Pleading guilty to tropism


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.


Published by

Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

45 thoughts on “Pleading guilty to tropism”

  1. I think you’ve got some great points. I would classify most of these as cliches rather than tropes. Tropes are things that are common to a genre–spaceships/robots for sci-fi or magic/wizards for fantasy. Cliches are ideas that are lazily repeated because the writer couldn’t be bothered to come up with something new. The farmboy who is a secret prince is one. The war between science and magic is another. But time is important when it comes to cliches. The first few books to take up an idea are obviously not cliche, but the hundredth repetition of that idea is.

    “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. ” — This is a really good point, but also a hard one. A fantasy author has to carefully thread often contradictory reader expectations. They want something that feels old, historical, but they also want it to be in accordance with today’s liberal ideals. The result is the pseudo-medieval, as you call it. But I think, if someone today were to write a historically accurate take on gender and power and patriarchy, in a fantasy novel, they would be branded a sexist and their book would fail, regardless of how well-researched it was. Most fantasy readers want princes and kings, and also want powerful female characters. They want to have their cake and eat it, too, and the author is obliged to give it to them.

    That being said, nuance is important. What you’re describing above has none, nor any intelligence.

    1. I agree with you about the challenges of portraying female characters in sexist historical contexts without alienating readers. Same thing with race, and a whole list of other things.

      I’m also sick of the “farm boy who turns out to be the chosen one and, oh yeah, happens to be the long lost prince” cliche. But I’d say that conflicts between magic and science are a trope — and a very useful and realistic one. In real life we see all kinds of conflicts between groups whose power is based on different and sometimes contradicting bases — church versus state, church versus science, science versus state. It makes perfect sense to me that their would be similar conflicts between magic groups and those groups. Not uniformly or universally, of course — don’t be lazy about it — it should be based on specific points of division and challenge. Plus people who can do magic are often a minority, and thus likely to be treated as “the other” and feared and discriminated against. So honestly, if an author tried to tell me that all these groups get along perfectly, that sounds pretty lazy and unrealistic too.

      1. Yeah, maybe its just the uncreative execution of the science v magic thing that has been the problem. I agree it’s something that might occur in a story, but I think it’s time to move away from that conflict being the main point of the story.

      2. Except that there isn’t usually a conflict between magic/religion/science in fantasy worlds. I have the impression that when you have a magic system, there isn’t much religion and vice versa; one replaces the other. I don’t ever see much evidence of science. The conflicts sometimes come between state and magic when magic is regarded in the same way as witchcraft in the real world. In the real world, Church and State have usually functioned in tandem. Social control. One locks the people down with temporal rules, the other with spiritual rules. The same families have the top jobs on both sides.

    2. Lord of the Rings is a good example of what we’d call sexist today and personally, I think we’d be wrong. It’s anachronistic to take history to task for a concept that hadn’t been thought of at the time. Tolkein was being completely logical in giving his female characters a sort of pre-Raphaelite wilting quality as he was being true to a real medieval rather than a pseudo. And it hasn’t failed.
      I’d like to see more fantasy novels that don’t read like YA novels with simplistic morality and totally lop-sided world-building.

      1. I think LotR is a perfect example of what I was arguing. People today criticize Tolkien for his supposed sexism. And the films have injected female characters (awesome ones) into the narrative. This was necessary in order to meet the expectations of modern fans. If someone wrote LotR verbatim today as a new release, it would be torn apart, depite how wonderful the writing is.

      2. You might be right. What you say about the ‘injection of female characters’ into an essentially male environment I wouldn’t call feminism I’d call it tokenism. On the other hand, that satisfies many people. We’ve been told there have to be diverse characters in a story so we stick them in willy-nilly like JK Rowling is trying to do with retrospect. It doesn’t make it feminist if there is no realistic context.

      3. re: “I would like to see more fantasy novels that don’t read like YA novels” — I think that’s a major part of the problem, that so many SFF novels these days are being marketed to YA readers (which is a huge market), who appear to have different expectations than you and I. Perhaps in part because they haven’t been reading the same tropes for several decades already.

      4. YA is huge, you’re right, and I bet most of its readers are adults. Sad really, but certainly all the reviews of YA books are by adults who have bought them for their own enjoyment, not read their kid’s book.

      5. I believe you. Amazon reviews tend to be adults because they bought to book. The last novel that I dumped was written for adults and reads as though it was intended for the 11/12 age group.

      6. I can’t tell whether the authors themselves are just simple writers or if they’re deliberately trying to make the books “an easy read” to appeal to more of the common denominator. It does leave them feeling lightweight.

      7. I don’t know. I can see editors picking out bits of a ms and asking a writer to lighten it up (dumb it down) but not the whole book. They wouldn’t have agreed to publish a book that needed dismantling. Nope, she wrote it like that.

  2. Hear, hear! The answer to why people write like this is depressingly simple: because it takes time and effort and interest to properly research your background and make it either historically accurate or if not meant to be historical, at least internally consistent. But come on, half their troubles would be solved if they just skipped the part about it having been exactly the same for a thousand years — as you say, with no progress or change or political upheaval — and threw in some mentions of uprisings and political dissent. Almost any political/social/economic system would be more believable if it’s only been that way for, say, two generations, and the young main characters remember their grandparents talking about how it used to be different.

