Whilst milling about the Internet I fell into a rabbit hole of “X fantasy cliches to avoid” and “fantasy tropes that suck” and etc. These kinds of posts have a lot in common, but some of them are fun to read. One of them, “6 Fantasy Tropes That Are Prophesied to Disappear” both has a cheeky title and book suggestions (some really good suggestions)*. There’s one item in that list that got me thinking, and I’m just going to quote it here in full because it isn’t that long.
2. Faux Medieval (With Bonus Modern Sensibilities about things like Rape and Hygiene!)
Tolkien did it, George R.R. Martin did it, and wow did they succeed. Of course, it’s tempting to try it. You need your similar-to-the-British country, somewhere warm and sunny that’s a-little-Spanish or kinda-Greek, your vaguely-Vikings with their ships, and for comedic relief throw in some backstory barbarians. Don’t forget the Monarchy!
Barmaids are optional, but they totally won’t stand for any amorous advances because they are 15th century in appearance but 21st century in their attitude, and somehow everyone enjoys a good, hot, anachronistic bath once a day.
Then the author goes on to suggest a book by Brandon Sanderson, who I haven’t read but seems interesting. Now, that first paragraph I’m pretty much on board with, I too am bored with the standard European fantasy tropes, but I’m also well aware that many of the people writing these books are white folk who don’t know from anything else and maybe it’s better that they don’t run roughshod over somebody else’s history for inspiration. Not that you can’t look elsewhere for inspiration just, please, do your research and make sure you get sensible people to read it over first.
The second paragraph is what stuck out to me, also, that parenthetical bit in the title as well. See, I personally don’t much care for reading about rape in my fiction. It is a bad thing that happens in real life and both can and should be reflected in fiction, but it takes an incredibly deft hand to do it right. It’s something that comes up in some of Nnedi Okorafor’s fiction, and she handles it quite well. I’m biased because I think she’s frankly one of the best writers alive but that’s part of why I think that.
But what I take issue with is the implication that what we might call “modern sensibilities” have no place in fantasy. Projecting our own ideas or biases on the past is dangerous (trust me, I’m a historian by training) but fantasy isn’t the past. It’s fantasy. There is a sector of the fantasy reading/gaming public that argues for what might laughably be called “historical realism”** in fantasy. They’re the guys who have been arguing that there is no place for women, people of color, or queer folks in fantasy “because of the actual middle ages.” Well there were no dragons either, so that argument really doesn’t hold water. But also, again because I’m trained as a historian so I know this, the past is always, ALWAYS, far, FAR more complex and interesting than you thought. I don’t care how complex and interesting you think you know it was, it was more of both. Historians, like astronomers or paleontologists (the cool scientists) have a tendency to realize that the more they learn, the more they realize they don’t know. Asking questions leads to more questions than it does answers. That’s great, and I promise I’ll bring this tangent back to my point.
Fantasy can adopt “modern sensibilities” for two reasons: one being that the world is more complex than anyone realizes, and two being that it’s fantasy. It’s not real. Science fiction has the feather in it’s cap of being the speculative fiction genre that looks forward, and gets to talk about all the ways things will get better, while fantasy has the sad distinction of being a genre about how things were better. That’s an inherently conservative understanding, but it’s not wrong, and that can be seen in a fair amount of fantasy, but the same can be said of any genre. The thing is, fantasy doesn’t have to be that way, and I think for many readers and writers, it isn’t. Fantasy is more extreme than reality and allows us to explore things that never were and couldn’t be (because dragons), so why can’t those things we explore be better? Why can’t characters in a medieval European style setting have more modern (read: humane) sensibilities when it comes to the role of women, or people of color, or children, or anything else in reality? And if you have humans, elves, dragons, magic and all that other stuff mixing it up, why would things play out anything at all like they have on Earth?
Well because tropes and cliches make our jobs easier and are fundamental building blocks of both narrative and symbolic communication but that’s no excuse! Fantasy is supposed to be imaginative, so let’s be more imaginative about what we’re allowed to imagine.
*Nnedi Okorafor and Terry Pratchett, both of whom are suggested in that post, are two of my all-time favorite writers. Glenn Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company is also suggested and I can vouch that it’s a pretty great trilogy.
**For some excellent writing about just how much more complex and interesting the middle ages were in particular, check out The Public Medievalist.