Last night I reached the 15% mark of a reputed fantasy novel, and I closed it for the last time. Why are people still writing this stuff? It got me thinking about fantasy tropes (didn’t we call these clichés once?) and why they still work for so many people. Is it the predictability of the story lines? Do we really fantasise about the bad old days of hereditary monarchies and despots? Is the world of the fantasy novel our idea of utopia?
The classic fantasy world is set in a time known as pseudo-medieval. It differs from the real medieval in a lot of ways. The real medieval period lasted about a thousand years starting in tribal chaos after the fall of Rome, developed and abandoned the feudal system, ended serfdom (in Europe), opened up to Eastern trade and cultures, introduced animals like the cat, donkey and rabbit, plants and vegetables, discovered there was a whole nother half of the world, borrowed and developed mathematics, medicine, astronomy, went from complete literary ignorance to inventing the printing press, from absolute hereditary monarchy to constitutional monarchy. Architecture changed for the ruling class from the square stone fortified motte and bailey castle to the chateaux of the Loire valley, weapons changed from swords and bows and arrows to cannons and the first handheld guns. Towns grew and became cities, independent and sometimes self-sufficient. Ideas became philosophies; science was pursued despite the conservatism of the Church, diet, dress, way of life and the organisation of society changed utterly.
The pseudo-medieval world lasted for thousands and thousands of years, in which time change was…zero.
The pseudo-medieval world has no science, for example. In fact nobody studies anything (except how to be a seer/mage/witch/magician/priest). If there’s an epidemic sweeping the country, the characters don’t say, there’s a deadly virus going round, get the hospitals on red alert, get out the protective clothing and go around with vaccines and put infected areas in quarantine. They say, there’s a curse. There is no medical science in the pseudo-medieval, no research, just curses, and instead of doctors there are witches.
In terms of pseudo-medieval society, the same family has usually ruled the kingdom despotically for ten thousand years without a murmur of discontent from the toiling masses, without a single philosophical thought uttered that might suggest a possible change. Ten thousand years and they haven’t even invented a more sophisticated means of destruction than the bow and arrow. The invention of the wheel must have been accidental and the inventor put to death.
The pseudo-medieval has no industry, no production of anything at all, no jobs outside the military except the inevitable blacksmith, baker and innkeeper. Rare are the pseudo-medieval worlds where there are artists, writers, thinkers, engineers or scientists. Rarely does any form of culture except military culture get a mention. There is no scientific experimentation, just magic and soothsayers.
The pseudo-medieval has no political thinking. The hereditary primogeniture monarchy has done very nicely for ten thousand years, so why change it? Blue blood produces all the heroes in the pseudo-medieval, and you can be almost certain that if the hero doesn’t start off as a prince, by the end of the story, the ploughboy/blacksmith/yokel with big muscles who gets to lead the armies of good against the forces of evil will turn out to be an illegitimate/changeling/outcast prince of the blood, so the social order remains undisrupted.
The role of women in the pseudo-medieval is a strange one. In the real medieval, their roles were circumscribed, restricted to certain professions and usually tied to wealth and marital status. Widows were allowed to work to keep themselves alive but woe betide them if they made enemies. It was very easy to have a woman put to death or imprisoned for witchcraft.
The pseudo-medieval keeps the same patriarchal pattern which of necessity places women in a subservient role, yet in the interests of diversity often has a woman as a central power-wielding character. In the pseudo-medieval women can be sold into slavery by their fathers, forced into marriage, have no role outside the household, yet the general of the armies can be a women, or there might be a queen on the throne despite there being a whole clatter of male pretenders with a better claim, or there might be a revolt and it’s a woman leading it, or the top god in the pantheon can be a goddess.
The pseudo-medieval has its own illogic. You either accept its inconsistencies and refuse to be baffled by why this and why not that or irritated by being told over and over again about the inherent superiority of the monarchy, or you close the book and quietly walk away.