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Why do fantasy and medieval settings coincide?

Forums Fiction Research and Worldbuilding Why do fantasy and medieval settings coincide?

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  • #111681
    Michaela
    @mgtask

    Hi everyone!

    I’ve been wondering for a while…why do almost all fantasy stories/books have some sort of middle ages setting? I get that the medieval times are often associated with magic, but personally, I prefer to write low fantasy (or maybe it almost crosses the line into sci-fi). I’m just curious as to what you think: is the medieval fantasy setting overused, or is it used so much because it’s good?

    Thank you for your thoughts!

    • This topic was modified 1 year, 5 months ago by Michaela.

    "May it be mercy I show for it is mercy I've been shown." - Written to Speak

    #111684
    Katja R
    @katja-r

    @mgtask

    Hey Michaela,

    The most common answer is Tolkien. I found this in an article I read recently by Dominik C. Durst.

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

    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 world building, 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.

    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.

    Hope this helps you!

    -Katja

    If you think you are too small to make a difference, try living with a mosquito.

    #111806
    Eitan
    @eitan

    Hi @mgtask !

    I agree with @katja-r that Tolkien had a huge influence on fantasy, but Middle Earth isn’t that much medieval – it’s a combination of 19th century pastoral England, Northern mythology, ancient Europe, and Tolkien’s imagination. In fact, Narnia is much more medieval – knights, ladies, castles, hunting the white deer, feudalism, witches and evil Saracens 😉  (I have nothing against any nation or race, please don’t get me wrong!)

    I guess that fantasy is associated with the medieval because of the romantic era – the young national movements needed an epic national history. People started to return to the old stories and fairy-tales, and artists portrayed the past as magical, heroic and mysterious. Later in history, some lazy fantasy writers combined the generic fantasy races of Tolkien with the Romantic medieval, and created the mutation called ”Generic fantasy”.

    That’s my opinion, based on a general knowledge about the subject, I’m always open to change my mind if you’ll show me I’m wrong.

     

    Now, I think that a golden rule when dealing with cliches is:

    If it’s overused, it works.

    People love Generic fantasy, that’s why it’s so common – you just need to write it well. Be creative! 😀

    It reminds me of an excellent article I read in KingdomPen about the damsel in distress trope. I don’t remember the name, but search it in their site and you’ll find 🙂

    You don't need to see the wind itself in order to hear the rustling leaves.

    #111875
    Taylor Clogston
    @taylorclogston

    @mgtask Like the others said, it goes back ultimately to Tolkien.

    But it isn’t just because everyone picked up LotR at a young age and fell in love with it.

    LotR has its roots most strongly in oral mythological and folklore traditions, between Beowulf, Norse mythology, and German and European fairy tales. He wanted to create a mythology for the British people which he felt was lacking in the modern day, so Middle Earth is based loosely off a romantic, pastoral, reactionary ideal of epic Britishness. That isn’t a tradition most fantasy writers adopted.

    The fantasy spaces as we know them today boomed to life between the 60s and the 80s. From LotR came not only many close imitations such as Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, but most importantly to the modern day, the game Dungeons &Dragons, which was more or less an amalgamation of mostly Tolkien with strong influence from the early sword and sorcery genre, used as a fan-made expansion to the wargame Chainmail.

    From D&D came not only many fantasy novels, but also the roguelike and CRPG video game genres in the west, as well as the JRPG genre in Japan with Dragon Quest and, later, Final Fantasy. The CRPG genre evolved into the modern Western RPG with some of the most well-known video game titles of all time, such as the Elder Scrolls and Witcher series. All of these are super mainstream in the present day, and many people of the last couple generations were introduced to fantasy through them rather than through LotR.

    To double down on that further, in the 80s, Dungeons & Dragons and many facets of fantasy were persecuted by American Christianity in the Satanic Panic. I know people for whom even Lord of the Rings was considered a Satanic work in their households! An entire generation of kids grew a strong attachment to a genre that was not only escapist fantasy, but something their parents hated, giving them an even stronger bond with it. Today, that generation has grown up, has had kids, has inherited the entertainment industries. For decades, kids have grown up in families very fond of fantasy even if they dropped out of being particularly nerdy or literary people in general.

