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Mirror of Ambrose - Aged in Oaken Heroes: Heroic Fantasy & Imagined History
James Enge

jamesenge
Date: 2012-10-10 22:07
Subject: Aged in Oaken Heroes: Heroic Fantasy & Imagined History
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What is the proper setting for heroic fantasy? Sometimes it seems that the Heroic Age is like the Golden Age of Science Fiction: twelve (according to the now-elderly wisecrack).

Anyway, it is widely agreed that heroic fantasy is set in some age before we learned that "digital watches were a pretty neat idea", a period frequently described as the Middle Ages.

And this is almost perfectly dumb.

For one thing, not every age without highly developed machines is medieval. How about Hawaii before the Europeans got there? How about a post-machine age (apocalyptic or otherwise)? How about the pre-medieval world? In any case, magic is itself a kind of science and/or technology, and it may pervade the world of a heroic fantasy.


(No technology in heroic fantasy? Morlock is skeptical.)

Then there's the question of what the Middle Ages are, anyway. Broadly, they are a chunk of time in western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire and before the Renaissance.

The Roman Empire, as we know, fell when Constantinople was captured by the Turks in 1453 AD (or CE, if you prefer). The Renaissance can be said to have begun with the recovery of classical learning in Europe, a process we can date to the 12th century AD. So the Middle Ages never existed, since they could only have begun after they must have ended, and the adjective "medieval" has no useful meaning. I have proved this with science.

In truth, what most people think of when they hear "medieval" is some sort of Neverneverland of knights in chrome armor clanking around in a thickly-beprincessed landscape that may or may not contain dragons. That Middle Ages certainly never existed, and few if any fantasy stories actually use such a setting.

I'm not one of those crying out against the use of settings based on medieval Europe. They can't be overdone, because they are hardly ever done. That is, not enough fantasies really seem to come to grips with the knotty details of particular historical situations. Whose Middle Ages are we talking about, anyway? A Florentine living in a democratic city-state, worried about encroachments by the Papacy from the south or the unholy dubiously Roman Empire from the north, was having a very different Middle Ages than a Norwegian working as a Varangian Guard in the Byzantine Empire.

Middle Ages is a question-begging term invented by supercilious pricks in the early modern period who wanted to sweep a thousand years of human history under the rug of the Enlightenment. It's time to beat that rug and let the truth rise up in a gritty stinking cloud. (I'm not sure what that metaphor means, but I'll leave it there in the hope it means something.)

The truth about fantasy (heroic or otherwise) is that it's not set in the Middle Ages at all. It's set, as Ursula Le Guin says in a short but thoughtful essay "in an alternate reality." (The essay is "Some Assumptions about Fantasy" collected in Cheek by Jowl.)

The alternate reality of a fantasy may echo some part of historical reality… or may not. Dunsany's "The Hoard of the Gibbelins" or "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth" are deeply and deliberately set in the realms of Neverneverland.

Robert E. Howard's tales of Solomon Kane are set in a nightmare version of the 17th century.

Jack Vance's series about Cugel the Clever takes place in a far future, just before the death of the sun. Poul Anderson's Operation Chaos and its sequel featured a secret-agent werewolf and his witch wife who adventured through an alternate 20th century where magic was real.

In short, any setting will work for heroic fantasy… as long as it actually works.

This gives heroic fantasists a lot of freedom to craft their worlds, but places a heavy responsibility on their shoulders. Everything that goes into an imaginary world is the writer's choice. I wouldn't suggest that the writer create any kind of utopia (they're tough to tell decent stories about), but it's worth thinking about every inequity or social justice we put in place in the worlds we make. History can be used as a mine for useful things that will help the maker make a world, but it shouldn't be used as a get-out-of-jail-free card for a lazy writer. ("That's just the way Vikings act.) Nor can it be used as a chain on the writer's imagination. ("Vikings don't act like that!")

In a perfect world, there might not be any need for heroes. So let's consign perfect worlds to the hell they so closely resemble and settle for creating interesting worlds, enriched by the complexities of history but not bounded by them.

[In memoriam: Lawrence Joseph Pfundstein jr. Requiescas in pacem, optime patrum.]
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Zornhau
User: zornhau
Date: 2012-10-11 08:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
>I wouldn't suggest that the writer create any kind of utopia
>(they're tough to tell decent stories about)

Yes. This is what hamstrung my teenage imagination. There's escapism and escapism.
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2012-10-12 14:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Right! I'm for escapist fiction, but for something to work as story there has to be some friction.
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C.S.E. Cooney
User: csecooney
Date: 2012-10-11 10:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Lovely.

