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.
I’ve always loved history; the story of our species’ activities, decisions and beliefs over the vast span of time and continent is riveting, compelling, and wonderful to know. Understanding history is essential to understanding art, literature, culture, and human beings in general. No artist, in my opinion, can be ignorant of history and successfully depict human societies in any real or convincing way. This is as true of the science fiction and fantasy author as it is of anyone else, perhaps more so, as they must frequently invent new history that, in their world, serves all the same functions as real history does in ours.
Few understand this or use it better than Tolkien. When Rohan rides to help Gondor, it’s a nice story; if you know of the relationship between Rohan and Gondor, their shared history, and their challenges, it becomes an even better story. If you know that Aragorn is the heir to Isildur, that’s fine; if you understand the significance of Aragorn as the last of a thinning bloodline that traces all the way back to the doomed kingdom of Numenor, the pathos of his duty and quest becomes that much more powerful. The Silmarilion, while not a read for everyone, establishes a mythic and historic baseline that colors the whole of Middle Earth; it has resonance in every song the elves sing, in every major conflict that develops, and in every cultural behavior of every people in that world. Even if you haven’t and don’t plan to learn about the history of Middle Earth, you are experiencing its power from the moment Thorin and company sing “Far Over Misty Mountains.”
For the rest of us writing fantasy or science fiction, we can take a lesson from Tolkien that is important to remember: Your world should be bigger than what happens on the pages. Just like you should know your characters like they’re real people, you should also know the history of your setting. All of this falls under David Eddings famous quote about writing 1000 pages about a world before you can write a story set there. This sounds like work, and it is, but if you’re a lover of history, it’s great fun, too. It’s an instance where you can take your understanding of history and try to apply some of those same concepts or, if you like, mess with them. It’s the most thorough kind of ‘what-if’ building you can do.
Take, for instance, the existence and study of magic – elemental forces contained within the fingertips of a special few. How does that change the course of history? What kinds of things does it result in or not result in? What kind of world is one where magic exists? I consider this pretty closely in my world of Alandar, which grows and changes with each passing year as I continue to flesh it out and establish its history. In The Iron Ring, my first novel set in the world, we visit the world almost three decades after the ages-long prohibition of free sorcerous study began to be relaxed. What was once a medieval world of simple people ruled over by the magical elite is beginning to shift. A middle class is being born. Sorcery is being used by the common people with greater frequency. Businessmen and entrepreneurs are taking the once-restricted arts of alchemy and thaumaturgy to new heights, a Reniassance of sorts is developing, and all of it goes back to a war. In this war there were pivotal historic figures (Landar Marik the Holy, General Conrad ‘Mudboots’ Varner, the Mad Prince Banric Sahand), famous battles (Atrisia, the Sack of Tasis, the Siege of Calassa), and events of contention still debated into the modern day (Who really killed Perwynnon? Why did Landar Marik abdicate? Did Banric Sahand really sign the Treaty of Calassa?). This, I hope, should give my world a sense of presence, of legitimacy, and of gravity. It lets me understand my characters better, and hopefully lets the readers understand them better, too.
The trick is, of course, finding a way to tell them about all this without boring them to tears. Some people, as you know, don’t really like history all that much. That, of course, is the ultimate challenge of the fantasist – to bring someone into a world without barraging them with facts like they’re studying for an exam. It is a challenge I believe I have done well at, but I could always do better. For inspiration, I need only gaze at the great world-builders: Tolkien, Martin, Herbert, Jordan. They are the framers of my own personal history, the teachers of myth that shaped my own understanding of the art, and beside whom I hope one day to be mentioned without sarcasm or irony.