View Full Version : Medieval Setting in Fantasy
March 26th, 2007, 08:46 AM
So my new thread for the week (sort of) is to discuss the medieval setting in general that most fantasy novels rely on. Granted there are different perspectives from different authors, but largely the medieval setting is relied heavily upon in most period fantasy.
I would classify the medieval time in the novels as pre-enlightenment (and I am not an expert on the true historical facts about real history), but typically you will have a King, a Kingdom (Monarchy), a few large cities, small backward villages, agrarian way of life, not as much industry or "high" technology, edged weapons (maybe gunpowder), you get the idea.
What I propose would be a medieval society with some advancements of enlightenment and a larger business focus to the world. I would keep elements of medieval society such as the predominant farming culture, edged weapons (no gunpowder), but I would have larger Towns/Cities, required Tax offices and official Record keeping offices in each Town. A King/Kingdom, but the King is responsible to a "board of directors" or advisors, and follow the idea through in that manner.
March 26th, 2007, 11:27 AM
So my new thread for the week (sort of) is to discuss the medieval setting in general that most fantasy novels rely on.
A major amount of fantasy fiction does not employ a medieval setting at all, but a contemporary one. Period fantasy is historical fantasy, and the bulk of historical fantasies -- those set in our actual history -- don't employ a medieval setting either.
What you are talking about are secondary world fantasy novels, where an imaginary realm or world is created. Most of these novels -- a major sub-sect of fantasy fiction -- employ a pre-industrial setting, with a favoritism for medieval style over ancient cultures. The medieval period in history is roughly years 1000-1500 A.D., after which you get into the Renaissance and things like gun powder.
If you want to create an imaginary world based on the medieval time period, there are lots of sites on the Web that offer research information, and we probably have a few useful threads here in the archives for the Writing Forum. You can run a search for them (see Search command up above.)
March 26th, 2007, 03:32 PM
What you are thinking of, I think, are books in a pseudo-medieval setting, since the actual historical medieval period did have all those things you propose as innovations: large towns, taxes, official record keeping, parliaments or other bodies that took part in the business of government, and much else that doesn't tend to turn up in the typical medieval-style fantasy world.
Although there are authors who do indeed include these things, Judith Tarr being an example that comes immediately to mind.
March 26th, 2007, 05:31 PM
Fantasy worlds (especially the secondary kind) can be whatever you want them to be!
The defacto default secondary worlds that many fantasy authors end up working in are based on some variations of these by no means exhaustive 'conventions':
1) That there will be some form of royalty and noble class.
2) The world will have a medieval European 'flavor'.
3) That magic will replace 'technology'.
4) That religion will exist, but not necessarily the Catholic Church, per se.
5) That there will be guilds, merchant caravans, knights of some sort, and dragons (of some sort--really I should say there will be some form of Terrible Monster).
6) That there will be some other humanoid race that will provide fodder for the heroes to slaughter without remorse (ie goblins, orcs, etc).
7) That there will be a character who has tremendous, but often unexpected (although sometimes prophecied) potential for magic, but will have discover how to manage, control, or learn it.
8) That there will be a non-human race of creatures that represents some higher human trait(s).
9) That the common weapons and armor will be similar to European medieval versions of the same names.
This list could go on for a very long time.
These conventions are very useful in that the author can reference something without having to explain it all. But they can also be quite limiting and almost too familiar.
I've enjoyed books that have used these conventions heavily and others that have thrown them to the wind and created something entirely new.
aka Agent Rusty Bones
March 26th, 2007, 09:21 PM
Modern fantasy is deeply rooted in the Nordic Sagas and the romantic tradition (Arthurian legend and the like). These stories were popular during the Middle Ages and the settings were largely contemporary (even supposedly ancient tales abound with anachronisms). As a result, it's only natural that a great part of fantasy has medieval or pseudo-medieval setting.
As Madeline noted, these things many fantasy stories lack weren't lacking in the Middle Ages at all. There's been taxes as long as we've had civilization, maybe longer. There were plenty of large towns, relative to the overall population, that is. As for the King having to answer to others, the Magna Carta was signed in 1215 and it wasn't the first of its kind. Actually, the so-called "absolute monarchs" didn't really develop until after the Renaissance. If you want a real medieval feel, you'd have kings whose authority precariously hangs by the sufferance of his squabbling vassals. Even more so, you'd have mere petty kings little more than tribal chieftains. There's a lot of variance, too. England was vastly different from France from the Holy Roman Emprie, from Norway, etc. There's a wealth of interesting info out there if you're willing to look for it.
