Why is fantasy stuck in the middle ages?

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

  1. Eventine

    Eventine Uh, Staff Member

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    I think this is covered reasonably well in Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars books. Nothing else really springs to mind though.
     
  2. AmethystOrator

    AmethystOrator Registered User

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    I can understand that, but I would recommend that you keep looking for books/series where this is not the case. They are out there.

    For example, I've been reading (and re-reading) Michelle West's books set in the world of Essalieyan. There are two major cultures (and several smaller ones amongst those). While telling a very epic fantasy story, the author uses these cultures as a starting point to examine a number of societal elements, including the very different roles of women, the rich and poor (as well as slavery), religion, and how they deal with the question of whether or not people should be able to advance themselves by merit, or be limited based on the "stations" in life in which they were born. More than one religion is certainly dealt with as well.
     
  3. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    The symbolism of the street showdown is very powerful. In some stories, the goal is to replicate real life with the fantasy elements added in. In others, it's to resemble reality but in enhanced form, such as 1930's noir type patter dialogue which people never really talked like, etc. In other stories, it's an acquaintance with reality and then dream-like and symbolic imagery going into the surreal -- China Mieville's train track laying and ripping tribe in Iron Council, Alan Campbell's city of chains in Scar Night -- and in other stories, the goal is to wave at reality in passing. This is particularly likely in satires like Terry Pratchett's Disc World, which will have little bits of reality -- the value of a good cup of tea, social commentary digs -- mixed with utter ridiculousness and altered versions of our real world objects. Consequently, things from the Middle Ages, or more realistically, that we associate with the Middle Ages -- castles, warrior knights, blacksmiths etc., can be useful symbols whatever level of reality and history the author is using.

    They raid all the big European wars. Abercrombie I'm pretty sure you could say has tapped that vein. Martin as well.

    Again, that's a preference inclining towards replicating reality, which not every story is going to do. Regional homogenity in some stories is an aspect held deliberately static in order to play with certain symbols. Variety of language may be suspended in an imaginary world in order to focus on other things. I have, rarely, though, read fantasy novels where the cultures don't have religions.

    Again, we have a fair amount that is set in the equivalent of pre-Middle Ages culture but is often ascribed to the Middle Ages by readers incorrectly. A number of fantasy worlds, for instance, borrow a Roman Empire and Celts motif, which is pre-medieval. Jacqueline Carey's bestselling series, for instance, is one of those. The Celts, from whose mythology fantasy authors so often draw, did not exist in the Middle Ages. Instead, Celtic culture was largely a B.C. development whose languages and attributes then melted and merged into the Gaelic Irish and Scots and the Welsh and Cornish cultures in the Middle Ages. The Celtic Revival in Europe in the 1800's as part of Romanticism brought Celtic imagery, ancient texts, religion, etc. front and center and gave us our nice Celtic crosses, knots, etc. firmly in British/European symbolism. Palaces and fortresses existed before the Middle Ages, but if you have them, you're likely to be seen as writing in the Middle Ages. If you write about soldiers wearing breastplates, leather or metal, that's not necessarily Middle Ages either. If you have the equivalent of a Pope in your world, that office existed just before the Middle Ages. Attila the Hun and his Mongol hordes were before the Middle Ages, as were most of the barbarian tribes, and yet, we associate the barbarian tribes in secondary world fantasy fiction with the Middle Ages. China's dynasties and the first Chinese Empire were before the Middle Ages, yet if you have an Asian-like Empire in your fantasy world, it's likely to be ascribed to the Middle Ages, and so forth. Many of the attributes of the Middle Ages -- tunics, swords, cloaks, goblets, horses, etc. were not significantly changed from ancient cultures to medieval ones. So if you're writing about a world that is like the Byzantine empire, for instance -- which is quite popular for fantasy author raiding -- much of the culture is not medieval but it is likely to be seen that way. Essentially, the Middle Ages is our default understanding of pre-industrial fantasy worlds, but not necessarily their actual setting.

    Splintering happens a lot in fantasy. Katherine Kurtz's Deryni series, Bakker's Prince of Nothing, etc. In this thread alone, we've come up with say twenty bestselling series that aren't really matching these complaints just to start. Irritation with some novels is natural, but we're talking about thousands of fantasy releases, sixty percent of which are not secondary world and of the forty that are, numerous different kinds of novels. So as tempting as it is to cast a wide net on the basis of a handful of books read and a possibly incorrect analysis of book covers, it makes more sense to say that the Middle Ages are a popular setting for secondary world fantasy, rather than that fantasy fiction or one sub-set of it is "stuck" there.
     
  4. Atw

    Atw Registered User

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    I agree that there is plenty of fantasy set outside of the Middle Ages, I was simply saying that the two are equal more in terms of Middle Ages vs Not Middle Ages, (in this I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Not Middle Ages won,) rather than Ancient Greek vs Middle Ages vs 18th century. Though, perhaps, as you say, my judgment is blinded by misinterpretation.