I am sharing it.

RIGHT NOW.
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2012-10-12 14:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks!
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peadarog
User: peadarog
Date: 2012-10-11 12:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yes.
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2012-10-12 14:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks! I have seen some episodes of HUNDERBY, by the way. It's horribly, brilliantly funny.
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peadarog
User: peadarog
Date: 2012-10-12 14:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I know! Just watched the final episode last night. So sad to see it go. Julia Davis is my new hero -- she's the lady who wrote it and who stars as the evil servant.
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2012-10-12 14:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yes, my wife has taken to referring to "our crippling Julia Davis obsession". Her stuff very hard to find over here.
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peadarog
User: peadarog
Date: 2012-10-12 15:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I must find more of this stuff, myself!
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Violette Malan
User: Violette Malan
Date: 2012-10-11 13:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've long thought that genuine utopias are either satires on their contemporary societies, or exposes of same – either way, unsuitable for fiction.
I like Le Guin's concept of "alternate realities", it's the most useful and most accurate from the writer's pov. Of course, as you suggest, we have to draw on our own knowledge of history, social structure, etc. when creating settings, just as we have to draw on our own knowledge and experience of human nature when creating characters. However, as you so neatly put it, that requires a great deal of thought.
I recently did a guest blog at SF Signal on what kinds of "improvements" on our own society writers try to include as norms in their fiction. I often find myself caught by my own – precisely because I haven't really thought things through. It's bad enough trying to find another non-gender specific terms for "armsmen", but if there are no gods "up there", what are your exasperated characters rolling their eyes at?
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2012-10-12 14:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Le Guin herself is sort of utopian in her thinking, but she has a brilliant way of saying, "Oh, yeah?" at herself to generate the complexities of a richly imagined world. (THE DISPOSSESSED a good example, also her recent YA series "Aannals of the Western Shore".)
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Howard Andrew Jones
User: Howard Andrew Jones
Date: 2012-10-11 17:23 (UTC)
Subject: Imagined History
When I first started exploring the roots of sword-and-sorcery and heroic fiction I was fascinated by how little of the feel was codified. How C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner were willing and able to "wander off the reservation." Robert E. Howard, the real forger of the way, left a big imprint on what we think of as the look and feel, except that imitators have missed out on the many stories he wrote that DON'T have that particular feel to them, even in the cycle of Conan stories.

These days it seems as though it's Leiber's stories of a city sneak-thief and a barbarian that have left the biggest impression on what we think urban sword-and-sorcery should be like, although I'd wager that most of the people playing assassins and thieves in fantasy video games may not have ever heard of the wonderful Lankhmar stories, much less read them.
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Violette Malan
User: Violette Malan
Date: 2012-10-11 19:37 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Imagined History
Strange you should mention Leiber and Lankhmar; for me they've always had a vaguely Arabian feel to them, rather than European. Definitely agree with the idea of their being "urban sword-and-sorcery".
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2012-10-12 14:17 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Imagined History
A lot of different elements in Lankhmar's world, definitely. Shows what you can do in a series that runs for most of a long lifetime, I guess!
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2012-10-12 14:15 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Imagined History
There are definitely different kinds of Conan story--and I definitely have a preference among them. But I like it that REH wanted to tell lots of different stories.

No one less utopian than REH of course. More of a dystopian. He'd be writing grim YA about teens killing & eating each other if he were around these days, possibly.

Edited at 2012-10-12 02:49 pm (UTC)
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User: Jeff Salyards
Date: 2012-10-12 21:54 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Imagined History
Regardless of what milieu serves as inspiration for a fantasy world, I'm just glad to see that historians seem to have stopped referring to the somewhat nebulous "medieval" period as the Dark Ages. I mean, sure, that evokes great grim and gloomy images of the breakdown of Imperial infrastructure, lost knowledge, collapse and chaos, which sounds like the perfect setting for heroic or sword and sorcery fantasy. But it doesn’t do the historical period any favors, and totally fails to take into account some of the impressive inventions or cultural happenings of the period. “Middle Ages” is a sneaky insult, but “Dark Ages” is just so utterly, blatantly dismissive, you know? Snooty historians anyway. This is a great post, and I totally agree—there are so many ways to create a fantasy world that isn’t simply derivative or echoing other Western European, medievalish fantasy. I think you can still come up with a treatment even there that gives it a fun, new spin or introduces new elements that aren’t simply rote. But there’s no reason at all to stick with it as a template, as fantasists often do. That’s one reason I love Daniel Abrahams’s The Long Price Quartet so much—it’s a quiet, deliberate series that eschews fantastic races, huge monsters, and big set piece battles in favor of characters and their relationships, all in a decidedly Eastern-inspired fantasy world. Maybe not high fantasy, depending on definitions, but certainly unusual fantasy, and I think a really solid example of escaping the usual tropes and treatments. Great post, James.
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Paul Weimer
User: princejvstin
Date: 2012-10-14 12:06 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Imagined History
"... I'd wager that most of the people playing assassins and thieves in fantasy video games may not have ever heard of the wonderful Lankhmar stories, much less read them"

