“Medieval Fantasy: A success and an Impasse”
The fantasy genre is often characterized by a medieval time period or some
form of pre-19th-century Western culture. Kingdoms, dragons, and wizards are classic elements found in fantasy. There are many reasons the genre and the time period are constantly linked together. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on three common reasons that are often mentioned while discussing the popularity of Medieval Fantasy. The first is the influence of the existing rhetoric surrounding the medieval period, followed by using a technologically deprived setting to allow magic to flourish, and most significantly the influence of the “Godfather of Fantasy,” Tolkien. When speaking of the “medieval period,” I am referring to series which resemble, or have clearly been influenced by the medieval period, as well as the Renaissance period of Europe. As such, series with clear links to either of the two eras, even if not necessarily set at that time, will also be discussed throughout the article.
The Image of the Medieval Period
The first encounter that most people have with medieval times, or at least a time that feels medieval, is through fairy tales. Western mythologies, folklore, and the Brothers Grimm introduced us to fairy godmothers and wands, elves and dwarves, heroes and dragons at a young age. Modern fantasy books all extrapolate from these works to a certain extent. In addition, the medieval period has been constructed to appear as a place of adventure. There are countless stories of knights in shining armor going off to slay dragons. We also have rebels like Robin Hood, who stole from the rich to help the poor, or Arthur and his knights of the round table. The idea of a hero going on a quest does not originate in the medieval world, but these stories are romanticized to fit the “Dark Ages.
The term itself, the “Dark Ages” alludes to sorcery, curses and death. The influence of Christianity also contributed to fear of spirits, demons and plagues sent to punish sinners. As such, authors already have the necessary material to help them develop a system of magic, or their own religion. Additionally, in a time period where the Inquisition and the Crusades were legally-sanctioned events, they get to work with an ambivalent law system that can give their protagonist more liberty. The medieval period gives them free range to warp what we already know about the time period and make it epic. With the Middle Ages, we already have a basic idea of this era's politics and lifestyles but not to the extent that we can fully relate to the world. As such, an author can take an event like The Wars of the Roses, multiply the number of houses involved, then add Dragons, White Walkers and Children of the Forest to create the framework for A Song of Ice and Fire. The medieval period is a perfect setting for intermixing magic and religion because the setting works seamlessly together. Since the idea of magic was already fully ingrained in the period, it makes it easier to stretch out what is already known and turn it into gold. Additionally, one of the most common arguments used to explain why magic and the medieval period work so well together suggests that magic would be redundant in a world that is technologically advanced.
“Medieval Fantasy: A success and an Impasse”, tmtonji, the-artifice.com, 2018.