so often about the prevention of change, the preservation of the old in the face of the new. New is almost always bad in fantasy worlds. Change takes the form of conquerors and monsters, evil curses and world-shattering magic. The heroes, meanwhile, must dig up something ancient and powerful or listen to the counsel of the aged and the wise in order to prevail. Their victory is the preservation of the status quo or, perhaps, the reinstatement of that which was unrighteously usurped. Are we not all waiting for Daenerys to regain the Iron Throne? Do we not pine for the fall of the Old Republic and the doom of the Jedi? Are not the elves and old Gandalf the wisest voices in Middle Earth? Is not the existence of the Dragon Reborn proof positive of the cyclical nature of existence – nothing new under the sun, just the same old stuff come again? If the young save the world, it is not to remake it, but rather to restore it to the condition their forefathers maintained before them. There is always the attempt to return, to go back, to undo.

And yet we have the potential to explore so much more in fantasy literature. We can explore the repercussions of the new and the revolutions of thought and belief that go with it. We can shape a world that reforms itself, that learns from its mistakes, that leaves the past behind it and moves on to a brand new day. Perhaps this treads on the toes of science fiction too much – that has always been the genre of those who would look forward – but in an era where science fiction is increasingly obsessed with our society’s demise, maybe it should fall the fantasy to pick of the slack. Maybe fantasy can show us a way forward that science fiction, so tied down by the negativity of modern society, has forgotten how to find.

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on September 30, 2013, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I think it basically boils down to fantasy authors writing what they know and what they are interested in. And what they know and what they are interested in are ‘fantasy novels’, and not the history from which those novels took their cues.

    In order to adapt Chinese myth, Victorian, 3rd century Turkey etc. etc… you need the author to actually care about that time enough to create a fantasy world out of it. But to a man/woman… if you were to ask all of our current fantasy authors if they are more “D&D player” or “History buff”… I suspect you’re going to get many more responses for the former. And thus, it shows up in what they write about.

    • Which, of course, strikes me as problematic. It hobbles the genre, makes it ripe for re-imagining. Of course, there *are* authors who do some of the things I mention, but very few and they aren’t well known. I imagine they have trouble breaking through the wall of expectations held by publishers and editors who are looking for a quick return rather than a better book. It’s the same thing that has happened to Hollywood and its rows and rows of predictable, mildly-entertaining blockbusters.

  2. On the flipside, urban fantasy is very much on the rise–taking magic, elves, the supernatural, etc, and throwing it into the modern day. The Dresden Files is an excellent example of this, among numerous others. It may jump to mind because it’s often called paranormal instead of fantasy, or because they specifically call it urban fantasy, but regardless it IS fantasy meets modern day.

    And, I’d say, it often focuses more on change than on a return to a better norm.

    • I don’t know about that. The ‘norm’ is the regular world, and the vast majority of Urban Fantasy stories are about its maintenance. The ‘unreal’ must be separated from the ‘real’ to preserve (whatever). Hence you’ve got Buffy and the Watchers, Dresden and the White Council, Potter and the Aurors and Ministry of Muggle Affairs, etc..

      Urban Fantasy is an offshoot of true fantasy that primarily adheres to the same basic concepts, they just have the juxtaposition of the real world alongside. That’s why Dresden’s world doesn’t have magically-powered computer systems and Mr. Weasley can’t quite figure out how to operate a telephone.

      And let’s not imagine that the ‘real world’ in urban fantasy is presented as superior or even equal. For as much as Dresden talks about how powerful the regular people are, it’s just a bait-and-switch. We are tuning in to see Dresden use ‘real power’ against norms and enjoy ourselves when tough old Murphy is shocked at the kind of stuff Dresden deals with. Urban Fantasy, more nakedly than regular fantasy, idolizes the un-modern and ancient. It is arguably the only thing it does.

      • I don’t know about that. There are also a number of series out there where the supernatural is part of the regular everyday life for everyone. Or where the main character is often held back by others trying to stick to traditional ways instead of trying to embrace the modern world. I’d argue that’s often a problem in Dresden, even if the supernatural is still a secret from the world at large–he’s frequently aggravated and stymied by the Council or others being stuck in their own traditions, in fact.

      • Nevertheless, the world seldom actually changes. The setting is a more-or-less static environment. Even the war between the Council and the Red Court doesn’t change the universe by much. As much as Dresden is said to dislike it, he always returns to more-or-less his same life and same routines at the end of each book. Butcher is constrained to do that by his structure as much as anything else.

        And even still, that doesn’t really address my initial problem. Urban Fantasy is its own genre with its own series of stilted tropes and rigid traditions. They are different from traditional fantasy, true, but many of the themes in play are identical and the narrative rigidity of the genre is similarly problematic. One of my major problems with Urban Fantasy, specifically, is the fact that, unlike traditional fantasy (where the world is so often static and similar), Urban Fantasy is very plot-static. It’s almost always the same exact story, over and over (certain honorable mentions aside, such as Grossman’s The Magicians). You’ve got Character A who has supernatural abilities and he/she is engaged in protecting the regular world from Villain(s) B who are using their supernatural abilities for wicked purposes. Cue explosions, chase scenes, violence, done. Very rigid, very seldom deviated from.

        This is one of the reasons I generally prefer traditional fantasy over the Urban Fantasy environment, as the plots are so often more interesting and fulfilling, even if the settings are fairly staid and overdone.

  3. I too grow weary of Fantasy taking place in a version of Europe with a funny name in a perpetually Medieval epoch. And I have to agree with David, above. Most modern Fantasy writers seem to be former (or current) D&D/RPG Video Game fanatics taking something they love and making it their own. And there’s nothing wrong with that! In fact, it’s awesome. They might produce some great stuff… But Tolkien was great because he was putting a Faerie spin on stuff he was an expert on, which made for brilliant fiction. As the old adage goes: “Write what you know”.
    And as a side-note, it’s even worse when we start reading about events within the story’s history that happened so-and-so many thousand years ago. Really? That many years ago? And in all that time, not a single chemist? Not one mathematical breakthrough? Maybe I’m being a little too nerdy about this… But maybe that’s why I write. Haha! Thanks for this post– inspired me.

    • Glad it hit a nerve!
      I’m not saying that I hate the standard fantasy world–I’m a big fan. I’m just saying that the genre is (and perhaps always has been) in a weird rut. We, as fantasy authors, can do better, is all.

  4. This is probably one of the main reasons I don’t tend to read a lot of fantasy and generally prefer science fiction or alternative/narrative history. 😦

    Some fantasy do leave the classic setting (Earthsea comes to mind) yet it still contains the problems of anti-change as you state, I guess much fantasy stem from ideals of balance and harmony within a world, that evil forces try to dislodge for their own purpose thus the periods of peace and prosperity are portrayed as rather static but harmonious since the reason they are peaceful is due to them keeping to the good ol’ ways. Like David says the problem lies in fantasy writers not necessarily being that into history, or at least not enough to see what is really interesting about history: change.

    I quite like Avatar the Last Airbender as a good example of fantasy that does it quite different to the classic way: it is basically set in China, not Europe, it does contain a lot of harmony babble (the whole point of the Avatar) yet it is about keeping the harmony of the elements and that doesn’t mean stagnation but keeping the balance as the world changes over time (i.e. each Avatar has to fit his/her time) and it shows quite a lot of progress over time too, especially if you toss in the not-as-good sequel Legend of Korra. Sure, it still falls into a lot of the trappings of fantasy but it goes quite a long way in showing that more interesting fantasy can be done, especially considering it is a kids’ show.

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