Modern fantasy is indebted to the Victorian view of the Middle Ages and is as much a continuation of that view as a reaction to it.

I’m reading Beyond Arthurian Romances: The Reach of Victorian Medievalism, which is a very good collection of essays. The main idea is that Victorians tended to idealize the Middle Ages, especially as an age of faith, but also as an age of heroism. There are two essays on William Morris, whom Tolkien read and whom I’d include among the founders of modern (heroic) fantasy. The first is on Sigurd the Volsung, which is a verse epic based on the Sagas, and it’s definitely about the Middle Ages being a time of epic in contrast to the capitalist, degenerate 19th century.

Another point is the sanitizing of the Middle Ages; this is where the reaction to the Victorian view comes in. The kind of modern fantasy that thinks it’s being realistically medieval by having dirt and murder and rape is reacting to the “purified” Victorian Middle Ages, but it’s still taking part in the view of the Middle Ages as age of heroes – as opposed to the modern world, where there’s no room to be heroic.

Both views, the gritty and the sanctified, simplify the Middle Ages, of course; most fantasy tends to try to write a medieval world without the Church or else don’t sincerely believe in their characters’ belief. And Victorians made the Christianity of the Middle Ages the same as Victorian Christianity.

But in any case, when people write “realistic medieval fantasy,” they’re demystifying the Middle Ages they grew up with, which is still, to some extent, the Middle Ages of Disney (See the book The Disney Middle Ages), which is definitely a derivative of the Victorian view.

Obviously, it’s hard to get back to what the Middle Ages really were, but it’s not just dirt and grit, and it’s not just knights and ladies; right now we’re on the dirt and grit side of the pendulum, but it’s more like putting dirt on the pretty Victorian paintings of knights and ladies than getting back to primary sources.

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One thing I think you should probably know about your fantasy country is its national traumas. Not “the Mage Wars that happened eons ago and caused the center of our land to become barren,” which is, for some reason, an enduring trope, but the thing that everyone knows where they were for – “I was watering my magic beans when the news that King Oriens had been assassinated came” or “I was 16 in the first summer of the Famine.”

I am definitely not the first to say this, but I really dislike religions that are actually, in-text, word-of-(ha)-god confirmed to be Right in fantasy – for one thing, they take away from the complexity of your world. If there are gods, and they do care about your main character, or your favorite country, or whatever, then, unless you do something actually interesting with your gods, as many contemporary fantasists do, your protagonists are literally, in your world, Right, which means that the other side is literally Wrong. It also takes away the power of religious faith – I am not, myself, religious, but what I like about people who really believe is that they can believe whether or not they know that their god exists. If you know that the god of wind is watching your ship and helping it, what’s the point of a leap of faith?

Faith, in our world, moves mountains; but it’s entirely possible that it’s moving them to the wrong place, or for the wrong reasons, or even that it’s the wrong mountain – and I think that’s beautiful.

A thing that I do not like in SFF religion:

Ostarios is the God of Storms. This is his only aspect. All his imagery is storm-focused. There’s no question of him as, like, a god of renewal. He does storms. Storms are his life. He has an “I love storms” t-shirt.

The reason this is bad is because I can’t think of a single real-world god/ess who has a single aspect or presentation: let’s take Zeus, because I was a classics major. Zeus has about a million epithets, each a facet of his overall divinity; he’s worshipped differently in different places; his “characterization” varies from myth to myth and from author to author.

Zeus is the king of the gods, but he’s also the god you’d invoke if someone wronged you as a guest, as Zeus Xenios. So it’s not even that gods have a light side and a dark side, it’s that they have many presentations and manifestations; they absorb other gods’ functions and become them; they’re worshipped under totally different names in different places.

Fantasy religions almost never do this well.

Secondary Worlds, awww yeah

I, personally, will not think about, for example, the history of agriculture in your secondary world unless you’ve made an attempt to make it important and failed. Like “said,” food supply should be invisible (unless, of course, you’re in a siege and it’s super important). You can assume that there are fields somewhere that aren’t mentioned because let me tell you, if an author put half the stuff people complain about into their novel, the one star reviews would not end.

Now, I do care about: a) history; b) politics; c) gender; and d) international relations. These are my concerns as a reader.

a) A lot of fantasy feels ahistorical – the only history that matters is the history that makes Our Hero/ine secretly ruler of the main country. And I’m not saying you should go full Tolkien, at all, even though I wouldn’t mind if you did (if you did it right); but you should probably know about and possibly allude to historical figures that don’t have much bearing on the narrative. Do they have a Founder? Are there heroes of the realm? Singers? etc. If you go through a modern conversation, people will refer to pop cultural phenomena – “Pull an [X Celebrity!]”. There is probably some sort of pop culture in your world. And it doesn’t have to be long! your character can make a passing reference, as long as context makes it clear.

