Why does Epic Fantasy tend to be medieval?

Brian G Turner

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I saw this discussion on Twitter, and thought a couple of the author responses were really interesting:


Especially:

and:

(If you click through you'll see she makes the point about Christian values underlining it, which is possibly why the "good vs evil" narrative has generally been so popular.)

I would agree with Anne La Faye that modern Epic Fantasy (as opposed to other fantasy genres) is an offshoot of mediaeval romances (and fairy/folk tales), not least because - for most Westerners - it forms a key part of our cultural heritage and mindset.

However, I thought Adrain Tchaikovsky's technical reason why it works so well was pretty good. :)
 

tachyon

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Worth noting that Adrian Tchaikovsky's own (excellent, sprawling) epic fantasy the "Shadows of the Apt" series is decidedly non-medieval. It's steampunk/industrial/enlightenment primarily, though among its many cultures there are some that take some inspiration from traditional medieval-European fantasy.
 

thaddeus6th

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Kind of ironic, given Sapkowski's a rare (I think) example of a non-Anglophone fantasy writer, who draws largely on Polish folklore (and other influences), making it big in the English-speaking world.

I suspect it's a book-ending matter. Medieval is mostly pre-gunpowder which seems to be the technological cut-off in classical fantasy. Plus knights in shining armour are cool, and knights versus dragons naturally fit into fantasy. The popularity of Arthurian mythology might be another factor.
 

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I think one of the biggest is because so much of the inspirational works that came before were set in similar times and thus a lot of fantasy copy-cats it. However I'd also argue that our concept of "Medieval" is quite broad as a technological period. It's basically anything pre industrial and gunpowder as a wide spread use; but after any period of widespread nomadic lifestyle. That said many Epic fantasy sagas will often include nomadic peoples as part of the story and setting; they are just often not the faction driving things forward.

There's also enough general population understanding about that rough time period that you can build a story without having to detail every detail. You can say "castle" and most people have a roughly similar concept in mind when you say it - cold stone walls, grey, typically thick walls, keep etc... You can then build upon that framework.


It's much like how a large portion of fantasy is heavily based on Western Europeans. Indeed whilst many fantasy stories include many other cultures, they are often alongside or to the side of the standard western "knights and swords and kings and earls etc..." . Again I'd argue that its a bias built into the system partly because of what has come before. However its also likely a bias (esp when you talk of English writing) based on what gets published and to what market and by whom its written. So at some level publishers are making choices which influences what gets published and what writers aim to produce in order to get published - both of which then influences a new generation of writers and readers. A self perpetuating system that every so often gets a wildcard slip through the net that promotes a new style and direction.



Of course the concept of medeival is a bit like our concept of Roman - that of a single dotted point in time where not much changed. When in reality both were long spans of time (Roman was an exceptionally long period) through which there were vast changes. Rising and falling; periods of growth, stagnation, peace and war. That's before you even consider when empires are growing at the interior might be very peaceful, but the boarders or lands afar are a war torn mess. So much of this "common understanding" is built on misconceptions, simplifications and half truths.




And that's just in writing. Lets not forget that films, comics, computergames, other fantasy games (DnD) and TV shows all often aim toward the faux medieval. Dungeons and Dragons must inspire many today, indeed some books are born of DnD games such as Malazan Book of the Fallen. So there's a huge support structure of other lines of interest also having an influence on writers.

That said I am often surprised how die-hard the market often seems to be. Eras like Steam Punk where you'd move into the faux Victorian steam-driven era, whilst a wealth of creativity, often appear to be near dead when it comes to the mass market. Likewise Renaissance, Tribal epics, etc... many areas of fantasy are ripe for conquest in terms of a big market push. I'm sure it will happen one day too. That fantasy fans (perhaps even ourselves) in the future will say. "Gosh why is everything so Steam Punk?" and then some of us or other oldies will recall the "Tolkien and Arthurian Era" when fantasy was dominated by the faux medieval.
 

HareBrain

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I think the 19thC, with its Gothic revival and interest in Arthur, and its Christian world-view of good vs evil, formed the bedrock for fantasy as we know it. Otherwise more would probably be based on the Greek myths, which were very well known but not nearly so Manichean.
 

