Golden age or comfort zone?


In my mailbox this morning was a reading suggestion. I obediently followed the link to Amazon to read the blurb, and if I liked the sound of it, the first few pages of the story. I managed the blurb—yet another princely youngest son, hounded from the family castle, finds refuge with happy, peaceful poor folk living a secretive existence in a forest, becomes their saviour (the blurb doesn’t mention why they need a saviour), and they help him regain his rightful inheritance.

Specifically what made me bristle was the pseudo-Medieval society that bears no relation to any real Medieval society that ever was. Medieval is more than just period costumes. But more generally, what is this obsession with royalty and a specific historical period with such alterations and embellishments that it may as well be science fiction? Why are writers still producing this kind of apology for absolute monarchy and privilege, and keeping alive the assumption that ordinary folk need to be led by some kid whose only claim to the job is that he was born of the ruling caste? Not only are the royals the only ones capable of leadership, it’s their divine right.

Admittedly, the other cliché of the humble woodcutter (they are often woodcutters, possibly because it sounds like a suitably Medieval and manly occupation) who defies the wicked king and becomes king in his place, is even more absurd.

What I find disturbing more than irritating, is that both scenarios, the divine right of privilege and the king who rose from the ranks of the commons by dint of hard work and impeccable moral hygiene, seem to me to comfort the myths we have constructed around our privileged lifestyles. We accept as right that the rich shall grow richer and the poor shall be content in their lowly place, and as incontestable that the leaders of society have reached the pinnacle of power through merit.

Call me a left-wing idealist if you like, but I hate this escapist world-building, which after all is supposed to make us dream, of a historical golden age which is no more than the enshrinement of the most conservative of our ideas about society. And no, the answer isn’t to have the same scenarios but with women in the key privileged roles, a sort of Medieval Evita. Isn’t it surely to create a world where the dreams of the generous and the humane come true rather than those of the power-hungry and privileged?


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.


Feudal rant

This is a rant. Stop right here if you love pseudo-medieval epic fantasies because I’ll probably just annoy you.

Reason is, I am abandoning yet another ‘epic’ fantasy novel in pure irritation. Why, oh why, do fantasy writers think that they can create a believable world, where women have equal importance with men, an (American) frontier spirit where farmboys are taken as seriously as monarchs, based on a European feudal model?

Remember what happened to her? Raped, insulted, abandoned, burnt as a witch.

Think about it. Feudalism was based on the power of a tiny minority, the servitude of a huge percentage, a distrust and contempt of women, and utter, unswerving allegiance to God, Church and every bloke with the wherewithal to own a horse. How can you take all the symbols of that system—the forms of address, the ennobling ceremonies, the oaths of fealty, the hierarchical system, absolute monarchy, divine right of kings etc etc— and then stick your women characters in as generals, rulers, local magnates, chief wizard, merchants, and power brokers?

It just doesn’t work. It’s bonkers. And it smacks of ignorance of real history.

When I read titles like liege, sire, lord, lady, squire, sheriff, bandied about indiscriminately, when whole populations fawn over some kid with a magic sword and hail him as saviour, liege, sire or whatever, when louts called ‘knights’ lumber around in full plate armour slapping wenches about, when each local ‘squire’ has his personal torture chamber and a resident mad, long-haired, shackled ancient who expires before the hero can blow up the door of the dungeon, I just put out the light and go to sleep.

These aren’t tropes, they are ineptitudes.

You want equality in your fantasy?

Then think outside real history because you won’t find it there,

get rid of hereditary, absolute monarchs,

get rid of societies in a perpetual state of war,

get rid of religion,

allow freedom of thought and expression,

create a tolerant, open society.

Feudalism was not a golden age for anybody except princes, temporal and spiritual. No time that anybody knows much about was a golden age for women. No time has ever been a golden age for ordinary people exactly because they were ‘ordinary’ as opposed to ‘noble’. So why keep bloody harking back to it? Is it really beyond the wit of man to invent a world system that doesn’t rely heavily on lieges and squires, and knights clonking around torture chambers in plate armour?

