Can you discuss the fantasy genre without mentioning medieval history?
That’s unlikely, particularly in a Western context. The fantasy genre uses many medieval motifs, ranging from inns and taverns to knights and chivalry. Those familiar with Lord of the Rings, arguably the highest point of medieval fantasy, will draw similarities between Tolkien’s text and Beowulf, and other legendary Norse sagas.
However, it’s not just Tolkien that uses medieval fantasy. Authors ranging from George R. R. Martin, Robin Hobb to Terry Pratchett use medievalism. Shows such as Merlin have medieval backdrops, reminding viewers that the magical is often aligned with the medieval.
This is mostly Anglosphere fantasy literature. But interestingly enough, there has been a pushback against ‘medieval fantasy.’ I visit many writing forums, and many lists ‘medieval fantasy’ as a cliche. Some literary agents have even discussed fatigue with medieval fantasy.
This makes sense, as the selling point behind blockbuster authors like George R. R. Martin is the medieval-esque setting. As Game of Thrones proved popular, and with the long-standing success of Lord of the Rings, publishers catalogued medieval fantasy.
It’s easy to see why some readers, authors and publishers are tired of ‘medieval fantasy.’ Yet I’d argue that there is more to ‘medieval fantasy’ (and the Middle Ages) than crowded taverns and sword duels.
The importance of the Middle Ages
Many historians disagree on when the Middle Ages started and ended. For the sake of this article, the medieval is defined as between the fall of the Roman Empire and 1500. (The mid-point of the Italian Renaissance).
Regardless of the dating used, there is no reason to deny the importance of the Middle Ages in history. It was a time of great transformation, where empires rose and fell. The medieval spans over a thousand years of human history. That is significant! Although people may dismiss a medieval setting because ‘they’ve already seen it’ they are doing a disservice to themselves.
Fantasy literature has only scratched the service of medieval history. The depth, the scholarship and the discoveries of the Middle Ages are vast and complex, that it’s near impossible for any genre of fiction to depict everything about the Middle Ages.
Even if we take a Western European view of medieval history, and only focus on say, France- we can discover many complexities and mysteries. Personally, I find the region of Alsace to be fascinating, and hardly ever represented in ‘medieval fantasy.’
Because of that, the term ‘medieval fantasy’ is rather misleading. One may associate taverns, ale and wax candles with the Middle Ages, but there is more to it than that. That’s why the fantasy genre must understand the precise meaning of ‘the medieval.’ Otherwise, it’s misleading for both readers and writers.
If ‘Medieval Fantasy’ Is Not Medieval, Then What Is It?
Sure, it’s easy to focus on the richness of medieval history. But what about medieval fantasy? Even if it does not match the richness of medieval history, there must be something remarkable about medieval fantasy. How can we explain the vast number of medieval fantasy books and writers?
My explanation is that medieval fantasy comprises ideas about the Middle Ages. For example, a king in a high fantasy novel relates to chivalric romances about knights. (Notice how in high fantasy, many kings are also knights?) Also, the witch archetype (Melisandre from Game of Thrones as an example) we see in fantasy is like Morgana.
However, I’d argue that the reason medieval fantasy appears so medieval is for the flexibilities of the Middle Ages. It was a time that surely captures the imagination. A Lot of that is because of romantic ideals of a pre-Enlightenment age. Also, writers can inject magic in their settings with ease. Concerns about technology and science will not constrain the medieval fantasy writer to a significant level.
A fascinating question worth asking is: What makes the Middle Ages appealing for fantasy authors and readers?
No post about medieval fantasy is complete without mentioning medievalism. You can read more about it here. Medievalism is the modern interpretation and application of the Middle Ages. Whether we discuss Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time or C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, we should mention medievalism.
Why? Because medievalism says much more about modernity and the contemporary world than the Middle Ages.
A classic example of this is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It’s not really a thesis on medieval history, although Tolkien did flirt with the concept of an ‘English lore.’ Instead, LOTR comments on industrialization and world wars. Now, it’s entirely possible for Tolkien to combine modern commentary with medieval analysis. I believe he does it quite well. If we dismiss medieval fantasy as having nothing in common with the present, then we are doing a disservice to the fantasy genre.
Where to from here? If literary agents and readers are bored with medieval fantasy, what should be done about it? Well, writers should always pursue projects that interest them. I’d also happily challenge any literary agent or publisher who believes that medieval history is overdone and ‘boring.’
However, I am not dismissing their concerns of market saturation. I agree that there is a problem: sub-par ‘medieval fantasy’ that is riddled with cliches. However, these stories aren’t weak because of their medieval setting or aesthetics. The weakness in poor medieval literature lies with structure and storytelling, including crucial aspects such as character, plot and conflict.
That’s my key grip with modern fantasy. The storytelling often bores me, especially regarding characterisation. A few months ago, I read Uprooted by Naomi Novik. The novel, although impressive in terms of world-building, felt generic in other regards. Even if you change the setting, it’s not enough to save a mediocre story.
The solution is straight-forward. Fantasy authors should aim for superior storytelling. There should be a less focus on aesthetics and world-building. Those are important, but often writers prioritize them over tension and characterisation.
This post is about the misconceptions people have of medieval fantasy, and an outline of the flaws present in it (and in the reception of it). The only way forward for the fantasy genre is a focus on storytelling. Fantasy writers have done this and still are.
The solution isn’t to dismiss medieval history, or to limit our understanding of the Middle Ages. It’s an amazing period of history, and it should never be dismissed as a ‘cliche.’ Many readers who bemoan the influx of medieval fantasy are correct in identifying that something is going wrong in the fantasy genre. However, they are wrong in identifying what the problem is.