And as Rusty says, your world (if you're not using our lovely terrestrial ball) operates under whatever rules you set. You want steam-punk vs. Mongol hordes on horseback? You can have it! You have the power.
Of course, you can set a fantasy story whenever you want (and you're by no means limited to the scope of human history). If you're willing to describe magical realism as a sort of fantasy, then the modern world is your playground. You can complain about el pulpo or how Pinochet killed your uncle (without naming names, of course).
Anyway, convention exists as a shorthand for the audience. Refer to my comment on the "Original or Clone" thread. You can take advantage of convention, either utilizing it strictly to quickly get things across or bending and upending it to play with the readers' expectations. The world is your enchilada.
March 28th, 2007, 06:27 PM
my advice is to stray away from traditional fantasy settings and build your own. it's waaay more fun that way anyways. trust me on that. but it's your world, your ideas. that's the beauty of fantasy writing.
March 29th, 2007, 04:18 AM
One thing that I don't understand about the "typical fantasyworld" is the number of people that can fight. Almost all armies in fantasybooks are gigantic and the few small farms doesn't seem to be enough.
March 29th, 2007, 04:31 AM
A lot of countries have armies made up of conscripts, with a small professional body of senior non-commissioned members and officers at its heart. The volunteer professional army is a relatively modern concept. In the past, conscripts were often pressed in to service to bulk up the army, providing it with enough bodies, many of whom would be used as "cannon fodder."
Farms would be hard pressed to stay active if the ablebodied were pressed into military service. I don't see why a fantasy setting would be much different.
March 29th, 2007, 08:36 AM
Out of curiosity, how many fantasy writers here are using the "typical" fantasy setting. Bones' list is a good place to start in thinking about that. In my major fantasy setting, I've hijacked a great number of real-world cultural models for the humans. There's areas that are like the Iroquois Confederacy, Incan Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the pre-colonial African Kingdoms, the Antebellian South, Revolutionary America, pre- and post- Khanate Mongolia, China, Ancient Indochina, the Moghul Dynasty, Polynesia, Aboriginal Australia, and of course Europe (Roman, Medeival, Rennaisance, and Industrial). I'll stick with the "European" section for comparision to Bones' list. Let's see how cliche it is :) :
1) Nobility, yes, throughout its history, because even a fantasy world needs a Lord Tennyson.
2) Medeival flavor to the world, at times and in certain locations, as mentioned.
3) Magic and Technology co-exist. The arms race between magic and firearms was rather interesting.
4) Yes, Virginia, there is a god, or several. Though one of the nations are on an antitheistic crusade to fix that.
5) There will always be someone trying to sell you something, and frequently a guild or union for those people to hang out. There were knights at various times, but have largely been disbanded as a fighting force. Terrible Monsters are hard to come by in "Europe," except in the far western frontier, which would correspond to the wilds of Russia.
6) No cannon fodder species. There are "goblins" of a sort, but they are highly regard members of the people-who-want-to-sell-you-stuff, and rumored assassins though that's never been proven.
7) Hm, this one is tricky. I was going to say "There are people who are believed to hold such potential, but that doesn't make it true," until I remembered how magic work, and in fact, that might make it true. The world has a way of course-correcting in favor of strong beliefs. Though if the person who would be receiving such power is skeptical that would muck things up too. I'll have to consider how this situation works. Sounds like potential fodder for another story.
8) Just like the goblin-like guys are not a lesser race, there's no species to represent a higher race, except perhaps the spirits/gods if we use a loose definition of "race."
9) Common weapons are European: swords, halberds, cannons, muskets, etc.
Any others, AgentRustyBones? This was kinda fun. How do you others compare?
March 29th, 2007, 09:57 AM
1) That there will be some form of royalty and noble class. - Yep
2) The world will have a medieval European 'flavor'. - Nope
3) That magic will replace 'technology'. - Nope
4) That religion will exist, but not necessarily the Catholic Church, per se. - Yep
5) That there will be guilds, merchant caravans, knights of some sort, and dragons (of some sort--really I should say there will be some form of Terrible Monster). - Nope
6) That there will be some other humanoid race that will provide fodder for the heroes to slaughter without remorse (ie goblins, orcs, etc). - Nope
7) That there will be a character who has tremendous, but often unexpected (although sometimes prophecied) potential for magic, but will have discover how to manage, control, or learn it. - Nope
8) That there will be a non-human race of creatures that represents some higher human trait(s). - Nope
9) That the common weapons and armor will be similar to European medieval versions of the same names. - Nope
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