Tolkien’s Middle-earth was the quintessential pseudo-medieval fantasy world, complete with hereditary aristos, forelock-tugging peasants and a handful of beautiful, silent women out of harm’s way on pedestals where they belonged. Tolkien did not make his women or his rustics into world leaders. Like the result or loathe it, it’s credible. If he’d turned Sam’s Rosie into some head mage or axe-wielding general with superpowers to bring down Sauron, he’d have been laughed out of court.

I don’t think I’m being unreasonably touchy about this subject, but I really don’t think you can democratize fantasy worlds simply by changing the sex of your important figures without any rhyme or reason. There has to be a social structure and a moral code to go with it. I personally would have found Hobbiton stultifyingly boring and oppressive, but at least I’d recognize it. Unlike many daft places I can think of.



Silver trembled on the narrow ledge. One paw slipped into emptiness and she whimpered with terror.
Hold still. Jonah’s coming.
The voice in her head calmed her racing puppy thoughts. Jonah. Jonah would make everything all right.
The pup thought of nothing but balancing, of keeping four paws on the ledge. Until Jonah caught her up and carried her to safety. The black thoughts of hard rock rushing up to meet her, pain and darkness, death, death, death, she pushed out of her head. Paws. Ledge. Jonah.
She thought of Jonah and raised her muzzle to sniff. She smelt him, getting closer. She saw his feet sliding closer to her. She smelt his scent. A whimper escaped.
Hold still. Calm. Silver.
The name, her name filled her with hope. Hope that Jonah’s hands would reach her. Soon. Before her paws slipped and the black—She whimpered again as the thought rushed back, the memory of slipping over the edge of the chasm, her nails scrabbling for a hold on the slippery rock, the panic of sliding backwards into the dark. She looked down, past the paws that teetered on the tiny ledge, past the dust floating down into…into the dark. She howled.
Calm Silver. Calm. Jonah’s here.
The pup raised her head. The feet were almost level with her ears. If she jumped, perhaps…
Nails scratched without finding purchase, dust rose. A pebble clattered.
Wildly she struggled to retain her balance, feeling her body dragged down after the paw that no longer felt rock beneath it.
Still! Jonah’s here. Calm, Silver.
The pup felt the hand brushing the hairs of her eartips. Jonah’s scent filled her senses. Her tongue lolled and she licked her lips, tasting his smell.
The hand reached lower. Jonah’s scent increased; she smelled the effort, the sweat and the fear. Jonah was afraid! She tensed, thinking of nothing but the hand, smelling the…smelling the…
His hand plunged lower, grabbed the scruff of her neck, yanked her from the ledge. But the smell! The smell chased Jonah’s smell filling her with a mad fear. Then she heard fury shrieking, and the blackness roared up out of the pit below.
She felt the despair, the rage, the terror through the hand that clutched the loose skin at the back of her neck. She let herself go limp, shut down her hopes, her thoughts. Her eyes glazed. Death. The word grew into a black rock that filled all the space behind her eyes. Death. And in her despair she knew Jonah saw the black rock too.
When she felt the sickening lurch out, away from the cliff and over the blackness, she knew Jonah was falling. The black noise with the great wings that sent a vicious wind curling around them had plucked him from his perch.
Jonah. She whispered as a pup whispers, the word on a breath, the tip of a pink tongue.
Silver, someone whispered.
She felt the shudder in the free fall before Jonah did, felt the air pushing them back, saw the glitter of green before the boy did. Silver knew what had caught them first, and her heart leapt into her throat, then out into the sky with a yip of joy.
Green! She shouted to Jonah, and his hand firmed round her neck. She! She, Jonah!
The pup felt the boy’s confusion, sensed the terror that clung to him.
Calm, Jonah.
A quiet force pushed Silver and the boy holding her back against the cliff. Green shoots of young trees shot up around them to form a barrier, blotting out the deep blackness, keeping back the fierce, winged wind demon from the pit. The pup listened with amusement to the gasp of astonishment that came from the boy.
Calm, Jonah. She is here.
And She was.

Thank you to Hannah for the photo ©