    Not sure if all this is directed at me. But, I wasn’t implying I’m irritated by a world without splinter religion, or even of religion in general. I don’t think, for instance, that Joe Abercrombie even has religion in his books, that doesn’t stop me from loving them or the setting. And I completely agree with the notion that Middle Ages is a popular setting as opposed to stuck. Stuck implies we cannot move, but we can, currently both writers and readers deal with fiction outside of the Middle Ages, thus we cannot be stuck there. Some aren’t even there at all, and you can’t be stuck someplace you’ve never been.
     
  5. Pugio

    Pugio Resident Gadfly

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    Martin certainly has the desolation of war down pat, but I pictured the inspiration being closer to the War of the Roses or the 100 Years War, especially with its brutal chevauchée style of warfare. But I get what you're saying; even though Martin isn't writing about a period that has the same equipment or tactics as the 30 Years War, I could definitely see him drawing on themes from that era.

    I haven't made it far enough into The First Law to start seeing parallels with the 30 Years War, but you saying that definitely makes me want to keep reading! :)
     
  6. s271

    s271 Repudiated Ursus

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    IMHO on one hand it's mostly just momentum of inertia inherited from fairy tails and folk lore, which were frozen in Renaissance/later-middle age because they were recorder in that time and were replaced by printed literature later (in China, with long history of printing, there is no folk lore per se, almost all the folk tails are retelling of classical literature). On the gripping hand it's more easy to empathize with middle age protagonist than with ancient and prehistoric people, which had distinctively different culture and way of thinking.
     
  7. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    The First Law trilogy is built around religion -- Juvens, who is the equivalent of Jesus. It is, however, a religion that has been mostly discarded, given lip service, seen as a time of legends and the dangers of magic. Until Bayaz shows up. And there is the question of who is the real Judas and what has happened to the various people involved (who are virtually immortal.) Bayaz and his enemy in the South represent two splinter groups, and there is further dissension within groups. The Northmen have also their own religion with their own rituals in which they essentially worship fate.

    Usually, people in fantasy worlds have some form of a belief system which includes the creation or operation of the world, etc., and there's often dissent among belief systems. The religions don't have to replicate Earth ones.
     
  8. Starchaser3000

    Starchaser3000 Registered User

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    I see your point. But I think its pretty much a standard mainstay that fantasy settings take place in a time period similar to medieval Europe between the years 500-1500 A.D. Though it would be more interesting to have a fantasy world of the same type of caucasian humans, white complected elves and dwarves in a setting/culture more similar to a medieval middle eastern/asian culture for a change.
     
  9. Dandroid

    Dandroid New Member

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    Any recomendations?

    Not sure if this is the right thread to post this, but seems like you guys know alot about modern fantasybooks. I havent read this whole thread so if there are anyone who has posted books, i have missed them.
    Any recomandations on fantasybooks set to our time?
    I like Jim Butcher, but havent found any other books i like as much as his.
    I like dark fantasy, so any moderntime fantasy in that genre would be great to.
     
  10. AmethystOrator

    AmethystOrator Registered User

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    Hi Dandroid,

    Welcome to the Forum! I think that the best place to ask for recommendations is this thread: http://www.sffworld.com/forums/showthread.php?t=20845&page=40

    I like Dresden too. Another series that I think is similar, though less fun and more serious, is "Felix Castor" by Mike Carey. The first book is called "The Devil You Know".
     
  11. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    Try this thread:

    http://www.sffworld.com/forums/showthread.php?t=12100
     
  12. EMMAXIS

    EMMAXIS Registered User

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    This is precisely why I do not like to use magic in my fiction. If magic was a common thing in the Middle Ages, the Middle Ages would have looked very different.
     
  13. ebusinesstutor

    ebusinesstutor Star Gawker

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    Terry Brook's Sword of Shannara fantasy series is set in the future. And there are lots of urban fantasy series set in the present.
     
  14. Riothamus

    Riothamus Registered User

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    Ah, but magic is a fickle thing that only a select amount of people know how to use or have the ability to use. People also have limits. Furthermore,just because you have something does not mean you should use it to the point of excess. If you look at many real world occult scripts, sorcery has laws. What are the laws of sorcery in the fantasy universe in question?
     
  15. Grumbledook

    Grumbledook New Member

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    Personally I regard fantasy as being the middle ages, knights, peasants and the occasional dragon etc.

    Other stuff I don't really see as being fantasy, perhaps this is a massive stereotype from myself but its the stuff I like reading.

    I just can't envision stuff with mobile phones and other tech as being fantasy, that's the remit of sci fi in my eyes. Steampunk, vampires or anything else is also other genres from my point of view.