    1. If there was the notion of time passing and change occurring, I don’t think you’d get the same stories evolving though. If there was political dissent a few generations ago there’d be the same ideas around at the time of the story. You can’t put revolutionary ideas back in the bottle. Usually the world-building is dependent on the same social order having been in place since forever, and it’s replicated all over the known world. Everything is ‘ancient’ with cities full of magnificent palaces yet the engineering knowledge needed to build them hasn’t been used for anything else. There are always galleons but no exploration, no maritime technology developed. There is never a sense of progress, the world was always like that and there is no research or thinking going on to develop it further. Actually, one of the things I read often that annoys me the most is the stew. When your prince is on the run with his supporters they make camp and someone always makes ‘a stew’ usually in an iron cooking pot suspended over an open fire. How long do they imagine it would take to heat an iron cauldron over a camp fire, never mind make the ‘stew’ to put in it? Catch your meat, pluck it, skin it gut it butcher is, trawl through the forest looking for onions and carrots, at night, in the dark, then cook ‘stew’. It takes my stews about three hours cooking on the gas and about an hour’s preparation time and I only have to go to the fridge for the ingredients! I always wonder which is the poor bugger who has to lug the cook pot and the iron trivet and chain around with him…

      1. Right — what I meant was that there was political dissent (or a coup, or a war, etc.) a few generations ago and the current system *is* the product of that change, which has now (for the time being) stabilized into the new way of doing things. Of course then they couldn’t do what you’re talking about, where the same social order has been in place for centuries, but I rarely find that that’s actual vital to the story. (Much less that it be replicated across the whole world.) Most of the time the author could change that backstory and still have the same current conflicts and goals — they just haven’t thought it through.

        I share your gripes with all these lazy shortcuts to world building. And meat stew would be a luxury on the road. Porridge is more like it.

      2. I think that fantasy stories generally steer clear of anything that is going to have repercussions on the world. Dissent, revolt, political strife is going to change to world of the story. It will be in flux the same way the real world is. Fantasy readers don’t want that they want more of the same for ever and ever, or so we’re told.

      1. Not mine either, but I love good fantasy. Good fantasy is like real life with an added ingredient. And that ingredient is not a prince, a dragon or a magic sword.

  3. Complexity doesn’t sell these days. And writers in the US can’t say anything it seems these days without being called out for being some kind of -ist, or for appropriating a gender/race/culture that is “not their own”. Who owns a story, what can be imagined and created? Who owns humanity? There’s a difference between exploitation and creation, between what you wish to be true and what actually is, but the nuances of that have been lost.
    And so, watered down clichés, because that’s all that’s “allowed”. (K)

    1. I know, it’s pathetic. The pretence that as long as we write tolerance and difference into novels it will be true. And it has to be at the expense of truth and reality and logic.
      The cultural appropriation thing perplexes me. I heard that some white models were called out because they were wearing tresses in their hair. Do I misremember or wasn’t it a big thing for Afro-American women to have their hair straightened?

      1. You’d think that nations that are so hung up on being nice to everyone and offending nobody would be paragons of equality and tolerance. Wouldn’t you? Maybe not.

      2. I’m all for civil rights, equal rights etc etc but I admit I get confused when people demand equal rights BUT the right to retain a separate status. Are you joining or not?

  4. My big problem is the monarchy thing. In real life, I’m a republican, but I’m expected to read books where the one true monarch is innately superior to everybody else…

    I stopped reading one book, featuring a farm boy of mysterious origins, when the writer told me cider was made with hops. Do your research, or suffer me walking away.

    1. The farmboy was a mislaid prince under a curse. I’d put money on it. No, that would make me turn off too. That and the Viking houses with upstairs bedrooms..
      The one I just stopped reading not only has a camp fire stew but they sit around it (on the run) drinking cider out of mugs. Cider? Made out of hops too probably. I didn’t recall that they had a whole mule train and baggage carts carrying all this stuff with them.

    1. Except that these kind of stories manage to have absolute monarchs, ruling a country without an economy, peopled by nobles (who do nothing) and peasant farmers who till the soil apparently on their own account. I suppose they have a well developed tax system.

  5. It’s funny, I had a similar thought just last night. I was reading another fantasy novel – I like them, I write them 🙂 – and the main characters stopped for a meal consisting of cheese and bread. Okay, I know that’s like a staple now but it didn’t really fit with the world building. It felt like the author was more like oh this is a fantasy, they must only eat cheese and bread and less into painting a realistic experience.

    1. Bread and cheese is just lazy, I suppose, but at least it’s plausible. It’s when they start on the stew that steam starts coming out of my nostrils. The last fantasy I jettisoned had a female member of the trusty band who were off to save the world from the forces of darkness and restore the rightful prince to his rightful throne etc etc just made stews. She hadn’t uttered a word by the point I jumped ship, just made the stews. They’d make camp at nightfall, the men would make a fire and go hunt a stag or whatever, while she made the stew. Out of what? Does nobody these days know how long it takes to make a stew? In an iron cooking pot? Over an open fire? Stupid.

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