b) I love people who are good at playing political games and I love fantasy that has laws and politics and all that. You don’t have to! You can have a court that functions as the narrative needs it to – so what if there wasn’t really absolute rule in the Middle Ages, if you need to have the king unilaterally ban your Hero/ine from leaving the castle, you do that. It all depends on the kind of story you’re telling. But if you do decide to do court politics, read, for example, 18th century court memoirs, which will tell you the concerns of courtiers.

c) this is simpler. Do whatever you want with gender and gender roles – but do question it. Do we really need another story in which women, except your heroine, are obsessed with their self-image and doing household tasks and getting married (all portrayed negatively)? And, like, sure, do we really need another story in which the main plot is war and killing things, even if it’s women doing it? nah, probably not – but if you are going to do that kind of plot, why not include women as warriors?

d) ties into a). Your country does not exist in a vacuum. If the Duke of M– is refusing to contribute his levy to the national levy because the Queen slighted his mistress at the last ball, will the neighboring country take the opportunity to invade? (also, is there a standing army?) Your country probably has history with countries around it. Did it win independence from one of them? Does it have an England/France style rivalry with another? Is there a League of Fantasy Nations?

But this is if you want to write a policy-heavy book! if you don’t, that’s fine, and if you do your plot and character well enough, I at least won’t notice the supply-holes, or I might but I won’t care about them. (Where does Gondor get its food? there are outlying farms, duh, that’s where the women and children are sent at the end of the siege.)

Basically, why do you want to write a secondary world? is it to include magic? then think about how magic would affect the lives of people in your world. Is it to have alt-history type conflicts? Think about politics! Is it to rehash tired concepts of what the Middle Ages were but this time with cooler weapons? Maybe don’t do that. The end.

Something I wish that Fantasy would do more is wars with an enemy that isn’t an existential threat. What I mean is, well, if you’re fighting Sauron there can be no quarter: if he wins he’s going to enslave or kill everyone and make the world foul. But if you’re fighting the next country over, which you know is full of people like you, over a useless strip of land, there’s a lot more room for nuance. You can do class things – to take an example near and dear to my heart, in Jean Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece La Grande illusion, the French aristocratic captain is captured by a German nobleman and is treated as an equal because of his nobility, while the working class lieutenant is excluded. The illusion of “nobility” is, here, more important than the illusion of “country.”

To take another example from LGI, the last scene is the two main characters running over the Alpine snow into neutral Switzerland. One German soldier raises his gun to shoot, and the other lowers it, saying “They’re in Switzerland.” The point is that in most conflicts there’s humanity and honor and kindness of spirit on both sides, and Fantasy as a genre isn’t good with that – we’ve moved on, mostly, from black and white morality, but there still seems to be a tendency to designate a Right Side.

On Prophecy

Writing a decent prophecy is really hard.

Full disclosure: I hate prophecies played straight and Destiny, so I’m super biased and don’t have many examples – I do actively avoid things with prophecies in them.

Real-world prophecy (and yes, I’m going to focus on Greco-Roman prophecies) is much more goal-oriented than most fantasy prophecies tend to be. For one thing, in the real world, there aren’t very many random prophecies scattered around – mostly they’re the result of someone specifically going to an oracle and asking for one.

That means that they’re directly related to a question – and also, to be cynical for a second, since the Delphic Oracle can’t be wrong or the shrine will stop getting funded, mostly deliberately very vague: “If you do this a great empire will fall.” The point of that is that Apollo is right whatever happens: “I didn’t say whose,” the Sibyl says. There is a Really Specific Answer, from the Sibylline Books in 55 BC: “If the King of Egypt comes to you asking for assistance, refuse him not your friendship, yet do not grant him any army, or else you will have toil and danger” – and it’s so obviously fake and politically motivated.

Fantasy prophecies played straight and not Commented On in text by the main character not actually being the Hero or the prophecy being faked by the antagonist or something rarely add anything to a novel. If your prophecy is “A Chosen One will come and fix everyone” and the prophecy is actual word of God, then there’s no tension. I guess there’s the interest of how the pieces of the prophecy will come together, but if your main character definitely is the fated hero, they’re going to win. And of course, by genre conventions, the main character will win eventually, but I want some tension.

That lowers the stakes, of course. It’s true that in the Belgariad a side character dies tragically, which isn’t predictable, but if literally no one dies on a quest to save the world, I don’t believe it’s that important. Your enemy has the power to destroy an entire planet and their minions can’t even kill one person in the party? They can’t be strong enough.

In any case, I am against prophecy in general, but if you’re going to do it, it should be a) ambiguous enough that it can be misinterpreted and b) well-written (actually read actual prophecies to see how we do them in the real world; read ancient writers for tips on archaism). Archaism is hard, but the work pays off.

I believe in the multiplicity of history, and think it’s really neat, and think we could use more nuance and subjectivity in Fantasy History (Did the Fantasy Romans bring civilization or were they Horrible Invaders?) but unless finding out the truth of the history is the point of the story, or the truth of the story really and truly matters to the outcome of the plot, there’s no reason for to include it.