Which should be a crime, but isn't. I cheer in happiness when its clear that a contemporary author HAS read them (Paul S Kemp, for example)
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Paul Weimer
User: princejvstin
Date: 2012-10-11 20:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Indeed so, James. Plenty of history ignored or underrepresented, even in the Western European history.

Interesting worlds instead of perfect ones.
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2012-10-12 14:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
There's a worldmaking equivalent to the Mary Sue/Marty Stu phenomenon, I think, where the world is too carefully perfect to be real, or even interesting.
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Violette Malan
User: Violette Malan
Date: 2012-10-13 11:01 (UTC)
Subject: Mary Sue
I touch on that in my recent guest post on SF Signal. http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/tag/guest-post/
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marycatelli
User: marycatelli
Date: 2012-10-12 03:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Most heroic fantasy worlds have magic, but whether it is as well developed as Operation Chaos is another matter.

Though, to be sure, the Middle Ages bear some of the blame for the knights/princesses/dragons images, from the chivalric romance. They did not, however, force later generations at swords' point to regard them as the only literary products of that era.
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2012-10-12 14:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You're right that lots of fantasy worlds don't have magic as carefully developed as we see in Anderson's OPERATION CHAOS. But there are some others: De Camp's Pusadian stories, or Niven's tales of the Warlock's world.

It's definitely okay if the writer chooses not to take this route (what works is what is right). I just wanted to point out that it is a choice, not really mandated by genre constraints.
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John R. Fultz
User: John R. Fultz
Date: 2012-10-12 03:23 (UTC)
Subject: Right On
James--Well said!

I think the key factor that makes imaginary worlds work in the context of heroic fantasy (or sword-and-sorcery) is that they are far-removed from our own modern 21st Century world. They need to be far enough removed that the whole idea of heroic fantasy seems plausible in that context. For me, the world of today is too codified, quantified, and verified to be a setting for heroic fantasy. The farther away from "reality" the better.

I love Dunsany's imaginary lands--which could easily be pre-historic kingdoms, and REH's Hyborian Age--which was pre-historic Eurasia, and Clark Ashton Smith's two extremes: Zothique, a land of magic and mystery in the far-flung future, and Hyperborea, a land of magic and mystery in the remote, pre-historic past.

It seems to me that the best heroic fantasy takes place in settings that are far removed in TIME (if not space) from our present-day world.

Tanith Lee's FLAT EARTH tales are also a great example of non-Medieval, pre-historical civilization with a definite "Arabian Nights" flare. Also, Gene Wolfe's far-future LONG SUN environment.

Go forwards or backwards through time. Or, go sideways through the dimensions. It doesn't matter.

Just go FAR. And show us the wonders you encounter there.
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2012-10-12 14:29 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Right On
I agree: exploring weird worlds is one of the reasons I like sf/f in general, and it definitely is a feature of heroic fiction. I'd just leave room for the phenomenon Chesterton dubbed "Mooreeffoc", where the familiar itself becomes weird. I think that's what makes OPERATION CHAOS work (at least for me) and why some of Harry Turtledove's fantasies are so oddly effective. (Although CURSE OF THE TOXIC SPELL DUMP is not exactly heroic fantasy for other reasons.)
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Sarah Avery
User: dr_pretentious
Date: 2012-10-15 03:35 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Right On
How is it possible that I've lived this long without hearing of Mooreeffoc? That's exactly the term I've been looking for. It's not exactly what I do, but it's something I often find I need to be able to describe. Thank you!
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2012-10-12 11:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I completely concur with your assessment that fantasy settings have nothing to do with the Middle Ages. But your history needs some clarifications: The Middle Ages did not start with the fall of Constantinople. The fall of the Western Roman Empire, which is usually dated to 476 CE, marks the end of Antiquity. And the beginning of the Middle Ages is either dated to Charlemagne around 800 CE or the ottonic emperors around 1000 CE. The Renaissance does not start in the 12th century, but a little later, around the 15th century. The borders between the ages is always blurry, but not as blurry as you make it out to be. Also, there is an important theme of the Middle Ages, no matter, if you are a Florentine, a member of the Holy Roman Empire or a Varningian Guard. The pervasive role of the Christian churches and how this shapes the thinking and the mindset of the peoples of Europe during this period, is different than the mindset of the people before the Middle Ages and after. In a true medieval fantasy setting, you need an all pervasive faith that influences all strata of the societies in the setting. Otherwise, you only use the technological trappings of that age, but it won't be medieval in the truest sense of that word. And fantasy settings usually are not developed that way and therefore are not really medieval.
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2012-10-12 14:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I completely concur with your assessment that fantasy settings have nothing to do with the Middle Ages. But your history needs some clarifications: The Middle Ages did not start with the fall of Constantinople. The fall of the Western Roman Empire, which is usually dated to 476 CE, marks the end of Antiquity. And the beginning of the Middle Ages is either dated to Charlemagne around 800 CE or the ottonic emperors around 1000 CE.


