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Fantasy Beyond the Stereotypes

Some weeks ago, I participated in a podcast discussion concerning fantasy and its European tropes. While fantasy thankfully has diversified enormously in terms of plot, setting, characters etc., the very name of the genre still often evokes connotations of knights, sword fighting and battles, castles, and the like; in other words, what is considered a stereotypical, European medieval world. I am obviously not dead set against this, as the setting of my own books leans heavily on such concepts, but I do think it can be too easy to rely on these stereotypes; both as an author who writes fantasy, and as a reader when discussing the genre. The purpose of this post is first to explore these stereotypes and common misconceptions associated to them before considering the big question of how fantasy might move beyond these stereotypes.

A trope codifier in fantasy is obviously The Lord of the Rings, which most would instinctively associate with European medieval-style fantasy. While this is true to some extent, this is already a simplification if we delve a bit further. As Tolkien was a professor of Old English, it is no surprise that this language (and its associated Anglo-Saxon culture) is present in Middle-earth. The Rohirrim of Rohan are based almost entirely on this, with the only major exception being the importance of horses in the culture of Rohan. The other races of Men (the Númenóreans and their descendants in Gondor) along with the Dwarves are, in terms of language, influenced by Semitic. The Elven languages are influenced by Latin and Finnish for Quenya, Welsh for Sindarin.

Such a melodious language.

Source: G1MFG at English Wikipedia [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Already here we see that Tolkien’s world draws on inspirations far beyond stereotypical medieval Europe, especially in terms of language, his expertise; in fact, there seems to be as many influences outside of the Indo-European language tree as inside.

An example that plays the medieval trope a lot more straight would be the much shorter, yet still influential book, Three Hearts and Three Lions by Paul Anderson. While this book, published in 1961, is often overlooked today, it gifted fantasy with several tropes. The most obvious one is the change in how Dwarves are stereotypically portrayed (who are otherwise inspired entirely by Norse myths, which is also how they appear in Tolkien’s works) as having Scottish dialects and possibly other traits associated with Scottish people. Less obviously, Three Hearts and Three Lions was also instrumental in giving us the archetype of the paladin.

The full story of the paladin is a topic for a future blog post, but it must be briefly mentioned here, because it involves the character of Ogier de Danemarche, who was a historical figure and a knight at Charlemagne’s court. This figure is used as the protagonist in Anderson’s book, and here we arrive at an important link between semi-historical, semi-legendary France and fantasy.

Being a reference to the Danish coat of arms, they're supposed to be waterlillies, not hearts, and there's nine of them; I guess "Nine Waterlillies and Three Lions" wasn't as catchy a title.

Three Hearts and Three Lions use the Arthurian legends as its setting, which might deceive the unwary into thinking we should go to the history and legends of Britain instead. But the popularisation of the Arthurian matter happened in France in the 12th century, thanks to the poet Chrétien de Troyes. Inspired by the legends of King Arthur, Chrétien created many of the stories we associate with Arthur today, most notably the inclusion of Lancelot as well as the Holy Grail to the story. This is also why many of these characters end up with French names in pop culture (an obvious example is Guinevere) despite being Celtic people.

Chrétien used his contemporary society as the setting for his stories, and medieval France was obsessed with knights, chivalry, jousting, quests, romantic love etc. Many stereotypes of the fantasy genre can be traced to this specific place and point of time, and it is quite possible that Three Hearts and Three Lions played a big part in popularising them.

The point of this exercise so far is to prove two things; what we consider stereotypical, perhaps even cliché fantasy such as The Lord of the Rings may draw upon a vast number of sources and influences from all over Europe or even beyond. Reversely, what we consider stereotypical, medieval Europe is in essence little more than France in the 12th century, and can hardly be used to describe the rest of the continent.

Place is big, yo.

Source: University of Texas at Austin. From The Public Schools Historical Atlas edited by C. Colbeck, 1905.

This is important for a couple of reasons. First of all, it dismisses any argument rooted in history that fantasy inspired by medieval Europe must look this specific way it has always looked. Not even France was this monolithic in the 12th century; thanks to its great trade fairs (for instance at Troyes, the home of Chrétien) and its connection to the Mediterranean, all sorts of people of diverse origins could be encountered.

Secondly, other parts of Europe nearby were even more complicated. Spain, originally Celtic, had the Gothic invasions followed by Moorish hegemony until the subsequent Christian re-conquest, creating a complex culture with many layers. In Italy, where the greatest trade cities of medieval Europe could be found, there was constant contact with the Middle East and North Africa; especially Alexandria, which was the most important trade hub of the Mediterranean. My favourite example of how this influence can be seen is in the word Arsenal, which was the name of the enormous shipyard in Venice, the largest workplace in Europe employing thousands of people. As I mentioned in another post, Arsenal comes originally from Arabic and means “workshop”.

I am going to continue mentioning it and showing images until you guys understand just how amazing the Arsenal was.

Source: Maffioletti G., Disegno II, Archivio Diplomatico della Biblioteca Civica di Trieste, Trieste, 1797.

If we look towards history, it seems obvious that medieval Europe was far more complex than the stereotypes of fantasy make it to be. Added to this, it is antithetical for a literary genre to remain static. As any form of art, literature (and writers) constantly strive to be original, innovative, creative; simply writing fantasy the way it has always been written will satisfy neither writer nor reader.

What is the next step for fantasy? The genre must evolve, and it can do so in a few possible ways; as is evident to any fan, it already has. Already, fantasy is exploring new settings entirely outside of Europe; there are plenty of great examples of how this can be done, leading to fantasy books that unquestionably belong to the genre while being innovative in terms of setting. Africa, Asia, and the Americas are vast continents with their own storytelling traditions and cultures, all of which can inspire writers the same way that Chrétien was inspired by the court of Arthur, and Anderson was inspired by the court of Charlemagne.

If you are a European writer like me, however, who also enjoys writing with European inspiration, this option feels less viable. The amount of research required to respectfully and accurately use sources outside your own culture in your writing is staggering; it can be done, but it is a most difficult venture fraught with pitfalls.

The only other option, as I see it, is to step up your game as a European(-inspired) writer. As this blog post has shown, your setting can remain in medieval Europe and still go far beyond the stereotypes. In this time period, Europe was home to numerous Celtic, Slavic, and Germanic cultures, not to mention the Greek culture of Byzantium and many others; this is in addition to those exciting regions such as the aforementioned Spain, where an amalgam of different cultures blended together.

Giving us amazing stuff like this, the Alhambra in Granada.

Source: Jebulon - Own work, CC0,

Besides this, we have not even started to discuss how complicated European societies were at this time, in comparison to how stereotypes in fantasy portray it. They had complex law collections to govern themselves; another example is how while fantasy usually portrays only despotic monarchies, many European realms had elective monarchies and political assemblies, curtailing the power of the monarch.

This is all fertile ground for stories more complex than the stereotypical “orphaned farm boy prophesised to be the chosen one and also the long-lost heir to the throne in an absolutist kingdom” plotline. Europe remains an excessively rich inspiration when it comes to fantasy for any writer willing to look past the stereotypes. With my own writing, it is my ambition to prove this, and I always enjoy finding other books in the fantasy genre doing the same.

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