I now blog over at The Eyre Guide! This blog is an archive of my past posts.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Refined Reader (8) Medievalism in Fantasy

Posted by Charlene // Tags: ,

The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!

It is interesting to see that many fantasy stories use a medievalist setting for their world-building.  My understanding of fantasy as a genre usually means a story that has elements that does not exist within our known laws of the universe.  It differs from Science Fiction because something in Science Fiction could exist in our world (in the future), but in Fantasy those ideas are unlikely to ever exist.  For a genre that can literally embrace anything, why is medievalist folklore elements like dragons, chivalry, elves, etc, so popular?  After reading up on it, I don't think there is a definitive answer, but there are some historical circumstances that might explain this.

The early, very influential fantasy writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were Medievalist scholars.  Their works helped change how fantasy was viewed (with many thanks to earlier author George MacDonald) as a story that could take fantastical and magical elements to reveal something about the human condition.  And because they were so important to how people saw what makes up a fantasy, it makes sense that their inclusion of Medieval elements would persist in the genre.

Another possible reason is that Medieval world-building is an easy shortcut to create a different enough world to our own that can embrace the fantastical elements in these stories.  The lack of technology and the generally superstitious mindset of the Middle Ages is used to great effect.  People were not as advanced at that time, and that works better in a story where it is important for people to rely on themselves to make a difference in their world.  And the importance of personal achievement and accomplishment that features prominently in Fantasy was idealized in Medieval folklore.

The most simple reason I think is that because Europeans spread across the globe earlier and faster than other cultures, European culture dominated so that it was less likely that an Asian or African based folklore would take over the fantasy genre.  Maybe medievalism is popular in fantasy because it got there first.

Do you have some favorite non-medievalist fantasy stories? Do you feel you enjoy medievalist fantasy more than fantasies with other settings?

Wikipedia / Wikipedia
Approaches to Medievalism
Modern Medieval

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  1. Love reading your thoughts on this. I guess I never considered that fantasy books aren't really written in the present day - and certainly not high fantasy. I would say my favorite present-day fantasy is Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere!

  2. Krystal @ Books Are My ThingMay 5, 2014 at 9:26 AM

    I actually just wrote in my last review, A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn, how much I love medieval fantasy. There's just SOMETHING about the era that lends to the fantastical so well, at least for me.

  3. Neil Gaiman has wonderfully inventive takes on fantasy - I love the worlds he comes up with! He's a great choice and I enjoyed Neverwhere too! :)

  4. I think it is the same for me - fantasy feels more familiar in medieval times and I think European folklore appeals to me more than other kinds. But I do like it when fantasy writers change it up! :)

  5. I'm actually reading a post-apocalyptic book right now that's very medieval-ish... but it takes place in the future. These kinds of stories are interesting to me too, because you wonder how we could go from where we are now back to that kind of an age. (Though that's more science fiction than fantasy.)

  6. I love Medieval Fantasies. They are some of my favorites. You are right. It the no electricity and the little towns that make them wonderful. I have read some more urban fantasies like the Dresden Files. I really enjoyed it but I still prefer books that take place in medieval times. I also like these types of movies as well. This is also the reason I like to play D&D. It takes place usually in these towns that remind me of a Renaissance Fair.

  7. I LOVED reading this post! I've just always been fascinated by anything to do with the Middle Ages: knights, chivalry, quests, and all of that good stuff. It always makes me so happy to read a well done medieval-ish fantasy novel, like Throne of Glass, and, of course, The Lumatere Chronicles. :D

  8. Oh I usually think of post-apocalyptic books as science fiction - interesting to bring that and medievalism together! Science fiction and medievalism would be interesting - it doesn't seem like there are a lot of books like that out there!

  9. I generally don't find urban fantasies as captivating as other fantasies- I think because there is too much realism for my tastes. I like fantasies that take place is very different times. (Exception: Neil Gaiman) I've never played D&D, but watching those Community episodes where they feature them makes it sound like so much fun! But a lot of work. :D

  10. I do love that whole time period in stories - there is something magical about that folklore and it's more appealing to me than others. It must be because I grew up with it more, but I am always happy to read medievalist fantasies and pretty much all my favorites have that setting! The ones you mention are of course some of my top faves! :)

  11. Yes, very interesting take! I've never read anything else like it (that I can recall, anyway).

  12. Oh yeah... the game is a lot of work. Luckily I have never been a DM (Dungeon Master.. AKA person who leads the campaign). That does take a lot of creativity and time if you don't use a pre-made campaign. I should do a D&D post sometime!

  13. Ana @ Read Me AwayMay 6, 2014 at 10:31 PM

    As someone who really loves fantasy, this was a really nice post to read! :) I'm not sure if I enjoy medievalist fantasy over say, urban fantasy. I guess I love medievalist fantasy because it just feels so... Fancy? Haha! Fancy and new in terms of culture, at least.

    But one of my favourite non-medievalist fantasy series has to be Elements by Mia Marshall. It's urban fantasy, full of snark and wit, and the fantasy elements that I love! :D

  14. Definitely that's how I feel too! It's such an interesting time to read about! And I love the Arthurian legend too - it has such a great blend of magic and heroism!

  15. Ooh I think "fancy" does describe the medieval world very well! With all those Kings and Queens and castles! The royalty aspect does help make it more interesting to me!

    I have not heard of the Elements series! It looks interesting though - I love snark and wit in my books so I have to check it out!

  16. I definitely agree - Tolkien and MacDonald and Lewis influenced the fantasy genre in huge ways. I think also Hans Christian Anderson and Grimm did because there's a pretty strong link between fairy tales and fantasy (all three of the gentlemen mentioned talk about comparisons with fairy tales and their work). And the fairy tales all took place during sort of medieval times. So the setting sort of defined itself in those tales.

    And I think fantasy draws a lot from myth as well, which like fairy tales were told so long ago the setting lends itself to a more rustic nature.

    And I think part of it is this implicit aversion to technology. Maybe because fantasy writers want to separate themselves from science fiction. So, if your story doesn't include anything from the industrial age then a medieval setting is the closest, most familiar place to land. Anything with a hybrid of magic and technology is considered steam punk.

    Can you tell I'm a fantasy writer and have thought a lot about this :)

    Though I always wonder why more fantasy authors don't try to blend fantasy with technology in a very non-steam punk fashion. Like have sliding screens in castles that hide computers and also magic. That's a story I've wanted to write one day and just haven't figured out yet.

  17. That's such a good point about fairy tales! For some reason I had kind of separated the two in my mind, but it makes sense that fantasy should have progressed from fairy tales! It's interesting to think that fantasy writers don't want to use technology because it makes the story too much like science fiction - I can understand that it isn't easy to meld magic and technology - they can be too similar, but one has an explanation and the other just is and it is hard to decide where to draw the line. I hope you work your your non-steam punk fantasy ideas someday - it sounds really interesting! :)

  18. I think I love Medieval Fantasies because from a young age I've been intrigued by that time period, especially the time of Camelot & King Arthur. Medieval Fantasies give me everything I want and (usually) more, royalty, magic, dragons, ugh its so mystical and perfect!