Why is fantasy stuck in the middle ages?

Discussion in 'Fantasy / Horror' started by Riothamus, Feb 2, 2012.

  1. Riothamus

    Riothamus Registered User

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    I know that modern fantasy has been on the rise recently, but it seems like so much of it stuck in the middle ages. I know we have the romantic images of knights, and certain great works of literature come from that time period, but many of the legends that influence modern works of fiction come from before that time. So why is fantasy seemingly stuck in the middle ages?
     
  2. Loerwyn

    Loerwyn Staff

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    It's not?

    You could ask why is crime seemingly stuck in modern times?, why are romance novels always nauseating and ridiculous?, why is sci-fi so obsessed with space ships? and so on, and you'd be missing most of what's out there.

    Yeah, there are multiple series out there which are set in a mediaeval-esque world, whether it's Sapkowski's The Witcher (which is based on Eastern European mythology and so forth more so than the stuff Tolkien used), Jordan's The Wheel of Time or Moon's Paksworld books, but largely I would say fantasy has shrugged off those chains and gone its own way.

    We have Modesitt's near-steampunk Imager series, anything by MiƩville, the numerous post-apocalyptic fantasies that are kicking about and, well, even the Urban Fantasy genre itself. There's so much diversity out there, and you don't even have to look for it. Authors are continually inventing their own worlds, their own styles and their own histories. To suggest fantasy is stuck in one time period is to do a disservice to many of the great authors past, present and even future.
     
  3. Atw

    Atw Registered User

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    A lot of fantasy is still set in the middle ages. But to say it's stuck there isn't true. (In my humble opinion.)

    Some recent examples I've seen.
    The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson.
    A very western (Steampunk?) book, with revolvers and the like. Still grounded in fantasy of course.
    Twelve by Jasper Kent. I haven't read it yet (That will change soon.) but I understand it's set in the early 19th century.
    There's also a review on this site of Well of Sorrow by Benjamin Tate, which seems to be set in the American Colonial period.

    There are other books as well, but I'm not going to put a huge amount of effort into searching for them. Loerwyn brought up some excellent points, and aside from that there's examples like the ones I just gave.

    I wont disagree that there's still a lot of fantasy still in the middle ages, but it's got it's roots there, it is to be expected. I wouldn't be opposed to seeing a little more variance, it's true. But as I said, I think "stuck" isn't the right word.

    As for why it's there?
    My knowledge of the subject is by no means spectacular. But it seems it's almost always been that way, from early "fantasy" authors, through Tolkien to the present day. And what has come before is bound to influence what comes after. (Allowing for exceptions of course.)

    p.s. I just noticed Well of Sorrows is the book of the month in February for this forum as well.
     
  4. saintjon

    saintjon Illustrious Gambler

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    Couldn't have said it better myself.

    I'd like to add that Wheel of Time visually seems to be more Victorian than anything.

    Also there's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, The Age of Unreason, all kinds of stuff really. I've read some that were Renaissance flavoured (the one ground into my brain right now wasn't a great read though).

    Even if this weren't the case though if someone has a good story to tell in a medieval setting why not use that setting? Would the Kingkiller chronicles be that much better if they were a bit more Steam Age or a bit more Dark Ages? Doubt it.


    next paragraph has like a mild spoiler if you're real persnickety about that stuff. It seems so mild to me I'm not going to dignify it with spoiler tags though.

    Richard Morgan's Steel Remains had some medieval trappings and then took a wild detour into some 21st century type weirdness for a bit there (none of the characters who saw a dwenda could recognize their clothes as such but it sure seemed to me like they were wearing leather crotch rocket jumpsuits with matching plastic helmets)
     
  5. Pugio

    Pugio Resident Gadfly

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    A few years ago I got it in my head that it would be cool to base a fantasy setting around the American West. Like the Middle Ages, there's a lot of romance and mystique to the era, and it seems like a good opportunity to explore governments besides feudalism. Then I read The Iron Council and realized China Mieville was way ahead of me.

    Then I read The Dark Tower and realized Stephen King was waaaaaay ahead of me. :) Ah well, at least I know I'm on the right path. And it looks like Joe Abercrombie's next book is going to have some Western themes, so needless to say I'm looking forward.
     
  6. Riothamus

    Riothamus Registered User

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    Despite the existence of stories set in other times I feel I must use the term stuck, because it is by in large stuck there. Looking through the shelves of any bookstore, or anyone's list of favorite books, I can hardly find one that is not set in a middle ages type setting. I just ponder why, given then wide breadth of inspiration and information out there it is so.
     
  7. Pugio

    Pugio Resident Gadfly

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    I think part of it might be that a book with fantastic elements is more likely to be labelled as "fantasy" if it's has a Medieval-ish setting. If it's a fantasy in a futuristic setting like Star Wars, it could be regarded as sci fi. Or if it's a fantasy in a modern day setting, it could be regarded as horror, (or even magical realism) depending on the tone.
     
    Last edited: Feb 3, 2012
  8. Loerwyn

    Loerwyn Staff

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    I think your bookstore must be a little bizarre, then, and you can't really base your opinion on a list of people's favourite books as they might not like certain subgenres (say, steampunk) and as such they wouldn't appear on their lists.