    The Peter Jackson LotR movies, being fantastic movies with absurd production value even divorced from their genre, made fantasy in general and LotR in particular a household name to an even greater extent than when LotR was still being published. Even people who don’t read at all in the US can probably tell you what a hobbit is. We even have an LotR Amazon Original series and online game coming out in the next few years, for crying out loud, and the Shadow of Mordor games sold pretty well during their releases only a few years ago.

    Since the 60s, fantasy has been a familiar escapist comfort for the average nerd, not so much because of the continuing amazing epic quality of the actual LotR books, but because of the endless derivation from and adaptation of LotR.

    To muddy things further, there is a second “main branch” of fantasy besides the very sterile sort Christians and homeschools tend to consume. I’ve talked to so many Christian fantasy fans who’ve only really read Lewis, Paolini, Sanderson, Tolkien, and various middle grade authors, unaware of the gigantic influence Burroughs, Cook, Howard, Le Guin, Leiber, Lovecraft, Moorcock,  Smith, Zelazny had on the genre over the decades.

    Not to mention Chesterton, Dunsany, Eddison, and Vance, even if they’ve actually read Chesterton. This is the branch most people actually write in these days, unless they’re deliberately aping the pseudo-King-James niceness of LotR in an attempt to get back to the good old days, unaware that Dunsany probably did it better anyway.

    I think I kind of missed the point of the original question. Maybe I subconsciously read into it an assumption that everyone’s been drawing from a pretty narrow source endlessly for decades, and a question as to why people put up with it. In which case my answer is “Not only was LotR itself loved so much it became a common language for fans of the genre from way back then all the way to today, but the genre is a diverse and eclectic environment and isn’t quite as inbred as it might look on the surface.”

    Because I conflated “medieval setting” with “fantasy in general,” which, yeah, I think completely missed the point XD

    I think the important thing to look at is “bygone age,” or some approximation of it, rather than medieval. It’s as often a pseudo-bronze-age, near-industrial, or post-post-apocalypse as it is “generic feudalism,” unless you look specifically at Tolkien clones.

    I do think @Eitan had it right when he said something overused definitely works. At least, it can be the familiar element readers expect you to combine with something new.

    But there’s also a huge space for atypical settings in fantasy right now, especially in non-European cultures. African and East Asian fantasy in particular have been on the rise for at least a few years now.

    Please forgive the lack of structure to this post. I’ve got a wicked headache but unwisely decided to weigh in while I had a bit of free time.

    "...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and Margarita

    #111883
    Katja R
    @katja-r

    @taylorclogston

    Thank you for explaining this. I did feel like my explanation was a little weak. 🙂

    -Katja

    • This reply was modified 1 year, 5 months ago by Katja R.

    If you think you are too small to make a difference, try living with a mosquito.

    #123737
    Skylarynn
    @skylarynn

    I always assumed ‘high fantasy’ and ‘medieval’ were intertwined because it was a time when people were much more superstitious and didn’t have science to combat beliefs about how the world and gods worked.  That and people were often inspired by D&D.  LotR never struck me as all that medieval, nor did Lewis’s Narnia actually.  LotR read like a tome found in the back of a monastery (which I’m pretty sure actually was the intention given the series exists in-universe as the Red Book of Westmarch if I remember rightly).  Narnia meanwhile is a fantasy realm that exists in the closet of a home more modern than the 1400s.

    In my own writing the time period may come across as medieval but I’ve mixed rather a lot of things into it.  I love the (romanticized) medieval period (and the Renaissance) personally because everything was hand crafted and there was rampant symbolism and hidden meanings in almost everything.  If you wore a dress dyed ‘true black’ you weren’t going to a funeral, you were quite wealthy.  I chose the mainly medieval period for my story because I could dump in the many layers of symbolism and cultural significance into to world for the purposes of symbolism and foreshadowing and just creating a much richer world.  I want it to feel real and lived in and as diverse as our own world.

    "Remember, you go nowhere by accident. Wherever you go, God is sending you." - Rev. Peter R. Hale

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