Why Is Fantasy “Stuck” In Middle Ages?

A story about a boy who wondered in front of a Fantasy bookshelf.

Art by Robin Tran

A little boy named Johnny ravages through the public library. He sees a ton of books with boring titles and even more boring covers. He strolls and strolls, and just as he was about to quit, he sees a section labeled “Fantasy”.

“Fuck yeah,” Johnny whispers at the sight of all the swords, armored men and thunders coming from old men’s hands.

With his fingers still greasy from chips, he digs through the books and picks the ones he likes the most. Soon, Johnny realizes he made a pile of books so high the librarian gives him awkward stares.

He puts the last book down on the pile. “J.R.R. Tolkien — The Fellowship of the Ring” screams the title. Even though he’s not sure where, he’s heard of this Tolkien guy before. So he decides to read that book first.

It takes him a while, but the moment he finishes it, he’s hooked. And there are endless similar books he knows he’ll enjoy.

Johnny walks back to the library and picks another one.

After a dozen of years, Johnny grew up. New things came to his life, old ones vanished. He finds himself in front of the fantasy shelf again and he wonders why are new fantasy books still set in Middle Ages. And then he asks himself why he still enjoys them.

In most of us fantasy readers, there is a little Johnny. And I’ll try to explain why he wonders.

0. Not All Fantasy is Medieval

At first, to get things clear, we all know fantasy doesn’t have to be set in Medieval Times.

Popular books like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods aren’t set in a Medieval world and most people would agree to place it on a Fantasy book-shelf.

But here we’re going to talk about the vast majority of fantasy worlds, and they’re, without doubt, set in Medieval Times.

Now, when we made sure every fantasy nerd is calmed down, let’s begin with a place called Shire.

1. Tolkien, Tolkien and more Tolkien

A lot of fantasy readers first traveled to the legendary world of Hobbits, Elves, Orcs and such.

Even though little Johnny started with Tolkien, it doesn’t mean he was the only one writing the genre so early.

Books like The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and all the way back to Cervantes and his parody in Don Quixote came before or were written during Tolkien’s time.

We can list many more names here, but that’s not the point. Because no matter how many of them wrote “fantasy”, and no matter how popular they were (are), it won’t change Tolkien’s ifnluence.

J.R.R. Tolkien is a big name in fantasy and there’s a good reason for that. Even today, a hundred years later, writers are still influenced by Tolkien’s imagination and worldbuilding. And if you don’t like Tolkien’s writing:

Tolkien set standards for fantasy tropes and cliches which are still used up to this day.

2. The Cliches

What was it that drew Johnny to the Fantasy shelf? Although this might be a questions for psychologists, I like to think of it as a set of setting elements. He stared at the book covers and read the synopses. He liked the locus and discourse of fantasy settings: lot of swords, kings, assassins, etc.

And that’s what we can consider cliches in Fantasy.

But is it a good thing? Is it bad only because there is a “cliche” label stamped over it?

Would you find love affairs weird in romantic novels? Would you find crimes misplaced in thrillers? Do you question fascination with lasers and spaceships in Sci-Fi? Do you find sex scenes odd in erotic novels?

All these cliches are specific to a certain genre. And there’s nothing wrong with using particular elements common to some genres.

One of the most common elements in the fantasy genre is the Medieval world. Even though it’s not a rule, it sure carries a certain weight, a mood fantasy readers like to face while roaming the fictional worlds.

Which leads us to…

3. Fantasy Tropes vs Fantasy Worlds

In the non-official definition of fantasy worlds, which can be described as a tolkienesque world with fixed setting and plot rules we can say a lot of fantasy stories follow, there is something that surpasses the setting boundaries.

The tropes — fantasy tropes.

And why do I mention them? Because a lot of non-fantasy settings use the same tropes to build plots and characters. The most mainstream example would be the Star Wars Saga. Even though it’s placed in future, in a space-colonizing culture, it uses a lot of fantasy tropes.

Specific type of worldbuilding, battle between good and evil, mysterious and royal-blood characters, dark lords opposed to morally straightforward “good” characters. We’ve seen these tropes in thousands of stories.

Why?

Short answer: It works.

Note: I’m not going to talk about how this tropes changed the last few years. You can see about the changes in my blog Grimdark Checklist: 6 Gritty Points With Something Extra.

If we dissect the tropes to details, we find they consists of smaller elements that rule the fantasy world. Such as…

4. Technology and Its Impact on Fantasy Worlds

The fact that today we know what mankind capabilities and advancements are, puts us, the readers, in a superior position when reading stories set in Medieval Times.

On one side, it’s more interesting seeing characters finding their own solution to problems, and on the other side, it puts the advanced species in a better position.

There are no nukes or laser rifles to control the battlefield. The battling sides need to rely on what they have which makes things more interesting.

Which opens room for magic to be superior both in battlefield and in everyday situations.

Art by John Dowson

And then we realize that magic in fantasy is just a form of technology — it helps, it destroys and can drastically change the course of the story and affect worldbuilding.

Here, the purpose of magic is to surprise the reader, just as advanced technology can surprise us today. And since there’s no “advanced” technology in the Dark Ages, there’s a lot of room for magic.

Opposed to these elements, we can talk some more about familiar ones.

5. Why the European Middle-ages?

Even though it’s common, Medieval doesn’t necessarily imply European Middle Ages. But why is it customary?

Short answer: Western readers in general are more familiar with the European setting.

There are popular novels such as Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay, which is set in Medieval China, or The Chronicles of Sword and Sand by Howard Andrew Jones, set in ancient Arabia. But there’s no doubt that non-European Middle Ages are in minority opposed to European ones. The purpose is to see these settings exist, but aren’t nearly as popular.

In the end…

…we realize we’re all Johnny. Maybe our fingers weren’t greasy and maybe we didn’t reach for The Fellowship of the Ring first, but all of us enjoyed some fantasy set in the Dark Ages.

By reading and writing that kind of fiction we keep the genre breathing. And that’s the true beauty of Fantasy.


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