Fantasy Settings – Beyond the Medieval

21 Oct

I’m going to start with other works, and then discuss mine in another post.

What do you think of when you hear ‘traditional fantasy’?

Lots of folks think castles and knights, dragons and princesses with the funny dunce caps (they’re called hennin). I love traditional fantasy, and don’t think we need to put the fantasy in the here and now to make it relevant to today’s audience. I’ll be the first to admit that I thought Underworld was great because it was bringing the fantasy to the modern era, but then I kind of backtracked when urban fantasy hit the market, or rather, got really popular. It didn’t help that it was seen like Twilight and paranormal romance, so there was admittedly some backlash and, some people had a very set idea of what they thought of as ‘real fantasy’.

Thing is though, that around the time I was graduating high school and studying for my undergraduate, there were a bunch of rather popular series taking place:

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – kingdoms, but hardly medieval fiefdoms. Take one look at the Shire aesthetic.

Pirates of the Caribbean – Piracy and swashbuckling lends itself to fantasy very well, but we’re in an age of gunpowder and exploration. I’ll talk piracy in another post.

Star Wars – Fantasy IN SPAAACE.

Harry Potter – A secret wizarding world, basically set in the 90’s. You don’t notice because we’re mostly at Hogwart’s or Diagon Alley or at least something fun and magical. Even the wizard experts about us normies aren’t certain what to make about rubber ducks.

Okay, how about books? I know that there’ve been films made by the following, but going strictly with books:

His Dark Materials (Phillip Pullman) – In addition to the multiverse, we start out in a steampunkish alternate Uk with armoured polar bears.

The Dark Tower (Steven King) – Once again multiverses, but central protagonist Roland comes from Midworld, a rather western aesthetic.

Discworld (Terry Pratchett) – AH HA! The first few books definitely play around with more traditional fantasy conventions, featuring characters like Cohen the Barbarian. Over the course of 30 books, they definitely move away from the sword swinging to something that resembles something rather British and Dickensesque, depending where we are.

None of these are fringe stories no one’s ever heard of. Going into more, Conan the Barbarian is set in an ancient age, which had kings and princesses and monsters, but the cultures were like the previous versions, so your Stygians would become Egyptians and your Shemites would become Semites and so on and so forth.

So why is it that there’s this pervading idea that medieval fantasy is fantasy, or at least stock fantasy?

I suppose we could point our fingers at western literature, but it’s not really that simple. What happened during the ‘dark’ ages was that we lost quite a bit of literature, not because they were always burning books, but because if you wanted something preserved over a few centuries it had to be written by hand. A lot of our knowledge of old pagan tales had rather Christian slants to them, because it was most likely to be monks and what they considered the ‘noble pagan’ works.

But consider how we view stories like Heracules or The Iliad and we like to place them in Greek antiquity, but if we were to consider how they were viewed, some of the mythos might be considered quite aged by the time the Romans were taking over much of the known world. It’s not entirely wrong to place these stories in what we understood as say, Greece and Rome at the time, but it’s not like there would be the modern world as we know it.

Same with the romance of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. We don’t have any solid proof that such a figure really existed, and if he did, Arthur or a figure like him would be more than likely like the 2004 film, where they’re remnant Romans (willing or otherwise) or a few generations removed, not quite established in other interpretations.

2004

Admittedly, this wasn’t my favorite as I thought they made Arthur a weenie. Eva Green was why I watched the first season.

This isn’t unique to western literature though. From 1001 Arabian Knights, the story of Aladdin was originally set in China. However, it’s pretty much China in name only.

Hence, old stories are placed in generic antiquity – even I’m guilty of thinking that Conan’s stories would have been around the time of Jewish Founding Father Abraham, even if we’re well before that time period if we go by source material. (Hyborean Age being around 10,000 BC).

What do you think of my statements concerning how we in the west view fantasy? There’s dragons in plenty of mythology throughout the world; knights are relatively new additions to legends if we want to get technical.

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