    The mistborn books I liked (well apart from the ending), though I'd still class them as fantasy and not far removed from medieval stuff, was still horses for transport and fighting with swords etc.

    So perhaps the answer is that books not in this kind of setting aren't really fantasy? Or I've just not read enough outside my viewpoint along this line...

    I'm open to suggestions of "fantasy" that is of a different tact to try and broaden my horizons.
     
  16. AZimmer23

    AZimmer23 Things Fall Apart

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    I'm with you on steampunk; that sub-genre, to me, is more retro-SF, relying heavily on Verne and Wells-style vision, but to disclude anything that doesn't have swords or horses or knights seems a little limiting. I'm not trying to be confrontational here, just my opinion.

    Are the Dresden Files not fantasy? You have magic, demons, people use swords occasionally, but it's set in modern day Chicago. It's urban fantasy, but it'still falls under the overall fantasy umbrella.

    The novel I'm working on and currently losing my mind over pre-supposes that magic and alchemy were wide-spread in the past, but were slowly choked out and gained obsolescence by the rise of mass religion and science and many magical creatures and lore passed into other realms. But the first atomic bomb test split the veil that separates this world from others. As a consequence, the folklore and peoples of the arcane realities were again accessible, and magic and alchemy again became forces, albeit still in the hands of the few. Cell phones, for example, contain both microcircuitry and alchemically purified metals. Is this still fantasy? I think so, but not in the sense by which you are defining it. Sci-fantasy. Okay, I've heard worse labels. But I am not a real big fan of pigeon-holing anything.

    As far as I'm concerned, much of Umberto Eco's fiction could be viewed as fantasy, including Foucault's Pendulum, which is set in the time it was written, the 80s.
     
  17. polishgenius

    polishgenius Registered User

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    China Mieville dude.
    Also Felix Gilman.
     
  18. Postaurch

    Postaurch Registered User

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    There are a host of examples and counter-examples speaking to why low-tech milieus historically dominated fantasy and is still a large segment of the market. I suspect it will remain a large segment of the market and largely be dominated by Anglo-European themes for some time, for no other reason that it IS an established market with an established consumer base.

    That said, it is clearly changing.

    There is a basic truism of any endeavor: any idea the casual thinker has about advancing the discipline (in this case moving out of the Medieval), is an idea well-trod by masters of the craft.

    Short version: the critique, while once valid, is now past its prime.

    Long version:

    Fantasy is often presented in a low-tech setting because that is the path of least-resistance – well-worn, familiar, and comforting to those seeking comfort – and this works for both authors and readers. It is easier for authors, in that it reduces the tension between the known and unknown in their world-building, and so reduces the need for complex cultural analysis and exposition. It is easier for readers, for the exact same reasons (all the various critiques around lack of action, pacing, etc.). It is basically an extension of KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid), and is a reliable formula for success, something attractive to publishers and retailers.

    Fantasy is also being presented in ways that explicitly challenge this trope. From Steampunk to Urban Fantasy, to alternate worlds splintering from our own, there are examples along the entire spectrum, from magic and technology co-existing (Modesitt’s Recluse and Imager), to magic replacing technology or visa-versa (Boyett’s Ariel), to anything goes (Zelazny’s Amber).

    Authors are creating worlds where magic IS responsible for the mundane, making technology superfluous (Brett’s Warded Man, Butcher’s Codex Alera), and make this point in their writings. Elsewhere, magic is rare but the dangers of the world are likely to periodically, in millennial cycles, reduce civilization to the basics (Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, Erikson’s/Esselmont’s Malazan). Elsewhere, magic is the province of the very few, and technology will threaten their hegemony (Zelazy’s Changeling, Elliot’s Spiritwalker).

    I suspect that we can’t come up with a specific trope pushing the boundaries of the traditional Fantasy framework (swords in high-tech, Magic in contemporary times, magic in far future, etc.), for which we can’t also find a specific example or counter example (Hebert’s Dune, Butcher’s Dresden Files, Piers Anthony’s Adept Series respectively).
     
  19. Teela Brown

    Teela Brown I'm lucky.

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    I didn't read every response in the thread so I apologize if I'm covering ground that others have already tread. I'll keep it short.

    It does often seem that many fantasy works are set in medieval-like time periods, however I'd have to argue that there are many more that are not. You don't even have to search out "current" authors to find it. Authors such as Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson managed to churn out some quite good (!) novels that blend fantasy and science into stories that are everlasting in the hearts and minds of readers worldwide, without bending knee to the idea that in order for it to be a good "proper" fantasy story, it must be set 500 years ago.

    I'd venture to say anyone who claims all or most fantasy is based in medieval settings is choosing their books based on the cover art.
     
  20. Riothamus

    Riothamus Registered User

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    Just t be clear, this is NOT a thread for recommendations in the slightest.