I was just joking here. The point, to the extent there was one, is that people who take periodization too seriously need to be shaken up.

I would point out, thought, that most people would begin the Middle Ages before the dates you suggest. Even Pirenne, who dated the beginning of the MA to the Muslim conquests, would place it before Charlemage. (Hard to see Charles Martel, or Hengist and Horsa as classical figures.)

Also, there is an important theme of the Middle Ages, no matter, if you are a Florentine, a member of the Holy Roman Empire or a Varningian Guard. The pervasive role of the Christian churches and how this shapes the thinking and the mindset of the peoples of Europe during this period, is different than the mindset of the people before the Middle Ages and after.


You have a kind of point here, but I think you carry it too far. The conversion of Western Europe was incomplete at the Middle Ages' commencement (whenever it can be said to commence) and the presence of the church was felt in different ways in different places. The Northmen sacking English monasteries in the early Middle Ages were probably not troubled by the same religious scruples as the people they were killing (though of course they had their own). But they were as medieval as Dante (if the word medieval can really mean anything).

Another unifying theme of the Middle Ages is the collapse of an intercity urban culture and its slow regrowth. But, again, that happens with differing intensity in different places.

[edited for poorfraeding]

Edited at 2012-10-12 02:42 pm (UTC)
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Doug Hulick / Simon Morcar
User: swords_and_pens
Date: 2012-10-13 16:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
(I'm plugging my ears and avoiding the whole "When did the Middle Ages start" and "Dark Ages vs. MIddle Ages" debates, as I can dig deeper into them than is probably healthy. La-la-la! :)

I believe part of the appeal of the medieval in S&S is that it is an easy touchstone for both reader and writer. People *think* they know what medieval is (low tech, lots of peasants--though you rarely see them--and castles and mud and blood), what the standard trappings are (swords! armor! horses! stew!) and what the conflicts involve (violence! revenge! honor! stew!), when in reality it was a lot more complex than that--endlessly so, in fact. Culturally, it has become a kind of shorthand for not just adventure, but a specific kind of adventure. Never mind that some of the roots of S&S, as mentioned above, go further or deeper afield than that: the ready, easily remembered tags fit in the medieval box, and so that is where they go.

Are we saying everyone who reads fantasy should be a medieval scholar? No, of course not. (For one thing, it would be exhausting as a writer to keep all of your research straight for the kind of audience. Ugh.) But I think there is a degree of expectation that is easy to feed. That's not to say that you can't do something else and have it turn out well; just that, as a genre default, it can be easy to slip into the mode without meaning to.

So, is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. But I think that it is something better entered into as a conscious decision, rather than on assumption. The medieval cuts such a broad and deep and long swath in the perception of S&S and fantasy overall that we, as writers, need to be aware of what working in such a world entails. There can be a lot of handy shorthand, yes, but also a lot of baggage. We need to examine both and decide how much we want to hew to, how much we want to ignore/abandon, and how we can ultimately make such a well-worn setting our own.

Sometimes you have a better journey following the road that has been made; other times, it's better to break your own bush. All depends on the story.

Doug
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User: paulskemp
Date: 2012-10-16 14:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"In short, any setting will work for heroic fantasy… as long as it actually works."

This.

Adding only: I tend to enjoy novels these days where setting is very much secondary to, and firmly in service to story and characters, and I've found that can be done to my satisfaction without highly detailed world-building (which I find distracting mostly, though I realize I might be in the minority on that score).
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