HareBrain

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... with a good few Norse myths thrown in for good measure :D

It's interesting that the pagan Norse myths seemed to have more of an influence on the Victorian imagination, in terms of what might be called the seeds of epic fantasy, than the pagan Greek. I wonder if that was partly the influence of Wagner, whose Ring Cycle might have felt more culturally similar to the Gothic-revival mindset than the Homeric epics (and Wagner also drew on the Arthurian legends in other works). Plus it has more of a good-v-evil narrative (the Asgardians v Loki etc).
 

BAYLOR

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William Morris novel The Well at the End of the World would fit the medieval fantasy mold

H Rider Haggard novels Eric Bright Eyes and The Wanders Necklace And Abraham Merritt's Novel Dwellers in the Mirage lean In the direction of Norse mythology.
 

Dave

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Surely, It is due to the definition of "epic" (my bolding.)

1. a long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the past history of a nation.
2. an exceptionally long and arduous task or activity.

I think those author's responses nail it. Any story that has a length of epic proportions needs the world in which is set to stay relatively unchanged during that time.

When I think of other fantasy series that are set in the present day rather than in the past, and that encompass the entire world, but are not considered "epic," it is because the deeds of the heroic or legendary figures take place hidden, without the knowledge of the majority of that world, or else they do not span enough generations.

As always with these things, it has a tendency to becomes a discussion of semantics. I can think of plenty of "epic" fantasy involving magic and technology mixed together, and plenty that involve alternative or "many worlds," so nothing to do with that.
 

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Honestly how many Epic series are epic in timescale? Most might have epic events, but often only cover one or two generations of actual "book action". So it doesn't really matter what period in history you pick, most will have a capable generation (or potential) where things are stable enough. You don't really need hundreds of years of stability to make an epic saga take off.

It's actually a bit less common that an author decides to write an epic story over a vast span of time; even then rarer still that they focus on them and don't just use a short intro or prologue set "long ago" to set the stage as it were. Or refer to events long past through the story. Granted those that do might well aim for a stable social and technological structure or have a very clear rise/fall changing point, just to make it easier on themselves and the reader.

That said I really don't see Medieval as the only stable point in history capable of that. Heck if you wanted a really stable period then the Roman era would be far preferable.
 

The Big Peat

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Anne La Faye and HB are right. Fantasy's born from a period where writers looked at the mythology and tales of the Medieval era and brought them to life, and others followed suit, partly because that's what they'd enjoyed reading and partly because that's what sold and partly because it was and is a ridiculously rich playground that has huge resonance in the Anglosphere. I mean, in a way, its almost a ridiculous question - why is a genre of fiction based around the retelling of legend based most around the era most associated with the strongest legends of the dominant language's birth culture? It kinda answers itself.

I'd add that when you get down to it, the medievalness of a lot of Trad Fantasy is shaky. Eddings threw about 3000 years of history into his mix; medievalness seems to dominate as the point in the middle, but very little of it is actually medieval. The Wheel of Time is more renaissance than medieval, which I also think applies to Feist's work after his first trilogy - and a lot of Mercedes Lackey's stuff too. People see medieval because that's what they're told to expect and because no guns = medieval. Which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy - Epic Fantasy tends to be medieval because Epic Fantasy fans tend to have a confirmation bias for medieval.
 

Star-child

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The middle ages were really the last time where "evil" is fought with violence, and violence is a central element in fantasy. Just a few years out of that time, struggles against powers real or imagined became largely legal or scientific in nature. Witches, heretics and barbarian kings were overcome in something other than a fair fight.
 

Star-child

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Just continuing that thought, who wants to read a fantasy about a Cortés-like character destroying the Aztec civilization for profit and the glory of Jesus? Somehow that sounds super unappealing. And that's the next heroic moment in European history.
 

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Eh honestly if you simplify almost any fantasy/scifi story into a very short description it often sounds silly to me. It's why I hate reading blurbs because they sound silly, they sound boring or they sound repetitive. It's like those people who believe in the whole "there's only 7 story structures in the world"; or over analysing Shakespeare. All these things to me tend to take things too far either way - either far too simplistic or far too overly complex.
Both tend to lose the actual story and journey that takes place which I think its part of our real love of stories. We don't just want to know who wins, or who loses; we want the journey to the end. The end and the overall thrust of the story is just one part of it not the whole.
 

BAYLOR

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The Medieval look seems to be popular with readers , moviegoers and television viewers, gamers ect.:)
 

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