I don’t want to argue that you shouldn’t include things in a book that don’t matter to the plot directly – I love Tolkien’s histories & was personally offended when someone at a book group was upset when someone said that she had “expected” all the heroes’ names to “matter” – but honestly, if some that happened in 500 Fantasy BC doesn’t matter at all, why bother, at least in great detail?

Because the thing is, there is literally no way a fantasy world is going to be as complex as the real world, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If you’re thinking about the severe weather conditions in Fantasy 535-536 (which, according to some historians, led to the fall of a bunch of empires), you’re probably overthinking.

Fantasy History has a plot and a goal. The goal is, in part, to make the world feel real, and it’s true that Peasant no. 9 knowing about the details of the king lists won’t do that, but Peasant no. 9 knowing about a couple of events in the past, say, 40 years will.

And another goal of Fantasy History is to be satisfying. I admit, I kind of skimmed Lukács’s The Historical Novel, but one of his arguments is that historical novels are rarely about major historical figures (which is less true now) – and I think that one of the reasons for that is that many major historical characters don’t really have satisfying character or narrative arcs. People, I’m told, complain about people dying of sickness randomly in The Tudors – but the problem is that they, historically, did. Real History is full of heroes living long enough to become the villain, or people betraying their morals (Cicero, I’m looking at you!), or princes losing their bids for the throne and then slinking off to France to tell everyone how cool they were (I’ve listed to a lot of songs of the Jacobite uprisings).

And all of that is definitely interesting, but it’s not very necessary to a plot about finding the MacGuffin and defeating the Dark Lord, to simplify fantasy plots greatly for the sake of making a point.

I don’t have a really good conclusion here, but I want to say that I think a sense of history is important to fantasy – you don’t want your world to feel unmoored and paper-thin – but an actual, super-detailed, “and then it rained too much in Fantasy 400 so the Fantasy Goths were pushed out of their lands by a poor harvest and had to invade the Fantasy Romans” is super unnecessary.

Here is a concept that I’m still trying to flesh out: medieval science fiction.

Not, of course, aliens land during the middle ages, though I’ve read and enjoyed that, but something much more difficult to execute, if it’s possible at all: space opera (exempli gratia) as written by Bede or Gildas or Geoffrey of Monmouth.

The challenge is, of course, that you have to get into the medieval mind (ok, I know that talking about “the” medieval mind is fallacious) and figure out what they’d keep from their world and what they’d think to change – what is the analogue to ‘50s writers giving us faster than light travel & radioactive planets & psionics and still having gender and family politics that are identical to ’50s middle class American politics? I have a feeling it’s the Church – it’s true that there are several books with Space Popes, but it tends to be a rebirth of the Papacy. I doubt a medieval science fiction writer would have the Church decline or even guess at the Reformation.

Also, sci-fi tech tends to be, both aesthetically and functionally, an extension of tech the society it’s from already has – does a medieval spaceship look like a siege tower? How do they envision the instant communication I’m sure they’d have to have as working? Would it be through magic (which is often the case in modern sci-fi)?

And what would the spirit of it be? I would argue that, while you can’t really generalize over an entire field, and there is certainly some bleak sci-fi, the general tenor of American sci-fi is hopeful & enamored of the human spirit. Is the point of medieval space travel to find God? Will leaving Earth leave behind Original Sin? Are we going to convert the Martians?

This putative science fiction should get into societal assumptions, with some technological ones. For example, I could see a medieval science fiction author maintaining the action chick + a bunch of damsels + an enchantress or two set-up from Orlando Furioso, but maybe envisioning a society without the strict control of the aristocracy. For technology, maybe improved timekeeping or mechanization, but keeping, say, candles for light.

You can tell about a society from its science fiction. The ’50s aren’t, of course, that long ago, but they’re different enough from now that you can see changing attitudes – take Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles (1590) or Leigh Brackett’s Northwest Smith stories (The Sword of Rhiannon is 1949) vs., to attempt to stay vaguely similar, the George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois edited anthology Old Venus (2015). Women have roles beyond “mother” or “temptress” or “damsel in distress”; the attitudes towards other countries have changed; the future tech is slightly different in tone.

The societies we imagine are deeply rooted in the societies we live in. So: what will the 2050s think of the 2010s? What would that French, or Venetian, or Egyptian science fiction writer of 1431 unconsciously embed in their text?

I can’t think of any SFF that really challenges some of the biases inherent in our language. I’m thinking specifically of the vocabulary around love: “a society without love” is boring, tbh, but “a society without the adversarial language around love” would be fascinating – love as violence is an ancient concept (Aphrodite tamer of hearts etc., an epithet that Sappho uses) but does it really have to be in a secondary world? What would it look like to write love without “falling” in love, or “chasing” someone, or “capturing” someone’s heart?

That’s the most obvious one to me, but I’m sure there are other things that could be thought about – the evidence around the Sapir-Whorf theory is inconclusive, and I don’t want to endorse it fully, or even at all, but the words we use to talk about things absolutely does influence how we conceive of them.