Last week I talked about the infinite possibilities offered by the fantasy genre, but buried in there was the nagging question: “Why then is so much of fantasy writing so similar?”
I think any reader of fantasy over the last thirty years knows what I’m talking about, but let’s do a quick recap without falling into a deep, dark trope-hole. That’s what the great site TV tropes is for!
A lot of fantasy is based in worlds vaguely resembling medieval Western Europe circa 1150-1350. Feudalism is alive and well, castles of stone dot the landscape, gunpowder is either non-existent or very marginal. It is a green country across which knights ride, and kings rule. (Yep, it’s pretty chauvinistic. The Damsels, they were in Distress in them thar days. This part of the model has thankfully been abandoned as the primary mode in fantasy writing, I merely mention it as the foundation from which so much else has sprung.) Good is challenged by evil, and unlikely champions arise and prevail. Even in more modern takes on the genre emphasizing morally grey characters, and the squalor of daily life, the setting of a version of Western Europe is most commonly found, with nods north to Scandinavia, and south beyond the Mediterranean.
Why is this? The first and most obvious answer is Tolkien. There are others I have mentioned in a previous column, but let’s shorthand it. Tolkien’s fantasy drew on deep roots in Northern European traditions, he himself studied and translated old and middle English poets: Beowulf and Gawain were very familiar to him. He had survived brutal, industrialized war. He had a clear, unmistakable longing for simpler times, and the greener pastures of yesteryear before the industrial revolution. Michael Moorcock wrote an essay criticizing that very attitude, which is worth looking at.
However, while I think Tolkien is a huge influence on those who have followed in his footsteps, I believe it is worthwhile to look at the habit of mind he had, the looking back to simpler, cleaner times. I think this is something that many fantasy writers share, or want to explore: the idea of simpler worlds in which to highlight dramatic conflict, worlds in which the multiple bureaucratic ties of today are absent. Moorcock may have complained about Tolkien’s backward glance, but Wordsworth and Coleridge a century and more before shared it. A century and more before those esteemed Romantic poets trod the earth Marvell and Milton were also celebrating the unblemished past, the green lands of myth and happiness for all. In fact, we can go all the way back to the Greeks and still find this attitude of looking back to a idealized bucolic past, to Theocritus, and ultimately to Hesiod, who himself looked back to a golden age of humanity, and its successive debasements through to his current day, now our dim and distant past.
I think it is this habit of mind, looking back to earlier eras of imagined grace and simplicity, tied to the prevalence of fairy tales told to so many children in their formative years that has shaped the landscape of fantasy. The yearning to recapture something beautiful, but now lost, or faded from view. Fantasy literature has been dominated, until recently, by writers born of the Western European tradition, and so, when they look to create fantasy landscapes, it is the idealized western archetypes of yore to which they readily cleave. As more writers cast fantasies in the landscape of their own parent cultures outwith the European mould, I think we will see very different settings emerge. This is something that is in progress, I believe. I myself have published a book set in a world that looks very European at first blush, my habit of mind being formed by my Scottish heritage. It is a hard set of shackles to break, and I would argue they do not necessarily need to be broken, as there is still a great deal in that landscape to explore and render fresh. The imagery still has a great deal of power, and a lot of new ideas, or subversions of the old, remain to be profitably explored in that setting.
Of course, there is no reason now not to try something entirely different, but I think the hold of old stories, old cultural touchstones is strong, and that is why so many fantasy novels find themselves set in worlds where the trappings of modernity are cast aside, to leave characters facing more elemental foes than we come across in our daily lives. And of course, we writers often imitate and reimagine what we love, and if what we loved was stories involving warriors and wizards and fantastic creatures, then we will wish to tell our own stories of warriors and wizards and fantastic creatures, but with our own twists. The Dude in Distress is born.