Fantasy Books are Stuck in the Middle Ages

Image by SilentrageLeon

From Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings to Florin in The Princess Bride, the Middle Age is a favorite era for fantasy writers and world builders. Why? Here are three reasons.

The absence of machinery.

One of the primary differences between fantasy and science fiction is that when the extraordinary happens, fantasy says it’s magic, and science fiction says it’s science. The Industrial Revolution brought machinery—so it makes sense that fantasy writers often set up their own worlds in the Middle Ages or during the Renaissance, before all those automated gears ruined the effect.

While plenty of good fantasy novels take place after (and during) the Industrial Revolution (The Night Circus, for example), the Middle Ages has a certain mystery that can only come from that lack of machinery.

The sword.

Let’s be real—sword fights are the most epic kind of battle. Sure, you can describe an urban knife fight, a gun fight or even an inter-galactic battleship fight, but nothing beats the romance of a fight with blades. Even science fiction sagas such as Star Wars have worked a variation of sword fighting into their world.

Plus, most of us fantasy lovers have a secret wish to know sword craft, and reading or writing fantasy novels is the perfect way to indulge in that daydream.

The Faerie Queene.

What I really mean by the The Faerie Queene is tradition. Edmund Spenser published his epic poem in the 1590s, and the 1,000+ page story is full of gallant knights, virtuous maidens, questing journeys, hoarding dragons, and yes, epic sword fights.

The Faerie Queene was a sensation in Elizabethan England, and not only became a template for modern English literature, but reignited the tradition of telling legends and epics. The genre evolved to works like George McDonald’s Phantastes, which also takes place during the Middle Ages. Inspired by McDonald, Tolkien took over with Lord of the Rings and, well, you know the rest.

Of course, there are many good urban fantasy worlds (Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, etc.), and I’m seeing more novels that take place in Eastern culture. But as a whole, fantasy writers seem to like the magic of the Medievals best.