    Is there a lot of mediaeval-era fantasy? Yes.
    Is there an equal amount of non-mediaeval fantasy, or at least non-traditional mediaeval fantasy (e.g. Sapkowski)? I would say so.
     
  9. Westsiyeed

    Westsiyeed The Fifth Dominion

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    Maybe there's a perception of an abundance of "medieval/middle ages" fantasy because of it's popularity on this forum and also in recent media such as GRRM's A Song of Ice and Fire series.

    Personally this is the sub-genre of fantasy that I generally steer clear of, but there is a vast range of fantasy authors that aren't in this sub-genre at all, and many have written my favourite novels - Jeff Vandermeer, China Mieville, Clive Barker, Jeffrey Ford, Jeff Noon, Neil Gaimam, etc. This is my kind of fantasy!
     
  10. Riothamus

    Riothamus Registered User

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    I dunno. I think the shelves of the university bookstore, local general bookstore, the borders (probably closed now.), and several others I've been through would suggest otherwise.
     
  11. JustaStaffer

    JustaStaffer Registered User

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    Maybe the better question would be, why do we (of the royal variety) buy more anachronistic middle age fantasy than other types?
     
  12. Jon Sprunk

    Jon Sprunk Book of the Black Earth

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    This. I was going to answer the OP with: because that's what sells. The industry doesn't dictate tastes; it reflects them.

    And as so many have pointed out, there is plenty of non-medieval fantasy out there.
     
  13. saintjon

    saintjon Illustrious Gambler

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    I don't think it's unfair to say it has been stuck there before but I don't think it is now. There's also all kinds of fiction that really hinge on fantasy elements but don't classify themselves as such. What happens as a result is a lot of people are fantasy fans without knowing they are because they think that it's JUST stories with knights, dragons and wizards and stuff.

    Like when I say "fantasy" I doubt Field of Dreams springs to mind but what could be more fantastic than a guy who hears a voice and ends up with a team of dead baseball players romping around in his cornfield?
     
  14. Pugio

    Pugio Resident Gadfly

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    Exactly, that's what I was trying to get at above. One could easily consider One Hundred Years of Solitude or Beloved as fantasy novels, but because they're set in modern(ish) times they often get considered as mainstream literature. Whereas we've been trained to think of "fantasy" as something that happens in a pre-industrial setting. Maybe that's because it's just easier to imagine a society with magic if the society isn't very technologically advanced.
     
  15. Danogzilla

    Danogzilla Couch Commander

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    Quite a lot of "traditional fantasy" is set in a Renaissance analog.
     
  16. algernoninc

    algernoninc Now I'm an axolotl

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    maybe it has something to with weaponry also. Machine guns and carpet bombing have taken all the fun out of fighting. Harrison Ford may be fun when he fights a double sworded sheik in the Cairo Bazaar, but there's nothing heroic or epic about getting mass slaughtered from a distance.
    Although some of the mages in fantasy epics are more dangerous than a H-Bomb :confused: , so my argument kind of defeats itself.
     
  17. saintjon

    saintjon Illustrious Gambler

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    Yeah but there's still everything before the American civil war left as fodder though (which I believe was the big debut of the machine gun and it's capacity for mass slaughter). I could be wrong there but it's about that time, early to mid 1800's, everything before that offers great fodder for less than modern adventure and warfare. I haven't read the book but the movie Last of the Mohicans had tremendous action scenes, all mobility and speed, rush to the next loaded musket, kill someone with it, move on. Found it very entertaining, certainly not a bad pattern for exciting adventurous combat at all. Plus a lot of these pseudo-medieval/renaissance fantasy settings aren't shy in the slightest to jump ahead a couple hundred years whenever someone gets on a boat for some good old-fashioned piracy fun. I know there have pretty much always been pirates but the stereotypical pirate we all know and love seems to me to have lived in a much different time.

    I think a lot of it just boils down to cool factor. Lots of people, myself included just enjoy reading about guys in armour with hand weapons trying to smash each other to pieces. Armour and heraldry when done right is pretty badass if you ask me and even though we have moved on in how we fight we can still see the influence of our armoured european heritage at lots of modern sporting events.
     
  18. hippokrene

    hippokrene Peckish

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    No Harry Potter? No Twilight? No Dresdan Files or 'True Blood' books?

    It seems odd that none of the favorite lists you read includes some incredibly popular series.
     
  19. hyperchord24

    hyperchord24 Registered User

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    I don't like that fantasy is either stuck in the middle ages or secretive if it takes place in modern times.

    I want to see Lord of the Rings with cell phones and cars and airplanes with dragons, elves and dwarves. But NOT make it a secret. I think this is largely due to what sells and that publishing houses are slow to change.

    A lot of what Steven King writes could be fantasy set int he modern world (but get labelled as horror). In fact, The Stand comes pretty close to a Lord of the Rings type adventure. No elves or dwarves, however.
     
  20. saintjon

    saintjon Illustrious Gambler

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    The Trashcan Man makes a pretty damn good Gollum substitute though.