Why is Fantasy so set on Medieval European settings?

Anne C. Miles > Writing > Why is Fantasy so set on Medieval European settings?

I see this question being asked on Reddit/Fantasy quite a bit. Some form of it. It absolutely amazes me. Honestly, my reaction is…

What are they teaching in the schools these days?

The reason fantasy was set on medieval European settings, specifically in English? Should be obvious. But for those of you who skipped English Lit class, let’s review. In English Literature, you start with Beowulf. Admittedly, Beowulf is fantasy, but it is NOT a novel and it is barely in English. It’s an epic poem and was SPOKEN in Old English. It wasn’t written down. Britannica says

It deals with events of the early 6th century and is believed to have been composed between 700 and 750. Although originally untitled, it was later named after the Scandinavian hero Beowulf, whose exploits and character provide its connecting theme. There is no evidence of a historical Beowulf, but some characters, sites, and events in the poem can be historically verified. The poem did not appear in print until 1815. It is preserved in a single manuscript that dates to circa 1000 and is known as the Beowulf manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV) .

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Beowulf

When you look at English literature, written by British people? They generally write in settings they are familiar with. Ergo, British. They use the history they are familiar with. ergo. British. The roots of the modern fantasy genre in America are decidedly British.

Novels themselves are relatively new on the literary scene. In Victorian times, they were rented much like we rent movies. They were expensive, and published in serial form because it was cheaper. (Think Charles Dickens) Prior to that you had epic poetry and medieval romances.

The genre just isn’t that old.

The first modern fantasy novelist was Andrew Murray in the late 1800s, who influenced CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. Both of these men influenced the genre in a huge way. They were medievalists, quite literally professors of medieval literature / philology at Oxford. Tolkien was intentionally trying to emulate much older forms of writing.

More on Tolkien and Lewis and their historical context. It’s worth watching. But basically he says their work was a reaction against modernism. And why.

Of course the genre is bent in that direction.

Those writing in “speculative fiction” (a relatively new term!) in the early days tended either toward horror (Lovecraft, Poe) or toward stories based on Arthurian legends or fairy tales. (MacDonald) You also had science fiction. (HG Wells) Fairy tales are European. In many cases, they are medieval. Hence, you have a genre of books which are in general, set in medieval European settings.

This didn’t become a problem until we Needed Diverse Books. Apparently now it is “problematic” because you have an entire generation of readers who want to feel Good About Themselves but still want to read fantasy. (Which doesn’t stand up to today’s multicultural and feminist standards. Chivalry? pfft!) The solution?

Change the genre!

So nowadays we have a rich, huge pool of fantasy writers and settings and a splintered genre. Yet the most successful authors currently (GRR Martin and JK Rowling) have written using themes and monsters firmly rooted in the genre’s history. They write about knights, dragons, wizards, etc. There are writers who venture outside the normal medieval European tropes. Brandon Sanderson has monsters which are like insects. ML Wang writes Asian fantasy. The genre is now super diverse. In my opinion it’s many times diverse to the expense of the story.

That’s a different blog post.

Write what is in your heart. The story must be central. I object to political correctness. A lot.

But that, grasshopper, is why Fantasy is so set on medieval European settings.

Fairy tales. King Arthur’s romances. Language.

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4 thoughts on “Why is Fantasy so set on Medieval European settings?

  1. It seems that when we write fantasy we very often reach back into our ancestral past, rather than the past of our geography, and why not? I write European-ish fantasy myself, not South Pacific fantasy.

    But I don’t know that I’d agree with you that “Fairy tales are European.” Every culture has its fairy tales, even if they don’t call them that. Heck, you could write a list of cultures which have a Cinderella-type story.

    1. There are fairy tales that aren’t European of course. But the ones in the American culture? Those are European. It’s changing. But yeah.

      1. Ah! I missed the implicit American framework.
        There are of course Native American fairy tales, but weirdly those seem to be seen as less “American” than European-origin stories. (Which makes me wonder: why do you have African Americans and Hispanic Americans but you don’t have English Americans and Swedish Americans etc? Why are Native Americans called Native Americans and not just Americans?)

        1. English and Swedish and even Australian and New Zealand Americans are white. So they aren’t normally called out. I am Scottish American. Hispanic American, Native American, etc are considered minorities.

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